Gateway to the Sphinx by Tony Page
Five Islands Press, 2004
Writing a book of poems about abstract scientific theories is a high-wire act. The danger is that those who comprehend the science may not appreciate the poetry and those who dig the poems may not comprehend the science. Writing a review on this little gem was somewhat daunting, too. To begin with, a succinct review forming an introduction to the work has already been written by one Phillip Adams, whose intellect and eloquence I admire greatly.
In addition, not having science qualifications, I spent many hours over two months researching the subject matter and previous links between Science and Poetry (they deserve capitalisation), only to find that there had been an on the subject on August 16 last year and I'd missed it!
In the article The Scientist and the Poet, Paul Cantor wrote
the scientist and the poet seem to us to be perpetually at odds. To the poet, the scientist seems unimaginative and literal-minded—with his head buried in the ground of facts, incapable of comprehending the larger significance of what he does. To the scientist, the poet seems to have his head up in the clouds, indulging in fantastic visions of what might be and losing sight of the way things really are. It is difficult for us to imagine a successful conversation between a scientist and a poet??they seem almost to speak different languages.¹
But Cantor also relates that Goethe was a scientist. The author of Faust was an accomplished botanist, he helped found the field of comparative anatomy, he coined the term morphology, and he anticipated the theory of evolution.
Twentieth-century American poet William Carlos Williams, whose day-job was as a physician is in great company (Australian writer-poets Shen and Peter Goldsworthy also moonlight as GPs).
Is it only in the last century or two that we've been obsessed by this arbitrary schism between Art and Science?
Turning the science into poetry
In PoeticA, Mike Ladd also points out that a number of poets have successfully employed mathematical/ scientific themes (posit Jan Owen, Peter Goldsworthy, Miroslav Holub and others.) Australian poet Luke Davies has written poems about quantum physics ten years ago. ²
Science needs articulate writers to interpret the theory to us laypersons. Dwayne Day mourns the lack of a current Carl Sagan: “the closest thing the space community has to a philosopher poet.”³
Sagan, who died in 1996, managed to inspire ordinary folks with the mysteries and marvels of this awesome universe, from his leading role in the US space programme, through to his Pulitzer prize for Cosmos and subsequent TV series Cosmos and The Planets. Day wrote out of frustration that, despite exciting discoveries this decade (US & European surveys of Mars and the Cassini exploration of Saturn and Jupiter), the public and the media are seemingly underwhelmed: “We do not have anyone to turn the science into poetry.” 4
Tony Page can, and does.
Where do I run?
Gateway to the Sphinx is divided into five sections: Astronomy, Evolution, Chemistry, Physics and The Big Bang. Through poetry, Page relates his childhood interest in astronomy, that same fascination which humanity has experienced as far back as we know. But now our vision has extended its frequency into the regions of radio, infrared, ultraviolet and gamma:
Each wavelength leaping further than our senses,
One more level assimilated.
Now we chart our own anatomy
Apprehend the Milky Way as it would be viewed
By creatures outside its spiral arms.
(?´Mapping the Galaxy Blind')
He meditates on flowers, pondering vast distances and epochs in juxtaposition to the domestic:
The quasars—the most far-flung
Objects yet observed. Feel it,
Twelve billion years before their
Radiance comes to rest on my flowers.
Their rays, exhausted. Surrender
Energy to the petals in this room.
(‘Tutorial with Flowers and Light')
‘The Door' represents a kind of epiphany for Page. The realisation that the constellation Orion seen through the telescope is the nursery of future stars, all swirling flow and flux, and not the solid object it seems to the unaided eye:
Like a hurricane here on earth.
Nothing still. Nothing as I thought it was.
The Nebula opens its door.
Where do I run.
God vs Science?
Many of the observations in these poems are life-changing crises of faith; the drama of God receding and Science advancing, an acceptance that the two cannot coexist, or at least, the whole idea of religion will have to be re-evaluated.
Perhaps the pivotal poem of this crisis is ‘The Naked Elevator' and warrants quoting in full:
I believed in God
Until only yesterday.
We are travelling in an elevator
Soothed by music from hidden speakers.
Lightning strikes, the melody cuts out.
We panic, thinking this is the Last Day
Yet continue to ascend without a hitch.
How cheated we feel,
Believing all along it was the tune
Which caused the lift to work at all.
The ears are so accustomed
They play tricks and we're not sure:
Does the music still sound?
Was God ever out there?
Question one strand of His role
And the whole fabric is unravelled.
Here we are
Stripped of our former raiment
Thus the elevator and its silence.
From now on, we make the journey naked.
(‘The Naked Elevator')
In the Evolution section, Page uses some unique metaphors to encapsulate complex concepts, like the ‘CD-ROM as DNA in the Library of Life'.
In ‘The Cell Agress to Become a City-State', he traces the “subversion” by bacteria of single-celled amoeba to map the evolution of complex organisms; a city-state of mitochondria burning energy, lysosomes as bio-waste police and ribosomes as enzyme-code relayers, an efficient bureaucracy:
That in two billion years
It has carved a path winding
From amoeba all the way to us.
– The most compact commonwealth
The planet has ever seen.
The boyhood awe that Tony Page felt with astronomy is still with him. In the section ‘Postcards from the Body', he looks at the ear, the gut, cardiac muscle- and more- through the microscope:
Inside the small intestine, a delta
Of the Ganges. Thousands of promontories
Reach into the channel, their wharves
Extracting cargo sent from the factory above.
(‘Postcards from the Body' (ii) Digestion)
He reminds us that science and technology are an integral part of everyday contemporary life. Electromagnetic radiation may seem arcanely esoteric to the layperson, but who doesn't use these wavicles daily at the ATM, the microwave or the TV's remote? How many other poets have written odes to leptons and hadrons? Page even reminds the reader what science owes to literature:
Quark, namesake filched playfully from
Finnegan's Wake by James Joyce
The century's most enigmatic novel.
Spot-on for such a murky particle.
(‘The Strong Force')
The climax of this epic ode to Science is an entire section of works on The Big Bang. The concept of The Beginning of Time blows a tiny mind (like mine). Page's allusion to the theory of Before the Birth of Time reminded me of my own ever-circular childhood musings and awkward questions in Sunday School of what God did the day before he decided to create The Heavens and The Earth.
These are big questions.
The answers will be just as big. A Theory of Everything could, depending on your own metaphysical beliefs (or lack of), unite Science and Theology. Or precipitate the end of Theology.
The final poem focuses on the ‘Gateway', that earliest conceivable moment (according to the Beautiful Mathematics which is beyond the understanding of the reviewer), namely 1043 seconds After the Birth of Time when all Matter and Energy in existence was squeezed into a radius of 1033 centimetres. (That's zero decimal, followed by 32 zeroes and a 1!)
The journey ends here, crouched
In the waiting room, what once
Was Heaven—or Hell.
The disputed territory now annexed
By science, leaving less room
For God, spooks and metaphors.
(‘Gateway to the Sphinx')
The incredible thing is not that Tony Page has written poems about these advanced concepts—or that he can—but that he can bridge the work of the expert to the layperson and bring with him some sense of his own curiosity and wonder.
As Einstein said, ‘After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.'
¹ Poetry And Science On Poetica, Saturday August 16, 2003. Accessed at http://www.internationalbenchmarking.org/rn/arts/poetica/science.htm
² Paul A. Cantor, “The Scientist and the Poet,” The New Atlantis, Number 4, Winter 2004, pp. 75-85
³ “Absolute Event Horizon” by Luke Davies (Angus and Robertson, 1994)
4 “Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?” by Dwayne A. Day. In The Space Review, Monday, July 26, 2004. Accessed at http://www.thespacereview.com/article/192/1