04 July 2012


In a recent Westword interview, Serena Chopra says that the language in her chapbook Penumbra (Flying Guillotine Press, 2012) mimics the language of a geology textbook in that it is “very structured and kind of hard and directive.” Moreover, by intertwining the “factual” language of science with the “softer” language of poetry, she hopes to “rethink...the way in which we gather knowledge.”

Chopra's interest in the relationship between science and poetry, to some extent, echoes the sentiments of Romantic poetry. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth wrote: “The remotest discoveries of the chemist, the botanist, or mineralogist, will be as proper objects of the poet's art as any upon which it can be employed.” Twenty years later, Percy Bysshe Shelley composed an early draft of his A Defence of Poetry, wherein he wrote: “[poetry] is that which comprehends all science, and that to which all science must be referred.”

Not only are the “discoveries” of science used as “proper objects of the poet's art” in Penumbra, but so too is the language of science used as an object of the poet's art; indeed, science explains itself through, or is comprehended by, poetry in such a way that Chopra asks us to rethink normative epistemology. Or, better yet, she uses infuses the world of science with poetic sensibilities so as to defamiliarize the familiar. Take, for instance, the collection's first poem “Continental Drift”:
Once it was thought that mountains were analogous to the wrinkles of dried fruit. We know better now that our core is not shrinking, rather, our cement is stacking. Stars blush in the nightlight and we know now how. Earth throbbed her plated skull and slip-crack crafted a peak; a semiotic showdown for twin towers. Pikes of construction dirt echo the knuckled horizon, urgent fingers tremble, muting eons; shifting is the yellow grass buttering wind—a crane stretches, lifts its cable-hooked stone, a claw splits the dirt, sounding the widenmouthed terrain.
Continental Drift is the scientific theory that land masses move slowly across the earth's surface as they float upon a substratum of magma; but rather than regurgitate scientific theory, Chopra opens her poem with a metaphor that likens mountains to dried fruit. The speaker then tells the reader: “We know better now.” For the proponents of science, we know better now because our Enlightened minds developed a theory of Continental Drift. Of course, such a theory is exactly not what we encounter in Chopra's poem; instead, a new metaphor of “cement stacking” replaces the worn and dated metaphor of dried fruit. True, science succeeds in creating cement, but poetry employs cement (as both phoneme and image) to generate another metaphor that allows for a deeper understanding of our world. To this extent, science is utilitarian and poetry is transcendent.

While poetry may provide us with knowledge (and beauty and pleasure) that science cannot, the latter of these discourses should not be discounted. In fact, Wordsworth, Shelley, and Chopra all foster a productive tension between poetry and science (albeit one in which science, perhaps, works in service of/to poetry) that tells us something, although obliquely, about ourselves and our surroundings. Chopra narrates this tension during the poem “Earth System Science”:
A system, loosely defined, stems like synecdoche. An open system is a mouth, a closed system, an eye. These concepts stem from a classic debate between the father of modern geology, the Scottish physician and gentleman farmer, James Hutton, and the great-grandfather of lyric poetry, a famous, but anonymous, French cynic. In 1785, Hutton termed the principle of uniformitarianism, which claimed that all the physical, chemical, and biological laws of the present day operated the same way in the past. Hearing of this in 1857, the cynic doubted and disagreed, and said, in meandering French, “I see eternity in the cat's eye; I hear love in the cricket's feet.” Today, the debate between the scientist and the cynic remains unresolved, but hinges on recent research in Earth system sciences, which currently provides that the dust of words and light of an eye results in metamorphic synecdoche.
Penumbra, indeed, promotes an unresolved debate between science and lyric poetry. But the tension produced from this debate results in a metamorphosis of thought formed in the “dust of words and light of an eye,” or the convergence of open and closed systems. In doing so, the “interactions” between these disparate discourses “cause histories to reset,” creating new and “eccentric vision[s]” of the world.

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