Fine Invention: Women on Science and Ecology
Quiver, by Susan B. A. Somers-Willett. University of Georgia Press, 96 pp., $16.95.
Interpretive Work, by Elizabeth Bradfield. Arktoi Books, 112 pp., $20.
Drift Ice, by Jennifer Atkinson. Etruscan Press, 92 pp., $16.95.
For years, Emily Dickinson kept an herbarium in which she pressed, dried, sexed, and identified by scientific name four or five hundred specimens of wild and cultivated flowers. The poet clearly loved botany, as she did the particularities and peculiarities of scientific class and order. Not surprisingly, Dickinson’s passion for technical advancement manifests in her verse:
“Faith” is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see—
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.
Given Dickinson’s social obligations and constraints as a woman of the nineteenth century, it’s not too difficult to understand why the poem’s knowledge is gendered masculine. During this period, it was “Gentlemen,” after all, who were most often privy to and responsible for public ideas, large or small, scientific or empirical. With time comes progress. By the 1930s, Marianne Moore’s zoological studies were coded not necessarily as male, but rather according to the poet’s exacting moral eye. With the publication of Adrienne Rich’s “Power” in 1974, the female-authored poem that takes science as its subject seems to have undergone a major shift: Rich’s portrait of world-renowned physicist and chemist Marie Curie emphasizes the complexities of a woman whose “wounds came from the same source as her power” (emphasis mine).
In the following poem from New Goose (a book of poems written between 1936 and 1944), Lorine Niedecker underscores the benefits and dangers of the introduction of machinery to natural terrain:
For sun and moon and radio
farmers pay dearly;
their natural resource: turn
the world off early.
Juxtaposed with “radio,” Niedecker’s “sun and moon” act as literal and figurative objects. In other words, the opening line identifies light and heat sources not only as natural phenomena, but also as manufactured products for which men “pay dearly.” Such technology allows the farmers to extend their workdays via electricity, as well as cultivate crops with greater efficiency. The poet’s ironic use of “natural” further emphasizes ecological manipulation: the stanza’s artificially generated energy-sources are hardly indigenous to Niedecker’s Midwestern landscape.
It’s the ambiguity of the final phrase, “turn the world off early,” however, that truly politicizes the harvested terrain. While “pay” evokes commodity—the farmers’ (i.e. man’s) ability to regulate the earth according to fiscal need—it also suggests that there is an ecological price for such mechanization. Here, the poet warns readers that technology-based land management introduces not only agricultural advantages, but also risks. According to Niedecker, the very same tools used to cultivate the environment may very well prematurely drain its natural resources.
Science and faith, animal and human nature; the methodical study of the material world versus the steadfast belief in an unknown higher being; the power and risk, recklessness and responsibility that come via interactions with the environment: these are the subjects of poetry’s ongoing conversation about the natural world. From satellites monitoring wind in Earth’s atmosphere to the changing migration of wildlife attributed to global warming, with scientific discovery and ecological change the tensions at the forefront of a new nature poetics evolve. With disparate subjects and a wide range of poetic strategies, Susan B. A. Somers-Willett’s Quiver, Elizabeth Bradfield’s Interpretive Work, and Jennifer Atkinson’s Drift Ice update the central tensions introduced by Rich, Moore, and Niedecker. Rather than politicize a scientific icon, propose a set of moral attributes, or sketch ecological vulnerability, Somers-Willett, Bradfield, and Atkinson personalize the nature poem. But what happens when scientific and ecological matters are made intimate?
According to Susan B. A. Somers-Willett’s Quiver, mathematics, astronomy, and botany, among other subjects, aren’t solely intellectual pursuits, but are also linked to “the brittle, illogical instructions of love.” From the first page forward, Somers-Willett makes the project of her sophomore collection clear: the title poem’s speaker figures herself and her spouse as a graph of loops whose vertices collide: “the beauty of the husband / drawing his path upon my body.” At this moment, physics becomes intimate, which begs the question: Are Quiver’s readers meant to accept the premise that those branches of knowledge so often associated with logos are functioning agents of Eros? The collection’s title suggests as much; quiver is both verb, “to tremble,” and noun, “a container for arrows”—as in, “the archer Eros / had no clear target beyond what physics could explain” (title poem)—as well as a diagram used in string theory. At its core, therefore, Quiver asserts an affinity between the sciences and the erotic as the book’s speakers and subjects question whether some means of study can ultimately lead to a lasting proof for love.
Quiver updates Rich’s historical (and very public) account of Curie, whom Rich defines in “Power” by test-tubes and pencils, the “cataracts on her eyes,” the “radiation sickness,” the “body bombarded for years.” In contrast, Somers-Willett’s “Love as an Aid to Hypothesis”—note the title’s conflation of pathos with scientific terminology—describes a more private version of “Marie” who is “open as the field in Brittany” where she and her husband
first make love, tumors softly knuckling
in his side, in her side, exposed. In the lab,
they figure their question into fact:
If and only if to marry is to surrender
one’s parts to the other, then his body
will adore and adore her painfully…
Unlike Rich’s version, in which Curie’s spouse and scientific cohort, Pierre, is notably absent, Somers-Willett’s complicates the couple’s relationship by staging both public and private interactions. According to the poem, with marriage comes the surrendering of “one’s parts to the other” (physical, intellectual, emotional) so that even suffering— those “tumors softly knuckling”— becomes an intimate exchange. The partnership, therefore, isn’t exclusively academic, nor is Curie a female martyr. Instead, “Love as an Aid to Hypothesis” reveals an intense and complicated collaboration between husband and wife that results in scientific advancement as well as intense pleasure and pain.
The poem generates momentum via a series of calls and responses beginning with “If.” These sentences introduce theorems—for example, “If pitchblende is placed between four charged plates / then one may measure its weight by the balance . . .”—that are later followed by more private narration about the couple. As the poem shuts down, Somers-Willett’s syntax tightens. The suggestion of suffering (“…his body // will adore and adore her painfully”) unleashes a series of brusque assertions: “The body repeats itself,” claims the poet in the final lines, “in sickness, in health… // The radon gas under glass clouds over. / From him, she will never recover.” The poem’s shift from theoretical musings to swift declarations privileges the physical and emotional certainties of death and grief above scholarly supposition. Like the slant rhyme that binds “fact” to “lab,” the decisiveness of the final couplet resonates due to Somers-Willett’s formal strategies: coupled with successive end-stops, the closed rhyme suggests that Curie’s inability to “recover” results from both physical exposure to “radon gas,” and the psychological toll taken by her husband’s death. Thus, according to “Love as an Aid to Hypothesis,” scientific progress is not without private consequence.
Quiver dedicates at least six of its poems to genetics, and Somers-Willett is quick to characterize forefather Gregor Mendel as the good monk that readers expect. In “Campanology,” Mendel “naps in his human cell, / his shrugging penis curling fatly into his innocent thigh.” While the Mendel-centered poems lack copulation, their expression is by no means devoid of erotic tension. “First Sex,” for example, includes language such as ovum, sweet-bottomed, throat, sticky mouth, as well as actions like “The monk frees / the flowers’ sexes,” and “the style hot with nectar / reaches up.” Such diction prepares its reader for the poem’s final turn, during which the plant’s “whole body” begins
singing deep praise
of his touch and oh
yes Mendel this
moment is the best
of glory’s evidence—
one can see it even
in the white blossom’s
effusion of bliss.
In “First Sex,” Mendel’s meticulous chromosomal study ultimately climaxes in song. While phrases like “effusion of bliss” and “glory’s evidence” may seem tonally excessive, that the botanist’s touch elicits a “deep praise” toward which “the whole body” sings is significant to Somers-Willett’s overall collection. Such musical tropes recur through Quiver and arrive, for example, in the form of “a giant gaping mouth,” (“Dark Matter: A Love Story”), “a string / tied to the throat” (“The Golden Lesson”) and “singing matins in the plot” (“Thaw and the Beginning of Everything”). Essential to such imagistic patterns is the function of poetry as scientific encomium. “Campanology,” for example, suggests that each praiseworthy “bloom / is a call to music.” Its final lines laud Mendel and his experiments as examples of “youth // beating out its name like an anthem, / like rain on the body of a bell.”
In “The M in M-Theory,” it’s “the slanting light of days // that seem to sing everything.” Unlike Quiver’s less successful poems, which appear stunted by fact, “The M in M-Theory” trades the lyric mode for the conversational. Exploitation of the second person and a series of associative leaps increase the poem’s overall speed. Rather than simply restage scientific or historical record, the poem investigates (with great linguistic energy) the unknown. “The M,” we’re told,
might suggest metaphysical, magic, mystery,
The character with its mitered joints joining
your body, the room, this language
of simple light and bones…
Unlike the well-documented development of atomic energy (see “Oppenheimer’s Lament”), for example, M-theory as a work in progress allows the poet room for imaginative meandering. As Somers-Willett notes, “M” connects five types of string theory through dualities in an attempt to explain all physical phenomena. The theory is not without skeptics:
The scientists themselves
could not agree on the precise meaning and so now
math enacts speculation, theory’s shadow
growing larger across the wandering stairs
of the mind…
So, too, grows the poet’s creativity as she follows “M” from “man, muscle, magnetic, make” to some
brief and unspeakable
name written and slipped between the ribs
of a clay monster, so that the monster comes
alive, so that this monster begs to hum
its rude praise for the rose, its damp red
throat opening in what tremolo.
While Quiver often moves between songs of scientific elation and the erotic, the collection is not without grief. Many of the poems alluding to or directly implicating Darwin are somewhat elegiac. In “Everything from Shells,” for example, a lesson on mating barnacles raises “the ghost of Darwin’s daughter” who, “seized over in a tubercular cough,” ultimately proves “the theory: / the strongest slip though.” “At Four a.m., She Is Reminded of Survival of the Fittest” is another study in loss; the poem features friends who discover and leave a dying fawn “to the hawks and the dogs and the rain.” Ultimately, however, Quiver catalogues in a primarily lyric mode a range of radical and imaginative thinkers. No scientific subject is too complex, no theory too far-fetched for investigation. For Somers-Willett, even dark matter becomes “a love story.” Whether vibrating on earth or in some distant galaxy, every body is atomic.
Although different from the scientific icons spotlighted by Somers-Willett, Elizabeth Bradfield’s bodies—female, aquatic, suburban, exotic, rural, terrestrial, butch—are no less electric in their singing. Shortlisted for a Lambda Literary Award and the recipient of The Publishing Triangle’s Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry, Interpretive Work is built on the traditional nature poem, while pushing the form forward by juxtaposing ecology with the politicized subjects of gender identity and sexuality. Simply stated, Bradfield does not enter into dialogue with the environment as a conventional means of investigating the world’s origins, lamenting the loss of a loved one, or courting some sublime-inspired epiphany. Instead, nature acts as a framework through which the poet labors to destabilize notions of normative sexuality. “Hormonally imbalanced females of all deer species / have been known to grow antlers” asserts the book’s first sentence (“Creation Myth: Periosteum and Self”), merging both male and female traits, and animal and human nature. And with that fact Bradfield is off, charging headlong into Alaska’s cul-de-sacs and wooded landscapes to prove that “love changes what it’s drawn to” (“Nonnative Invasive”) and that “what’s daily and familiar is worth a second look” (“Brachyramphus marmoratus”).
Critical to Bradfield’s collection is the notion of sustained effort—physical, mental, emotional or otherwise. In fact, Interpretive Work is as concerned with vocation as evocation. Throughout the collection, the poet acts as a field guide whose expertise encompasses species both domestic and wild, and whose repetition of tasks brings with it the riks of exhaustion and boredom. “Mid-Trip Mid-Season,” for instance, introduces a weary speaker whose job description includes mingling with sightseers during the cocktail hour on a harbor cruise:
No one wants to know
what’s outside unless it’s off the charts—a bear
swimming to a moose being ripped
by killer whales while a wolf pack howls
on shore, bald eagle glaring from a cedar snag.
That kind of thing.
Not too surprisingly, the poem’s central tension results from the speaker’s preference for “the broad blur of vista” outdoors over those inside the ship’s lounge whose “points of interest” are “assigned by placards.” Ultimately, “Mid-Trip Mid-Season” criticizes communal apathy as well as cultural attitudes that value environment as sheer entertainment; only half way through the season and already tired of the tourists’ insatiable appetite for bigger-better-more, the speaker has “lost for a while the will” to pose simple social questions such as “Where / are you from? What made you come / to Alaska? What did you hope to see?”
Such cynicism is present elsewhere in Interpretive Work, particularly in those poems that depict the treatment of nature as commodity, as when entire species are reduced to facts and photo opportunities. In “The Shepherd of Tourists on a $20 Sunset Cruise Speaks,” for example, everything has its cost—wonder and awe, environmental and social connectedness. During the course of the poem, a leader of a whale-watching expedition discovers that after “the third time today, twelve miles out and back / to the whales” her ordinary enthusiasm for the ocean-dwellers wanes. In response to the vacationers’ seeming indifference to their surroundings, Bradfield asks, “What can I say that will matter beyond this, / your annual ten paid days?” According to “The Shepherd of Tourists…,” in places where fiscal value is assigned to natural phenomena, “empathy and longing fog the air, thick as diesel exhaust.” Thus, human desire (“longing”) becomes an ecologically destructive agent (“diesel” fuel); “exhaust,” furthermore, echoes “exhaustion,” underscoring the extent to which the speaker’s innate love of environment is in danger, due to social and professional fatigue.
Also significant to “The Shepherd of Tourists on a $20 Sunset Cruise Speaks” is the speaker’s revelation that whales “rest one half of their brains at a time.” Like the humpback, the tour guide is both mentally present and absent; whereas the whale shuts down half its brain to sleep, the guide’s mind wanders as she performs her routine among candy racks, crowded decks and flashing cameras. The link between animal and human nature becomes increasingly pronounced as Bradfield moves from water to land. Upon returning to suburbia, the naturalist finds herself the observed rather than the observer. “Remodeling,” for example, features a lesbian couple who “want a hole in the north wall, a hole / then a window, for light, for the green spruce / just beyond the vinyl siding.” A window, however, is a thing seen not only out of, but also into; as it stands, the pair can’t forget the night they were watched:
the boys climbed the shed roof
and saw this:
my shirt up around my neck,
your hand on my breast, my body beneath
In response to the voyeurs, one lover buries her face “in the couch, as if / they might assume … short hair meant man.” Despite an attempt to obscure her gender, the damage is done. Although the couple doesn’t “admit // to each other that [they] waited for the spray paint, / the busted taillights,” both women experience paranoia about the neighbors’ potentially hostile response to their lesbianism. Bradfield doesn’t make obvious the stimulus of the lovers’ later shift in attitude; by poem’s end, however, both interiors—house and couple— have been transformed. No longer concerned with the public gaze, the pair now wants “to announce how much we love / the sky, how its light finds us, too, / even here.”
What becomes clear over the course of the book is that it’s not same-sex couples who require site-specific adaptation, but the attitudes of some who surround them. Revising the biblical narrative of a lost child’s redemptive return, Bradfield’s “Prodigal” discovers,
it is our families, not we, who are returning
from turning away. Where
did they go? To the sneer of neighbors,
the clucking of tongues. To the straight
and married place they’d hoped
we’d end up, and they waited.
In Bradfield’s parable, the children remain true to themselves and never arrive in that “straight / and married place.” Instead, heterosexual relatives experience ideological evolution. This fact becomes apparent when, with the speaker’s eighty-year-old grandmother at the helm, the family falls in line for a group portrait:
[My grandmother] told the photographer, in front
of everyone, to not forget us, you and me,
paired in the spot where my married cousins
had posed with their children. So there we are,
on her wall, spotlit, shocked, and grinning.
To some extent, the prodigals’ turn from judgment and isolation toward understanding and reconciliation reflects the overall arc of Interpretive Work. The disgruntled tour guide whose ecological love is on the verge of collapse ultimately reestablishes her connection with the natural world. Likewise, in a series of odes that dissolve neat dichotomies separating male and female (“Butch Poem 5: Recognition and Praise” and “Butch Poem 7: In the Mexican work visa office,” for example), speakers celebrate gender fluidity. Whether the poems survey public environments or personal spaces, the reintroduction of wonder and awe energizes the writing, adding new tensions that extend Bradfield’s narrative reach beyond what sometimes amounts to no more than the anecdotal. “Whalefall,” for example, explores an ocean “more vast / than the myth of Wyoming—endless / plains, plentiful herds, sky / uncharted still.” While the poem’s primary mode is elegiac (“whalefall” is the term for carcasses on the seafloor) it moves beyond the commemorative as Bradfield comes to the revelation that she “need[s] to believe / in the beauty of falling. / The stunning ache of descent.…” This admission resonates in multiple ways due to the consistent pairing of natural and domestic terrains throughout Interpretive Work. Thus, the “beauty of falling” refers not only to the humpbacks’ “silent” bones but also to the “unreasonable calm … the unrelenting salt” of love as it’s characterized in Eros-centered poems like “Endurance.”
Unlike the Romantics, Bradfield doesn’t demand of nature the sublime: “There wasn’t much exclaiming,” she writes in “Off the Beach”:
much drama, but, I suppose, relief
that such a simple thing, a thing
so out of our grasps, should perform
this task demanding our attention.
The poet asks us to accept the curious nature of the living on its own terms. Although by no means kindred in style or prosody, Bradfield’s nature studies and their ethical inferences extend Marianne Moore’s Modernist zoological portraits. Whereas Moore implicates her intellectual self in the work, Bradfield’s animals (human and otherwise) are entirely personal. Whether evoking rescued birds or fallen lovers, Interpretive Work ultimately suggests that it remains our moral obligation not to “forget how frightened their small hearts made us / when we first held them” (“No More Nature”).
Of the three collections, Jennifer Atkinson’s Drift Ice most often treats eco-poetics as a vehicle for spiritual contemplation. In order for a hiker to fully experience Alaska’s Eagleck Bay, for example, she must not only recognize its beauty, but confront as well the terrain’s deep environmental scars resulting from the disastrous oil spill of 1989. Rather than respond with contempt as her boot sinks “six or eight inches deep in the subsoil / clumps of tarry Exxon sludge,” the hiker determines to choose faith in renewal and admits, “I’m not above believing in rebirth.” Whether set on Alaskan waters, the Long Island Sound, or the Sri Lankan shoreline pre- or post-tsunami, the poems ultimately investigate tensions between the known and unknown, the seen and unseen. An example of self-interrogation, mindful observation, and conscious examination of myths relating idealized notions of wilderness, Drift Ice underscores the importance of recognizing, accepting, and thereby honoring a “world unknown and unknowable however beloved” (“Beneath the Surface”).
Not as erotically overt as Somers-Willett, nor as politically willful as Bradfield, Atkinson also connects her love of nature with the nature of love. Dedicated to the poet’s husband, “I Slept but My Heart Was Awake” characterizes the couple’s long familiarity via verse-chorus patterns that fuse the wild and the domestic: “Daylilies bloom at the border of marsh and woods. / My love, careless after loving, loves the wind that touches us.” In “Waiting for Her Daughter’s Diagnosis,” the poet explicates through nature-based imagery a mother’s deep affection and concern for her sick child. Restaging a dream, Atkinson figures illness as “a snowy egret” whose “flimsy legs” become “kindling” she’d like to break. The bird is further described as gazing
Down, as if clairvoyant, past
Impassive, hunting, stock
Stillness its only lure, the egret
Waits, then jabs past the seeming
Calm to some unwary minnow
Small enough to swallow whole.
Atkinson’s primarily trochaic lines (the antithesis of iambic surefootedness) create a sense of spillage, their front-loaded stresses further enacting the mother’s sense of struggle. What’s most striking about the above excerpt, however, is Atkinson’s exploitation of metaphor. Transforming the speaker’s daughter into a hunted thing—that unsuspecting “minnow”—underscores not only the child’s vulnerability, but also her mother’s helplessness when confronted with the randomness of death and disease. Sonic closure creates additional emphasis: by the final line, the child’s fate seems to be sealed as Atkinson links “minnow” to both “swallow” and “whole” via end and internal rhymes.
Drift Ice is most compelling, however, when it strays from the familial, taking environmental crises as its primary focus. What saves such poems from slipping into political propaganda or didacticism is Atkinson’s personal accountability. Although the speaker in “Before the First Goldenrod Blooms” has “walked these trails for 40-some years,” what she concludes after decades of meditative exploration is that “I took for granted plenty / And solitude in—with—what I called ‘nature.’” Atkinson doesn’t differentiate between small and large crimes committed against nature. She treats individual ingratitude, for example, with the same seriousness as suburban infringement upon natural terrain. In fact, throughout the collection, the only person the poet seems to judge is herself:
I’m getting on
and what I know wouldn’t fill an acorn cap,
Doesn’t grant me the warrant
to search beyond the plain sight details—
(“In Plain Sight”)
Atkinson’s combination of self-assessment and humility leads to further attention to the outside world, specifically fast-disappearing wild spaces and landscapes injured by technology. As a witness of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Atkinson sees Niedecker’s premonition about the tenuous relationship between machinery and the environment come to fruition as full-scale disaster. “Good Friday, 1989,” for example, revisits Bligh Reef off the coast of Valdez, Alaska fifteen years after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. The title’s rhetorical use of the phrase “Good Friday” immediately works to align ecological disaster with that sacred day of mourning and sacrifice traditionally observed during Holy Week. More powerful still is Atkinson’s resistance to her own lyric impulse. Of the sky that fateful night, she claims,
In retrospect I’m tempted to call it tenebrous dark,
For the rich mythic sound, the liturgical grandeur,
The once and once onliness of the words,
But that March night was all so routine—
A night run’s insomniac boredom,
A good drunk to numb it, See ya …
The lesser poet (or one without Atkinson’s discipline) might give into the temptation to romanticize catastrophe by lyricizing the “tenebrous dark.” Rather than distract the reader with poetic language, Atkinson instead focuses on the evening’s conventionality. The poem’s tension between the routine and the extraordinary (“…money, media, and blame spill in, / as the effort to hose things clean begins: / more error to displace and efface error”) is, quite frankly, frightening. By resisting the quixotic, Atkinson ultimately underscores the daily risk with which “hot oil slides down the pipeline” as a “tanker plows through the swells off Las Palmas, Long Island, / Galicia, the Niger delta …” Like the anniversary of the holy day with which it is aligned, “Good Friday, 1989” ultimately suggests the ease with which such eco-catastrophic events may recur.
Although Atkinson locates the second of her four sections in Prince William Sound, Drift Ice does travel elsewhere. The collection’s excursions lead to places as diverse as Pemaquid Point (Maine), Albemarle County (Virginia), Salmon River (Connecticut), and the Sri Lankan destinations of Pilgrimage Mountain and Kandy’s Temple of the Tooth. Equally varied are Atkinson’s formal strategies. Although primarily invested in the lyric, Drift Ice reflects the poet’s interest not only in traditional stanzas, but in fragmentation, linear indentation and caesurae, as well, as in these lines from “Mare Incognita”:
Apart, arrested, a calmed sea, Galilee in a teacup,
Unwhorled, de-eddied, discurrented
A mind of one held thought.
The end of involution.
“Hollow Tree Canon” utilizes caesura and wordplay which manifests the abrupt entry of the deer and the
speaker’s paradoxical stasis and ecstasy.
… When a deer broke
Huge through the undergrowth, too huge to imagine
Fitting, to clatter hard-hooved up the street,
I stood trans posed, ec-
Static, et cetera. For once actually
Here. More here than here,
Self like an echo. From a hollow tree
Formal and structural strategy aside, consistent in Drift Ice is Atkinson’s commitment to witnessing, for better or worse, that which surrounds her. Answering from a contemporary perspective Thoreau’s nineteenth century assertion that “in wildness is the preservation of the world,” Atkinson cites, in the poem by that name, a managed wilderness area where “rangers have cut a quarter acre of mature white pine in hopes that white pine seedlings will sprout in the clearing. Duck lovers have planted duck boxes. Hunting here is permitted in autumn only and never on Sundays.” Having carefully assessed and catalogued her surroundings (“the state has preserved us some wilderness”) Atkinson asks, “Henry; now how are we to preserve the world?” Drift Ice takes as part of its project the preservation—or at the very least, defense—not of wilderness, but of wildness. In “Let Me Pause for a Moment,” neither the “ancient / Calving ice—lacial flesh” is priority, nor the promise of “new ice / prickling the salt-bog sedge.” In fact, not even the “idea of the wilderness / Or even the sacred” is cause for immediate reflection. Instead, Atkinson asks us to honor the great mystery that is the present:
Look at that block of floe ice,
Flat, sun-haggard, low in the water:
Sprawled across its deck, a harbor seal
And, like sealing wax on a contract,
Her blood and newborn pup
Steaming in the cold spring air.
Ultimately, the contract sealed in Drift Ice is one that lays out the terms for “A new world between the boulders, / A New World with pine tree, thistle, beach pea” (“Island Mandala”). Whether this world is realized or imagined is unknown, as Atkinson doesn’t distinguish between the two. Instead, she asks us to “listen to wind in a forest, / Surf on a coast, birds singing in a meadow.” Atkinson dedicates their song to a “pure land. The Pure Land”; fact or invention, we are told, “She calls it There.”
No longer relegated to the fringes of labs or field studies, or confined to the margins of literary circles, contemporary female scientists and poets continue to explore the ever-shifting relationship between nature and humanity. Clearly not the “meddling intellect” that William Wordsworth claims “Misshapes the beauteous forms of things (“The Tables Turned”), Somers-Willett, Bradfield, and Atkinson are poets whose deep personalization of science and ecology extend and deepen the nature poem’s reach to target the emotional life concealed behind the intellectual exterior.
Of reading Darwin, Elizabeth Bishop writes, “One … sees the lonely young man, admires his eyes fixed on facts and minute details, sinking or sliding giddily off into the unknown.” It’s the scientist’s vacillation between intense “heroic observation” and imaginative ambling (“a sudden relaxation”) that Bishop claims “one seems to want in art, in experiencing it” (letter to Anne Stevenson, Jan. 1964). For Somers-Willett, Bradfield, and Atkinson, it is this active interiority coupled with an intense connection with the natural world that leads to new questions and dialogue:
What feral curiosity drives these children
to shake the specimens and rap the glass?
(“Crossing Drosophilia,” Somers-Willett)
In the lab, beneath
the long, audible bulbs, a fan turns on. New note
in the underlying hum of machines at wait. Like
monks chanting, this sound; like the buzz
I heard once by a river, the earth’s own
stasis, its churning; like the overlapping breaths …
(“Love Song of the Transgeneticist,” Bradfield)
Left behind: blue mussel shells, shark’s eyes,
A thousand periwinkles, everything that moves.
How to know the holy? By its shadow.
How to draw its image? With a stick in the sand.
(“Ordinary Amber,” Atkinson)
Quiver, Interpretive Work, and Drift Ice interrogate with great excitement contemporary scientific and ecologically-motivated subjects. Taken together, their poetics is like any great experiment: it finds pleasure in study and clarification, joy in the investigation of variables and ideas. However disparate their scientific and artistic temperaments may be, Somers-Willett, Bradfield, and Atkinson ultimately discover the convergence of mystery and meaning, danger and wonder.