2 May 2019 | Karen Kao
Science and poetry don’t play well together. Like milk and manatees, you won’t normally find them at the same kitchen table. But Gathering Evidence by Caoilinn Hughes is no normal poetry collection.
For one, the poems are about science and scientists and moments of discovery. Physics, astronomy, chemistry. Marie Curie, Enrico Fermi, Johannes Kepler. Though you don’t have to be a scientist to make a discovery. You just need to have the eyes to see.
A netted bag of green glass with aquamarine swirls
deep in the otherworld of spherical transparency (simultaneous opacity)
was the first thing I ever stole when I was three and far from the last.
The marbles hung heavily in their lattice like motherless pearls,
like lifeless organs in between bodies, intervening worlds.
- From "Marbles"
The Luck of the Irish
Hughes is Irish. Her homeland features prominently in Gathering Evidence, both the South where Hughes was born and the North where she went to university. Home is on her mind whether she’s getting fleeced on a bus in California (“The Shell Man”) or experiencing an earthquake in New Zealand.
It might as well be the twelfth of July in Antrim
with the prospect of pent-up bonfires and reactionary teenagers
spitting beneath their hoods around every unsafe corner, flicking
fag stubs at teenage mums enjoying the smell of petrol
and the orange-coloured blaze a little too intimately.
- From "Pacific Rim"
For someone as peripatetic as Hughes, Ireland must be a state of mind. In the course of her short life she’s moved country three times (Ireland, UK, New Zealand, the Netherlands), run marathons, hiked the Andes, and cycled through Tasmania while playing the violin.
Yet Hughes is also capable of stillness and acute observation. A demented old woman believes the year is 1906, the life she’s lived a blur.
She tells me the windowsills are brackets,
and only the horizon and its officious moon
can see in and read her; their contents.
I have rarely thought of bracket contents
as being periphery; containing things like flower-
stalks, overlong chapters, rigid bluebottles, Irish,
irrevocable organs, lists.
- From "On the Contents of Brackets"
I grew up reading poetry and plays, because that’s what was in the house (all it would take was some character recalled or a cloud’s shadow cast across the kitchen window to prompt my father to quietly recite reams of poetry from memory—that had its impact) […] Not everything was spelled out or filled in, but everything included was essential. It didn’t matter how much was lost on me—a spoonful of such stuff was sustaining.Taylor Lannamann, “Ambition, Art, and Late Capitalism: An Interview with Caoilinn Hughes” in Tin House, 10 July 2018 (retrieved 1 May 2019)
Gathering Evidence is dense, indeed, and best absorbed one spoonful at a time. There are formal sleights-of-hand like the increasingly longer lines in “Avalanche” and the rigid casing of poems like “The Transit of Venus”, the title poem “Gathering Evidence”, and “God Always Geometrises” with their respective 2, 3 and 4 line structures. Along the way (really, on almost every line), Hughes manages to turn a phrase that stops my breath. The experience of being caught in an avalanche: Our lungs made fists. Enrico Fermi calculating he’d reach critical mass if his math / were not at odds. If it were, Chicago would blush in solar flare.
And then there is that thing called rhythm. One man teaches another how to load a gun (a rifle, I think). Step by step, easy does it.
Insert a primer to the chamber.
Place the case, still in the dye,
into the chamber after.
Insert the priming rod, then tap the top.
Do this on a solid surface.
One in every thousand rounds or so,
one in every thousand will go off.
Wear eye protection. If desired, gloves.
- From "This Is What Makes It Go Bang
While Hughes’ first love is clearly poetry, she has since eased her way into fiction-writing. I love her debut novel, Orchid and the Wasp, in part for its pyrotechnic prose. Hughes knows exactly what can happen when poets write novels.
For all the science and the scientists embedded in Gathering Evidence, Hughes comes to her love of science relatively late in life.
As a young adult, I had never been encouraged to spend time seriously thinking about what I believed in. I hadn’t much considered why the sky is blue, or what the statistical likelihood of my being born was. Scientists, I learned, were the ones dealing with all of the good questions!Caoilinn Hughes interviewed by Lynley Hargreaves, “Science, Poetry & Responsibility” in SciBlogs Infrequently Asked Questions, 29 Apr 2015 (retrieved 1 May 2019)
Half of Hughes’ PhD took the form of a novel about a scientist. To create his world, Hughes read biographies of scientists which, in turn, led to teaching herself about quantum mechanics and the Hadron Collider. Hughes calls herself lecherous about other people’s knowledge. The factoids embedded in Gathering Evidence are too numerous to count.
It takes the New Zealand radio show host, Kim Hill, to unearth the real reason for Hughes’ fascination with scientists. You’re shacking up with one, aren’t you? Hughes is happy to admit it. The midnight tutelage. I should never have collapsed into love with a physicist. All that lechery with other people’s knowledge, was it?