The art of science
Poet seeks 'cheek-to-cheek contact with the sublime'
Posted August 19, 2011
Where I am now (Salt Lake City, July), we are having, so far, a mercifully cool summer — which means the temperatures haven’t yet broken 100 degrees; many days have hovered just under 90 degrees; today will top out at what is — for here, in summer — a downright damp and chilly 80 degrees. Though the days are getting shorter and the crickets are tuning up to play out the summer, the change is still subtle. We can pretend not to notice.
At Palmer Station, I imagine, the sun at midday barely breasts the horizon. Farther south, the continent lies in its long night, waiting for sunrise. Since I returned from Antarctica, flying on Dec. 21 from the longest day of the year into the shortest, I’ve thought about Antarctica every day, many days spending most of my time, through the poems I’ve been writing, back in that place I carry in my head.
When I was preparing to travel to Palmer, my husband came home one evening and announced that he and a colleague had decided there are two kinds of people: those who, when told about my trip, were insane with jealousy, and those who simply thought I was insane. I am the first kind of person. My husband is the second.
So, in a sense, like everyone who’s taken this journey, I’ve gotten used to trying to explain why I wanted to go. Anyone who would ask would likely find the answer as nonsensical as I (and, if you’re reading this, probably you) find the question.
Of course, it’s the question we’re all asked in our grant proposals to the National Science Foundation . Not just why you, but also why here? A scientist might, with good reason, respond prosaically. He studies penguin colonies. She studies ice, or volcanoes, or issues related to the atmosphere or the stars. Antarctica is the only place where they can ask and answer the particular questions they have.
The same was true for me, though differently. My poems have long engaged science as a central theme and subject matter. I don’t find science or scientific thinking to be as alien or impenetrable as many poets might (or as many scientists confess to finding poetry after a few beers).
Everyone else in my immediate family is a scientist. We’ve got a mathematical economist, an applied mathematician, and a mechanical engineer; my mother, whose father, mother, and brothers were all geologists, has PhDs in both geology and psychology. When I was growing up, dinner table conversations often led to equations scrawled on napkins. No wonder I married a computer scientist whose PhD is in physics.
This is not to say that the poems mean to explicate science for the layperson or even for the literary person. As I explained in my proposal, thinking my honesty would torpedo my chances at a grant, that’s not what poetry does. For that, we have science journalism.
Poetry explains nothing: rather, it explores that mysterious territory where the mind meets the world. Still, for me the aims of poetry have never been as distinct from those of science as most people believe. The methods are often strikingly different, yes. But the goals overlap.
So, what am I after? Truth, of course. Cheek-to-cheek contact with the sublime. Insight into the nature of reality. The most precise language possible to depict that reality (understanding that linguistic precision in poetry is very different from precision in science — but that’s an essay in itself). Even the repeatable experiment: What is Homer’s Odyssey or one of Shakespeare’s great sonnets or plays but a continually repeated experiment in the evocation and illumination of human reality — emotional, psychological, and other?
And, as in science, creating a poem that succeeds, giving repeated readers insight into reality and a brush with what exists just beyond what we’ve so far measured, requires the poet to push against the boundaries of what has been seen and done before. Some of this pushing is internal. However, for me, it must engage the nature of reality not only as an individual, subjective consciousness interprets it but also as we, through scientific endeavor, know it to be. It also requires the extension of the self into the unknown, not only the unknown interior but also the unknown exterior.
So, why Antarctica? Of course, because of the science that is happening there. Cold Heart, my nearly finished manuscript, has poems that invoke the work of virus researchers Alex Culley and Chris Schvartcz; of Ken Golden, a mathematician studying the permeability of ice, and his MacGyverish engineer sidekick Cindy Furse; of birders, geologists, biologists, cosmologists, and climate scientists. What does it mean, the poems ask, to observe something new? What does it mean to name it, measure it?
I’ve saved the most obvious thing for last. Here are the first lines of the first poem in Cold Heart:
If you wanted to be first,
Of course, I wasn’t first to set foot on Antarctica. Still, the landscape represents extremity and newness; it challenges its explorers, or at least it challenged me, physically, psychologically and perceptually. Early in my trip, one of Utah’s NPR reporters asked me what the place was like. I kept saying “transcendent” and “otherworldly,” falling far short of my own standards for precision. At that point, I had most of the vocabulary I would need to describe the place. But I wasn’t yet able to perceive what I was seeing.
Who taught me? Shackleton, in the section in South where he describes the effects of refraction, reflection, and mirage — “Icebergs hang upside-down,” he says; “cloudbanks masquerade” — on how we see down there. This gave me what became Cold Heart’s central question: In a place like this, where so much is unfamiliar, how do we find a way to see and name it?
Of course, Shackleton’s help alone wouldn’t have been enough. To find the words for Antarctica, or even, like me, to make a small beginning, you have to see it for yourself.
Katharine Coles teaches at the University of Utah and co-directs the Utah Symposium in Science and Literature. She participated in the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program in 2010-11. In 2009-10, she served as the Inaugural Director of the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute. Her fifth poetry collection, Flight, is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.