John Ashbery meets the Large Hadron Collidor. Or so could be said in the paradoxical, oxymoronic, breathless rhetoric of the book blurb. (Blurbs and book reviews for poetry seem particularly breathless and hyberbolic. In this way, both can come dangerously close to clickbait and agitprop.) But what can we do when the first line smashes a famous poet with an equally famous scientific apparatus? It seems we – “we” an ever-contested term – have been conditioned to possess a dualistic mind. This conditioning has forced us, involuntarily, to seek to divide things in order to understand them. Within the experience of academia, one is defined by which side of this divide one joins: Bachelor of the Arts or Bachelor of Science. Either/or. Science/Arts. Letters AND science.
But what of science? Again, it’s easy to slouch back on the stereotypes and prejudices. Seeing science as a secretive cabal of experts out to destroy human spirituality. Amoral scientists playing God and creating monsters. Or simply looking at science as an inflexible box. Science and nothing else. What William Blake decried “And twofold Always. May God us keep / From Single vision & Newtons sleep!” This “Single vision” can be debilitating and paralyzing, placing humanity’s energies and imagination on a Procrustean bed, tortured by the strident demons of Reason. In these cases, science has mutated from a method or a technique of understanding into a frigid idol. The phrase “Because Science!” becomes just as off-putting as “Because God!” Science, like religion, becomes an all-purpose grout in which to fill gaps and cracks.
Midday at the Super-Kamiokande, by Matthew Tierney confronts reason and its discontents with poems by turns comical and profound. Tierney, in the upcoming interview, tells how his poetry is an exploration about how humanity makes meaning and “by creating disjunctions without fragmenting the syntax (much).” John Ashberry casts a long shadow across Midday, although Tierney admits a desire to “fend off his influence” (emphasis Tierney’s). The challenge involves the battle between influence and imitation. “1948-” is case in point:
The nuclear family
gathers in the parlour
with an unspoken belief in the art
of the perfect murder.
Mood rings belong
to a soi-distant future.
Soybean fields the yellow of serous fluid
beneath elevated Maglev tracks.
God the author is declared
a dead ringer for Isaac Asimov.
There’s definitely a whiff of Ashberry about the poem. Postwar items and personalities get checked off (“the nuclear family,” “mood rings,” “Maglev tracks,” and “Isaac Asimov”) amid references to literature (“the art / of the perfect murder”) and religion (“God the author”). Here the dualistic mind reels, struggling to find an answer for the poem. Is Literature a puzzle to be solved? Yes and no.
Tierney’s poems are an admixture of scientific terminology, pop culture references, surrealist imagery, and humor akimbo. A strange alchemy occurs, where meaning is created and then shattered. “What does it mean? What does it mean?” shout the choruses of those easy solutions and obvious symbolism. The poems confront the disorientations of reason and science. Einstein’s genius aided in the advancement of physics, but his ideas were also used in the creation of atomic bomb. Should we abandon Einstein’s ideas to embrace a sort of medieval pacifism? Or this question more fatuous pseudo-philosophizing? Again we fall upon the crutch of the Either/Or.
as fetus in an ultrasound,
undersized and undone.
Love is zero or non-zero.
Love, it is ever dark in there.
Tierney says how reason works well in science, but less so in ethics or ontology. The same could be said for “the arts.” Imagination is necessary, for how can we conceive of geologic time, infinite space, and the evolutionary process. Is love zero or non-zero? But how can love be subject to such a reductive, mechanistic logic?
Reading Tierney’s poems open up a field of questions. Language and meaning slip and slide against each other. Science has been a major foundational instrument for how we conceive of ourselves and the universe. The same can be said for literature and the arts. C.P. Snow reduced the situation to “the two worlds.” Stephen Jay Gould talked about “non-overlapping magisteria” when he discussed science and religion. But these poems shouldn’t be read as subversive to science education and the awe of discovery. Recent visual documentation of the surface of Pluto has proffered humanity mountains of data. It is up to the scientific community to make sense of this data hoard. But the arts can also have a hand in understanding Pluto’s surface. With this new information, science fiction writers will have new tools to create new and innovative fiction.
In “Poem with no middle” it begins:
Begin with Anaxagoras:
‘Appearances are a glimpse of the obscure.’
End with the painbirds of Mark Linkous
Another stanza has the line: “Nouveau to Deco to décor to art.” A glimpse of the obscure? Art movements, like mathematical equations, offer a means to understand the world through an equation. If such-and-such an object possesses these attributes, then it belongs to this or that art movement. Unless it doesn’t? Where does Art Nouveau end and Art Deco begin? And how does an art-object transform from a piece of “high art” to “low-class schlock” hanging in a dorm room or a suburban McMansion? Meaning can be a method to unify perception, but it can also be the instrument of its own unraveling. The line between profundity and incomprehensibility is a thin one. Reading requires a careful eye and a measured skepticism. Avoid becoming an unquestioning drone, a cog in the machine, yet avoid the seductions of idiosyncrasy and contrarian attacks, lest one turns into a paranoid crank.
Midday at the Super-Kamiokande challenges our perceptions, forcing us to look at the world slightly differently. The entire planet can appear strange if you turn your head just a bit. Reason needs to be protected, especially in these trying times with the weaponized idiocy of creationism and abstinence education, but it should also be understood as not the only means of understanding. Tierney’s poems offer the reader challenges to open their cognitive toolbox and tinker a bit. Perhaps not to find the poem’s “answer,” but to discover the question.