Mary-Sherman Willis on Kim Roberts

The Scientific Method by Kim Roberts. WordTech Editions, 2017.

The most important part of the scientific method is the experiment. Kim Roberts’s poems in The Scientific Method (WordTech 2017) are like canny experiments in lived life—hers, and those of the men and women who worked to study and codify the world around us. Think of the experimental lab report in science class, its empirical precision, its grounding in observation and measurement, its technical vocabulary, and you get a sense of this book. Add to that a series of “Eureka!” moments of discovery and understanding. You will feel like you’re in the company of a smart museum docent who speaks in verse and has a sense of humor.

Science is a subject made for poetry. Both require observation and insight, and depend on metaphor to express the ineffable. These poems are declarative, descriptive, evidence-based. Readers will learn a thing or two. For instance, there’s an elegy to the world’s oldest clam, a meditation on Carl Sagan’s turtleneck on display at the Smithsonian, a disquisition on oyster sex (they can change gender at will!). There’s a speculation on sneezing and the orgasm:
One of the earliest motion pictures

made for the Edition Kinetoscope showed
a man take a pinch of snuff,

and the resulting sneeze. You’d watch it
through a peephole: 81 frames

of involuntary bodily contortions.
Seen in slow motion, it appears that Fred Ott

has a religious revelation:
beatitude, oblivion, explosion.

People paid to see this:
they called it entertainment.

     (“Fred Ott’s Sneeze”)
Edison in his laboratory also appears in the book’s title poem, a graceful pantoum and an ode, as much to the scientific method as to the writing of poems. And to the beauty in the language of the lab, what Jane Hirshfield calls a “vocabulary of understanding.”
Test tubes and retorts, powders
in stoppered bottles, some bright blue.
Chemistry proceeds in increments,
we try this, fail, try that.

From stoppered bottles, some bright blue
powder of nickel citrate
—try this, wrong amount. Try that:
the pure color of a robin’s egg.

Powder of nickel citrate
waits to reveal its secrets.
The colors, burnt-orange, robin’s egg,
bloom in the high-pressure distill.

To reveal a thing’s secrets,
patience and precision are required.
to bloom in a high-pressure distill
demands just the smallest change.

Patience and repetition are required.
Watch your test tubes and retorts, your powders,
for just the smallest change, proof
of how chemistry proceeds. In increments.

      (“The Scientific Method/ 1. Chemistry Laboratory”)
Besides Edison, the book’s other patron figure is Whitman, an observationist of the highest order. You hear him and see him in “Fowler and Wells’ Phrenological Cabinet, where “the body’s news comes slowly.” Or in the fate of his brain, splattered post-mortem accidentally on the white tile lab floor of the American Anthropometric Society, letting loose his body electric (“Walt Whitman’s Brain”). Whitman “strides in his boots, // kicking up clouds of dust that eddy in his wake” in “Swamp,” Roberts’s own stomping ground of Washington, D.C., where she leads guided tours of its literary history. And he sings the book out, in “American Herring Gull,” a poem laced with lines from Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”
Above the North Atlantic Drift,
Above the hard stretch of yellow sand, the woman
Walking alone there, following the rick-rack of the tide-line,
following the gentle curve of the shore,
But not really alone, no, beachcombing for something unnamed
Something just out of reach
But part of her—I should say part of me, my doppleganger,
The shadow disciplined to my transmuted self,
Out of the salty, amniotic sea,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me . . . .
In 1834, William Whewell at Cambridge University coined the term “scientist” in a review of Mary Somerville’s book On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences in the Quarterly Review. There being no specific word for a practitioner of the scientific method, he noted, “By analogy with artist, they might form the word scientist.” Scientist and artist are etymological kin, and nowhere more than in this book.

Mary-Sherman Willis’s books of poems include Caveboy and Graffiti Calculus, a translation of Jean Cocteau’s Grace Notes (Appogiatures), and a new chapbook, A Long Shoot Sweeping. She’s taught at George Washington University and NYU/Shanghai, and serves on the Folger’s O.B. Hardison Poetry Board.



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