Reviewed by Pat Valdata


Roberts, Kim. The Scientific Method. Cincinnati: Word Tech Editions, 2017. 104 pp. $19.00 (paper). [view title on press page]

“To reveal a thing’s secrets / patience and precision are required”
From “The Scientific Method” (p. 13)

It takes no patience at all to become engrossed in the precise language Kim Roberts employs in her fifth collection, The Scientific Method. The title poem, the first in the book, is a two-part meditation on the contents and organization of Thomas Edison’s laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. Part one is a pantoum that skillfully incorporates terms like “test tubes,” “retorts,” and “nickel citrate.” Part two is a modified rondeau about two of his assistants that cleverly finds good rhymes for “covalent dipeptide.”

Although most of the poems in this book are not written in received forms, the attention to vocabulary and sound required by formal poetry is present in each of Roberts’ poems. Roberts’ skill allows her to pull off poems about a variety of subjects, among them Walt Whitman’s brain, Carl Sagan’s iconic black turtleneck, the sneeze depicted on the book’s cover, even the whimsical names of high-voltage cables.

The Scientific Method is divided into three sections, with the first being the most literal interpretation of the title. But Roberts’ definition of science is a broad one, including the pseudo-science of phrenology, which was popular in the 19th century, and a hoax published in in 1836 about “flying men / with wings like bats” who lived on the moon (“The Moon and The Sun,” p. 24). Her research is detailed and revealing, not only of science itself but also of scientists like Nikola Tesla and a nameless “he” who, we learn in a helpful end note, stands in for several scientists who worked on nuclear fusion experiments and coined terms that Roberts plays with in the following lines that are fun to read aloud:

Physicists coined a nomenclature
for the instabilities: sawteeth, drift,
counterstreaming, sausage,
tearing, bump-in-tail, helical kink. (“Building the Perhapsitron,” p. 31)

The second part of the book explores a more personal theme: Roberts’ Jewish heritage and the anti-Semitism that had seemingly waned for decades, but recently has become a resurgent ugliness in both Europe and the United States. These poems document the fish-out-of-water existence of an oppressed people. Some of the poems are literally about fish—the farmed salmon destined to become lox on the poet’s bagel, a freshwater cod despised by fishermen looking instead for walleyes—both stand-ins for the bullied tenement boy, for Lithuanian Jews who fled Europe or who didn’t and were murdered. A poem about scientist Ernst Haeckel, who believed in eugenics, describes his drawings of microscopic creatures as containing “ nothing but darkness / and the infinite realms of cruelty” (“Radiolaria,” p. 47). Language repurposed in “Campaign Speech, 1896: ‘The Scourge of Foreign Elements’ ” echoes the campaign rhetoric we heard a year ago:

Citizens, lend your indignation to the cause.
The civilizing effects of modernity

demand the placement of public interests
where they properly belong, in the ameliorating
hands of authority. (p. 50)

This poem, by the way, is a kind of deconstructed rondeau, written in triplets but with the refrain “the civilizing effects of modernity” in all the right places.

The third section of the book situates most of the poems in Washington, D.C., where Roberts lives. It opens with a poem that imagines the city sinking back into the swamp it was built on if sea levels were to rise as predicted. It then shows us what would be lost if that ever happens—not just the tangible architecture, but the work of presidents from John Adams to LBJ. There’s also the work of everyday people, like children who build a model of the Great Wall of China from “white styrofoam painted mud-brown” and “ toilet paper rolls” (After Hours in the Kindergarten,” p. 70) or a woman hanging clothes, “[d]rawn to them as if subpoenaed,” (“Photo with Woman at Clothes Line,” p. 74). The wry, dark humor that infiltrates this book in many poems is overt here in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at DC Not Endorsed by the Tourist Board: A Poem in the Subjunctive Mood Without Any Cloture”:

If this city were a forecast, it would be
high humidity for yet another week.
It would be discovered
in a rented hotel room yelling
Bitch set me up. (p. 75)

The final poem in the book, “American Herring Gull,” is a glosa on lines by Walt Whitman, a tribute to a trash-eating bird familiar to anyone who lives in a coastal city. In long, waving lines that echo both Whitman and the sea, Roberts’ gull soars:

Away from the gnarled, earthbound complexities,
The thickets of hurt feelings
And the petty sparring of fashion;
Up from the hardpan where every foot is muffled
As of no consequence, of no history,
She lifts her white wings, slightly tarnished [. . .]. (p. 86-87)

Below the gull, the speaker walks on “the rick-rack of the tide-line”:

But not really alone, no, beachcombing for something unnamed
Something just out of reach
But part of her—I should say part of me, my doppleganger,
The shadow discipled to my transmuted self,
Out of the salty, amniotic sea,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me [. . .]. (p. 87)

You don’t have to be a science buff to enjoy The Scientific Method, but it certainly will appeal to anyone who enjoys poetry informed by science. Readers who may be intimidated by the scientific content should know that end notes explain the more arcane information in the poems. Although all the poems can be enjoyed on their own merits, the notes provide additional layers of meaning and, for a few poems, a solution to some puzzling lines.

*____*____*____*____*

Browning, Sarah. Killing Summer. Little Rock: Sibling Rivalry Press, 2017. 100 pp. $14.95 (paper). [view title on press page]

“What city are we? / How do we call ourselves neighbors?”
From “Killing Summer” (p. 29)

The title of this book refers not to the passing of warm days in idyllic pursuits, but to the number of murders that occur during a summer in Washington, D.C. This book is filled with poems of witness, which should be no surprise given Sarah Browning’s long involvement with Split This Rock: Poetry of Provocation and Witness. Poems of witness can be challenging to read, and the book opens with a corker about inherent racism. In “Petworth, Early Evening,” the speaker walks home in a neighborhood where women have been stabbed. A young Black man walks in the opposite direction, and the speaker notes, “as we pass he reaches into his pocket / and I feel fear, how white I am” (p. 15). When he pulls out a cell phone, her shame makes her “want to tear history from [her] throat.”

This first section’s thirteen poems also deal with homelessness, the Iraq War, rape, mental illness, Hurricane Katrina, our dependency on fossil fuels, and murder. It seems like a lot for a first section, and for this reader, was the least successful part of the book. This book gets stronger with each section—there are four—as Browning includes more personal poems, forming, in section two, a narrative of a young woman’s awakening, both sexual and political, interspersed among poems about the seemingly endless ills of contemporary society. Especially effective is the found poem “Yemenis Question U.S. Drone Strategy,” which alternates lines from a Washington Post news story with lines from Richard III. The poem opens with the newspaper quote, “Yemen’s interior Ministry apologized” and closes with Shakespeare’s “long mayst thou live to wail thy children’s death” (pp. 40-41).

The third section of the book seems the most autobiographical, opening with “Drinking As a Political Act.” The poem’s speaker describes in detail a family ritual of making mint juleps. The recollection is interrupted when she acknowledges “I was a middle-aged / white woman” and that the drink was ‘plantation born,” “sweetened with the blood / of others sold south to cut the cane.” There are other families in this section’s poems, including the mother of a young man killed by a suicide bomber, and the mother of the bomber himself; Agamemnon and his doomed daughter, Iphigenia; television’s Walton family. “Who wouldn’t cry?” asks the poet in “The Walton Mountain Museum,” about viewing the “hugs / tender glances, Earl Hamner, Jr. weaving my parallel / childhood from his own nostalgia” (p. 67). Later, the question becomes “And what’s an authentic childhood anyway?” (p. 68)

In the final section of the book, Browning moves from WWII to more current conflicts, from prison walls to border walls. Among the most poignant of the poems in this section is “A Small Portion,” which the poet dedicated to the inmates in Rivers Correctional Facility, “four hours from their families.” Here, the speaker introduces us to the inmates taking her poetry class, most of them parents: Rodney, Mike, Jermain, John. She contrasts their humanity with the stereotypical portrayal of inmates on the television show Prison Break. Then, for first time, she thinks “of the Mamas / who see that ad” (p. 90). The poem closes with the speaker’s wish for the prisoners:

Let one small syllable of hope, or even a few—
a new haiku of hope—sprout from the hand-
out I printed off the web at the hotel at night,
unprepared as I was for their hunger for form.
That might do for one day—for any of us—
a small portion, improbably rich. (p.91)

Browning finds beauty in the ugliness of prison, but in other poems she presents the ugliness that most of us choose to ignore, such as the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, or the folly of building a border wall when human survival requires all walls to come down. At the root of all this misery is hatred, and in “Cawing Down the Airwaves,” Browning focuses on the self-absorbed, privileged American for whom violence and bigotry are simply background noise:

Hate is languid one minute, heated the next.
hate applies sunscreen and reaches for a thriller,
tilts back its lawn chair and sips its Coke. (p.88)

Readers looking for pretty poetry won’t find it in this volume. Instead, we find a mirror held up to ourselves and to present-day society on the brink of horrors that can only be prevented if we fly the “Flag of No Walls”:

I want the flag of talking,
of sitting on the disintegrating
wall and gabbing, gossiping,
negotiating, waving that flag
of no walls. That flag. (p.93)

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PAT VALDATA is a poet and novelist living in Crisfield, Maryland. Her poetry book Where No Man Can Touch received the 2015 Donald Justice Prize. She teaches creative writing for UMUC and for Salisbury University’s Lighthouse Literary Guild.