Saturday, July 30, 2016

Major's Standard Candles

Standard Candles / Alice Major
Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, c2015.
164 p.

I started the month with a book of poetry, and I'm ending it with one as well. And they are both wonderfully seeded with science. 

Alice Major has written 10 books of poetry, though this is the first one that I've encountered. Her long apprenticeship in poetry shows clearly; this book is strong all the way through, with each poem and/or group of poems astonishing and stopping me in its turn.

The title comes from Henrietta Leavitt's discovery of how to use the brightness of stars as a standard of measurement - she of course got no credit for this, though it changed astronomy forever (more about Miss Leavitt in a review of a biography I read some time ago). The set of poems under this name includes one, "Clouds of Glory", which speaks of Henrietta Leavitt & her work directly. I felt, strangely, like I'd met an old friend when I turned that page (coincidentally, page 42?)

I like how this book is structured; it has collections of related poems under headings, like brief chapters. It begins with "The set of all gods" which I very much enjoyed - the idea that there are gods of many things, the god of prime numbers, of probabilities, infinities, quantum uncertainty, or teapots, cats, and memory. One I was particularly drawn to was the god of automata, which includes lines like:

the god of automata

links atom to atom
like a knitting pattern
with simple rules.....

the god of automata
crochets a chain
of mindless proteins
into a loop.....

Major follows this with more clever sets of poems, 8 in all, with a postscript tagged on that many Canadian writers, readers and librarians may find themselves laughing over, though perhaps ruefully....the poem is entitled "God submits a grant application to the Canada Council". 

I think my favourite set, for the idea but also for the technique, which was really on show in these poems, was "Let us compare cosmologies". So many references to other literary and scientific works are just thrown in, giving so much resonance to simple lines. And the way that Major puts together short lines that are "bigger on the inside", so to speak, is quite fascinating. 

The first poem in this set is the title one, and it sets the stage for the comparisons to follows. It begins & ends as follows:

There is a beginning and middle.
There is an arc of narrative...

And the questions every universe expects:
what came before? What happens next?

Lines from this poem are then contained and added to in each of the following poems in the set, all cosmologies from the viewpoints of a nihilist, magician, consumer, a baker, and optimist, to name a few. It's an accretion of detail that adds up to a marvellous book in total. 

And don't fear, there are notes for nearly all the poems at the back, explaining any of the references or scientific details that may be more obscure. Not only can you read and enjoy the wonderful play of words, you can learn things and close the book feeling just a bit more clever ;) 

I recommend this one to the beginning poetry reader, as the poems are complex but not intimidating or inaccessible. There's a warmth and conversational tone to the book despite all the hard science - as I love science-y bits this was the perfect read for me. 

I'll close with the final lines from the Optimist's take on the cosmos:

And in the circus of the infinite
     somewhere there's a system
where everything turns out all right.
     It could be this one.


For a preview of Standard Candles, listen in to Alice Major’s reading at Ottawa’s Tree Reading Series.
Four poems appear in The New Quarterly

Alice Major's earlier collection of essays about poetry and science, Intersecting Sets, (which I loved) goes with this latest collection very well indeed. You could have a full weekend of Major poetry ;)

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