by Rafaël Newman
I may rise in the morning and notice that a long overdue spring rainfall has revived the flagging vegetation in my kitchen garden. I may give thanks to an unseen, benevolent power for this respite from a protracted and wasting drought. And I may record in my journal: “The heavens cannot horde the juice eternal / The sun draws from the thirsty acres vernal.” In such exercises, I will not have practised rigorous inquiry into the causes of things; I will not have subscribed to any particular view of the metaphysical; and I will certainly not have produced literature. But I will have replicated the conditions for the birth of science, as sketched by Geoffrey Lloyd in his account of the pre-Socratic philosophers, the first thinkers (at least in the Western world) to consider natural phenomena as distinct from the supernatural, however devoutly they may have believed in the latter; and who frequently set down their observations, theories and conclusions in formal language. For my observation of a natural phenomenon (rain and its effect on plant life), while not methodical, would bespeak a willingness to collect and consider empirical data unconstrained by superstitious tradition, and would not necessarily be contradicted by my ensuing prayer of gratitude to a supernatural force; and the verse elaboration of my findings into a speculative theory would not consign them to the realm of poetry (or even doggerel), but would merely represent a formal convention, whose forebears include Hesiod, Xenophanes, Lucretius and Vergil.
Such an accumulation of pursuits may seem bizarre and contradictory to a modern sensibility, which has since relegated each to a separate sphere: the scientist studies the natural world; the cleric provides a conduit to the beyond; and the poet records lived experience in elaborate or heightened language.
Crossovers are of course not unknown – the Romantics reviving religion amid an increasingly secularized modernity; Donne and Hopkins writing erotic paeans to Christ; Kafka and Wallace Stevens making art in the world of actuaries; William Carlos Williams the versifying physician; Robert Oppenheimer moved by the world’s first atomic blast, 75 years ago last week, to cite the Bhagavad Gita – but they are the exceptions that prove the rule, as are the fantastically Linnaean ornithological poems of Eric Miller, by trade a professor of literature. The professionalization, segmentation and specialization of an increasingly complex contemporary working world have compartmentalized scientific inquiry, spiritual practice and lyrical craft – to say nothing of the ethical and political antagonisms among the world views associated with the various profiles, which serve to further cement the boundaries around them.
Two new collections of poetry by professional scientists, one natural, the other social, suggest the possibilities inherent in a latter-day dismantling of these boundaries. Anja Konig is a physicist who works in pharmaceutical research funding; Zoë Hitzig is a doctoral candidate in economics who has co-authored papers on applied mathematical topics like allocation algorithms and quadratic voting. Their voices, in the collections issued this past spring, are utterly different: while Konig is spare, wry, lucid, sometimes almost painfully personal, Hitzig dresses her often hieratic poems in historical and scholarly allusions requiring narrative footnotes. Konig, with one mischievously notable exception in the new book, writes singular, stand-alone verse, while Hitzig is given to lengthy sequences, which she has admitted to having to force herself to prune. Konig focuses on the intersections between the human and the “natural”; Hitzig discerns the mechanical figures in operation behind a façade of organic life, and, conversely, the irrationalism only imperfectly obscured by the will to impose mathematical systems. And yet the two scientist-poets exhibit a similar will to infuse their artistic production with the spirit of their inquiries into nature and society, thus offering a plague-ridden, ecologically threatened, socially riven planet lyrics that are at once a reflection of a new and potentially fruitful synergism, and a balm for a world in which science, ethics and poetry are too often pitted one against the other.
Konig’s collection, Animal Experiments (Bad Betty Press, 2020), is prefaced by an epigraph from the Taoist tradition: two sages are observing the behavior of fish in a river, and one suggests that he understands the essence of piscine happiness.
“You’re not a fish,” replied Hui Tzu, “how do you know what fish enjoy?”
Chang Tzu said, “You’re not me, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”
Reminiscent of Leigh Hunt’s remarkable 1836 sonnet triptych, “The Fish, the Man, and the Spirit”, in which human and animal consider one another, perplexed, from within the insurmountable bounds of their experiential worlds, only to have their mutual non-comprehension resolved in spiritual synthesis, this anecdote from the Zhuangzi adds a further dimension of Wittgensteinian aporia, as the epistemological rift dividing species is redrawn between members of the same “race” without discounting the possibility of inter-species empathy. Konig herself walks this line, in poems that hauntingly anthropomorphize creatures great and small (“Pork Parable”, “Charismatic Megafauna”, “We are the Bees of the Invisible”) and in a sequence of texts, scattered throughout the volume, each bearing the eponymous title “Animal Experiments” and all, as she herself has pointed out, singular in the collection for not mentioning animals – other than the human variety.
In “Cats and Dogs of No Esteem”, the Stevie-Smith whimsy of its title rakishly offset by an epigraph from Shakespeare, Konig’s unsparingly vivisectionist view of her fellow humans is programmatic:
Nude mice carry our tumors under their skin. Beagles are doomed by their human hearts. Cynomolgus monkeys can be killed only carefully. The predominant emotion of a mouse is fear. Higher animals such as humans also know curiosity.
And it is this curiosity, of course, even as it is pinned on the lepidopterist’s board, that has occasioned the medical carnage of the preceding four sentences. In a poem blatantly entitled “Animal Rights”, meanwhile, Konig makes explicit another experiential rift running through the human species, and proposes a surgical solution:
…an ordinary fellow, enjoying his ordinary privilege,
his whites from South Africa and his reds from Sonoma,
this man said, why bother with the PhD, why did you not
for example become a stripper, and he laughed. Clearly
he was only teasing, he said, and by the way,
how could a dog or any animal have rights, same
as a human, but who knows nowadays:
even women have rights. He was just teasing.
I smiled, so he would know
that I, too, was only teasing, and offered
to castrate him with my fork; nobody shall call me
Apart from animals, human and otherwise, Konig’s poems often evoke the cities in which she has lived and worked, chief among them London and New York. Zurich, where she now resides, gets the occasional look-in as well, although she has said that the Swiss city is a place where “refugees” from the Anglophone metropoles come to reflect on their more vibrant experiences elsewhere, unencumbered by social life. A note of loneliness and regret is sustained throughout Animal Experiments, the natural scientist’s lament for a human world built on the suffering of subjugated species and in denial of its own precarious species being.
Zoë Hitzig’s Mezzanine (HarperCollins, 2020), too, opens with an epigraph, one similarly motivated by a will to analyse and categorize the world. To the human and the animal, however, Hitzig adds the mechanical, in an excerpt from Carolyn Merchant’s Death of Nature, a study of the role of gender in the history of science:
The non-autonomous machines…
multiplied power through external operations
by human or animal muscle or by natural forces.
were internalized models of the ordered motions
of the celestial spheres.
The first were symbols of power.
The second, of order.
Both were fundamental to the new value system.
True to her professional calling, the economist-poet is interested in that final triad: power, order, and, in particular, value, the element underpinned by the first two terms. Hitzig identifies value creation in the interaction between the animate and the inanimate, and she lends voice to the latter as she stages that process. In “Object at the Department Store Speaks,” an item on display on the titular mezzanine – the ubiquitous architectural feature Hitzig has elsewhere called “a familiar late-capitalist purgatory” – testifies to its involvement with human life (and death), which it identifies as “dense with instants”, boasts of its ability to “make meaning”, and pleads with its interlocutor to shoplift it, arguing that “We are all stolen”:
Listen, take me with you. You have so many things to look at.
I want you to see where your black gashes for eyes reach
for depth. I have these ruby eyes. I can see edges.
Edges are shadowy, maybe have rings. I know the meaning
of an instant because I saw someone die in one—
There is more than a casual reminiscence of Marx’s famously ventriloquized commodities here, their “grotesque ideas”, their headstands, and their “metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”. (Incidentally, Marx, too, wrote poetry – there’s an entire volume of the MEGA devoted to it; like Hannah Arendt’s attempts at verse, however, his poetasting served mainly to remind the philosopher to keep his day job.) But Hitzig is a more ambitious animator. “By giving objects voices,” she has said in interview, “we see more clearly the ways in which both humans and objects are shaped by complex interconnected webs of social forces. It throws subjectivity and objectivity—and how they each relate to agency—into question.” Her aim, in other words, is to extend the economic analysis of value creation into the socio-linguistic field. “Fragments from the Imagined Epic: The Island of Stone Money” is a sequence of concrete poems in which the “large immovable stones” used as currency in Micronesia – the subject, she notes, of a “famous essay” by Milton Friedman – are made to speak, proclaiming themselves “dense with value” despite the hole in their centre. Indeed, her Micronesian stones rival the linguistic value system that is poetry:
I am one of many stones that says Bezirksamt. You are the one with the vocabulary to say these things. I am the anti-pneumatic. The numismatic. Who’s to say numeraire. A stone lost at sea is strong as a villanelle sung in stone.
And yet for all that, Hitzig does insist, at least implicitly, on the primacy of the lyrical over the actuarial: “…poetry and economic theory have a lot in common. Both activities involve distilling some aspect of reality, into a concise expression that highlights a core human insight, emotion, or predicament. But they’re also opposites. Economics flattens the visceral elements of social experience into cold mathematical and statistical abstractions. Poetry swells experience into expansive, irreducible, and unparaphrasable language.” Hitzig the economist supplements her scientific quantifying with poetic qualifying; she is engaged in the same task in both cases, “distilling some aspect of reality,” although, as a poet, whether considering the history of money or the price the American carceral system places on human life, in poems such as “The Levee Speaks” and “Pawn Slip”, she is concerned with what Wayne Koestenbaum has called “language itself as the task”.
One could wish for more compression from Hitzig, who exhibits on occasion a graduate student’s loquacious anxiety of influence, and for more expansion from Konig, the poignancy of whose jewel-like miniatures may create regret at their speedy closure. Both undeniably bring to bear the tools and sensibilities of their professional scientific selves to the business of poetry, and thus go some way towards healing the aesthetic rift of post-Renaissance modernity. For as Olga Tokarczuk maintained, at the 2019 Nobel banquet that united for one evening laureates across the spectrum of intellectual endeavor: “We think there is a vast gaping hole separating scientists and artists, but it’s simply not true.”
It may be scurrilous to point this out, but there is a further commonality that potentially accounts for the two scientist-poets’ trans-disciplinarity. Konig, née König, who lost her umlaut during long sojourns in New York and London, was born and raised in Bavaria, while Hitzig is a scion of the Itzig family, a distinguished Berlin dynasty. Both, in other words, have German heritage, and thus share in the neo-Renaissance legacy of Goethe, who was unfazed by categorical distinctions, who practiced science (of a sort) as well as literature – and who wrote the following famous reconciliation of his ostensibly warring interests:
Nature and art, they seem to shun each other,
And have, ere you can think, yet come together;
My own aversion, too, has fled away,
And both, it seems, attract me equally.
You’ve only to apply yourself, you see!
And when we’ve spent a measured hour or three
With straining spirit binding us to art,
Then nature may glow freely in our heart.
And so it is with every sort of school:
In vain do minds untrammeled seek to fly
Towards perfection of empyrean pure.
If you’d be great, you must apply the rules:
Restriction does the master certify,
And only law our freedom can assure.
In an increasingly lawless, anti-scientific, unlyrical age, there is comfort in the principled freedom of Konig and Hitzig, two devotees of nature, and of art.