My rating: 4 of 5 stars
What is science poetry? Take a sonnet by Petrarch, keep almost all of the words, but change the object from Laura to Science. Or, take any given Shakespeare sonnet that harps on marriage. Again, keep most of the words. Change only the object of the poet’s affection. Science poetry, as I’ve encountered it recently, is like any other poetry. The only difference is the wellspring of metaphor.
Geoff Landis may be best known in literary circles as the Hugo and Nebula award-winning author of Mars Crossing. In the scientific community he is a highly accomplished researcher at NASA. But along the way he has written poetry. Or, as he quips on his website, “OK, I admit it: I also sometimes commit acts of poetry…”
The published result is a wonderful short volume of verse titled Iron Angels. Similar to Landis’s career, this collection straddles science and sci-fi. Some of the early poems, like “Earthrise, Viewed from Meridiani, Sol 687”, invoke distinctly Sagan-esque motifs, like Earth as a pale blue dot. The poetry links life together, both human generations and alien life separated by lightyears of space. In the age of celebrity scientists like Neil deGrasse Tyson, such cosmic effusing counts as proverbial. And if these were the only poems Iron Angels contained, it would be a heartfelt but tiresome collection.
Iron Angels clears the launch tower, as it were, with a clever and crisply written piece titled “Christmas (When We All Get Time Machines).” Hint, if such a thing ever happens it may prove most unfortunate for the holiday. The poem gave me a chuckle even as it took me aback and made me truly think about the consequences of cheating Time.
Within the book’s trim 55 pages, there is at least one shape poem, a smattering of haiku, a bit of rhyming, but mostly free verse—accessible and engrossing. At least a couple of poems blur whatever boundary might exist between flash fiction and poetry. I did not love every piece, nor find them all masterful. Yet, everywhere the verse smacked of deliberateness, of orchestrated word choice that does with text what talented painters do with oil on canvas.
Many of the poems are thoroughly grounded in everyday human experience. It is probably outright wrong to call it all science poetry. Some of the verse, including a few amusing cat poems (at least as amusing as anything on YouTube), seems like it may have been written as a diversion after a long day at the lab. Some of it is wonderfully romantic. And some of it, like “Snapshots,” is wonderfully haunting:
“I wonder, sometimes, about those people in the picture / so like us, and yet so strange. / If they were not trapped in the slippery squares of paper…”
I read contemporary poetry with suspicion. Is it truly poetry? Or is it just lazy prose slapped on the page with forced enjambments to appear poetic? Iron Angels is poetry. Moreover, Landis’s collection avoids the trap of being esoteric, intelligible only to scientists. These angels, steeped both in science and humanity, are worth invoking … and reading for enjoyment.