Astronomer-Poet Rebecca Elson Remembered at Brainpickings


Rare indeed is the scientist-poet, gifted in language and math/ scientific thinking at the same time, but this describes Rebecca Elson, featured in this post on the Brainpickings site, a gift from one-woman-curator Maria Popova. Elson’s stellar scientific career, for which she was a natural genius, was cut short by 9/11 funding crises and the scientific patriarchy which did not give women their due at the time. At that point she turned to poetry; and the result is amazing, a collection of poetry, essays, and other writings selected by those who knew her and published as A Responsibility to Awe in 2001. She died at the age of 39 in 1999.

Despite her untimely death, she returned to scientific inquiry and is remembered most for her scientific contributions (52 scientific research papers), although her poetry also remains popular and was highly praised even at its publication: The Economist named her book as one of the best of the year in 2001.

Since I myself wanted to be both a poet and astronomer at the age of 9, Elson’s work holds a particular fascination to me. And as I attempted to explain relativity in college by having people on my dorm floor act it out (or at least one dramatic aspect of it), at which point I had an epiphany about it, I was particularly drawn to this poem of hers from the book:

Explaining Relativity

Forget the clatter of ballistics,
The monologue of falling stones,
The sharp vectors,
And the stiff numbered grids.

It’s so much more a thing of pliancy, persuasion,
Where space might cup itself around a planet
Like your palm around a stone,

Where you, yourself the planet
Caught up in some geodesic dream,
Might wake to feel it enfold your weight
And know there is, in fact, no falling.

It is this, and the existence of limits.

Not Too Late to Remember R P Lister

R. P. Lister passed away on May 1, 2014 after a long life filled with poetry. He published frequently in major journals such as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and Punch. Although not as famous as some other poets, his skill as a poet and his unique voice are worth looking up and reading. For example, his interest in mineralogy gets an uplift here:

THE JUDGMENT

I dreamed the judgment came to me by night
They stood around my bed, severe of mien
And asked one question “what is enstatite?”

“It is an orthorhombic pyroxene,”
I said, and as I spoke I heard the jangle
Of planets crashing down the cosmic seas.

I added hastily: “Its cleavage angle
is eighty-seven (more or less) degrees.
If it were fifty-six, not eighty-seven

We should, quite clearly, have an amphibole.”
At this they swept me, singing up to heaven,
Where angels’ hands received my battered soul.

Another excellent poem is his “Busses on the Strand”:

The Strand is beautiful with buses,
Fat and majestical in form,
Red like tomatoes in their trusses
In August, when the sun is warm.

They cluster in the builded chasm,
Corpulent fruit, a hundred strong,
And now and then a secret spasm
Spurs them a yard or two along.

Scarlet and portly and seraphic,
Contented in the summer’s prime,
They beam among the jumbled traffic,
Patiently ripening with time,

Till, with a final jerk and rumble,
The Strand tomatoes, fat and fair,
Roll past the traffic lights and tumble
Gleefully down Trafalgar Square.

Cricket (Insect) Poems

And while on the subject of crickets (see previous post), here’s a few poems (one never before published! scroll down) about crickets (as opposed to cricket poems about the sport, apparently a whole genre in itself).

Something old:

On the Grasshopper and Cricket

By John Keats

The poetry of earth is never dead:
When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper’s — he takes the lead
In summer luxury, — he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.
The poetry of earth is ceasing never:
On a lone winter evening, when the frost
Has wrought a silence, from the stove there shrills
The Cricket’s song, in warmth increasing ever,
And seems to one in drowsiness half lost,
The Grasshopper’s among some grassy hills.

Something new: A never-before-published poem about crickets:

Triller

By Martin Elster

Somewhere in the bedroom a common cricket
trills with inhibition like something bashful,
quavers growing ever more metronomic,
shaking the shadows,

rousing the rat terrier, height of fierceness,
blessed with ears of keenness and legs of lightness,
denticles of devilry. Hear it? Hear it?
Where is it hiding?

There it is! The acme of bouncy vigor
lacquered in the lamplight between the bookshelf,
bed, and table, preening its tarsal toenails,
taking a breather,

nonchalant — its glistening tar-black noggin
wigwags side to side as if deep in daydream,
pondering the blizzards that soon will bluster,
rattle the windows.

Dauntless Duncan, jittery as a jailbird,
promptly breaks the calm with a strident barking,
rushes like Sir Galahad toward the bug and,
savagely pouncing,

shreds its heart, blue hemolymph slowly seeping.
Quietude returns as the hero slumbers
heedless of the others beyond these ramparts,
scraping and crooning,

warbles growing longer and longer, evenings
cooling like an animal lately fallen.
Fangs and hoarfrost: equally skilled and eager
killers of trillers.

Something borrowed (As in “Can I borrow your Emily Dickinson?”):

The cricket sang,

By Emily Dickinson

The cricket sang,
And set the sun,
And workmen finished, one by one,
Their seam the day upon.

The low grass loaded with the dew,
The twilight stood as strangers do
With hat in hand, polite and new,
To stay as if, or go.

A vastness, as a neighbor, came,–
A wisdom without face or name,
A peace, as hemispheres at home,–
And so the night became.

And of course, something haiku!

A Cricket Haiku by Basho

Such utter silence!
even the crickets’
singing . . .
Muffled by hot rocks