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What We’re Reading: Poetic Scientifica

2017 March 16

What We're ReadingPoetic Scientifica by Leah Noble Davidson (University of Hell Press, 2013)

The title drew me in. Science, it seems, is endangered by the current administration’s denial and de-funding, so I’ve been longing for its textured diction and conjecture. Davidson denied my expectation, but offered something more broad and thought-provoking than just scientific vocabulary.

From the very beginning in a section titled “Nobody Reads the Introduction,” Davidson reminds the reader of the interplay between language and meaning and also that meaning is subjective and constructed by language and experience. She puts forth a hypothesis that the book goes on to test: “It is possible to give a poem deeper meaning by abstractly defining the dialect of the words of which it is composed.” In one sense the book is a biome rich with nutrients which feed the ‘organism,’ or the opening poem. The first poem is placed before the table of contents and each word of the poem is used as a title for every poem in the book. Therefore, each word in the opening poem is a cell made up of the linguistic molecular structures and associations that make up each corresponding poem in the book. Davidson contextualizes her own dialect, as it were, and creates a scaffolding system for the reader to climb deep into the underbelly of the opening poem.

Right away, I wondered how Davidson would write satisfying poems for the articles in the opening poem. How do you write a good poem a title like “the” or “so”? Poetic Scientifica answers that question again and again. In the opening poem, the word ‘into’ is repeated three times, so the book contains three poems titled “into.” These are three of my favorite poems in the book; they’re about abuse and violence, but the voice is both direct and distant, giving the reader the impression that the poem is examining a wound with an objective hand. These poems engage the reader viscerally while creating a shared meaning of the title word between the reader and the poet. The three poems titled “into” build on each other, and by the end of the book, I feel more intimately connected to the poet than I ever would have expected.

Formally, the poems vary in this collection. While some poems employ end-stop, others ignore the line altogether in a prose-like manner. I would not recommend this book as a model of strong line breaks, and I feel that the voice comes out most strongly when Davidson lets language resonate on a sentence level. In “have,” a prose poem, she creates tension with long sentences and minimal punctuation:

The depression begins with you fingering hand towels you can’t afford in a store you’ll never remember the name of because you’re consumed with how they remind you of the ones you dried the dishes with when you quit working to stay home with the baby while he started his career at the job that you got for him

In other instances, reading Davidson’s imagery is almost like visual hallucination. “So you are in a boat without language,” “Tell” begins, “and I have a stick for a mouth.” From here the speaker gesticulates wildly within this reality. The poem is playful and inscrutable because we can’t imagine spaces that have no language, but the poem also carries emotional power. And the ending lines carry so much more weight than a flippant experiment in constructionism: “there are no words in your head. // Just a picture, a moving picture of what we won’t call water and a loss for something not a stick.” Davidson’s playfulness comes out in other poems as well such as “person” which is just as fun while less cerebral.

Harold the Zombie is picking his wounds again—

the mood must feel as gray and distant.

Jennifer asks him if he feels like

a pitted olive cheese. “No,

only brains.”

Harold wants to be a vegan, wants

to quite smoking, and learn Pilates He wants to

watch less TV, but it keeps him off the streets.

out of people’s heads,

out of his own head

In my opinion, a few poems are less hard-hitting, in and of themselves, than others; however, the project of the book answers for itself and for each poem too. Each page is necessary to test the hypothesis, and that’s what makes this book a satisfying read.

Again, in light of this political moment, I appreciate this book for the way that it draws attention to the unwieldy power of words to contain multitudinous meaning. For example, think of the how the word “great” connotes vastly different meanings in the phrase: “Make America great again.” Davidson takes words and shows the reader how each contains a world, a color, a story. After reading this book, certain words will seemingly never be the same for me now that I’ve experienced these dialectical expansions. Just for fun, I put a handful of those words together into a sentence: Burrito your brains into the hallway for business ballet. Now that sentence may or may not mean anything to you, but I bet if you read Poetic Scientifica, it will mean a great many things.

Can you think of any words that pack a punch for you? Try writing a poem that explores a word other people might never think twice about.

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