Book Reviews

Beyond (and Behind and Before) the Science News

by Jessica Johnson | Contributing Writer

Poetry versus science. Squishy feelings versus sharp facts. Self-expression versus self-disappearance. Useless versus useful. Freedom versus constraint. It’s a binary as problematic as any, and also one that poets have long engaged. In a 1998 essay “Science and Poetry: a View from the Divide,” Alison Hawthorne Deming lays out some of the ways they do so and have done for centuries. Of contemporary poetry, Deming writes,

Much is to be gained . . . when poets raid the language and mythology of scientists. The challenge for a poet is not merely to pepper the lines with spicy words and facts, but to know enough science that the concepts and vocabulary become part of the fabric of one’s mind, so that in the process of composition a metaphor or paradigm from the domain of science is as likely to crop us as is one from literature or her own backyard. I subscribe to Science News to foster that process, not for total comprehension, but to pick up fibers and twigs, so to speak, that I might tuck into the nest of my imagination.

Deming here describes the poetry of the science news, in which poets might respond to science as a product rather than a process. Here’s a fact, here’s how I will make it mean. And who could blame them? My poetry-antennae, too, tingle in the presence of luminous information.

Jena Osman
Motion Studies
Ugly Duckling Presse, 2019

Yet, for my students—whether they love reading and writing poetry or dislike it or remain apathetic in the face of my enthusiasm—the meaningful difference between poetry and science is simply their belief that if they can persist in STEM by performing abstraction and memorizing mechanisms and subordinating the needs of their bodies while working and caregiving and studying, the machine will give them a job that pays enough. Science and poetry—as disciplines, products, and lived experiences—are embedded in economies of information and power.

When weaving the facts into the nests of our poems, it’s tempting to treat science as uncontroversial, its findings as given. But the facts—such as they are—and the tools and networks they help make can’t be neutral. Two books from 2019, Jena Osman’s Motion Studies (Ugly Duckling Presse) and Franny Choi’s Soft Science (Alice James Books), speak to this truth. With tactics that depart from the typical poetics of the science news, Osman and Choi, in different ways, locate poetry and science within the tides of historical and social and sensory context, defending space for what’s messy, undetermined, and embodied.

Glance through the pages of Osman’s Motion Studies, and you’ll find photographs of nineteenth century experiments, diagrams of devices and human heads, bits of lineated verse, and information-dense paragraphs leading with sentences like this one: “In 1873, astronomer Pierre-César Jules Janssen invented a photographic ‘revolver’ in order to record the planet Venus as it crossed the circle of the sun.” If you didn’t know Osman’s previous work, you might think you were in for a poet’s aesthetic gloss on some old-timey science. You’d be wrong. 

The book’s first section, also titled “Motion Studies,” opens with a picture of a sphygmograph, an early biometric device in which a stylus resting on a forearm graphs a human pulse. But above the picture, Osman meditates not on the machine but on the way a reader moves through a book: “Someone finds a book in a library and is taken with the pictures. ‘Taken with,’ as if an image can take hold of you and move you along.” Conscious suddenly of the book as a technology, I’m not just reading but thinking about the motion of my reading as I proceed through paragraphs that begin with descriptions of nineteenth-century biometrics and end inside a speculative narrative about a couple’s thwarted attempts to flee a panoptic dystopia. The serial images of Marey and Muybridge, linked to the contemporary digital profiles that comprise our stop-motion presence in public spaces, become recognizable and frightening. By merging biometric history with present-day “security” practices and a vision of an even more-surveilled future, Osman posits a layered relationship between science, technology, and the power to control a populace.

In “Popular Science,” Osman mashes up multiple found texts. This section dwells on the discourse of phrenology, a spurious mapping of cranial morphology to character—and a cornerstone of scientific racism. Osman mingles phrenological texts with contemporary science news articles that proclaim various kinds of biological essentialism and hardwiring. The section begins and ends with scenes from Osman’s own composition process, in which she indicts her impulse to make metaphors, her own impetus to simplify by mapping. “My premotor cortex lights up. I crave the narrative structure of that equals this. Lazy brain.” This is a poetics that can reflect on its means, as the science she quotes could not.

What emerges from Motion Studies is a kind of thinking-through of the ways in which the scientific gaze, the logic of mapping, and even the standard impulse to see metaphors, contain the potential for violence, exploitation, and erasure. In the final section, “Systems of Display,” Osman interlaces lineated and blocked facts about corals and brains with a particular story of a nineteenth-century specimen collection, generating a dialogue that speaks to the entire project of the book. When she writes, “I might condemn empirical knowledge detached from culture,” I might be able to say yes in a new way—a multiple and nuanced kind of yes arising from this book’s rigorous hybridity.

In a 2016 interview, Osman said, “I’ve always had an interest in objects that seem human (puppets, automatons, computers that play chess, etc.) . . .” Franny Choi’s Soft Science is animated by such objects, which may be creatures after all. The book is home to cyborgs and androids, to smells and tastes and textures, to skin and sex and moons. What does it mean to seem human? Is this different than being human? How might that difference matter—or not?

In a series of poems called “Turing Test,” the tested voice that answers the interrogator’s questions is tender, weird, and relatable. When asked, “how do you like working with humans?” the respondent answers, “okay / here are some tips / one / look the human directly in the eye / imagine it is someone you care deeply for / imagine it is returning this gaze / at you / try to tell yourself / you are covered / in smooth skin / a face it can trust / smile / even as you sense it / trying / not to blurt out / monster . . .” The voice is practiced at hiding her authentic reaction but trying to prove herself real nonetheless.

One of my favorite moments in this book arrived with the poem “Chi,” a sectioned poem on a particular manga character. Chi is a “broken android whom the protagonist salvages from a dumpster and names after the only sound she is able to make.” In the third part, “Conjugation,” the syllable “chi” repeats in a long block before varying into short words like “chip,” “chit,” “clit,” and “click.” At first I wasn’t sure what to do with this. I looked for a pattern or message in the arrangement of “chi” and its conjugates. But when I decided to try reading it aloud, I found that moving in and out of the chi syllable gave my voice a machine-like hitch. I heard the poem taking over my own voice, turning me into the broken android. I felt language constituting me.

Franny Choi
Soft Science
Alice James Books, 2019

The voices of Soft Science attach to bodies that indeed have mechanisms, though those mechanisms may shift in and out of the speaker’s perception. The poems’ titles often position them within a story of cyborgs and androids, but even in the less obviously science- or tech-languaged poems, the body-as-mechanism figures heavily. In “On the Night of the Election”, the speaker can’t turn herself on, sexually, from within the political moment. Tiring of the body’s numbness, the speaker “uncurled my wrists, pulled / the darkness over / my head / and slept / like a rock, or a man / that’s dead,” concluding with lines from Langston Hughes in an ending that evokes the ways in which a kind of glassed-off lifelessness can arise from ambient political violence. In “Solitude,” a story of jumping into freezing water to celebrate a winter birthday, the speaker’s skin becomes electric in the cold: “Oh god, I gasped over and over / as we stumbled through the snow back to the car / me and my (burning) legs.” The drama here is between the voice that can say, “Now that’s my kind of intimacy,” and the “skin [that] bursts open in shock,” suggesting the ways the voice and skin are both separable and inseparable. Here, too, Choi evokes a sisterhood of bodies whose workings can go buggy and surprise.

“Perihelion: The History of Touch” is a series of block poems where the personal and the cyclical meld in something that feels more like magic than electricity. Each piece of “Perihelion” names a kind of moon and touches on a particular intimacy. Each moon waxes in its own kind of sweetness; each is almost too much. In this series, as with the rest of Soft Science, Choi acknowledges the ways in which we’re made—determined by various kinds of parents and histories and languages—and holds them in conversation with the never-boring sensory drama of being alive in a body, with and without the bodies of others.

Jessica Johnson is a community college instructor in Portland, Oregon. Her poems and essays have appeared in Tin House, Paris Review, and Harvard Review, among others. Her chapbook In Absolutes We Seek Each Other (New Michigan Press) was an Oregon Book Award finalist. She has recent work in Entropy and Burning House Press.