Poetry rarely springs from scientific marginalia—but Diane Furtney’s 2014 collection Science And is, amazingly, an answer to a Richard Feynman footnote:
[F]ar more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?
So here is a book Feynman just might have praised: 80 pages of poems composed in an idiom of Furtney’s own devising, “radically enjambed, off-rhymed, non-metrical couplet[s],” formal poetry that, like the natural world, doesn’t always seem formal. I’m reluctant to call this book “science poetry,” which wrongly suggests gimmickry or lack of artistry, when it’s a wonderful and frequently successful experiment—and, in its imagery, downright radical. By seeking inspiration not in the usual stale and shallow allusions but in geology, radiation, epigenetics, and quantum physics, Furtney reminds us that poetry ought to offer the infinite depth of a fractal.
Still, most of the poems in Science And are not specifically about science; this mind-bending material simply gives Furtney fresh ways to write about familiar subjects. Looking at computer models that show it’s theoretically possible to turn a hollow sphere inside out without creasing or breaking it, she crafts a metaphor about a troubled sibling relationship: “curved parallel lines, each in / loves motion, which has to exclude reverse, / and that meet on the far side of the universe.” Elsewhere, a cruel father reminds us that evolution isn’t just about endurance, but also, chillingly, about endings:
But, because time
moves in a straight line through us, the justice
of biology, of development, is
that every action, with or without thought,
reorganizes and delimits what can be brought
into the future, including one’s ability to know it.
By his sixties, none of his children would consent
to emplace him in the future; none
of the four would have a child. His horizon
finally, at eighty-seven, gripped
his identity like a mummy’s wrap,
his self-absorption so complete, so assiduous,
there was no need—tending his needs—for anyone else
to give him an invested thought. “Justice”
does not have to be hoped for; it is ubiquitous
Elsewhere, a note explains that the poem “A Man, a Boy, a Stick, a Goose with Goslings” was inspired by serotonin and norepinephrine, chemicals that help us with memory and open us to new emotional reactions, but the poem itself isn’t a neurobiological study; instead, it’s a thoughtful and disquieting narrative about what children learn from their fathers, the complex irrationality of human parenting compared to the behavior of our fellow animals, and the cycles we’d break if we could. Other poets would turn an encounter between goose and human families into something romantic and trite, but Furtney adds a hint of biochemistry; she wants us to marvel at what wildly intricate creatures we are.
In the spirit of classic science fiction, Furtney asks “what if?” and invites us into her thought-experiments. “The Ark” compares skeptics of space exploration to a Roman shrugging off the invention of a grain harvesting machine; “Some Generations” brings a rare warmth to futurism, insisting that even as humanity tinkers with genetics and explores the stars, we’ll remain a flawed, ambitious, quixotic race:
But we are young, just some generations
from the white winds and little, worked stones
of the Pleistocene.
And we have time. At fourteen
billion years, the universe is crisp
and fresh, and we’ve changed down to the grist
and have immensities
of more green time for change. It may be
one of your descendants—deft,
confident, reliable in emotional depth,
able at seventy to learn Chinese
or Navajo in just three weeks,
seriously ill maybe twice
in a two-hundred-year life, spliced
without breaking genes to inhibit,
a little, our recidivist
midbrain conflicts and maladaptive
selfishness; better, then, at love
but incomplete still, like all
the sprawling future…
“The Good” asks us to imagine the trial of a woman charged with murder for opening a vat of genetically engineered “almost-finished tissue” that was supposed to become a new breed of humans destined to colonize a distant, icy planet:
As prosecutor, I’d claim any deed
that levels our spiral staircase or props it
to go nowhere on one world, is the opposite
of good, is a form of murder
of our past as well as our future,
while an act that adds to the molecular good
allows two things: species adulthood
and a destiny worth the name.
Fond of pondering the personal within the cosmic, Furtney leaves the defense to us—with the sly, unsettling reminder that the defendant has two non-hypothetical children of her own.
There’s unabashed humor in Science And, too. In “Cells,” Furtney wonders, as Philip K. Dick might have before her: What if the chair at a coffee house had a chip that made it sufficiently aware of you to anticipate your order? If it could crack jokes and be civil and entertaining, wouldn’t it be far more pleasant than that ignorant, fussy, scientifically illiterate woman at a local ceramics exhibition?
Furtney is the only poet in the world who would use 42 couplets to bring readers on a tour of the Carbinoniferous Period of the Late Paleozoic—and why not? Science And makes clear that poetry can complement illustration, sculpture, prose, and other creative forms in showing us a place where oxygen was one-third of the air and damselflies with three-foot wings alighted near ten-foot ferns. Of course, Furtney is also the only poet who, with stark, unromantic beauty, could imagine lovers united eternally—and literally!—as particles swept up in a supernova:
And one glowing day,
my love, when the sun is blowing away
and a similar if warmer breeze
has begun to rotate its long, slender keys,
we and other blue-star particles
will loosen in our Tinkertoy mesh and travel
into wider space again
—stay close to me, I’ll stay close if I can—
arcing out in ionized light,
freebooting amidst bits of this white
moon, en route to our heirs…
The poems in Science And read like the ghazals of a Martian expat. They’re difficult, intricate, and baffling; they also capture a full spectrum of invisible emotions belied by a cramped term like “science poetry.” Diane Furtney finds delight and solace in thinking, wondering, making connections; in her poetry, we are small, but not insignificant. Through her efforts to craft what she calls a “poetry of reality,” she shares a mystic’s openness to the infinite, and I hope she won’t be taken aback if I suggest that she offers an alternate route to the heavens where mystical poets hope to abide: a universe of amazement, revelation, and truth.