Sheenagh Pugh (sheenaghpugh) wrote,
Sheenagh Pugh

Review of "Solar Cruise" by Claire Crowther, pub. Shearsman 2020

hus was my physicist received with joy in a few desolate marinas.
Brigid agreed with that good-time god, Electron,

 that there should be a lyric outcome.
not for immortality, which the gods already have
(electrons don’t die ever)
but for mortals whom the gods seem to want to impress at parties.

(The Crystallier: A Memoir in Which I Fable the Sociopolitical Side of Science)

At first I seriously wondered if I were qualified to review this, since I know absolutely nothing about physics and find any scientific concept hard to process – the level of my understanding may be gleaned from the fact that I cannot read the phrase “Higgs Boson” without getting a mental picture of hogs and a bison. I decided, however, that since the majority of readers would surely be in the same boat (you'll see what I did there in a minute), the reactions of a scientific ignoramus to poems heavily concerned with physics, and in particular with solar energy, were relevant. Also, by the time I came to this conclusion, I was enjoying reading the poems.

As one might expect with such an abstruse subject, communication is being achieved very much via metaphor. The central image, unexpectedly, is one of a cruise on which poet and physicist are partners and passengers and where he, the physicist, seems to be trying to convert his fellow passengers on the SS Eschatology (a ship of fools? An ark?) to the concept of solar energy.  Meanwhile, alongside the image of humanity voyaging to disaster, the field of science yields its own imagery to illuminate human activity, as in “The Triptych of Power”:

i The Chosen One

when one golden photon from a sunbeam
lights up a crystal solar cell
it gives all of its energy to one of the cell’s electrons

ii The People

though many electrons hold the crystal solar cell
the chosen electron rises
and creates a positron from each electron’s rib
which frees them all
and thus together
they make electricity

These two images of gold and voyage interact throughout and come together in “Cabin Coffin”:

Yet there is a gold burnishing the diminishing room: is it the thing we’ve grasped that is almost in the world’s grasp? Has it steamed off the physicist in his last fear, like last words? Or off me, like a poem, all lyric glitter bubbling?

The parallel between physicist and poet is constantly stressed in wordplay: lyrics/physics, physics/physic. Playful as the suggestion may be that Lisa Meitner’s special insight into the splitting atom, which she described as “waisted”, was aided by the fact that “a man does not have a waist/ He has a midriff. A middle”, Crowther, like George Herbert, does not really think the way words act and echo each other is ever mere coincidence. She plays too, throughout this collection, with lineation, parallel text and line breaks, continually forcing us to think again:

There’s a scar-
City of prophet. (Wingding)

The voyage of the two protagonists, and of humanity in general, is also full of literary and historical allusion, quite apart from the lexis of physics, and I wouldn’t claim the navigation is always easy. But both the central relationship and the passionate belief in a cause come over very clearly and strongly, and the dense, intricate verbal technique yields more with each reading. It struck me as remarkable that a collection with such a powerful and deeply-felt message never sounded like preaching. Indeed my memories of it - apart from the wry humour of the “rapture physicists” and the ship’s foghorn that goes “ohhhm, ohhhm” – are principally of excitement, the excitement that comes from thinking about something new. I’m not surprised this book netted a Poetry Book Society recommendation. It can be ordered from Shearsman, and this is a good time to be supporting small publishers, and indeed authors in general.

Tags: book reviews, poetry

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