Poetry & Science: Writing Our Way to Discovery
Edited by Lucille Lang Day
Five Essays with Poetry ~ 65 Pages
Price: $16.00
Publisher: Scarlet Tanager Books
ISBN: 978-1-7345313-3-6
To Order: Amazon.com or www.spdbooks.org

Reviewed by Michael Escoubas

As I set about the task of reviewing the anthology Poetry and Science, Writing Our Way to Discovery, edited by Lucille Lang Day, it is the last weekend of 2021. Wildfires are literally devouring communities surrounding the Boulder, CO landscape. Wind, more than 100 miles per hour, descends like a gigantic python from its lair in the Rocky Mountain foothills, hissing as it devours entire towns in its path.

I find myself reflecting on Day’s collaboration with four other poets, all of whom are equally committed to the twin disciplines of poetry and science. As scientists they are among those who study all the factors which produce a perfect recipe for the damaging winds and flames that occurred. As poets their hearts grieve at the human and environmental costs involved. At first, I found it difficult to reconcile both disciplines living in the same house, working out a good marriage.

However, I feel a debt of gratitude to Lucille Lang Day, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Ann Fisher-Wirth, Elizabeth Bradfield, and Allison Adelle Hedge Coke, for throwing open the windows of their minds and permitting the fresh air of science and poetry, to take me to school, showing me that test tubes and metaphors share common ground.

Poetry and Science is a combination of essays and poems which illustrate the scientific principles elucidated by each writer. For these writers there is no necessary disjuncture between science and poetry. The dedication page sets the tone with quotations by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Muriel Rukeyser.

From Goethe, “Science arose from poetry, and … when times change, the two can meet again on a higher level as friends.”

And from Rukeyser, “Dogma and shrinking from the external world are at one limit of the range of belief. At the other are science and poetry and, indeed, reality.”

“Poetry and Science: The Big Story,” by Alison Deming, opens the collection. In a delightful essay, Deming writes about a childhood full of wonderment visited upon her through books. A voracious reader, she avers, that the books she read “were windows into the larger world.” Books nourished her into being part of something bigger than herself. Over time she began to realize that scientific detail as related to the world was a “great, continuously unfolding story.” Decades later, when poetry emerged as the “road I’d travel,” Deming found that she could not separate poetry and science. Both became “the terms of my existence.”

I especially enjoyed Deming’s poem, “Letter to 2050,” which synthesizes concern for the planet and its inhabitants with the pathos inherent in poetry. This poem illustrates the power of the natural world to recover and thrive amid the ravages imposed by man’s “destructive practices.” Here’s an excerpt:

The Squamscott River
        grew lazy in early summer—
muskrat rose and dove
        heron swept and landed
and hemlocks that had survived
        another century’s practice
of harvesting bark
        were thriving. Some suffered
beaver girdles and the predation
        by wooly adelgids but still
the pileated woodpeckers
        found what they required
in the snags.

Ann Fisher-Wirth has lived in Mississippi for the last 32 years. The poet within her sees that the environmental issues of her beloved state share common ground with its history of poverty and racial injustice, the very substance of poetry. However, Fisher-Wirth, looking through the lens of science sees the natural beauty of a region that is worth the effort it will take to recover that which has been lost.

Channeling poet-obstetrician, William Carlos Williams’ ability to wed science and poetry, she notes that for Williams, “the study of medicine is an inverted sort of horticulture.” Williams’ seminal poem, “Spring and All,” hints that the imagination holds the key to making the world new. Enjoy this excerpt:

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind. Beyond, the
waste of broad, muddy fields
brown with dried weeds, standing and fallen

patches of standing water
the scattering of tall trees

All along the road the reddish
purplish, forked, upstanding, twiggy
stuff of bushes and small trees
with dead, brown leaves under them
leafless vines—

Lifeless in appearance, sluggish
dazed spring approaches—

They enter the new world naked,
cold, uncertain of all
save that they enter. All about them
the cold familiar wind—

To appreciate the full range of Fisher-Wirth’s contribution, you won’t want to miss two poems about her beloved Mississippi and two others, one about a tree older than Columbus, the other about environmental losses observable along a trail near a village in Italy.

Elizabeth Bradfield refers to herself as a semi-scientist and a poet. In her essay, “Grappling with the Ineffable; Sciencing the Science: Blurring the Lines,” Bradfield asks tough questions: How do we weigh the rights and needs of North Atlantic Right Whales and Lobster fisherfolk? or, How do we weigh the needs of animals and the needs of people (another animal)? and, How do the human-needs and animal-needs get supported or seen by the people not directly involved as fishers on the water or as scientists grappling with entanglement?

To her credit she answers, Honestly, I don’t know.

As poet, Bradfield skillfully demonstrates in “Misapprehensions of Nature,” how both science and enlightened “thinking souls” might also get things wrong:

That bees are improper
        because they have a queen
no king. That crows plant

acorns, twist them into soil,
        properly spaced, to serve
as future roosts and manta rays

wrap divers in the dark
        blankets (mantilla)
of their wings.

That dolphins
        love us, that deer love us,
and the kit brought in and given milk

is just as happy. That we can know
        what is for a fox
to be happy.


Two men bought a lion
        at Harrods, reared it
in their small apartment,

released it (reluctantly) to savannah,
        and then, years later,
sure that it would know them,

went and called its pet name
        into the grasses.
It ran toward them.

That they would be mauled.
        That perhaps they should
be mauled. But it

tumbled them, licked their faces:
        Everyone was crying
        We were crying,
even the lion was nearly crying.

What Bradfield teaches through her use of this poem is worth the price of the volume all by itself.

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke writes: “Poets and scientists share a main line—curiosity.” This pregnant thought is from her essay “Poetry/Science: Lab Coats for House Coats.” Raised in a family where science permeated the very air they breathed, Hedge Coke was exposed to a steady diet of scientific puzzles, equations and conversations. Additionally, storytelling, music, and the arts helped in shaping an wholistic environment that encouraged love of life, feeding an endless stream of questions and mysteries.

Such curiosity is paramount in a poem by Arthur Sze, who clearly has had a sea change influence on Hedge Coke. A wonderful synthesis of poetry and science occurs in Sze’s “Net Light”:

Poised on a bridge, streetlights
on either shore, a man puts
a saxophone to his lips, coins
in an upturned cap, and a carousel

in a piazza begins to turn:
where are the gates to paradise?
A woman leans over an outstretched
paper cup—leather workers sew

under lamps: a belt, wallet, purse—
leather dyed maroon, beige, black—
workers from Seoul, Laos, Singapore—
a fresco on a church wall depicts

the death of a saint: a friar raises
both hands in the air—on an airplane,
a clot forms in a woman’s leg
and starts to travel toward her heart—

a string of notes riffles the water;
and, as the clot lodges, at a market
near lapping waves, men unload
sardines in a burst of Argentine light.

“Poetry and the Language of Science,” by Lucille Lang Day, rounds out the anthology. In an incredibly wise essay, Day argues that poetry and science share the beauty of language. They also share “logic, reasoning, observation, and knowledge.” She makes a distinction that logic in poetry is different from logic in science because it doesn’t function in linear fashion, but rather, through the tools of association and similitude unique to poetry. Thus, when the two disciplines dovetail, a beautiful synthesis occurs that demonstrates that poetry and science not only make a good courtship, but an amazingly strong and healthy marriage.

This basic truth, too long hidden from view, is highlighted in Day’s poem, “Biologist in the Kitchen”:

When the tea kettle whistles
I hear a hundred bushtits
emit tandem calls.

Two gallinaceous birds painted on my cup
must be pheasants,
but the coloring is wrong—
too bright for females,
too dull for males.

Sunlight slips easily
under the eaves. Mycelia
bloom by the sink
and when the crickets start to sing
I think of the click and shimmer
of polished bone
in the Vertebrae Museum, intricate
skeletons poised on racks.

I sip my cut black tea,
longing for wind in the forested skull,
where roots embrace whole cities
and fattened ants hang
upside-down, under the grass.

Reviewing Poetry & Science has been more than just another review. I shall never think the same about the relationship between science and poetry again. I have learned that “Sunlight slips easily under the eaves.”


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