Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Corset

I’ve awaited this book of poems for years, and now it’s finally published! Shannon Borg’s first published book of poetry, Corset (Cincinnati: Cherry Grove, 2006), is now available and as soon as I learned it had been published, I eagerly requested a review copy from the publisher.

This book contains 43 collected poems, some from the author’s dissertation and others that were originally published in a variety of poetry journals, and these poems are divided fairly evenly between three separate parts in the book. Despite the wide variety of topics explored in these poems, they all focus on the one immutable aspect of life; everything is subject to change.

All of Shannon Borg’s poems are wistful, humorous and audacious by turns, and all of them speak beautifully, eloquently, of family and life and love; of their prerequisite constraints and entanglements, and their enduring promise. For example, in the title poem, “Corset“, she tells of seduction’s familiar (and amusing) dance; “He moves close, says hello, you remind / me of someone, can’t quite place. Your face, your / look, don’t quite know. Drinks and scents float / between, across, amongst.”

The author’s poems are acutely sensitive to several worlds. One of my favorite poems is a stream-of-consciousness piece, “In the Old Peculiar Near the End of the Century” (p. 86-87), where the author ponders the constraints of friendship, of gender, of social expectations while lingering over beer with her friends. In “During the War”, she carefully reveals her parents’ parallel lives prior to their marriage; he, an overseas soldier while she buried soldiers at home. Another poem describes the juxtaposition between her father’s open heart surgery and herself as she was driving through the crowded streets of a large city a thousand miles away; “I see the surgeon’s red hands while I steady / the steering wheel’s ring. My father moves through / the post-op dreams they told him would come, followers / of pain. He wonders if he should keep his eyes closed / and I wonder why I want to give the moon a soul / like mine. Why this desire to gaze down on myself / at night, navigating streets between skyscrapers / or red desert streams? The freeway speeds / away beneath my car. The drive home promises / to be long – the roads are full, empty, full.” [from "On a Table Under a Round White Light" (p. 47)]

Even though some poems in this collection are clearly romantic, others are overtly scientific in their focus, such as the first poem in the book, “In the Hour of Eyes”. This multi-part poem meticulously describes Eadweard Muybridge‘s photographic analyses of animal movement, seeking to capture that perfect but fleeting moment when his subjects were free of all earthly bonds, when they were finally soaring at last.

Borg’s poems also reflect the ephemeral constantly changing aspect of nature and of life; cautioning the reader about the necessary separation (alienation?) that results when one tries to capture and understand the world; “There is no thing that is the thing we mean / when we say it – unchanging, monolithic / or small, composed. On paper, depth / becomes surface, surface becomes / distance. [ ... ] The closest / thing to me is surface / the surface the farthest away.” [from "Trying to Draw the Sea" (p. 82-83)]

But perhaps best qualities to be discovered in this collection are the underlying optimistic sweetness combined with verbal imagery. These are perhaps best exemplified by several of my favorite poems in the book. In “Brightwork” (p. 84-85), we are treated to a charming celebration of love for an aging sailboat. And in the lovely piece, “Learning to Tie a Knot” (p. 93), we see how the author describes her growing love for her future husband;

Learning to Tie a Knot
for Daniel

I met a sailor in a harbor bar — we schooled like fish
through a gray-green sea and drank together, began to tie
and untie our minds for each other like well-worn ropes.

Good knots are simple yet intricate, he says, they hold
and they release.
They turn as a mind or journey turns,
I say. I say I want to learn to tie a knot that’s strong, not

like a fist or stone, but one that even under pressure, holds
a thousand pounds of fish — yet at end of day, a cold and tired hand
can release it. What of this well-worn desire to weave, unweave

myself? Yes, I want to learn to tie a knot that holds;
and the sailor lays a rope across the floor — it seems
to tie and untie itself in his well-worn hands.

He lays one loop across another, stops and waits
as if he’s playing chess, as if he knows the rope will counter –
overhand and under, teaching me to tie a knot that holds.

I try over and over to remember, until the rope knows
my hands, until my mind winds itself around the thought, until
my heart, well-worn rope, has learned to untie and tie itself, to hold.

These poems are more than simply a written record of a fleeting moment for posterity to ponder. In a recent conversation with the author, she briefly described part of her philosophy that underlies her craft, “[W]hat is so wonderful and challenging about poetry [is that] you become a student of the world, attempting to enter many different realms of study – history, mythology, biology, ornithology(!), art, geneology, theology … and [you] hope to be at least emotionally accurate (and hopefully scientifically accurate!) with the small scraps you pull out of that vast body of knowledge to use for your own artistic purposes.”

I think the author succeeds at accomplishing both objectives. This first published book of poetry by a long-time friend of mine who also happens to be an extraordinary up-and-coming poet will delight and satisfy you like a long, cool drink on a humid day.

.

Shannon Borg is a Seattle writer, editor, poet and wine educator. She holds an MFA in poetry from the University of Washington, and a PhD in poetry and literature from the University of Houston. Her poems have been published in The Paris Review, London Review of Books, Poetry Northwest, Gulf Coast, Cranky and other journals. She recently received an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for an article published last year in Seattle Magazine. She has taught writing at the University of Houston, Houston Writers in the Schools, The Seattle Art Institute, the Richard Hugo House and Spokane Community College.

Comments

  1. #1 Peggy Miller
    May 30, 2006

    Very nice to see this book review here, and since I am a writer of science poetry, it is of particular interest. Thanks

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