Last week, I wrote a review of William Waltz’s Adventures in the Lost Interiors of America, which focused on the differences between a naturalist’s and a poet’s use of nature. In the former instance, the man of science observes and categorizes the natural world in order to demystify and, thus, command it; in the latter instance, the poet revels in its mysteriousness and unquantifiable aspects in order to create an art imbued with the unknown.
Immediately after reading Waltz’s collection, I read Carrie Olivia Adams’ second full-length book of poetry Forty-One Jane Doe’s (Ahsahta Press, 2013). I reference Waltz’s Interiors not simply because it was the book I read immediately preceding Adams’ collection, but primarily due to the fact that the two books contain thematic echoes. Whereas Waltz juxtaposes the poet and the naturalist, Adams explores the relationships between the poet and mathematicians/scientists.
Skimming through the epigraphs and notes reveals several scientific touchstones that Forty-One invokes: Leonard Euler, William Harvey, Stephen Hawking, and Pythagoras. But, similar to Waltz’s book, Adams does not attempt to mimic the scientist’s drive toward enlightenment through empiricism. Instead, she uses poetry as an antidote for science in order to articulate her confusion and revel, linguistically, in the unknown. Take, for instance, the following passage from her opening sequence “A Mystery Story”:
Moments after asking
what is the meaning of love
she makes love.
This does not answer
the question. (8)
The speaker runs what one could call an experiment on love in order to discover its “meaning.” Of course, once she conducts the experiment (i.e. “makes love”), she realizes that “This does not answer / the question.” No, love is not something that one can capture or define through a series of tests. It is something too ethereal for such operations.
In the second poetic sequence, an epistolary prose poem titled “Pandora’s Star Box,” which is addressed to an “Astronomer,” the speaker asks:
What do you do during the daylight? Do you train your telescope on people across the way? Are you curious at all about earthly perambulations? Do you chart them—map them—trace them from point to point with a protractor in the same way?
I once wrote to you and asked—why do people make love? It was a foolish question, I know. (18)
The Astronomer stands at a distance from the populace, charting and mapping their “earthly perambulations” with a telescope and a protractor. In need of an answer to the question “why do people make love,” the speaker realizes that “It was a foolish question” to ask her correspondent because love cannot be gauged by or through the instruments of science. Again, love is something too ineffable for empiricism to categorize or gauge.
The final poem of Forty-One, which is called “A Voice Made Small,” begins with the stanzas:
My voice made small
travels with others
along the copper wires.
Then, there is the sea—
I do not know how sound travels
The tips of the waves,
moths that flutter toward your ears. (73)
There is something inherently mysterious or otherworldly about a voice crossing the ocean. No doubt, science can find a way to demystify this question regarding “how sound travels / across it”; and, in many instances, such exacting scientific knowledge is of importance to us as human beings. But, in other instances, the poetic explanation, that of a voice travelling on the “tips of the waves,” or as “moths that flutter towards your ears,” offers readers something much more poignant and, certainly, more beautiful.
The poem, then, concludes with the following stanza:
If you know the end,
if the day has already come
and another begun for you
can you tell me of it,
so I may know
what to look for? (74)
In these six lines, the speaker vocalizes her desire to know that which is out of her intellectual grasp. But, after reading through Forty-One Jane Doe’s, we get the sense that, even if the addressee does have the ability to answer the question of “what to look for,” it will leave the speaker lacking or wanting more. Instead, a better answer maybe no answer at all; simply to acknowledge that:
There is a sea—
It could carry us.
It could lose us. (73)
And, yes, this sea is poetry.