INTERSECTING SETS: A Poet Looks at Science. Alice Major. xvi + 276 pp. University of Alberta Press, 2011. $29.95 paper.
In Intersecting Sets, a collection of 11 graceful, wide-ranging essays, Alice Major explores questions about her work as a poet, refracting them through meditations on the sciences. In a time when physicists turn to dancers doing the Lindy Hop to express relationships in quantum mechanics, it’s fitting that Major turns to quantum uncertainty for metaphor about a poem’s meaning. She takes findings in this field as well as others—including chaos theory and nonlinear dynamical systems; embodied cognition; and evolution of emotion and language—to throw light on why poets write, how they achieve their effects, where language has come from, and the difference between poetry and prose. Her sources range from popular works to peer-reviewed research. This is no work deploring separate cultures, but a thoughtful exploration of ideas both poets and scientists will find illuminating, even if the questions it contemplates are most urgent to writers.
Major’s knowledgeable delight with and insight into her own poetic practice (she is the author of nine books of poetry) will open the eyes of readers from the sciences. Her curiosity about how the world works—which, she writes, was galvanized by reading Martin Gardner’s engaging account of Einstein’s relativity theory at the age of 10—led her to explore the margins where ideas from the sciences might serve our everyday understanding of the origins, writing, understanding and enjoyment of poems. At heart, these are the same questions artist Paul Gauguin posed in the title of his 1897 painting Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
Major tells her readers at the outset that she is neither a scientist nor a science writer, nor a literary critic or philosopher in aesthetics. Rather, she is an asker of questions, a “magpie” interested in the shiny ideas and metaphors offered by the sciences. “I’m just a working poet, trying to understand what I’m doing and why,” she writes. This is too modest—Major is an original thinker about poetics, curious and widely read, highly skilled in focusing her readers on one interesting idea after another, full of wonder and humor, and down-to-earth in her weaving of story and example. She wishes to situate poetry in the broader field of cognitive psychology rather than in postmodern philosophy. If the essays present a difficulty, it is in their brevity: Each topic leaves the reader eager for more extended discussion.
Major has a personal interest in the workings of the mind, both as poet and as a daughter watching her father, a house painter and poet, lose his memory to Alzheimer’s disease. Her observations on the progression of his loss, woven through the chapters, are a moving addition to clinical understanding of what is preserved: Even at the end, with only formulaic language left, he could finish lines of his own earlier poems.
Chapter 1, “That Frost Feeling,” begins with the question of where poems come from: Why do we write? Referencing work on empathy by neuroscientist Jean Decety and psychologist Claus Lamm, as well as anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake’s thinking on the relation of art to parental bonds, Major links the impulse of yearning to the evolution of what makes us mammalian, human: the capacity for empathy and for representation, in our own bodies, of the feelings and actions of others. In chapter 2, “Metaphor at Play,” Major locates the developmental origins of regarding one thing as another in the early symbolic play of children and, indeed, the pretend play of many young animals, including her cat Pushkin’s tossing about of a toy mouse. Chapter 8, “Gather Ye Rosebuds,” asks the poet’s urgent question of what difference poetry can make in the world. She answers from the perspective of chaos—sensitive dependence on initial conditions, small nudges offered to the universe—and from the perspective of our emotional lives. Major also discusses the parallels between literary analysis of meaning and quantum uncertainty; the differences between poetry and prose; pattern making in poetry and geometry; fractal complexity in art; the role and emergence of language; and the constraints the political system places on art.
Chapter 11, “Brain Surgery,” begins with Margaret Atwood, the acclaimed poet and author of speculative fiction. Atwood is said to have answered a brain surgeon who told her of his plans to take up writing in retirement: “And when I retire, I’m going to take up brain surgery.” What skilled preparation does the writer bring to her craft? Major proposes a long apprenticeship in language learning, good memory for the sounds and rhythms of speech, massive mental connections between language and experience, and, additionally, frontal-lobe functioning—a capacity for complex thinking. Both scientists and poets, she argues, need “the ability to simultaneously maintain conviction and doubt.” In the last section of the book, she debunks the idea that science is rational and art is emotional. “All these human activities seethe with emotion,” she writes.
I have not done justice to the delight I felt in reading these essays—it was a joy to take in their looping, fractal structure. Major offers us the pleasure of watching another writer’s mind in motion at every scale, from conversation with her cat to theories in cosmology, from the personal questions of why we write or practice science to the evolutionary questions of what makes us human and where language comes from. As a scientist, I wanted to research and debate one question after another. As a poet, I encountered the questions I ask myself, along with wise advice about writing.
Robin Chapman, Professor Emerita of Communicative Disorders at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is a poet and a researcher on children’s language development and disorders. She is the author of seven books of poetry, including Images of a Complex World: The Art and Poetry of Chaos, with physicist J. C. Sprott (World Scientific, 2005), and the eelgrass meadow (Tebot Bach, 2011). She once helped cause a traffic ticket for speeding by heatedly discussing the difference between poetry and prose with a friend who was driving.