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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Matryoshka: Women in Science in Poetry, or Vice Versa

When I was growing up, I used to do the quizzes in my parents' copies of The Reader's Digest. There was one in which a number and the first letters of two words in a phrase were given, and you had to fill in the phrase. For example, 52 w____ in a y____, or 88 k____ on a p_____. (The answers are 52 weeks in a year, and 88 keys on a piano.)

One day my sister picked up the magazine after I had filled in the quizz, and she burst out laughing. "Who did this quiz? It had to be Jessica! Everybody listen to this!" she called to our family. "Jessica answered 4 q____ in a g____ with 4 quadrants in a graph!"

My whole family started to howl. I couldn't figure out what was so funny. Unless it was that I had assumed a graph with Cartesian coordinates in two dimensions instead of three, when that hadn't been a given.......

It's only natural for the specialized vocabulary you use every day in your work, in your hobbies, in your pursuit of health and wisdom, to pop up regularly in your thinking about other things, and therefore in your writing. In fact, I LOVE it when a writer uses jargon that I am unfamiliar with, but which can easily be understood from the context. Doing so gives readers new words to try their tongues on, without being exclusive or obtuse (when done skillfully). I remember my pleasure the first time I read Chris Forhan's Gouge, Adze, Rasp, Hammer. From the context, I understood that the words in the title were tools with fascinating names I had never heard before (well, I'd heard of gouge and hammer and had a vague idea about a rasp, which helped me know that an adze was a tool), but I did not need to look the words adze or rasp up in the dictionary to enjoy the poem (I did look them up though, being obsessive and all).

Since I was trained in mathematics, it is only natural that I am particularly enamored of poetry that uses mathematical and scientific vocabulary and concepts. I read a lot of that kind of writing, and today I'd like to recommend the three of the very best poetry books of that type I have read. They all happen to have been written by women, which pleases me further, but it was not a criterion when looking for the best books using math/science vocabularly in poetry that I could find. It just happened that way.

The first book I'd like to recommend is Stefi Weisburd's The Wind-Up Gods (Black Lawrence Press). Newtonian Girl is a character who reoccurs throughout the entire collection, a sure sign that we are on the right track. Poems entitled "Memoir of an Electron" and "Rodeo: Saddle Point" are further indications, especially for those who know that a saddle point is a mathematical term for a key balancing point on a certain family of curves (in graphs that often have four quandrants, but not always!) "Either/Ors in Neat Cat Boxes" gives a nod to Schrodinger's famous cat, who appears a lot in poetry, but never as successfully as in this piece, in my opinion anyway. "Natural History of Ether" delves into the history of scientific and philosophical thought, and we are just scratching the surface of Weisburd's clever and compelling use of science and math here.

The second book I love that mixes analytics with poetry is Kate Gleason's Measuring the Dark (Zone 3 Press). Particle physics is used as an extended metaphor for love in "The Velocity of Love," one of my favorite pieces in this book. The dying of a parent is compared effectively to the theory of gravity in "Reading in My Mother's Hospital Room." "Morning Walk on My Fiftieth Birthday" mixes up aging and the losses that accompany it with the Hubble constant and the Milky Way. For a particularly accessible confluence of science and poetry, you'll want to check out Kate Gleason. And don't miss the breathtaking cover by artist Graceann Warn, examples of whose work you can find here.

Finally, I'd like to recommend Michele Battiste's Ink for an Odd Cartography (Black Lawrence Press, again). Any poet who references a sine curve in the title of the first poem of her collection has my vote. "Chaos Theory of Travel Advice" is a poem that mentions decimal points, meterologists, computer programs, Cassiopeia, intial conditions, and orbit (not to mention the eponymous chaos) all in a single page. And "A Body in Motion" delights with double meanings from the title on through. I could go on and on.

Recently Jackie Bartley won the three candles press Open Book Award for her manuscript, Sleeping with a Geologist. Looking online at her work, I am guessing that I will soon have another woman in science in poetry to admire.

So whatever your specialized vocabularly is, use it to enrich your writing. And let me know of your favorite examples of poets using jargon to delight.

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