Radial Symmetry

FOR KATHERINE LARSON, science is a lover she embraces and betrays. The poems in her first collection, chosen by Louise Glück for the Yale Series of Younger Poets, remind me how necessary poems are to expose the beauty and riddle of our humanity. Larson elides the lyric’s sensual impulsivity with biology’s reasoned patience. There is in her poems no division between these habits of mind that we’ve come to think of as disciplines. In “Love at Thirty-Two Degrees,” the poet is not content with dissection on the lab bench as a means to understand the body of a squid:

                                After class,
I stole one from the formaldehyde
and watched it bloom in my bathroom sink

between the cubes of ice.

This is a narrative detail, but story is not the point of the poem. Rather, the poet lives inside the paradox of her desire to see reality unimpeded — a desire that requires her to learn and unlearn again and again, and to head off driving into the night “with a thermos full of silver tequila.” I love a poet who is so capable at recasting eros as a hunger for experience. “Science — // beyond pheromones, hormones, aesthetics of bone, / every time I make love for love’s sake alone, // I betray you.”

Aptly, the book’s cover is graced with illustrations from the nineteenth-century polymath Ernst Haeckel. He was a man whose appetite to understand the riddle of the universe required study in biology, philosophy, and aesthetics. There’s no solving such a complex riddle, of course, but to extend the mind’s reach as far as possible into the mystery is one of our most endearing human traits. For Haeckel, as for Larson, to apprehend the nature of reality requires aesthetic gesture, the artful and shaping engagement of the mind with what it experiences. And Larson’s work is bracingly artful in its range of formal gestures, tension between line and sentence, and syntactical freedom that creates a music that hastens and halts, not unlike what happens when a dissonant note is hit in a musical composition, making one hungry for a resolution.

                                I’m sick

of this stubbornness
but the earthworms
seem to think it all right
they move forward
and let the world pass
through them they eat
and eat at it, content to connect
everything through
the individual links
of their purple bodies to stay
one place would be death.

Paul Klee, Aristotle, Agassiz, Darwin, Bécquer, Rousseau, Euclid, and Akhmatova are among the intellectual talismans in her work. Her poetic imagination provides a gallery space in which biology, aesthetics, and metaphysics meet. While ideas and allusions nourish this work, they do not boast from pedestals, nor do they cause it to become doctrinaire. Rather, the poet works as nature does at reassembling herself from the materials at hand.

In the sequence “Ghost Nets,” inspired by discarded gill nets found along the Sea of Cortés, an elegiac love for each living thing is suspended in stunning image, juxtaposition, and reflection: “The tide seeps in with its pewter description, / simple and flat under halophytic grasses. We sit // under palapas that rustle their shaggy hair, / as if clearing the air of meaning.” The poem captures that sense of the tenuous that oddly makes us feel most alive: “All living is brushwork, you say. // Watching the women wade to the crates with their Styrofoam floats, / the oysters quivering in their cups of flesh and lime.”

Radial Symmetry marks the arrival of a poet whose work merits many readings not because it is inscrutable upon first reading, but because it invites sustained attention to the surprising manner in which a poem can hold precise observation in balance with the deeper imprecisions of our emotional and spiritual natures.