Regular readers know I don’t write many reviews for this blog. While I keep a reading journal, but generally, I keep my reactions and opinions private. But when Laura Long, a fellow member of the WOM-PO listserv, put out a call for reviews for her recent chapbook, I was intrigued. And not just because I get excited to encounter other poets published by Finishing Line Press.
The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems is many things for such a small book, and managed to hit several points of interest for me right from the start. First, I’m always interested in fictional autobiography/biography; it’s something I studied extensively in college, and still excites me to this day. Second, I’m always fascinated by poems about science and math (even though math is perhaps my weakest subject, and I barely held my GPA together during high school chemistry). And finally, a the chapbook is all based around the life of an eighteenth-century female astronomer, and work that raises new awareness about women in science is always worth a look.
So who was Caroline Herschel? In the nineteenth century, she was a serious contributor to the field of astronomy, discovering a number of comets, including the 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. In addition, she expanded upon the star catalog developed by John Flamsteed, correcting discrepancies in his work and adding several hundred stars of her own.
Born in Hanover in 1750, joined her brother, William, in England in 1772. William Herschel had been supporting himself as a musician, but became fascinated by astronomy, and taught Caroline mathematics so that she could assist him in discovery. They worked in collaboration for a number of years, and served in the position of King’s Astronomer. Although their collaborative relationship faltered after William’s marriage, Caroline continued her work independently, and received major honors for her her discoveries. She died in 1848.
But back to the book. The Eye of Caroline Herschel consists of twenty-one poems written from Caroline’s perspective, starting at age sixteen, and ending with her ghost. We experience her discoveries, her successes, and her frustrations. While Caroline destroyed her diaries later in life, and there is limited biographical information to work with, you won’t leave this collection feeling as though you’ve read fiction. While this chapbook might not always be factual in terms of what Caroline was thinking or feeling, it most certainly feels true. You come away with a sense that you actually know her. But then again, while much has changed since Caroline Herschel died, women still have tumultuous relationships with family, and definitely still face struggles in the face of work. Plus, it’s 2014 and women still have not achieved equality in science fields. Caroline Herschel was an eighteenth-century woman, but her story still resonates today.
As for the poems themselves: what struck me, first and foremost, was the way the book opened and the way the book closed. It’s not always easy to have equally powerful openings and endings. But “Caroline Talks Back to the Poets” and “Caroline’s Ghost Speaks” are two of the most intense, forceful, enduring poems of the book.
Rather than tell you about the poems, though, I’d rather share one with you. The title poem is hands-down my favorite in this collection, and Laura Long has given me permission to share it with you here:
The Eye of Caroline Herschel
I cannot stop how I see even though
sunlight floods in to blind me.
Sometimes a comet startles me
in the middle of the day–a ribbon trails
from a woman’s sleeve, the tail
of a cat slithers beneath a chair,
a bloom at the loose end of a morning
glory vine wavers from the fence
into the breeze. I stare at the flowers
erupting from green. Each blossom
is a comet sprung from seed, flaring
a tingle of scent that bees wobble around
in drunk orbits. The air is shot through
with erased paths. Every spot of darkness
waits to be stung open by light, as a string
on a violin waits to be touched.
What I love about this poem is the way it renders the ordinary extraordinary. Sleeves, flowers, musical instruments, are all imbued with the awesome power of a comet hurtling through space. Everyday things rendered magnificent if you know how to look. That, to me, is what poetry is all about in the first place.
So go read this book. And then consider where you find cosmic brilliance in your own day-to-day life. I know I see comets now in the swirl of flour on the wooden board I use to roll out pita bread. And the arc of two dancers moving around the floor. And the shape a kung fu artist takes when striking with a sword.