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A Responsibility to Awe: Poems

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Rebecca Elson was an astronomer. Her work took her to the boundary of the visible and measurable. Facts are only as interesting as the possibilities they open up to the imagination, she wrote. Her research involved dark matter - hidden mass which can be inferred only from its influence on observable objects: As if, from fireflies, one could infer the field. Her poems, too, make inferences and speculate, setting out always from meticulous observation and not deterred by a knowledge of how little we can know of the universe.

159 pages, Paperback

First published October 25, 2001

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Rebecca Elson

4 books15 followers

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5 stars
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64 (30%)
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33 (15%)
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Displaying 1 - 28 of 28 reviews
Profile Image for Rebecca.
3,554 reviews2,534 followers
October 17, 2018
Elson was an astronomer who died of breast cancer. This is a reprint of her posthumous 2001 publication. Along with a set of completed poems, the volume includes a short autobiographical essay written in 1998 for a Radcliffe alumnae anthology, and poetry and stories extracted from Elson’s notebook. I focused on the finished poems, which often take their metaphors from physics (“Dark Matter”), mathematics (“Inventing Zero”) and evolution (the poem “Evolution,” my favorite, reads in its entirety: “We are survivors of immeasurable events, / Flung upon some reach of land, / Small, wet miracles without instructions, / Only the imperative of change.”). Stars and beaches are also common features, and there is some great alliteration (from “Dark Matter”: “An unseen filament / Of spider’s floss / Suspends a slowly / Spinning leaf.”).

In the essay that closes the book, Elson remembers long summers of fieldwork and road trips across Canada with her geologist father (I was reminded of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye), and traces her academic career as she bounced between the United States and Great Britain. Dark matter was one of her academic specialties, and she worked on the Hubble Space Telescope. Her impending mortality has a subtle presence in the poems: “Sometimes as an antidote / To fear of death, / I eat the stars.” (from “Antidotes to Fear of Death”) and “Is there any language, logic / Any algebra where death is not / The tragedy it seems / A geometry that makes it look / Alright to die” (from “Transumanza” in the notebook).

Overall I was perhaps slightly underwhelmed, but still glad I read the poems at least.
Profile Image for Anyu.
52 reviews206 followers
July 20, 2020
Trying to figure out why I'm giving this 4 stars. I didn't find the notebook drafts very compelling, and they make up the bulk of the book. But a few of the finished, more polished poems will stay with me. Critic R.P. Blackmur wrote that one of the things good poetry can offer us is “a fresh idiom”, or language phrased in such a way that it “not only expresses the matter at hand but adds to the stock of available reality.” I think fresh idioms are what I'm looking for in a poetry collection—finding a handful of them feels gratifying enough. Some of the poems here were unremarkable (and I always deplore the lack of attention paid to metre in contemporary English poetry) but some had lovely metaphors to offer, like “the lacework of birdsounds”, or the “persuasion” of spacetime in “Explaining Relativity” (Where space might cup itself around a planet / like your palm around a stone). There was also, in the poem “Explaining dark matter”, the verse as if you could infer the day from vestigial heat; or the last verse of “What if there were no moon?” — There would be no place to stand / and watch the Earth rise.

And I liked the imagery of “Dark Matter” and “Notte di San Giovanni”. And “The Last Animists”, which ends with:

We say the dreams of night
Are within us
As blood within flesh
As spirit within substance
As the oneness of things
As from a dust of pigeons
The white light of wings.

This one will join Archibald MacLeish’s “Baccalaureate” in my list of Nice Poems Containing Pigeons Wings.
Profile Image for Rosamund Taylor.
Author 1 book119 followers
October 1, 2019
Published posthumously, this volume contains Elson's first collection, as well as an essay describing her career as an astronomer, and a selection of extracts from her notebooks. Her poetry, mainly written in clear, lyrical free-verse, deals with astronomy and our relationship to the stars, as well as love, family, and Elson's diagnosis with cancer. Her poems reflecting on mortality have particular poignancy and insight, and her exploration of love is sensual and moving. Her collection is uneven: some of these poems are true gems that deserve to be loved and remembered, and some of them are not very gripping or convincing. The essay about her work as an astronomer is fascinating, and as an insight into women in the science fields, it's very valuable. I'm glad I found this book, and I recommend it.
Profile Image for Susie McBeth.
Author 2 books4 followers
March 25, 2021
I could read this poetry book again and again. It is truly a constant wonder to me. I picked it up when I first came across it in a Waterstones, way back in 2001 and I regularly re-read it. It is a book of comfort and awe and each word so carefully placed stays with me.

The poems are heartfelt and there is a piercing beauty and insight esp in the ones that reflect on her cancer and on her work as a scientist. The essays are also a very interesting look into her life and journey.

While some poems don't shine as brightly as others in her collection, all have an honesty that pull you in. I don't know why I like it so much. Some books just feel like friends sometimes and this is one of them.
Profile Image for Grace Richards.
54 reviews7 followers
May 22, 2022
I LOVED the astro poems and the autobiographical essay at the end was lovely, could have skipped the notebook excerpts though
Profile Image for Andy Weiss.
40 reviews3 followers
February 17, 2022
Are we ever really done? This book remains with me, on my "on hand constantly" shelf. Poems are to be picked up on the winds of whim, to be read aloud...

"And so, spreading our wings, we become night"... Becky Elson still speaks.

I hope that we may we all be well. I think this helps define all that. I don't really know much at all... just trying to... ~

Profile Image for Luke.
847 reviews14 followers
May 14, 2020
Quick mostly single page single idea poems of every day and astrophysics. The notebook drafts and whims included at the back of my copy are at least as good as the collection.
Profile Image for Csenge.
Author 14 books68 followers
September 4, 2022
A gorgeous collection of poems and musings, by a woman who had the knowledge of science, the inspiration of poetry, and "a responsibility to awe." Lovely book.
Profile Image for Graham.
599 reviews9 followers
November 25, 2022
Even though the second half of the book contains a collection of fragments, unfinished poems and the ‘workings out’ for the finished ones, this little book is worth your time because a scientist’s eye picks out that which at artist might not see. Of course there will be stars, beaches, her own family, her struggles with cancer, her loves and life, and concerns of “who will I have been / When I am gone”… there is a beautiful poignancy of some of these, some naughty wit, some astute observation: the totality is a generous insight into a human whose vision encompassed the birth of stars alongside her own existence made brief: “And how in all this glory / Can it be a gene gone wrong / And why” …
The first section is good; the second tangled messiness drawn with little editing from her notebooks, and so we find this little line: “There is no poetry to cancer / To the body betraying itself”

Get this book. It’s a good addition to your bookshelf.
Profile Image for Alyssa.
127 reviews55 followers
March 20, 2021
A heartfelt collection of poems that seeks to understand our place in the universe and the meaning of death. It was interesting to read Elson's account of her life upon becoming an astrophysicist although I didn't find the essay enthralling enough to pay too much attention. The poems were the one that drew my attention. It's fascinating how she tried to incorporate her thing for science in writing her poems.

These are the ones that I enjoyed reading:
Let There Always Be Light (Searching for Dark Matter)
Some Thoughts about the Ocean and the Universe
February, rue Labat
Midwinter, Baffin Bay
The Ballad of Just and While
OncoMouse, Kitchen Mouse
Antidotes to Fear of Death
Profile Image for Laura.
Author 2 books83 followers
December 27, 2022
I've been reading this book for months. Poetry books tend to linger on my currently-reading pile for a spell because I savor them. Also, poetry books can't be read from cover to cover like novels. I read it forwards and backward and do random drop-ins. I love this book! Its essence is spellbinding, and the celestial science-based subject matter (astronomy) is delightful to me as I am interested in what's "out there" beyond our pale blue spot of light in the vastness of space. I also love the "Extracts from the Notebook" in the back section of the book; it makes it special for the reader to see her writing process and to read snapshots of life being lived.
Profile Image for Susan.
466 reviews7 followers
June 13, 2021
Loved the actual poem section of it. However most if it is an incomplete / work in progress section taken from the author's notebook (understandable, given the context). I don't know if it's the ebook formatting or what, but even though this second, non-poem part should be something that I'm interested in, reading it was really difficult and gave me a headache so I ended up giving up halfway through --I couldn't force myself to go any further.

Also this had the most lascivious poem about a fig tree that I have ever read in my life.
Profile Image for Vincent Veerbeek.
46 reviews4 followers
October 20, 2022
What a gift to get a glimpse into the mind of Rebecca Elson through her writing. Although I'd give much of the collection three or four stars on its own, there are enough stand-out poems. "Dark matter" for instance:

Above a pond,
An unseen filament
Of spider's floss
Suspends a slowly
Spinning leaf.
241 reviews
March 1, 2020
Good, but I was slightly disappointed because the book doesn't include my favorite Elson poem, "If All There Was". I ordered the book expecting it'd be included, but there was only a very preliminary sketch in the notebook section. Still a recommendable volume, however.
Profile Image for Marc Murison.
26 reviews2 followers
April 13, 2020
Poetry doesn't get any better than this. These poems reflect her journey after getting a rare (for someone her age) diagnosis of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Elson, an astrophysicist, died in 1999, at age 39.
Profile Image for Sean Kenna.
101 reviews5 followers
February 27, 2021
Some parts were excellent and others dragged a bit, but all in all, Elson reminds me of Virginia Wolf with an Astronomy background. Includes drawing powerful parallels and painting almost whimsical portraits. Overall, I would say it was enjoyable.
Profile Image for Sacha.
254 reviews2 followers
October 13, 2019
Would try something by this author if the library ever had anything to offer.
Profile Image for Peter.
280 reviews3 followers
August 18, 2020
The extracts from her diary are just as rich as the poems. I enjoyed personal/impersonal tugs in her writing. A very moving slim volume.
Profile Image for Heidi.
23 reviews
September 4, 2020
Beautiful, beautiful poems about existence and the universe. No matter how many times I read them they still bring tears to my eyes and a smile to my lips.
Profile Image for jsg.
56 reviews1 follower
April 4, 2021
love these beautiful galactic poems, and the glimpse into elson's notebooks and life (carcarnet edition)
Profile Image for Sonia.
79 reviews37 followers
May 6, 2021
The poems are so absolutely beautiful. But the journal entries dragged the whole book down. I cried reading every poem though.

Such a beautiful, well-lived life because of poetry.
Profile Image for Albatul.
19 reviews18 followers
December 13, 2020
absolute gems alongside unconvincing pieces that read more like drafts or unvarnished personal release.

the way she intersperses her poems with the her love and practice of astronomy enlivens a joy and beauty to viewing the world so sweet and infinite.
11 reviews
April 4, 2020
This was a luminous, personally challenging read. This book of poetry is separated into 2 sections: the first, a straight-up book of poems; the second, a glimpse into Elson's notebooks.

Elson died of lymphoma at age 39 in 1999, and the writings of her notebook reveal her grief and her challenge in staying present with her work, her surroundings, her memories, her mortality. It felt like I was reading someone's diary, because I was. And it was a diary of someone with whom I deeply resonate--an astronomer, a poet, a person who lived with intention and awe and respect for her past and for the majesty of astrophysics. To explore her notebooks felt almost too personal, but at the same time, her notebooks absolutely sparkle.

Her work reminds me of my own fears, my own grief and pain due to cancer, and my own humility as I explore survivorship. It's humbling to read, and I'm grateful.
Profile Image for Brendan Cummins.
49 reviews1 follower
January 4, 2023
Can't say I'm the biggest fan of poetry, but reading what Elson was motivated to write after learning she had a terminal disease made each poem mean so much more to me. I love how she connects the poems to science and shows off her curiosity.

The edition I had also had a series of raw journal entries all the way up to just before Elson passes away. One of those books I feel privileged to be able to read and makes me appreciate the opportunity to study science.
Profile Image for Priya Bhakta.
114 reviews
October 25, 2013
Lovely poetry by a fascinating writer. Rebecca Elson was an astronomer as well as a writer and this book was published posthumously. There's a range of poetry and a few short stories (which do read like poetry as well) from her notebooks. She writes about her work, her feelings and struggle with cancer. It's intensely personal and reading it offers the comfort of like being with a good friend.
Displaying 1 - 28 of 28 reviews

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