Loosing The Shackles Of The 'Two Cultures' | January 2, 2006 Issue - Vol. 84 Issue 1 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 84 Issue 1 | pp. 27-28 | Book Reviews
Issue Date: January 2, 2006

Loosing The Shackles Of The 'Two Cultures'

Two scientist-poets read each other's work and comment on the commingling of art and science
Department: Books

DIARY OF A CELL, by Jennifer Gresham, Steel Toe Books, 2005, 96 pages, $12 (ISBN 0-9743264-1-0)

Reviewed By Arthur J. Stewart

The notion of there being a divide between the cultures of art and science has festered for years, and it persists despite significant inroads made by a growing number of individuals who have crossed over from one of these cultures to the other. And thank goodness for these crossover efforts, occasioned either by poets who are willing to drill down into the sciences in some detail, or by professionally trained scientists bold enough to reach firmly toward the other side.

Biochemist Jennifer Gresham's first full-length poetry collection, "Diary of a Cell," originates from the science side and contains 53 poems that make a solid contribution to the divide-breaking effort. Topics in the book range from the author's appreciation of a beautiful morning in spring in "April's Big News" to her recognition of the profundity of what there is to learn in "Anatomy."

Other topics include the driving force of Mendeleyev's work on the periodic table in "Building the Periodic Table" to, yes, biochemical processes at a subcellular level in the title poem, "Diary of a Cell." Some of the poems are deliciously personal and draw the reader close; others post the reader effectively at a distance, as an observer, while relaying images and facts.

The book's foreword states that the poems "speak of science with a familiarity born of close association." Gresham's Ph.D. in biochemistry and her job as an Air Force scientist do let the beam of science shine through several of the poems, and these poems in particular may resonate with readers who have painted with the brush of science. The blend in "Anorexia," for example, is crisp and compelling: "my body a machine/that likes to run, hear/the hum of its molecular/motors, the breakdown/of glucose, a perfect/piston fire." Sweet!



So much is the same:
small, easy to hide
in some cranny of the nucleus
or mitochondria, away from
scientists' prying eyes.
And always written in code;
a whole library of nothing more
than four letters strung together,
a tongue twister even if
you know the language.

Even the stories begin
with the familiar: proteins
saying good-bye at the cusp
of the membrane door, one
getting into his sub-cellular
compact, the other already fussing
in the cytoplasm, devising the next
meal. What's missing is the emotion.
Life, in its most intricate detail,
is beautiful in its routine. No sentiment,
no longing stare out the window.
It's all business here: the details
of their travel, where they are going,
the strange names of streets.

There are poems in this collection that could be introduced to students in science classes at the high school or college levels to great effect. However, not all of the poems relate to science, by virtue of topic or language. Many of the poems instead deal with the author's personal perspectives on relationships or are driven by introspection. Thus, although demonstrating again that individuals trained as scientists still can be poets, many of the poems in "Diary of a Cell" don't take strongest advantage of Gresham's background in biochemistry. This condition broadens the range of prospective readers, but may lessen the clout of her poems as a perspective unique to science.

I recommend "Diary of a Cell" as a good read for chemists, biochemists, biologists, science teachers, or indeed anyone who enjoys quality literature. This collection doesn't invoke the sweet, simplistic power of the voice of Mary Oliver, or have the constrictor-like power of many of the poems of the late Archie Ammons, both of whom might be classified as "nature poets." Nor do they capture Sarah Lindsay's tangy, rough exuberance for the ideas and language of science. Instead, Gresham's poems are poignant and delicate. They stop you and make you think.

Arthur J. Stewart is an ecologist, essayist, and poet whose works include "Rough Ascension and Other Poems of Science." He currently is an adjunct research professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

BUSHIDO: The Virtues of Rei and Makoto, by Arthur J. Stewart, Celtic Cat Publishing, 2005, 80 pages, $15 (ISBN 0-9658950-6-8)

Reviewed By Jennifer Gresham

People are often grouped into the categories of left-brained or right-brained, the implication being that the two are mutually exclusive. Yet scientists know that the quest to understand the world around us is creative at its heart. Analytical tasks such as the selection of the proper controls and the careful, often painstaking, collection of data are critical to our success. But it's often the elegant and imaginative approach to a question, the leap from the specific to the more general, that vaults a paper onto the "best-seller list" of scientific literature.

It's this desire to communicate what we've learned to the greater community, to pass on our wonder and excitement at the unfolding secrets of the natural world, which makes creative writing a natural extension of science. As Nobel physicist Richard P. Feynman said: "It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far 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?"



From the ideal of Bushido,
we have moral obligations
to respect the earth,
to get it right as possible:

the high and the low
the shimmering and the parts
that grind rock-like against one
another, the pieces that fit from years

of adaptation, and those that don't
now and never will: continuing,
a set of imperatives that can't be
defined in unambiguous terms, at least

not to perfection, a fuzzy set though some rules
we've figured out and use
to societal benefit. Aluminum for example
can be alloyed with lithium, and a bacterial gene

for citrate synthase can be put into
the roots of plants, thus reducing
the bioavailability of aluminum
in soil to plants, a good thing

for papayas that would otherwise
sicken and die. But these advances leave
a blinding hole: a place black
as hell, into which we must dive individually, yet

before so doing it is essential to strip
off pretensions: shed these, one
after another like shucking corn, starting
at the top of the ear, pulling down to reveal

pearly young sweet
cream or yellow, the tender new
parts of the self that are gold
and good and which might

with luck pass on
to feed us, the collective: in honor of all
we have been, we might be, the heights
to which we, individuals of the collective, aspire.

One man breaking the traditional barriers between the "two arts" is poet and environmental scientist Arthur J. Stewart, who retired from Oak Ridge National Laboratory and now serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. His second poetry collection, "Bushido: The Virtues of Rei and Makoto," artfully demonstrates the concept of Bushido (the samurai's respect for life) through a series of essays and poems that touch on a wide range of natural and physical sciences.

The book begins with an overview of the principles and history of Bushido, which orients the reader and signals the basic message that Stewart hopes to communicate through his work. The two sections of the book, Rei (respect) and Makoto (truth and sincerity), are impressive in their thematic focus. Despite Stewart discussing Brownian motion, gas laws, and stem cell research, among other scientific topics, the connection to Japanese philosophy is never lost.

The poems are ones that scientists are sure to appreciate. They are direct and largely unadorned, meaning readers won't feel the need to dissect the poems under a microscope in order to understand them. The voice is conversational, sometimes even hip, as his poem "Attention to Detail" demonstrates: "Liquid radioactive waste/dribbled setting off/pancake meters, alarms, whoa, sez they, them little/spots got some serious mustard on 'em."

But what really sells this book is its compassion. For example, Stewart draws on his experiences in the Peace Corps for his poem "Ghanaian Story," which describes the narrator's attempt to feed a poor family by fishing in a nearby pond, only to discover the people believe the fish are ancient ancestors reincarnated.

Underlying the lighthearted "loops and swirls," as he calls them, is a more serious message, however. At a time when chemists sometimes suffer a bad image with the public, Stewart sets the record straight, but without flinching away from the heavy responsibility we all share in shaping the world. Science has the ability to propagate Bushido, to speak with Makoto. In his poem "Becoming Bushido," Stewart reminds us, "You can begin/to live/again,/the right way. One/atom at a time,/you can begin putting/love in a beautiful world."

Jennifer Gresham, a biochemist and poet, is a major in the U.S. Air Force and currently serves as a program manager at the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, Arlington, Va.


In The Footsteps Of The Bard,

by Andrew Roxburgh McGhie, Authorhouse, 2004, 121 pages, $9.50 (ISBN 1-4184-3038-2)

McGhie (University of Pennsylvania) has self-published a collection of witty and creative poems and song lyrics, many of them originally read aloud at events to honor chemists and chemistry.

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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