Nonfiction Review by Alisa Gordaneer

Alice Major, Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science (Edmonton: University of Alberta, 2011). Paperbound, 276 pp., $29.95.

Intersecting SetsPicture that familiar image of a Venn diagram, a set of variously coloured circles that show places of overlap in concepts, ideas, interests. Sometimes they’re a source of humour, other times a source of insight, and always, a way of making some kind of visual sense of ideas in the world. The image seems particularly apropos to a provocative new work of creative nonfiction, Alice Major’s Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science. By overlapping one red circle labelled “poetry,” another blue circle labelled “science” and a third yellow circle labelled “memoir,” you find that the triangular space where all three areas align is occupied by Major, who will tell you that the colour of the space is either white, which combines all colours of light, or black, which combines all colours of pigment. She’ll probably also tell you a lot more about that particular concept, of light and colour, and might even go so far as to explain the differences between particles and waves, and how those elements combine to create something that we humans can perceive as colour, but only because of our biological makeup that evolved to discern the differences.

In other words, Major has a lot to say about those improbable bedfellows of poetry and science, and shares her observations partly through literary analysis, partly through scientific explanation, and partly through personal essay. Her goal is to explore the interrelationships between science and poetry, shedding light not only on the process of making poetry, but on the understandings we, as poets, have of a compelling subject field we may have, to this point, brushed aside as too cold, too analytical, or too, well, scientific for our own inquiry.

And yes, science and poetry do seem, at best, to sidle cautiously alongside each other in a somewhat uneven relationship. It’s nothing new for poets to borrow metaphors, images, and even vast concepts from science, as the field presents a rich source of nuclear-powered fuel for poetic work. While it could be a misimpression, I’d suggest science borrows less from poetry, and that a one-way circuit powers a tension that makes for a curious read. One is given to wonder whether Major is hoping to reach scientists as much as poets, and engender a kind of understanding that extends in both directions.

This book isn’t a scientific explanation of poetry, but rather, an examination of various concepts in science—from quantum physics to the development of language in the human brain—from the point of view of someone who’s deeply fascinated by metaphor, language, and the possibilities that exist when those Venn circles overlap.
Award-winning Edmonton poet Major has published nine books of her own poetry before this foray into nonfiction, and as such, she offers a combination of scholarly poetic analysis and curiosity to convey her explorations into this intersection of fields.

From a poet’s point of view, one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is its examination of the development of language and metaphor, and its exploration of how people learn to understand how sounds become language, and even understand sounds as language, as in the case of sound poetry. Also fascinating is Major’s discussion of how patterns in nature, such as fractals, repeated patterns,  and symmetries, can provide an exploration of why we find patterns in poetry so appealing and reassuring.

In the course of this work, Major points out there are many other intersections between the sciences and poetry. Mathematicians, she explains, use the symbol “i” for the mathematical concept of the square root of minus one. If you’re not a mathematician, this doesn’t matter so much, but if you’re a poet, you might also notice, as Major does, that it’s like the lower-case “i” of poetry: “It reminds me of the fashion for dropping capitalization from poems so that the pronoun ‘I’ became ‘i’, a slightly different individual.”

And so, with this book, the relationship between science and poetry becomes slightly different. The scientific idea behind quantum physics, albeit somewhat distilled, is that one small change affects everything. If the one small change is effected by a poem having an emotional or intellectual impact on an individual, and if we can say that person’s very neurons are slightly changed by that interaction, then we can safely assume that poetry can reaffirm its place in the universe as a means of making it a slightly, or extremely, different place.

So, if poets can read this book and have their minds altered by new scientific understanding, a scientist may read this book and gain a deeper appreciation for the nuances of poetry, perhaps even gain a renewed understanding of how the expressiveness of language, and the emotionally laden potential of poetry, can provide a new way of expressing scientific concepts. While science may be seen as a cold and analytical field, scientists themselves are human—and that’s where the emotion of poetry can reach across the divide.

—Alisa Gordaneer

As in The Malahat Review, 179, Summer 2012, 103-104