on Radial Symmetry, poems by Katherine Larson (Yale University Press)
Niels Bohr said that the purpose of describing nature “is not to disclose the real essence of physical objects but only to track down, so far as it is possible, relations between the manifold aspects of experience.” And so, the question: how far is it possible? The describer is embedded in the phenomena – is this an advantage or an impediment? Separate and incorporated, the scientist spends her day with a bias for the former, dissecting marine tissue with forceps. Meanwhile, the flora beyond her lab bench absorb the carbon dioxide emitted from her respiration.
Katherine Larson’s first book of poems, Radial Symmetry, is an experiment in tracking down experience. It purports to sort out components in order to indicate their relations – but its strange, discomfiting pleasures arise from the frustrating limitations of language either to describe a totality or its pulsing parts. However, Larson’s language also extends antennae (as far as it is possible) into the immeasurable spaces between related objects. The reaching – for speaker and reader – develops as a necessary, stimulating, gorgeous, provisional gesture. But there is nothing tentative about the fearful symmetry and impact of Larson’s book.
Here is the opening poem, “Statuary”:
The late cranes throwing
their necks to the wind stay
the place that rain begins
& the place that it ends
they seem to exist just there
above the horizon at least
I only see them that way
against the grey October
light not heavy enough
for feet to be useful or
useless enough to make
gravity untie its string. I'm sick
of this stubbornness
but the earthworms
seem to think it all right
they move forward
& let the world pass
through them they eat
& eat at it, content to connect
the individual links
of their purple bodies to stay
one place would be death.
But somewhere between
the crane & the worm
between the days I pass through
& the days that pass
is the mind. And memory
which outruns the body &
grief which arrests it.
“Statuary” sets out the assay’s terms and conditions of the book’s first part: there are spaces between “the place that rain begins / & the place that it ends,” and between worlds we pass through and that pass through us. Inhabiting the spaces “is the mind.” If you troll through Radial Symmetry for emotional rationale, you come up with a meager catch. A statement like “I’m sick / of this stubbornness” sounds brassy.
But there is a reason for such singular, stranded exclamations and claims in these poems. Two poems later in “Study for Love’s Body,” she exhibits this fragment: “Gauguin writes to Theo van Gogh that in his painting he wants to suggest / the idea of suffering – without ever explaining what kind.” Larson is not forswearing self-revelation because of some postmodern queasiness about the relevance of the first-person. She is simply wary of what William Matthews called “the gravid pull of the emotional life against which any artist struggles to keep a work from being pulled routinely down.” So Larson writes, “I rot // in the cold blue of the ego.” The suffering here has a non-specific cause but an all-encompassing environment. To say one is “sick of it” (but unable to be rid of it) is to sound somewhat petulant – but also to admit and allow an implacable dominance over oneself.
Larson was trained as a writer in university workshops led by Rita Dove and Charles Wright, but she has worked as a molecular biologist for the past decade. In “Crypsis and Mimicry” she writes, “I used to believe that science was only concerned / with certainty. Later, I recognized its mystery. / There isn’t a language for it …” There isn’t a language quite adequate to the mystery – but there is an inadequate one. Later in “Risk,” a dream poem, she says, “I pitch down a great hill in a holy city, / past the flaming beakers of ethanol, / the lapis bowls in which Science / would peel me apart.” The mysteries in Radial Symmetry are not passive – they seem to force themselves into the speaker’s consciousness in such a way that she feels deeply obligated to envision them in a kind of Blakeian vision. She was just doing her job, examining samples from the sea, and then something happened. Science at that moment is too intent on solving. “Poems,” wrote William Meredith, “arise from experience that requires poetry to comprehend it.” To see it.
After part one introduces a speaker peering into ”some distance / where space is nothing / yet still something that separates,” part two takes her through the world – Uganda, Mali, Tunisia, Romania, Italy, Ireland, Mexico, Arizona. The first poems here are quite restrained, capable only of description and weightless suggestion. Their locations are overbearing, absorbing comment into themselves. The appearance of the human and the venture to comment arrive both to relieve and to complicate. This is the second and final section of “Water Clocks”:
The train stops just outside Naples
where I buy a glass
of cold juice squeezed from tangerines
and walk into Pompeii. I couldn’t have
magnitude of it. Brilliant pillars flush
with sky. Temples where sunlight
and seems to radiate from inside
the stones. Certain histories require
Others, strict belief. But I think
some histories live us In the higher cities
of the brain,
even the speechless ones are burning.
A nine-part poem, “Ghost Nets,” comprises the third section. Cesare Pavese said that “the delight of art [is] perceiving that one’s own way of life can determine a method of expression.” Despite the previously mentioned deficits of science, “Ghost Nets” delights in exploiting and transforming the materials and methods of a life in science. Ghost nets, as Larsen explains in her notes, are “lost or discarded gill nets [that] continue to indiscriminately traps and kills organisms from seabirds to porpoises.” The poem’s sections mimic the haphazard sweeping up of detail, a conversion of death into life. In one section, the speaker addresses a fellow worker who had “sawed off the head of the dead dolphin / with your mother … // You believed the skull / was scaffolding meant for study.” This poem functions as such a scaffolding. Here are the final lines of the seventh section:
Today the photograph of the Seri woman in sepia,
bare-breasted in a skirt of sewn-together pelican wings.
Dust settles on the street, on the man sharpening his machete
At the Cocos Helados stand.
Every day, it happens like this.
We emerge from the pale nets of sleep like ghost shrimp
in the estuaries –
The brain humming its electric language.
Touching something in a state of becoming.
Radial Symmetry hints at the speaker’s relationship with a “you” throughout. She writes, “Each time the intimacy becomes greater, the vocabulary less.” In a late poem, “Piano Lessons,” the speaker introduces “the keys / on this piano that refuse to sound. // I imagine these are / my lover’s apologies and / find delight in a chord // made of only one note.” In “Ghost Nets” she talks of “palapas that rustle their shaggy hair / as if clearing the air of meaning.” In this way, we understand the purpose of Larson’s “vocabulary” – to inspire intimacy with the reader, retracting the desperate noise of explanation for a sonorous but exact murmuring. For this speaker, to explain would entail a threatening entrenchment where an unmooring is essential.
It is not a question of if people and things count for Larson – but whether they count only for what they cost her and not for what they give her. The flat tones of Larson’s poetry, at times implying weariness or the transport of a burden, suggest “cost.” To clarify how she values the given, Larson will directly face the reader and say something like, “Have you ever wanted to / kiss a stranger's hands?”
But the alternating motions of give and take are both darkened and illuminated by their process-like behavior. This is why she concludes, “Either everything’s sublime or nothing is.” Or rather, the statement is reactive rather than conclusive -- an impatient insistence for something fixed in a world of so much variance. She won’t smudge the line: all meaning is at risk. In the final eight-poem section, Larson gathers together all of the book’s preoccupations (there is an in-and-out tidal movement throughout -- the orderly to the disorderly and back as if between calculation and speculation, fact and hypothesis).
Carl Jung said that nothing is more important to living than transformation, and I believe him. But Larson, examiner of experience, reminds us that such evolutions may be both automatic and traumatic. “Metamorphosis” begins:
We dredge the stream with soup strainers
and separate dragonfly and damselfly nymphs –
their eyes like inky bulbs, jaws snapping
at the light as if the world was full of
tiny traps, each hairpin mechanism
tripped for transformation. Such a ricochet
of appetites insisting life, life, life against
the watery dark, the tuberous reeds. Tell me –
how do they survive passage? …
Marking the end of Louise Glück’s remarkable term as judge and editor of the Yale Younger Poets series, Radial Symmetry teaches me a great deal about the shaping of a book’s narrative, the rise and fall of its urgencies, the echoing of its habits and obsessions. Like the world it describes, Radial Symmetry comprises “a fullness only partially fathomed.”
[Published April 26, 2011. 66 pages, $18.00 original paperback]