Tania Hershman was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers for her first short story collection, The White Road and Other Stories (published by Salt in 2008). She worked as a science journalist for many years and her interest in scientific subjects comes through in her poems. She also recently co-edited an anthology of short stories in celebration of the centenary of Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity. The title, ‘I Am Because You Are’ — read relative instead of relativity, suggests the same combination of science and relationships that we see in her poetry. But there is another element of human experience that pervades her new chapbook of verse, and that is memory.
The first poem, entitled ‘And What We Know About Time’, draws on memory through the image of a father taking a clock apart and putting it back together, minus the sixteen parts he couldn’t find a place for because ‘it failed to alarm’. It also sets the tone for the rest of the collection – almost every poem ends with either a question, direct or indirect, or a wait. The voices in the poems are calling out for answers to the questions that they pose. A woman sits in silence on the edge of a bed, waiting. An astronaut waits for a sign in space. Suspended between earth and sky are objects and people unable to ‘let go/of what they cling to’. If the last poem of the collection delivers any sort of answer, it might be a call to abandon the refuge of memory and the certainties we cling to and move forward.
But if the walls
fell in, the roof was gone,
and the rain kept on
and if I forgot my need
to eat, to drink, love
and pay my taxes
we might get
Memory holds back the speakers in many of these poems — every breath of air ‘a molecule of Caesar’s last’. And it also lives in objects. In ‘The Legacy of Chemistry’, memory is a cooking pot stained with the residue of human experience that will not scrub clean.
There are nice layouts in many of these poems, joining form and content through uncertain spacing and staggered phrasing. My personal favourite, ‘Life Just Swallows You Up’, recalls another facet of experience, the human talent for making memories we would rather forget, as a child is orphaned in the company of her parents. But the references to scientific experience are never far away — sometimes as a nod to a theory.
‘The Observer Paradox’, for instance, exercises the central paradox of quantum mechanics, in which an object only becomes real once it is observed. Here, a salesman wanders in and out of a sales opportunity and misses it. He slips out the door, barely pricking ‘the skin of this café’, his existence undermined by the fact that he went away unnoticed. It is an unsettling idea, and one that fits well into an urban context.
Any Cop?: Quantum Poetry is a term that has been recently used to describe verse that explores our relationship to contemporary science, and contemporary science is becoming more and more abstract as time goes by. Quantum theory and string theory have taken what were relatively tangible, ‘safe’ natural laws and turned them on their heads. Add a touch of Existentialism and a dash of Postmodernist uncertainty and you have the essence of this collection. It has to be unsettling.