Sequences and Pathogens: An Anthology of Poems and Reflections, edited by Dorothy Lehane and Elinor Cleghorn (Litmus Publishing, 2013).
I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?
That should sound familiar. It was CP Snow considering the response he received when he asked supposed experts in the humanities about the second law of thermodynamics. Today the internet, Wikipedia, mashups, the semantic web and open publishing are a few of the trends that have served to dismantle some of the traditional silos between science practitioners and their counterparts in the humanities. How far have we come since his initial 1959 insight? Are these proving to be, as some believe, complementary perspectives?
A short answer: Don’t pop the cork in the champagne yet. A longer answer is contained in the ambitious experiment presented in the book Sequences and Pathogens.
The anthology edited by Lehane and Cleghorn was an outcome of a project to, as Lehane writes in her introduction, “to make science more palatable to the non-scientific reader.” The results don’t necessarily “elucidate” or aid digestion of scientific information, she writes, and that may surprise no one. Somewhat more surprising was the sometimes personal connections made by the poets or the scientists involved to their sense of working inside the other’s discipline. In other words, the participants tended to focus on process rather than knowledge. In fact, Lehane concluded that “science is already palpable,” “enmeshed in language rich in image and metaphor.” More on that later.
The subtitle of this anthology is “Poetry Meets Biomedical Science,’ reflecting the aims of a project to pair poets with counterparts in biology.The subtitle more than the title of the collection hints at the challenges and conflicts faced by the published participants. While some scientists could perhaps approach poetry with, say, the perspective of amateur critics, these poets could not do the reverse with biomedical knowledge. A weak education in science is a disproportionately large handicap in the collaborations.
Despite the limitations, the pairings make for interesting reading, and sometimes good poetry, too. In fact, the dialectal format — posing poets and their reflections on the process opposite to reflections by the scientists — creates a hall of mirrors effect. The poets see themselves in how the scientists view the work of poets, and the reverse. Both disciplines are called upon to see their professions from outside the comfort zone of peer-reviewed paradigms and the esteemed nobility within their respective disciplines –luminaries generally unknown to each other. These separate monologues are sufficiently compelling as counterparts in the presented text that when the occasional scientist failed to contribute, the absence was, well, palpable — as though a blank page had been printed with only their name and a page number on it..They seem, by their absent notation, to be calling the exercise unimportant, or irrelevant, or ill-conceived, or just an idle curiosity.
In this they were mistaken, Whatever shortcomings the poets or the poems might have exhibited, when these worlds collide, the results are a spectacle — unscripted and unpredictable. The sequences in Sequences and Pathogens take on a shape of their own, partly due to the paired reflections, or to the occasional arresting metaphor in the poetry.
The results at times were moving to their subjects. In a response to Jacqueline Saphra’s “Partita,” Ellen Solomon wrote, “While I am a lover of poetry, and perhaps try to think somewhat poetically from time to time I cannot imagine what process must occur to produce a piece such as Jacqueline did about me . . . utterly unimaginable. I cried when I read it.”
For her part, Jacqueline Saphra’s reflection successfully solicits the reader’s sympathy as she casts about yet for an appropriate subject for her poem. The result, which conjoins a research endeavor with a Bach partita, resulting a line referring to “duets of thought and intuition” reveals a failing in a poet’s training — and not Ms. Saphra in particular. She’s experienced a hospital atmosphere – convergences of science and suffering and — what?
What follows will seem harsh, but it is an unmistakable impression. The scientists in the collection understand their place; they understand the purpose of their narrative, of their place in the Sequence (if not the pathogens). The poets seem lost, desperately, even desultorily chasing ad homenim aspects of what they had seen. They seem young even when not young in years, immature, narrowly read.
There are also emergent features of the landscape of the collaboration. Cancer, perhaps as much due to its high funding profile in microbiology (contrasted with say, biomechanics or more theoretical foundational work) rather than scientific gravitas, is a pall over the entire enterprise. Clinical metaphors (recall the “pathogens” element in the title “Sequences and Pathogens”) carry a disproportionate — and completely understandable — anthropomorphic load. In the hands of the some of the poets in this collection, cancer cells take on an agency of their own: morbid, non-neutral, embattled, or cheated — reluctant acolytes. In Simon Smith’s “Chromosome 7: An Elegy,” he refers to
Stage 4 spreading like a tree
branches through the body
deep in the code through the blood or lymphatic system
in your smile as you eat & sleep
In “Gower’s Manoeuver,” Kayo Chingonyi refers to “the arbitrary dance of code,” and Lehane in “The Race” to “crack the code.”
Is theirs a tone one of awe? Or is “deep in the code” reference to some disreputable puzzle? Is this why the editors credit the scientists with titles like “Professor,” whereas the poets are appellation-less?
What would otherwise be seen as a limitation should instead be seen as a part of a growing body of evidence pointing to just how big is that unwritten-about load.
For the poets in Sequences, the exercise is epistemological, domain-specific (Simon Smith’s “unconnected knowledge”), and in some sense, unusual. As poet Helen Ivory explained in her reflection, ““How can you find metaphors when you don’t know what metaphor is a metaphor for?”
In the lightly read ledger wherein the relative importance of these two enterprises is judged, a poet’s effort is existential. Poetry’s relevance to science is a sentiment. Science is a nimble road machine in whose dust poets labor from an ever-increasing distance.
Niall O’Sullivan’s “A Rainy Afternoon with Sir Tom Blundell” put it this way:
. . . as within our mutual bodies
mysteries continue to unfurl,
invisible and oblivious
to the selves that ponder them.
In her “In the House of the Scientist,” Elizabeth Simpson explained that
the body goes about its business
in the dark room of itself
So it is with the business of science.
Despite hopeful signs as Huxley’s 1963 Literature and Science, the gulf between these worlds is, as Chingonyi wrote in “Manouevre,“one of those things stored with the other sadnesses for which no one is to blame.”
Paraphrasing Dorothy Lehane in “The Race,” Sequences and Pathogens“ is not just another book thrust unthinkingly “into the imperial latent throb of the world.”