A Northwest Based Literary Journal

Poetry and Science: New Vocabularies, by Jeannine Hall Gailey

When I was ten, my mother went back to college, and I remember her reading me poems from her lit class and essays by Stephen Jay Gould from her biology class around the same time. I fell in love with both. I went on to get a BS degree in Biology, taking classes with whimsical names like “ecological toxicology,” “plant and animal interactions,” “medical botany,” and “environmental law” (well, that one’s not so whimsical, but you get my point). A few years later, I was working as a technical writer and got an MA in English, and a few years after that, went back and got an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in poetry.

When I started writing poetry books, it seemed totally natural for me to write about the subjects I was interested in as a child–mythology, comic books, fairy tales, anime, biology, environmental science, and nuclear history. I wanted to write the kind of poetry I wanted to read–and in the process ended up finding a wonderful community of poets who wrote on similar subject matter.

Looking for a way to write about my childhood, I studied the work of several female authors who took on science and environmental subject matter in different ways–Pattiann Rogers, Sandra Alcosser, Annie Finch, Aimee Nezhukumatathil. All four women, like their predecessor Marianne Moore, write moving depictions of the biological world, fascinating, detailed, and yes, scientific.

These writers inspired me to try, with my fourth book, The Robot Scientist’s Daughter, to write about the unnerving juxtapositions that embodied my childhood–a lush field of daffodils next to a nuclear reactor site, a Geiger counter used to measure the level of snow in a snowman, fishing holes marked with signs warning “Do Not Eat the Fish.” Was this language too foreign to fit into poetry?

The vocabularies of science, based in Latin, can feel clunky and heavy in a poem, but I didn’t want to tiptoe or sugarcoat the first set of poems I wrote–a series of poems on radioactive elements like cesium, polonium, iodine, and radon. I read histories of safety physicists and wondered how to get their stories into poetic form. I tried writing sonnets about Slotkin and Oppenheimer.

I also ventured into prose poetry, creating a character called “The Robot Scientist’s Daughter” who was allowed, unlike me, fantastical adventures: space travel, undersea exploration, robotic body parts. These poems borrowed from my science fiction past passions–Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Mystery Science Theater 3000–and those passions gave me a vocabulary that included post-apocalyptic wastelands, spaceships, and of course, robots.

The resulting book, I hope, communicates not just one person’s story of growing up in the 1970’s in a “secret city” of nuclear exploration, but the language and passion of science and scientists, of mutated flowers and radioactive wasp nests. That poems do not have to be any specific shape; that they can include vocabularies of wonder and insight, of words that reach for something quite beyond human understanding. Perhaps science poetry is a bit of a mutant, an attempt to marry disparate ways of seeing the universe. But perhaps, like religion used to be, science is a terribly apt subject for poets, one where writers can grasp at things unseen.


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Categorised in: Poetry, TLR News

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