the poetry of science

My latest book obsession is a small book of poetry called Darwin’s Microscope by Kelley Swain.  The poems about science, evolution, and Darwin are wonderful and some of them are just skeletons built from the language of science.  Many of us already know that the concepts of science are beautiful; we need more poets to organize the language of science and make us realize that it is poetic.

The book is only available in the UK; I ordered my copy from Amazon UK.  This is one of my favorite poems from the book:

Thermodynamics of Immortality

When I die, scatter my ashes to the wind to settle
on a forest floor where earthworms buffet

through rich humus, where I pass from intestines
as nutrients taken by acorns, sprout, stretch

toward sunlight, year after year, inch my way to a branch
steeped with cicada eggs so I fall to the ground

and burrow, eat sap for seventeen years,
burst forth for two frenzied days seeking a mate,

when a burnt-ember cardinal snatches me, red
and cackling, catching warm air pockets from the pavement

until winter moves in; I huddle on a branch, fall asleep,
thud to the cold ground, dissolve slowly

into the icy creek, flow like mercury,
weave over stones around roots under branches, turn warm,

briny, pull into a spiny starfish, pump
into slow feet, and crawl again.


2 thoughts on “the poetry of science

  1. Edward T. Babinski

    GREAT POEM! Here’s some of my favs!

    Bertrand de Born Smuggles a Letter Out of Hell by D. Nurkse

    Dearest, I am happy in the fire.

    The lighting is spectacular,
    snaking tongues, a rain of sparks,
    and the moans of the damned thrill me.

    There is no death here. God’s love
    revives us at the brink of extinction.

    The torments are cunningly varied
    but there is not one that does not correspond
    to a dream I wailed at as a child
    before my mother heard and soothed me.

    I was condemned for being the poet
    who praises war, trop estau en patz.
    So shadow destriers piss on me
    and drag their shit-stained carapaisons
    across my welts, and the infantry
    who died at Beziers, young and callow,
    pierce me with non-existent lances,

    but suffering is just a story
    I tell myself, as in the crib.
    No fire can singe my mind
    except our separation.

    P.S. Dante passed here in a toga woven
    of strangely fire-resistant merino
    and I trusted him with this message.

    I scored it on vellum with a live coal,
    searing holes shaped like letters.

    Darling, hold it to your hazel eyes,
    and see my constancy, my will,
    and through this play of gaps
    see the world the living cannot notice
    without a lens or a screen:

    the oak forest, deep-shadowed in May,
    our wedding village, white dressed stone,
    Hautefort, the first defenses of Paradise.

    Copyright © D. Nurkse
    Ploughshares, v. 34, no.1 (Spring 2008)


    The Expulsion

    Adam was happy — now he had someone to blame
    for everything: shipwrecks, Troy,
    the gray face in the mirror.

    Eve was happy — now he would always need her.
    She walked on boldly, swaying her beautiful hips.

    The serpent admired his emerald coat,

    the Angel burst into flames
    (he’d never approved of them, and he was right).

    Even God was secretly pleased: Let
    History begin!

    The dog had no regrets, trotting by Adam’s side
    self-importantly, glad to be rid
    of the lion, the toad, the basilisk, the white-footed mouse,
    who were also happy and forgot their names immediately.

    Only the Tree of Knowledge stood forlorn,
    its small hard bitter crab apples
    glinting high up, in a twilight of black leaves.
    How pleasant it had been, how unexpected
    to have been, however briefly,
    the center of attention.
    — by Katha Pollitt
    from The Mind-Body Problem (Random House, 2009)


    The Meaning of Existence by Les Murray

    Everything except language
    knows the meaning of existence.
    Trees, planets, rivers, time
    know nothing else. They express it
    moment by moment as the universe.
    Even this fool of a body
    lives it in part, and would
    have full dignity within it
    but for the ignorant freedom
    of my talking mind.

    from Poems the Size of Photographs, 2002


    Paradox by Clarence R. Wylie Jr.

    Not truth, nor certainty. These I forswore
    In my novitiate, as young men called
    To holy orders must abjure the world.
    ‘If…,then…,’ this only I assert;
    And my successes are but pretty chains
    Linking twin doubts, for it is vain to ask
    If what I postulate be justified,
    Or what I prove possess the stamp of fact.

    Yet bridges stand, and men no longer crawl
    In two dimension. And such triumphs stem
    In no small measure from the power this game,
    Played with the thrice-attentuated shades
    Of things, has over their originals.
    How frail the wand, but how profound the spell!


    Fear of God by Ronnie J. Hastings, Ph.D. (1983)

    Galileo was chided by the God-fearing for observing that the solar system
    is Copernican, not Ptolemaic. And yet… the wanderers did and do move
    about the sun.

    Newton was chided by the God-fearing for describing all motions with
    mathematics, not with divine will. And yet…measurements in mechanics
    could and can be predicted with precision through calculation.

    Lavoisier was chided by the God-fearing for explaining chemistry as
    quantative reactions, not as miracles or magic. And yet…substances did
    and do appear and disappear with predictable regularity in labs everywhere.

    Darwin was chided by the God-fearing for showing the diversity of life
    resulting from ecological factors and adaption to them, not from theistic
    interventions. And yet…life had and has a single structure and has
    changed and does change forms in time.

    Einstein was chided by the God-fearing for demonstrating the democracy of
    observers, not the absolute God’s-eye view. And yet…space and time have
    changed and do change from frame of reference to frame of reference, and
    the laws of nature have been and are the same for all frames.

    Perhaps the God-fearing are right to fear God. If God is the source of
    reality, they have been fighting or ignoring God’s facts for four hundred


    Our Intelligent Designer
    (Pinched from Wesley Elsberry on Panda’s Thumb)

    Our Intelligent Designer,
    Who art in the unspecified-good-place,
    Unknown be Thy name.
    Thy flagella spin, Thy mousetraps snap,
    On Earth, as it is in the
    Give us each day our unchecked apologetic.
    And forgive us our invidious comparisons,
    As we smite those iniquitous Darwinists
    With rhetoric.
    And lead us not into encounters with people
    Who ask us to state our theory,
    But deliver us from biologists
    Who know what we’re up to.
    For Thine is the irreducible complexity,
    And the wiggly parts of bacterial bottoms,
    And the inapplicable theorems,
    Now and forever.


    It’s a Long Way from Amphioxus

    Oh a fish-like thing appeared among the annelids one day
    It hadn’t any parapods nor setae to display
    It hadn’t any eyes or jaws or ventral nervous chord,
    But it had a lot of gill slits and it had a notochord.

    It’s a long way from Amphioxus
    It’s a long way to us,
    It’s a long way from Amphioxus
    To the meanest human cuss.
    Well, it’s good-bye to fins and gill slits,
    And it’s welcome lungs and hair,
    It’s a long, long way from Amphioxus
    But we all came from there.

    It wasn’t much to look at and it scarce knew how to swim,
    And Nerius was very sure it hadn’t come from him
    The molluscs wouldn’t own it and the arthropods got sore,
    So the poor thing had to burrow in the sand along the shore.


    He burrowed in the sand before a crab did nip his tail,
    And he said, “Gill slits and myotomes are all to noavail,
    I’ve grown some metoplural folds and sport an oral hood,
    But all these fine new characters don’t do me any good.”


    He sulked a while down in the sand without a bit of pep,
    Then he stiffened up his notochord and said “I’ll beat ’em yet,
    Let ’em laugh and show their ignorance I don’t mind their jeers,
    Just wait until they see me in 100 million years!”


    My notochord shall change into a chain of vertebrae,
    And as fins my metoplural folds shall agitate the sea;
    My tiny dorsal nervous chords shall be a mighty brain,
    And the vertebrae shall dominate the animal domain.”



    Evolution by Langdon Smith

    When you were a tadpole and I was a fish
    In the Paleozoic time,
    And side by side on the ebbing tide
    We sprawled through the ooze and slime,
    Or skittered with many a caudal flip
    Through the depths of the Cambrian fen,
    My heart was rife with the joy of life,
    For I loved you even then.

    Mindless we lived and mindless we loved
    And mindless at last we died;
    And deep in the rift of the Caradoc drift
    We slumbered side by side.
    The world turned on in the lathe of time,
    The hot lands heaved amain,
    Till we caught our breath from the womb of death
    And crept into light again.

    We were amphibians, scaled and tailed,
    And drab as a dead man’s hand;
    We coiled at ease ‘neath the dripping trees
    Or trailed through the mud and sand.
    Croaking and blind, with our three-clawed feet
    Writing a language dumb,
    With never a spark in the empty dark
    To hint at a life to come.

    Yet happy we lived and happy we loved,
    And happy we died once more;
    Our forms were rolled in the clinging mold
    Of a Neocomian shore.
    The eons came and the eons fled
    And the sleep that wrapped us fast
    Was riven away in the newer day
    And the night of death was past.

    Then light and swift through the jungle trees
    We swung in our airy flights,
    Or breathed in the balms of the fronded palms
    In the hush of the moonless nights;
    And oh! what beautiful years were there
    When our hearts clung each to each;
    When life was filled and our senses thrilled
    In the first faint dawn of speech.

    Thus life by life and love by love
    We passed through the cycles strange,
    And breath by breath and death by death
    We followed the chain of change.
    Till there came a time in the law of life
    When over the nursing side
    The shadows broke and the soul awoke
    In a strange, dim dream of God.

    I was thewed like an Auroch bull
    And tusked like the great cave bear;
    And you, my sweet, from head to feet
    Were gowned in your glorious hair.
    Deep in the gloom of a fireless cave,
    When the night fell o’er the plain
    And the moon hung red o’er the river bed
    We mumbled the bones of the slain.

    I flaked a flint to a cutting edge
    And shaped it with brutish craft;
    I broke a shank from the woodland lank
    And fitted it, head and haft;
    Then I hid me close to the reedy tarn,
    Where the mammoth came to drink;
    Through the brawn and bone I drove the stone
    And slew him upon the brink.

    Loud I howled through the moonlit wastes,
    Loud answered our kith and kin;
    From west to east to the crimson feast
    The clan came tramping in.
    O’er joint and gristle and padded hoof
    We fought and clawed and tore,
    And cheek by jowl with many a growl
    We talked the marvel o’er.

    I carved that fight on a reindeer bone
    With rude and hairy hand;
    I pictured his fall on the cavern wall
    That men might understand.
    For we lived by blood and the right of might
    Ere human laws were drawn,
    And the age of sin did not begin
    Till our brutal tush was gone.

    And that was a million years ago
    In a time that no man knows;
    Yet here tonight in the mellow light
    We sit at Delmonico’s.
    Your eyes are deep as the Devon springs,
    Your hair is dark as jet,
    Your years are few, your life is new,
    Your soul untried, and yet —

    Our trail is on the Kimmeridge clay
    And the scarp of the Purbeck flags;
    We have left our bones in the Bagshot stones
    And deep in the Coralline crags;
    Our love is old, our lives are old,
    And death shall come amain;
    Should it come today, what man may say
    We shall not live again?

    God wrought our souls from the Tremadoc beds
    And furnished them wings to fly;
    He sowed our spawn in the world’s dim dawn,
    And I know that I shall not die,
    Though cities have sprung above the graves
    Where the crook-bone men make war
    And the oxwain creaks o’er the buried caves
    Where the mummied mammoths are.

    Then as we linger at luncheon here
    O’er many a dainty dish,
    Let us drink anew to the time when you
    Were a tadpole and I was a fish.


    Free to Err by Sharon Mooney

    The secrets of the bible are sealed,
    out of God’s love for men.
    truths and enigmatic mystery,
    tucked ‘tween the pages within.

    a simple person like me is not fit to interpret
    or even understand,
    – the good lord wants it so, – suffering is right and just,
    recall the fall and God’s curse on man.

    i’m not wise enough to know all truth,
    don’t pretend to understand,
    but if Jesus paid the price, why then the collection plate
    passed ’round sunday to pay a preacher man?

    simple believers are never worthy,
    to explain God’s holy word
    they’ll tell you so, in a pious squint,
    at least that’s so inside the church;

    the service ends and the brethren leave,
    heading separate ways,
    bound to cross an unbeliever, they’re transformed,
    giving expert witness by power of almighty grace:

    “Believe in the Holy Ghost
    and the only begotten Son,
    through Jesus Christ ye shall be saved,
    by the power of his sacred blood.

    “Spare yourself from His infinite wrath
    that shall fall as lightning on the unbeliever,
    Just believe in the Bible as His inspired word,
    faith alone in the blood of the redeemer.”

    “Darwin may claim man came from ape,
    but the truth is within this Holy book,
    God formed man from the dust of the ground,
    you must only take a look!”
    “Read here for yourself, the book of Genesis,
    oh how Darwin lied, kind begats kind!
    – created them male and female -,
    commanding, ‘Be fruitful, Multiply’.”

    What is this? You who know all truth?,
    from times and places you have never been,
    of things you have not seen,
    nor having any evidence?!
    This book you call Holy, Sacred, Inspired, Truth,
    claiming divine origin for its creation,
    yet, I find your faith rather crude.

    That book holds all secrets,
    even the origins of life itself?
    If life was formed from “simple dust”,
    then why hasn’t science discovered this yet?

    You say science cannot be trusted,
    and Darwin told a lie, you say man
    and ape are un-related,
    yet, look what I’m beholding with my eyes:

    Wasn’t it you sitting in yonder church,
    with open mind to what preacher says “just believe”,
    as they say, “monkey see monkey do”,
    aren’t you remarkably good at mimmicking!

    You tell me here, that science books,
    Darwin, Evolution, cannot be trusted by men,
    yet 40,000 denominations,
    all EVOLVED from one Christianity!

    You say the Bible need not explain
    the geological record or modern astronomy,
    neither is there mention of chromosomes or telomeres,
    the microscopic fabric of DNA.

    If the Bible fails to render all truths,
    why should I render my faith?
    if your God and Bible are free to err,
    then so am I, what to say?


    The Stranger from Beyond the Sky by R. A. Lafferty

    The handsome stranger cast his eye
    On Shirley-girl and gave a sigh.
    “Oh talk a while,” he said, “with I.”
    She liked his noble knobby dome.
    They dinnered at the Hippodrome.
    She fell for him, she brought him home.
    “Oh, mother see this guy of mine,”
    She said. “He’s from a noble line.
    His I.Q. soars to 9-9-9.”
    But what the mother said was, “Yoik!
    I doubt me, girl, that it will woik.
    It strikes me that he is a joik.
    “It isn’t just his extra eye,
    Or that he lives beyond the sky,
    Or has more toes than you or I,
    “Or whale bone teeth. But it’s a shock
    When from his brow the cuckoo cock
    Pops out and carols, ‘Eight O’clock.’
    “Oh give him dear, I beg, the boot.
    You no more need this alien brute
    Than fishes need a parachute.”
    Said Shirley, “Stranger, it’s been keen.
    I loved your mouthful of baleen.
    And now I beg you Leave the Scene.”
    He wept a tear. The tear was green.


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