Essays, Features

Amit Majmudar: “The Tender-Hearted Hard Science”

Editor’s note: Continuing the Science theme of the current print issue (Spring & Summer 2012, v7.n1), Amit Majmudar reflects on the ability of both poetry and science to “isolate and emphasize important information.”

When I tell people I am a doctor and a writer, the reaction usually has two parts. First comes the mild bewilderment about how I find the time. You get this reaction from other doctors and other writers alike: Both groups know how much dedication is required for competence, let alone excellence, in either field. (I don’t know how other doctor-writers do it, but I don’t sleep much, and when I’m awake, I don’t fool around.) The second part of the reaction is a loss of bewilderment. A little reflection reveals that I am not so special after all—people recall just how many of us there have been, both historical (Sir Thomas Browne, Anton Chekhov, William Carlos Williams) and more contemporary (Robin Cook, Khaled Hosseini, and Michael Crichton, who got famous just in time to avoid a residency). There are a fair number of us, both poets and fiction writers.

The more the whole issue comes up (no publicist can resist shouting that fact from the dust jackets, and every review will mention it somewhere, usually in the first paragraph), the more I realize I’ve never felt a clash between the two careers. But it hasn’t just been medicine that feels akin to literature for me. That would be understandable enough—all that soft stuff about empathy and healing. But that’s not how I practice medicine: I’m a radiologist, and radiology is the one branch of medicine that is all technology, hard science, and method. We radiologists have to take three separate Board exams; the first one is entirely physics. I do zero hand-holding and very little one-on-one patient care. On the surface, mine is the most un-literary branch of medicine. Yet it’s precisely in the hard sciences that I find the strongest connections to writing.

To writing poetry, specifically. Verse itself used to be called “numbers,” implicitly identifying poetry as a branch of mathematics. But as every poet knows, it’s more biological than that. Consider the striking ubiquity of iambic verse in English poetry. Poets from Marlowe and Shakespeare to Tennyson and Browning all prefer a meter based in the one-to-one alternation of stressed and unstressed syllables. The relationship to systole and diastole, inspiration and expiration, sleep and wake are there to be heard. Another unusually common thing in poetry: the sonnet. A sonnet’s proportions mimic, roughly, the head and torso atop the legs; we are put together like sonnets. “But to the girdle do the Gods inherit; / Beneath is all the fiend’s.” In Shakespeare’s anatomy, the waist serves as the volta in our natures: God gets the octet, Satan, the sestet. Poetry is language governed by physiology and anatomy. It doesn’t surprise me that our civilization’s disinterest in poetry has coincided with our poetry’s disinterest in biological structure and biological rhythm. The move away from form in the 20th century was not the beginning of the end; poetry does not “end.” But it was the beginning of the exile.

The formal relationships are obvious. What about content? For me, the central poetic operation is metaphor. But that’s probably because I’m also a scientist. Science is, after all, the one discipline where metaphors occur naturally. Scientists don’t consciously register their own metaphors anymore; if a poet sees a metaphor, though, he thinks, “That’s a metaphor,” and experiences it as a metaphor, a specific “figure of speech.” Some poets (usually minor ones) even think metaphor is dispensable.

The scientists know better. Whenever they have to study something they can’t directly observe, they fall back on metaphor. Electron cloud. These same electrons orbit (like planets) the still center of the nucleus. Physicists pile on images and metaphors more haphazardly than late Shakespeare. Nucleus, after all, is the Latin word for “little nut.” But it’s not just physics. Geneticists speak of code and transcription and translation. Anatomists speak of the root of the aorta and its many arterial branches. (The poetry is almost Neruda if you rephrase it: Your body is a forest of throbbing red trees.) Most of the Latin that doctors use unthinkingly has some element of poetry in it. Alveoli or “little rooms” fill when the lungs inn-spire. My personal favorite is the beautiful kenning, brainstem. It’s as if some warrior from the time of Beowulf hacked open a skull, ripped out the brain, and pointed at the little stub of medulla oblongata, grunting, “Brain-stem.”

Scientists are the last true natives of metaphor. Literary editors generally don’t like them. Many poets themselves consider metaphor “ornamental.” Yet you can’t understand quantum physics or genetics without thinking metaphorically. These processes are too subtle and too complex for literal description. The same used to be believed of the emotions.

Observation and description are central to poetry, too, just as they are to science. The generalization arises from the data; the poetic image arises from the details. The amount of data, like the number of details, is potentially infinite. The good scientist, like the good poet, knows how to isolate the pertinent information. Bad poets proliferate details; good poets subordinate details to an idea. It’s the difference between gathering data and concluding something from the data. Consider Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem, “Black Cat.” The first thing you’ll notice is that there are several images in the poem, many of which have nothing to do with cats. Here it is, in Stephen Mitchell’s translation:

A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place
your sight can knock on, echoing; but here
within this thick black pelt, your strongest gaze
will be absorbed and utterly disappear:

just as a raving madman, when nothing else
can ease him, charges into his dark night
howling, pounds on the padded wall, and feels
the rage being taken in and pacified.

She seems to hide all looks that have ever fallen
into her, so that, like an audience,
she can look them over, menacing and sullen,
and curl to sleep with them. But all at once

as if awakened, she turns her face to yours;
and with a shock, you see yourself, tiny,
inside the golden amber of her eyeballs
suspended, like a prehistoric fly.

The blackness of this cat is at once physical—and good physics. Black absorbs light; the cat’s black fur absorbs the gaze. This absorptiveness of black is the detail that builds the entire poem. From the blows of the madman’s fists in the padded room, to the clinching image of you, the observer, being inside the cat, Rilke has done more than tell us the color of the fur and the color of the eyes. He has given us what makes that black fur black. He has placed us, literally, inside those eyes. The detail is isolated, subordinated—and transfigured.

Precision is everything. Traditionally, people speak of a “novelist’s eye” for detail. The poet’s eye, ever since Shakespeare, people imagine “in a fine frenzy rolling,” rolling right over the nubbins and jags of the mundane. It’s true that some poets can describe a cat’s blackness better than they can describe a black cat. But we must remember that there are many varieties of precision, not merely the visual. In poetry, this is most commonly an aural precision. Blind in his later years, Milton loved to play fugues on proper nouns. This is how he describes Moloch:

++++++++++++++++Him the Ammonite
Worshipd in Rabba and her watry Plain,
In Argob and in Basan, to the stream
Of utmost Arnon.

But it gets better. Soon, we get more places of heathen worship:

Next Chemos, th’ obscene dream of Moabs Sons,
From Aroer to Nebo, and the wild
Of Southmost Abarim; in Hesebon
And Horonaim, Seons Realm, beyond
The flowry Dale of Sibma clad with Vines,
And Eleale to th’ Asphaltick Pool.

Modern readers tend to skim these parts, but I wouldn’t change a word. This Miltonic mouthful may not be precisely observed, but it is precisely orchestrated. Any other poet would have taken the opportunity to elaborate on Moloch’s appearance. But Milton makes the sounds themselves the precise representation of Moloch. The verses pick up Satanic static; we find ourselves reciting a litany of heathen proper nouns. We speak hell. It’s fitting that these Hebrew terms should take on, in Book I’s hell, a diabolical quality. Making Hebrew the heathen music mirrors, perfectly, the Satanic perversion of good.

This kind of precision is unique to poetry. It is the arbitrary precision of sound. The form of a poem, by creating expectation in a reader, draws a bullseye where there used to be infinite space. It establishes its own parameters and operates within them. This works most obviously in epigrammatic verse, like Alexander Pope’s heroic couplets. Disciplined kinesis can make free verse precise, too, each line precise according to its own parameters, a dart hitting its own private bullseye. It’s harder to judge, harder to explain, and at least as hard to write as more identifiably structured verse; but it’s there to be seen and heard in the great vers libre poets of the early 20th century.

Words move, music moves
Only in time; but that which is only living
Can only die.

Systole, diastole. Inhalation, exhalation. Metaphor. Observation, and the ability to isolate and emphasize the important information. Precision. You can see the case I am building: My two careers are really twin careers, and identical twins at that. The skills I use in one transfer naturally to the other. This is why I never think poet-radiologist is an odd combination until I see the surprise on someone else’s face. After all, scanning verse or flesh, I am always reading images. I hear them not in harmony but in unison. Like everything else worth understanding, their unity is best understood through metaphor, stated in the simplest fashion, this-is-that: Hope is the thing with feathers, life is a box of chocolates, and science is poetry.

Amit Majmudar’s first book, 0°,0° [Zero Degrees, Zero Degrees], was released by Northwestern University Press / TriQuarterly Books in 2009. His second manuscript, Heaven and Earth, won the 2011 Donald Justice Award. His first novel, Partitions, was published by Henry Holt / Metropolitan in 2011.  His second novel, The Abundance, will be released by Holt in early 2013.

Up next: the poet does what he says.  The twinned precision of Amit Majmudar’s poem “On Richness of Metaphor.”  Additional work appears in the Spring & Summer 2012 print edition of Poetry Northwest (v7.n1).

photo credit: The Intrepid Traveler via photo pin cc++++++++++