Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

"sequences and pathogens", Dorothy Lehane and Elinor Cleghorn (eds), (Litmus Publishing, 2013)

Poets and biomedical scientists were paired up. After a meeting, the poet wrote a poem and the two had a chance to report on the experience afterwards. This booklet displays the results. I think it's fair to say that the process was an experiment, a "let's see what happens" experiment. Measured by direct deliverables, I don't think it succeeded, but as if in compensation the booklet contains much that reflects upon the experience. There's a Foreword, a Preface, an Introduction, over 10 pages of bios, and an Afterword that soars into phrases like "Writing, like life itself, strives against its own weight" and "Yet in poetic language that resonates into being the seemingly ungraspable concepts of science, 'all that is solid', for Calvino, begins to 'melt into air'". Perhaps the end of the Afterword will summarise the book? Here it is - "While reading this anthology, the culmination of conversations between poetry and biomedical science, one might become conscious of how the reading body houses a chromosomal orchestra, a cacophonous proliferation of cells, a hurtle of advancing lymphocytes. Sequences and Pathogens reminds us again, now, that the writing body, the scientist's body, the imagined body, the beloved body, the lost body, is speed and weight and lightness, all at once".

I think the poems would have been better without the obligatory (usually info-dumped) science - the poets might have got more out of visiting glassblowers or kite-makers. Nor is it clear that the scientists gained any insights about poetry or used scientific methodology to comment on or challenge the poems/poets. Cooks might as well have met carpenters.

I can't criticise the choice of poets or scientists - both parties sound good at what they do. I've heard of most of the poets, and many of the scientists are Profs. However, the politeness that the mutual ignorance invoked is at times cringeworthy. It would have been interesting to get the poets to explain/justify their efforts to these intelligent laypeople, for the scientists to write about how their understanding of poetry had changed, for both sides to risk being challenged. Why, for example, the line-breaks in Saphra's work? Why don't more scientists read poetry? And in what way did the poets' views on science change?

I presume that the poets had to come up with an end-product once they'd agreed to participate. As usual Petrucci doesn't know when to stop. I liked Ryan Van Winkle's piece, but he was one of the poets who seemed more inspired by the scientist's incidental family details than their science, which they didn't much understand. Niall O'Sullivan ended his reflections with this paragraph -

I thought of how we were sitting there as humans, with all the complexities and imperfections within our human thoughts and human appearances. Yet, at the molecular level within us, elegant, complex molecules were going about their intricate, exact work without a single idea about the selves that they were perpetuating. Indeed, in many ways, they were no different to the molecules that sustained and perpetuated the lives of the geese beyond the window and the grass that they waddled across.

Ah, so true. Unlike the other scientists, O'Sullivan's partner offered no reflections.

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