In the latter part of the 12th century Arnaut Daniel, a troubadour from Ribérac in what is now the Dordogne, entertained the courts of southern Europe with poems on themes of chivalry and courtly love. Daniel’s poetry, written in his native Occitan, is characterised by technical virtuosity, with complex rhyme and metrical schemes and intricate structures. Although only a few of his poems are still extant, his gifts have impressed successive generations of poets: Dante, Petrarch and Ezra Pound all held him in the highest regard.
Daniel is generally credited with inventing the sestina and his poem ‘Lo ferm voler qu’el cor m’intra’, dating from around 1200, is the earliest known example of this poetic form. A sestina consists of six stanzas of six lines each, with each stanza featuring the same end-words in a set sequence of permutations.
‘Poetry is the mathematics of writing,’ John Steinbeck observed, ‘and closely kin to music.’ If we accept Steinbeck’s analogy, then Anthony Etherin’s The Utu Sonnets is the poetic equivalent of the purest of pure mathematics. In previous publications such as his 2019 collection Stray Arts (and Other Inventions) Etherin has proved himself a master of constrained writing, pushing the boundaries of form in tightly crafted palindromes, exact anagrams and dazzlingly inventive sonnets. The seven sonnets presented here are his most constrained work to date.
Sometime in the 4th century BC, a Chinese astronomer named Shi Shen took it upon himself to map the stars visible in the night sky. The resulting work, containing some 800 stars, is generally considered to be the earliest star catalogue. Shi Shen’s achievements did not stop there; he also observed sunspots and wrote a number of astronomical and astrological treatises. In recognition of his contributions to astronomy, a crater on the far side of the moon has been named after him.
With my Eurocentric education I hadn’t heard of Shi Shen before reading A Celestial Crown of Sonnets, written by Sam Illingworth and Stephen Paul Wren. Each poem in this slim, beautifully produced volume focuses on an astronomer who made significant contributions to the advancement of our understanding of the universe.
Chemistry is one of those subjects that largely passed me by at school. The chemistry labs had their own distinctive, slightly nausea-inducing smell, our lab coats were stained and shapeless, and the teaching was uninspired. While it was with relief that I abandoned the subject at the age of sixteen, I’ve always recognised that my limited knowledge of chemistry is a gaping hole in my scientific education.
I was therefore intrigued when I chanced across Mary Soon Lee’s collection Elemental Haiku, honouring ‘the periodic table/ three lines at a time’. Could I improve my understanding of chemistry through reading poetry? And how does one convey the essential attributes of an element in three lines totalling seventeen syllables? In her foreword, Lee explains her choice of form as well as her objectives:
My granddaughter was making Christmas angels. She folded a piece of card in two, drew half an angel shape on one side, cut it out and opened the fold. Lo! – a perfect, complete angel!
My granddaughter’s angel is a neat example of reflection symmetry; one half of the shape is a mirror image of the other. This is a characteristic of many naturally occurring phenomena: a bird on the wing, the reflection of snow-dusted mountains in the still water of a loch, the hexagonal form of a snowflake. Our own bodies have approximate reflection symmetry.
Your grandmother’s, this set
of six. I imagine her, fine-boned and elegant,
serving turtle soup in these bowls. Delicate
as eggshells, they nestle in their saucers
while golden turtles drift
around their sides, motionless
against a hidden tide.
Remember how we dived with turtles
in sun-sparkled waters of the Gulf;
how you admired their leisured grace,
the slow speed of their flippers
as they flew the sea like air.
Remember how one night we watched
hatchlings splutter from their nests,
tumble down moon-
white sand to bounce
like pennies into hungry surf –
hatchlings as tiny as these bowls
that I will never use
for turtle soup.
Katrina Porteous is a poet based in Northumberland, England, who focuses ‘on the theme of ‘nature’ in its widest sense, and ‘place’ in its deepest.’ This has led her to consider some of the profound questions that have concerned philosophers, religious thinkers, scientists and writers for millennia: What is the nature of matter? What is reality? How did the Universe come into existence? What is ‘out there’, beyond the confines of our planet Earth?