Review: Science Poems – an Anthology from Penteract Press

Penteract Press has a reputation for focussing on formal, constrained and experimental poetry, for exploring the interface between poetry and visual art, with careful attention to detail in their publications. Science Poems, an anthology edited by Anthony Etherin and Clara Daneri and featuring work by Christian Bök, Gary Barwin, M D Kerr, Kyle Flemmer and Pedro Poitevin among others, is no exception. 

Visually, the book suggests a well-worn scientific notebook with the pages stained sepia as though by water and age. The contents are divided into three sections. The first, ‘Hypothesis’, contains a selection of poems in which form and content dance together in intimate and intriguing ways. In Pedro Poitevin’s ‘Antimatter’ the central hiatus in each line is bound on either side by words that are reflexive anagrams of each other, while his sonnet ‘Upon Inspecting the Mandelbrot Set’ uses end rhyme and anaphora to connote the set’s complex self-similarity at every scale:

‘I find myself absorbed by what I find
within a hole within a hole within 
a surface I don’t know how to begin
to trace without perceiving that my mind
is spiraling toward the undefined – ‘.

Madeleine Corley’s ‘Abecedarian about the Hesitancy to Fall in Love’ draws on mathematical analogies in a deftly handled journey through the entire alphabet.  The laws of optics are the starting point for ‘After Light’, a sequence of lyrical meditations on light by Nancy Campbell. 

There is always a danger when writing to very tight constraints that word choice is excessively squeezed, to the detriment of meaning. Occasional examples of this are scattered throughout this section. However, this is counterbalanced by the sense of discovery and surprise as, with almost every turn of the page, the boundaries of poetic innovation are challenged: inversion and reflection in Franco Cortese’s ‘Mobius Mirrorim’; Anthony Etherin’s extraordinary palindrome sonnet exploring Einstein’s theory of relativity; the strict letter constraints in ‘Star Poems’ by Lucy Dawkins.

A welcome feature is the use of notes accompanying a number of poems. The notes provide just enough information to enhance our reading enjoyment without lapsing into overt explanation. 

The second section, ‘Experiment’, focuses on visual poetry, with several witty variations on the technique of erasure. In Clara Daneri’s ‘Chapter V’ a brooding portrait emerges from the layered erasure of pages from Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, while Calliope Michail applies watercolour to Eddington’s ‘The Nature of the Physical World’ to generate erasure poems that are colourful, dynamic and profound.  At times we are left wondering where the distinction lies between visual poetry and art, or indeed whether such a distinction matters. I reflected long over Helen Frank’s delicate ‘7-Layer Cern Drawings’ and Laura Kerr’s ‘Science of Colour’ with its balanced composition and nuanced variations of tone. The final poem in this section, ‘Top Secret Calligraphy’ by Ken Hunt, is an asemic work that invites us to contemplate our need to search for layers of meaning in written language.

The anthology concludes with a collaborative tour-de-force. ‘The Extremophile’ is an extended list prose poem by Christian Bök with accompanying illustrations by Clara Daneri. Presented as a series of observations, the poem examines organisms that survive in extreme environmental conditions and implicitly challenges our belief in the superiority of consciousness. Reading of such entities as halomonas titanicae, ‘ideally adapted to devour the wreck of the Titanic’, or apis mellifera, which ‘does not die in the incineration of Hiroshima…. does not die in the planetary firestorm after the impact of the Chicxulub meteor. It does not die’, we are left pondering the limits of our existence, the nature of human mortality and our self-destructiveness. 

Anthony Etherin and Clara Daneri (eds) (2020) Science Poems, Penteract Press (52 pages).

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Posted on 22nd May 2020.

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