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Andrew Duncan


Ephemeris, by Dorothy Lehane (Nine Arches Press, 2014, 61 pp.)

"Hemera" is day, "Ephemeris" is a ‘diary’ or day-book, more accurately the Greek word of which the Latin word for ‘diary’ is a translation. Ausonius wrote around 380 AD a poem called Ephemeris describing a day of domestic routine hour by hour. One folio seems to be missing. More locally, it means an astronomical table for determining the position of a heavenly body on a given day. Swim-suit, space-suit. "Seismic waves of deviance/ tongue-tied miasma", Dorothy Lehane’s book of this name is an extended metaphor in which the course of a heavenly body through the sky draws after it shifting experiences, in an organism susceptible to the influences of heat and light. "Too many moonlight kisses/ Seem to cool in the heat of the sun", as Doris Day sang. The link, supposed by astrology, between subjective experience and astronomical events, is unreal - or perhaps not wholly, as our biologically given alternation between sleeping and waking is given by the day-night cycle, rather certainly linked to the geometry between the Earth and the nearest star.

"Solidarity" goes like this:

                try not to tamper
with ‘alone‘, sketch
each comedown, note
the dust-devil colour.
sulphuric Venus rain,
the sediment
of skein, the downs,
our lapping suburban hearts
pushed to unfurl
to give something back,
how fabric life collects,
it’s not enough to just be
cradled, regrouped, jerky nervous
it’s a system, a modulation spectrum
adjacent window       traffic rise

The poem has a double sense more or less throughout. ‘Comedown’ is simultaneously something falling from the sky (dust) and an emotional state - post-climax. Charles Jencks, describing post-modern architecture, described double coding, where a feature of a building has two functions typically carrying out a physical function, part of the utilities, and referring to something in classical architecture which it is tailored to visually resemble. This was actually a sarcastic utterance towards purist modernist critics for whom ornament was crime - the ornament here was also functional. With Lehane the duplicity is probably to retain the secrecy which is necessary for personal life and to push us into a state of suggestibility where we think twice about the shapes we see and imagine new resemblances. Social contact slowly builds up into a social network: how "fabric life collects", it is like all that dust falling. The random events that build up to life are analogous to the ones that build up to a community. ‘Modulation spectrum’ may be a spectrum through which a given signal can be modulated (by various episodes); astronomers might know that dust is present because it modulates light that passed through it. This seems to be the syntax of the poems in Ephemeris; the two sides don’t have a precise symmetry, because the stars have precise physical properties of location, rotation, colour, etc. which language can’t render, and because emotions and feelings about other people aren’t visible or precise and can only be set down on paper through analogy. Actually language doesn’t do very well with emotions either - even if language was invented to describe them, feelings and words don’t match in any exact way.

The poem on ‘Stephan’s Quintet’ seems to be a description of this group of five galaxies identified in 1877, with their strange and perhaps revelatory characteristics, shockwaves of molecular hydrogen and other brouhaha, reconfigured as a subjective image for a human interaction that perhaps is waiting to exist. ‘Limb by limb, legless, kiss me combatant, are we brothers or are we bastards, bystanding is a sin for the fey.‘ Apparently swimming around Tycho Brahe’s island-observatory, the poet lays down personal feelings as myth and links intricate though inanimate processes into a narrative. Impressive amounts of detail on cosmology, fossil microwaves, the origin of matter, etc. are combined with what may literally be a diary: a cycle of feelings, piercing, tender, and confused. "Stella by starlight", or a calendar of moments without proper names.

Lehane’s project has to do with combining poetry and science. The two are intertwined in a very specific way here: objective knowledge separates projections of feelings and wishes from the information provided by the eyes, but here the idea is to interfuse them. Her poems are intensely personal and highly coded: everything profound loves a mask. In an ephemeris the sunlit vapour of feelings is fixed with huge lenses in their true position, which they immediately abandoned. The astronomical mask dissolves biography into a million parts, evolving into singular geometric figures; molecules forming on the beaches around a million stars develop into a million sensations, which the poet as sensitive wrack washes through at the mercy of the tides. I am reminded of some kitsch but wonderful late-Soviet architecture realising the illustrations to cosmic fantasies of 50s science fiction writers. It’s Earth but it feels like out there in the void.

The poetry-science project is likely to draw a great deal of attention in the next twenty years or so. It is quite hard to define what the purpose is; I think the core is the sense of opportunity, that there is a wilderness here, and that if you buy creative people time they will wander around that wilderness and bring back things never before seen. Part of the impetus is the wish of museum staff to make their holdings presented anew in visible or audible form. Recently there was an exhibition at the Scott Polar Research Institute which include poems and readings by eight poets living in the town (Cambridge); and in 2012 there was "Cloud Cameras", a book of science poems by Lesley Saunders, related to a residency at a museum. I didn’t get to see the Scott poems, but Saunders’ book is a modern classic. It’s not that these works are putting scientific truths in simpler forms (like illustrations, maybe), more that after the arrival of a complete excess of scientific data mediated by instruments people have realised that relationships within those data can be made clear by symbolic depiction and manipulation in very very varied forms. All starts from a dial: the dial shows quantities in terms of a space, possibly also colour, but is a metaphor for the physical quantity it displays. The word ‘telltale’ was once used for something like a dial, a viewing point or indicator that showed the state of a boiler, for example, or a fuel store. One primary thing can have endlessly many telltales. Given that the use of these shapes in the brain, following the primary event of the instruments, has endless potential, creating artistic forms that are closer to the language the brain uses, and attractive to manipulate, can open doors. Simply thinking about the relationship between the primary real thing (whatever it is) and the representations which can be circulated and put through changes, is productive as it liberates scientists from the legacy graphic assumptions.

"Coronal Mass Ejection" (p.40) is an event affecting our sun (and perhaps others) where protons from the corona (the outer rim) are physically thrown out, rotary energy overcoming gravity: making what is known as a solar wind:

Inside the sun, veil, inside my heart,
internal forces      bleached out childhood
beach days in the thermonuclear
compression of the convection zone
boy, you sure are magnet, an engine
from the chromosphere, coronal rain,
filament matter lift me up like an arc
like a bridge

Magnets fight, we also fight over
who misses who, turmoil rising
solar wind, particles, ammunition
into Aurora.

Conquer national grids
conquer national headaches

When the wind touches the atmosphere around the earth, it is visible as the Aurora Borealis, and its electrical charge can bring national grids down. The idea of a bridge between sun and earth is analogous to a link between two human bodies.

Star-gazing is a state of primitive wonder which is perhaps a stage before science. Astronomers do astrophysics to work out, for example, the mass and temperature of stars, but perhaps they are stargazing as well. In the poems, we are not doing astrophysics. The point is mimesis, a state of intense and profound attention that we copy and lock onto. The object which permits this state could be almost anything that is profound, not rapidly exhausted. Images of stars happen to be a good source of high-grade visual objects.

An "Ephemeris" maps/echoes an "Ecliptic", the title of Joseph Macleod’s book-length modernist poem of 1930, where poems about ‘the apparent course of the sun’ (definition of ecliptic) through a yearly cycle, form a culture-critical text about modern society. Astrology is wrong, but it has been very productive in poetry. The product which is "Ephemeris" is not easily definable, in fact I am clear that involves a multitude of different things, and they don’t have proper names yet. John Davies’ poem of 1610, "Orchestra", uses the metaphor of dance (orchestra, another Greek word, from orchesomai “I dance“) to describe the motion of the stars as well as many phenomena on the earth and involving people. The stars do not “dance“, but Davies’ all-involving metaphor is productive in unexpected ways.

The publisher is Nine Arches, from Rugby. The comandante of Nine Arches explained to me that it refers to the arches in a certain railway bridge leading into Rugby, and that a later count reached a different but less memorable result. There used to be a set of inhibitions or obstructions to writing poetry, a huge park of things like the old railway network, and the unmounting and demolition of these inhibitions has been a constantly progressing feature of the last 50 years. The dominant feature of the new poetry scene is accessibility, huge numbers of people are writing poetry and it just feels like an extension of talking or of being conscious. I just like the idea of a poetry publisher in Rugby, and I don’t see why the English language would work differently in Rugby than it does in Oxford or London.





Copyright © Andrew Duncan, 2015