What if There Were No ( x )?

For my first poetry session at the Mullard Space Science Lab, I thought discussing some poems by the astronomer/writer Rebecca Elson would create a kind of 'singularity' of relevance. What could be more pertinent to us, collectively, than a professional astronomer who also published poetry that was frequently about astronomy?

I first encountered the work of Rebecca Elson in 2001 when a friend suggested we go to see a memorial reading of poems from her Carcanet collection A Responsibility to Awe (1999) at The Troubadour in Earl's Court.

I couldn't resist the lure of an astronomer poet but 'a memorial reading'? How sad to hear of a new poet and their early death (at 39) at the same moment. The evening was revelatory and moving, and I've been reading and teaching Elson's poems ever since.

For the space lab 'seminar', I sent out half a dozen poems to the members of MSSL a week ahead of time. I went for some of the more obvious titles: 'We Astronomers', 'Dark Matter', 'Explaining Relativity' and 'What if There Were No Moon?' and invited anybody interested to join me in the common room. I had no idea if I would be left sitting on my own, or swamped by eager poetry fans.

Earlier in the day, in the same common room, I attended a seminar by Spiro Antiochos of NASA, an internationally recognised authority on solar and plasma physics. I also shared a car with him that morning but had no idea who he was till later. The theme of Spiro's presentation was 'The Role of Magnetic Reconnection in Solar Eruptions' and some of the best minds in solar physics were in attendance to hear his thoughts on the formation of solar filaments (also known as prominences) and the forces involved in their eruption.

The hard science, and the maths, were pitched way over the head of this poet, but as I understand it magnetic reconnection describes the way in which energy stored in a magnetic field is converted, sometimes explosively, into heat and kinetic release. It's fabulously more complex than this, of course.

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In any case, it was thrilling to be on the periphery of the discussion and to hear new (to me) terms and concepts like magnetic islands, plasmoids, magnetic null points and bipolar arcades. If nothing else, as a writer, I took away a lot of suggestive and intriguing language.

It took a certain amount of courage (or plain front) to sit among the scientists at Spiro's seminar and try to look like I was meant to be there. I was also a little intimidated by the thought that just a few hours later I would be hosting a meeting in the very same space about Rebecca Elson's poetry.

But I realised that perhaps it would also be tricky for some of the staff and students to attend my poetry meeting and I did receive a few concerned enquiries about being compelled to read poetry aloud or being put on the spot to offer opinions and analyses of poems.

The aim of the session was to create a friendly, inclusive atmosphere in which we could simply read and reflect upon the poems, paying attention to Elson's choice of subject matter, titles, word choices, layout, rhythm, punctuation, etc: anything that struck us as noteworthy, whether good or not so good. Contributions were welcome but so was sitting quietly, listening, and thinking.

About a dozen staff and students showed up and over the course of 50 minutes we looked at four of Elson's poems, each of which prompted fascinating discussions about symbolism, ambiguity, how the layout of a poem reflects its ostensible 'subject', how certain immediate 'meanings' were undercut by a second reading, and what the poems implied about the role of scientists and astronomers.

In 'We Astronomers', Elson begins:

We astronomers are nomads,

Merchants, circus people,

All the earth our tent.


We are industrious.

We breed enthusiasms,

Honour our responsibility to awe.

and while the 'we' refers to all people (maybe all sentient beings), discussing the poem in the context of MSSL threw up many interesting discussions about the demands on astronomers to travel, to teach, to move from institution to institution, often in pursuit of funding. And all the time needing to honour their responsibility to awe. Is this responsibility a simple thing, a natural thing, or can it become a burden, an excuse for others not to honour their responsibility?

We discussed 'Dark Matter', a brief 14 word poem of 22 syllables:

Above a pond,

An unseen filament

Of spider's floss

Suspends a slowly

Spinning leaf.

and how its layout on the page (basically the top left-hand, leaving the vast majority of the page blank) said as much about the 'subject' of the poem as the words did. Elson studied dark matter as an astronomer but the title clearly alludes to things beyond the scope of her research. 

Why this pond? We asked. To give the poem some kind of scale, or backdrop: to create suspense, a ground of meaning over which this ambiguous leaf can spin.

We talked of the poem's sound patterns: all those 'O's and all those 'S' sounds that make this particular poem such a silent experience in comparison to the explosive opening of 'Explaining Relativity':

Forget the clatter of ballistics,

The monologue of falling stones,

The sharp vectors

And the stiff numbered grids.

So, in Spiro's seminar we discussed filaments and explosive force, and in the afternoon we discussed very similar things in relation to poetry. I was lucky enough to take the car and the train back to London with Spiro: my day was bookended by him.

At the end of the session, I set an assignment to write a new piece, after one of the poems we looked at, called 'What if There Were No (x)?',  where the x is a concept or object chosen by the poet. So far I've received some interesting drafts replacing the x with 'Contact', 'Stars', 'No Clear Skies', and others. I might write one myself called What if There Were No 'No'.