Songs of Scientists
THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD. Mary Alexandra Agner. 40 pp. Parallel Press, 2011. $10.
The poet’s biography in the back of The Scientific Method, a slim chapbook consisting of 20 poems, reads: “Mary Alexandra Agner writes of dead women, telescopes, and secrets. She’s inverted a light curve from Pluto’s atmosphere and modeled a low-density residuum in the Earth’s upper mantle.” The ambiguity of these sentences sent me on an Internet search to find out more. The results revealed that the author is a young poet of some accomplishment. Her poetry has appeared for five years in a row in the Rhysling Anthology, the annual collection of the best science fiction, fantasy and horror poems published in the preceding year. She holds advanced degrees in earth and planetary sciences and in creative writing, and she works at a job that makes use of both.
The Scientific Method, Agner’s second volume of poetry, contains only two or three poems that could be loosely classified as science fiction. The remaining poems are grounded in scientific reality. All are intelligent and well crafted, and written in a variety of styles—mostly free verse, with a few more-traditional poetic forms. The book has a strong feminist flavor. The collection displays, and encourages, a lively intellectual curiosity. The sense of mystery created by the poet’s biographical note persists throughout the volume: I frequently found myself intrigued by the biographical or scientific information glimpsed in a poem and was compelled to search out more. Of particular interest are the seven poems that feature women of science: Florence Nightingale (nurse and statistician, 1820–1910), Barbara McClintock (Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine, 1902–1992), Rosalind Franklin (biophysicist who contributed to the understanding of DNA structure, 1920–1958), Mary Sears (marine biologist and founder of the U.S. Naval Oceanographic Office, 1905–1997), Grace Hopper (computer scientist and U.S. Navy officer, 1906–1992), Caroline Herschel (astronomer, 1750–1848), and Mary Somerville (science writer and polymath, 1780–1872). The last poem of this series, “What Light I Can Conjure,” imagines a descent into the realm of the dead, or the depths of the self, guided by Mary Somerville. The poem brings to mind Dante’s descent into hell guided by Virgil. On her descent, the poem’s speaker encounters her double, a mysterious and amorphous entity, perhaps the poet’s namesake (Somerville herself), or an amalgam of the disembodied souls of all the women scientists about whom Agner writes.
The other poems in this series give small glimpses into the scientists’ work and some aspects of their lives or feelings. A recurring motif is the difficulties women scientists encounter in pursuing their careers and gaining recognition for their accomplishments. The poems allude to a personal lesson learned, or a parallel in experience or in desires between the speaker and the scientist. Each poem draws the two characters into an intimate circle, a companionship that sometimes includes the reader. Following is the poet’s appeal to Florence Nightingale in “After Math”:
Nightingale, sing us the sweet song
of statistics, math made
to improve man’s lot,
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sing up the ghosts of war
to we who are inured to what remains
after explosives and machine-gun fire.
Sketch the rows and columns of us, now,
that we might see ourselves
and plot to change.
Some of the scientists Agner writes about worked with mathematics, but always a mathematics harnessed in the service of another discipline. Nightingale used statistics to lobby for more sanitary hospital environments; Caroline Herschel’s astronomical calculations led to the discovery of comets; Mary Sears’s mathematics was used for submarine detection and Grace Hopper’s for creating new computer codes and languages. I would have welcomed a poem about a woman mathematician who created mathematics for its own sake. Prominent algebraist Emmy Noether (1882–1935) would have fit nicely in this company.
The book is divided into six sections: “Rockhounds 101,” “Bio Lab,” “Fizzlers and Stinkers,” “Bending Circuits,” “Stars and ‘Scopes,” and “Research.” Each section includes at most four poems, some only two. A smaller number of sections, or none at all, would have made for fewer interruptions and allowed more immersion in the poems.
Interspersed among the poems about women scientists are several that do not feature people at all. The protagonists are plants, planets, animals, natural phenomena, computers and more. Among these poems are some of the loveliest of this collection. Several depict nature as feminine: One poem refers to earth as “mother underfoot,” another has the female planet Venus scold her “terraformers”—clever twists on the English-speaking tradition that depicts both earth and the planet Venus as feminine. And the poet surprises the reader by carrying the conflation of nature and the feminine a step further. In “Ode to Pioneers,” moss growing during the Devonian period is likened to a nun whose “windborne daughters” are clones. But in the future, the moss becomes a stowaway aboard a starship traveling to far-away galaxies:
What mistake makes a berth
for moss out of a starship’s hull?
The dry and cold of space might cull
a greater plant, but moss will roar.
To Mars, to Pluto, tiny ambassador.
The serious nature of the poems does not preclude a touch of humor. A fine example appears in “The Computers’ Drinking Song”:
We squared and we cubed and we plotted
And many lines drew and some dotted
We’ve all developed a complex
Over wine, sex, and f(x) . . .
The book ends with Agner’s contribution to a collaborative sonnet sequence, “Perception Test,” whose thought-provoking last two lines are an appropriate closing for this review:
Each moment asks: which do you choose to see,
the infinite or finite mystery?
Sarah Glaz is a professor of mathematics at the University of Connecticut. She is the author of Commutative Coherent Rings (first published 1989, revised edition forthcoming in 2014) and coeditor of two volumes of collected articles, all published with Springer. She also has a lifelong interest in poetry and is coeditor of the poetry anthology Strange Attractors: Poems of Love and Mathematics (CRC Press/A K Peters, 2008).