Book Reviews

To Whistle Against the Dark

Jessica Goodfellow | Contributing Writer

Laika in Space
Kate Gleason
Main Street Rag, 2020

If Claude Bernard was correct when he said, “Art is I; science is we,” then what are we to make of art, of poetry in particular, that takes science as its subject, or its motif, its through line? In her second full-length collection, Laika in Space, poet Kate Gleason demonstrates that poetry using science as metaphor or conceit is indeed sometimes I, but also sometimes we—that overlapping space, the in-between of a Venn diagram, the other circle of which is you

Consider “Neutrinos without Borders,” in which Gleason uses physics to show us how fundamentally altering it is to have to become a refugee; she reminds us how much is lost by those who, for geopolitical reasons they have no hand in, have to make themselves over in order to not to be seen as you by those of us on the safe side of the border, to be accepted as one of us, to move from one circle of the Venn diagram into the intersection. Gleason opens with these lines:

When I see all the refugees flooding the borders of the world,

I think of the ghost neutrinos
that scientists have discovered
can switch their identities

as they stream through space,
so they’re both one thing
when they leave the sun

and another when they reach
the earth, changing their flavor
from electron to muon

or tau. Landing
in greater numbers
and heavier than thought,

they’re barely recognizable,
even to themselves, these masses
that arrive in waves,

weary of traveling
through so much darkness
to get here.

What speaks more achingly of the experience of a refugee than being “. . . both one thing / when they leave . . . / and another when they reach . . . .”? This extended metaphor, which continues compellingly for another two and a half pages, asks that we inhabit (simultaneously, dizzyingly) relocation on both a cellular level and a planetary level in order to find compassion for those with “no place for them / to be a body that stays, / finally, at rest.” 

Gleason’s conflation of I/we not only crosses space, but also time. In the poem “To the Unknown Painter in Chauvet Cave,” Gleason speaks directly to an ancient addressed as you, all the while subtly arguing the you’s overlap with us today. When congratulating the painter, she celebrates “your” technique of blowing “local ochre” through straws with “your mouth” and “your spit,” while she also admires the likenesses of the horses rendered on cave walls “. . . sealed now inside / the airless calcified layers of time.” She explains to the cave artist that today’s we can only enjoy the paintings in their prehistoric gallery “through a system of binary codes / reconfigured on our end as digital pixels” —that is, via virtual online tours—because to view it in person would be to damage it: 

O beauty, 
in whose presence  

we can’t even breathe,  
the very moisture of our sighs  

deadly to what otherwise  
might stand for eternity.

The art made with vanished hands and stubborn paints on subterranean walls could easily disappear into the ether where our technologies, our cyberspace, thrives. Yet because we feel something tangible of the arc between the ancients and ourselves, we have found a way to honor their ephemerality with ours. This drive to preserve the art of the deep past, Gleason seems to be saying, shows us that art is as much we as I. Eerily we feel that, despite our cutting-edge digital ways, we are but one temporary point in this arc of humanity, and we likewise look to the future to honor and save our contributions to the human experiment. Or, as Gleason writes in a poem earlier in the book, “Here come the replacements, my father always said / when he heard the grandkids rushing toward his room.”

Gleason catalogs multiple modern experiences, drawing us in—regardless of whether these are our own stories or not—by using threads from the sciences that describe the planet we all share. In “Single Twins,” Gleason namechecks Pythagoras, fifteenth and sixteenth-century astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, and Albert Einstein, drawing a through line that leads from 500 BC all the way up to modern experience in order to portray the singular experience that is the loss of a twin. These concurrent nods to history, science, and mythology show us that such a singular experience echoes a universal loss. In contrast, in “First Course in Dark Matter,” Gleason writes about an experience that many of us have endured—the divorce of parents: “When Higgs finally found the nothing / that keeps things apart also keeps them together, / I thought of my parents’ marriage . . . .” In a series describing the death of a parent, Gleason reflects on Darwin. In the second poem of that series, “Reading Darwin While My Father Dies (Part 2): The Language Gene,” Gleason writes of how Darwin’s theory of natural selection was unknown by the contemporaneous monk Gregor Mendel, who remained “unaware he’d found / the mechanism that says / just who gets / to inherit the Earth.” 

But we know! We took middle school science. It’s us—we get to inherit the earth, all of us, in solidarity, in science. And yet, when it’s your own father who has just died, it is I who has inherited the earth, an inheritance that weighs heavily upon one’s necessary loneliness. Gleason’s poems document that solitariness. Moreover, her work also reminds us that after we work our way through our singular experiences, our I-nesses suffered individually (and shared by nearly everyone eventually), we are to be welcomed back into the we of the world that science takes as its mission to document, that the art of prehistoric cave painters likewise documented, and that Gleason herself documents, smudging as she goes the line in our minds that puts science on one side and art on the other.

The extended metaphor as a device can wear thin in the work of less thoughtful poets, but not in Gleason’s poems. She shows depth of understanding of astrophysics, genetics, and linguistics, without making any facile references to scientific theory as is sometimes seen in poetry ‘about’ science. Instead, she takes scientific metaphor as far as it can naturally go, without distortion, then weaves in biblical references, cites Homer or Lord Byron, Plath or The Wizard of Oz, until science resurfaces again at the exact place to which the art has intuitively led the narrative. With Gleason, all the ways of experiencing the world are available to catch the complexities of, say, having a difficult relationship with a mother, of being a stepdaughter, or of getting a frightening diagnosis—experiences that feel like I-experiences till rendered by a poet with an eye toward the we-ness of science. Art using scientific language and reasoning is I made we, so that each I can bear the experiences of being an I in the world. Or, as Gleason concludes after describing six different models in ‘Possible Models of the Cosmos,’ 

We still try, as we walk into it,
to whistle against the dark
or hum under our breath
a little song,
if you can even call it that.

Jessica Goodfellow’s poetry books are Whiteout (University of Alaska Press, 2017), Mendeleev’s Mandala (2015), and The Insomniac’s Weather Report (2014). A former writer-in-residence at Denali National Park and Preserve, she’s had poems in The Southern Review, Scientific American, Verse Daily, Motionpoems, and Best American Poetry 2018.

Kate Gleason is the author of two full-length collections of poetry, Laika in Space (Main Street Rag Press), and Measuring the Dark (Zone 3 Press, First Book Award), and three chapbooks. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Verse Daily, Los Angeles Times Book Review, The Southern Review, Rattle, Alaska Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, Green Mountains Review, Crab Orchard Review, Cimarron Review, Sonora Review, The Spoon River Poetry Review, Connotations Press, Ekphrasis, Boomer Girls, and elsewhere. A Pushcart Prize nominee, she has received writing fellowships from the NEA (in conjunction with the Ragdale Foundation artist colony), the Vermont Studio Center, and the New Hampshire State Council on the Arts. Formerly the editor of Peregrine literary journal and a poet in the schools, she leads writing workshops, retreats, and seminars.