Science, Poetry & a History of Disrepair

Southeast Review just came out with their new issue, which includes “A History of Disrepair,” one of the poems I’d hoped to share on the AWP panel, Science at the Source, this year. Unfortunately, but necessarily, the panel was cancelled due to the pandemic. Go here to read that poem, which is about Genevieve Jones, a nineteenth century ornithologist, climate change anxiety, and what it means to love each other in a crisis.

Genevieve Jones

I’d also like to share some of the remarks I’d planned to make on that panel, which was organized by Rosalie Moffett and also included John James, Nomi Stone, and Rushi Vyas.

I am interested in science because I am interested in error. I am interested in learning as a process of determining which assumptions created confusion and unexpected insights that led to the understandings of the world I now think of as “known” or “true.” In science error is an invitation to try asking different questions.

When Benjamin Franklin began his experiments with electricity the driving question about electricity was whether it was a wet or fire. Because the guiding framework for understanding the world was based on the elements, not the periodic table. When I was a fellow at the Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life scientists and historians of science would ask me what I was there to research. I started out saying “quack medicine” and was told “don’t say ‘quack’ that’s pejorative.’” I said “dead ends” and they said “you never know.” I said “mistakes,” “wrong thinking,” “foolhardy notions” and they said “you’d be surprised what has turned out later to be true.”

Which has me thinking about Cortney Lamar Charleston’s poem “It’s Important that I Remember a Current Event is a Current –” in Southeast Review:

…carries a charge, attracts the opposition’s glee or anger
to the anonymous comment section. Of course, the current
state of affairs flows through me entirely, twists static
into my hair…

Cortney Lamar Charleston

Read the complete poem here.

Or “Elegy with Mayfly Sex” by Jihyun Yun from the same issue:

Love, I want to tell you all I learned today
of the mayfly, known for their one-day life spans.
How they’re named after the fact of their fast deaths:
ephemeroptera, briefest of wings. How this isn’t fully true,
as they can live submerged as nymphs for years until their sex
forces them out of the water. Just because we don’t see
their living doesn’t make it void….

Jihyun Yun
A page of Carl Linnaeus’s notebook

I became interested in science as a subject in my poems because of how fascinated I was by scientific processes at the beginning of the age of Enlightenment when so much scientific work was based on seeing – microscopes and many other ocular devices were brand new, devices like the chronometer were developed to create a precise way to talk about shared experiences perceiving the color blue. I liked reading scientists’ notebooks and letters were the wonder was utterly unfettered; Carl Linnaeus makes some great tender and self-deprecating jokes in the course of his work on plant and animal taxonomies that are mixed in with some truly terrible drawings. Maria Sibylla Merian annotated her ecological illustrations of plants with their pollinators with information she learned from people indigenous to those ecosystems about the medicinal uses of the plants, the red bird of paradise for example was used as an abortifacient.

Maria Sibylla Merian

I don’t have formal training as an historian and I was raised inside the white supremacist propaganda machine that is the prevailing curriculum in most US schools so I’m sorry to say I have learned slowly and at times only by accident or through the generosity of people willing to correct me important truths like how Carl Linnaeus was also the scientist who, in the course of his work on taxonomies, proposed the racist notion that there are four human races. Maria Sibylla Merian I learned used the labor of enslaved people  to obtain her specimens, she did not credit or compensate her sources for the knowledge she commodified in her book and that knowledge, particularly about plants that could be used for birth control was likely used by slave-holding colonizers to further control the reproductive choices of people they believed they owned.

These kinds of errors, which are more precisely called moral failings, are to this day a part of the systems of science and are encouraged by the close relationships between research funding and for-profit enterprises.

I see Kabel Mishka Ligot raising these objections to the intertwining of systems of knowledge and systems of empire in “Duwende Sonnet/Applying for an O1-B Visa,” also in the Southeast Review:

If I list the word enchantment under occupation, I imply that it’s never been felt
on these islands. But people have always been running amok across all
oceans, returning home late at night with monstrous appetites, welts
embroidering their backs.

Kabel Mishka Ligot

We had planned to include a discussion of other poets engaging with science who have influenced us. If you are interested in reading more I suggest starting with:

John James’s books Chthonic and The Milk Hours are great — you can start reading him here.

Rosalie Moffett’s books are Nervous System and June in Eden, a selection of her poems is here. 

Nomi Stone’s Kill Class makes extraordinary use of research in the social sciences and you can also find a sample of her poems online here.

Rushi Vyas writes beautifully about science, faith, and imperialism. You can read some of his poems here.

I also love to recommend:

Brenda Hillman’s tetralogy of books on the elements all provide different, interesting approaches to this subject. I’m particularly interested in Practical Water and Seasonal Works with Letters on Fire because of the way they incorporate transcripts and notes taken while she was doing work as an activist attending congressional hearings on the environment.

Camille Dungy’s poems in Trophic Cascade and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison, as well as her anthology Black Nature are essential reading for poets interested in writing about science.

Rosebud Ben-Oni’s poems and also her work editing a special feature for the recent issue of Pleiades in which poets write on elements from the Periodic table.

Hahn Kimiko’s Toxic Flora is such a great example of a poet engaging with science. She wrote her poems in response to a column about botany that appeared regularly in The New York Times and blends the precise rhetorical registers of science writing with the more affective possibilities in confessional lyric in such resonant ways.

Hopefully we’ll get a chance to talk about these ideas and other at AWP in Kansas City next year.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of three collections of poetry – Rue is forthcoming from BOA in 2020. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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