Reviewed by Anne Graue
Our human nature necessitates our making sense out of life, and to help ourselves in this endeavor, we tend to want to place different types of meaning and experience in different neatly-labeled containers. This tendency makes complex ideas, such as God or fate or quantum physics, simpler and more manageable. In her collection Quantum Heresies, Mary Peelen examines meaning in different disciplines—in stars, in theories, in daily existence, and in nature. Mining life experience as well as her extensive knowledge of literature, mathematics, and the sciences, Peelen explores the commonalities and connections among the disciplines that add up to a sense of life that finds purpose in observation and faith in physical reality.
The collection opens with a poem, "x," that represents life's variables, the x factor, the unknown that we work toward identifying. "It's the place holder / of uncertainty," marking something important that we might want to return to, and when we do finally solve the equation, we may find that everything works out, "Perfect as an integer." The poem is a fitting introduction to the poems that follow that delve into theory, uncertainty, and those things which are uncontainable.
In "Supernova," we're told, "Heaven performs a billion spectacular finales, / it's up to us to conjure the rest." In skillful couplets, Peelen conjures Sylvia Plath, Wallace Stevens, and Virginia Woolf to convey that which is so important as to be uncontainable and without bound, coming to the conclusion that the ultimate truth can be found in light and "Everything else is contingency," emanating from a source that could be divine. The poem admits to a few absolutes: dying, the speed of light, Stevens's emperor of ice-cream, and "Mrs. Ramsay's charm," and these immutable truths are consistent, unswerving. The light of a supernova burns bright, immediate, and momentary; we are grounded in the reality of cutlery but lifted up by art.
Nature appears in a number of the poems in blooming plants and trees, in the occurrence of ocular migraines, and in meteorological events. The different imagery mingles in the poems to show metaphysical connections that manifest in unique combinations. One such comingling effect occurs in the poem, "Awake," in which the speaker considers a Calvinist point of view in which "the moonlight, white and shrill" equates to "a migraine aura," and she imagines "the voice of Rilke's angels in the firmament // luring us toward the end of the number line." The poem ends with a rooster "valiantly proclaiming to the dirt yard world / his one, his only truth." In a later poem, "Prophecy," the speaker explains, "Chaos is calculable, iterative. / We should have seen it coming." Everything falls away and all that is left is theory. We should have known how things would turn out for the earth; we should have listened to the scientists.
All but four of the fifty-two poems in the collection are written in couplets. Each appearing in one of the four sections, these poetic narratives are constructed in lists that help guide the reader through ways of knowing how art and scientific truths affect human beings. The first of these is "Draw," presented as a numbered list of words or phrases that complete an idiom. For example, the first one is "~lots," and the second is "~on her experience." Each idiom is followed by a section of prose, narrating the progress of someone going through a biopsy followed by a cancer diagnosis and the process that ensues. The idiomatic language offers each section a lens through which to take in the story, giving logic to disorder. The three additional prose poems continue to shed light on life's convergences, dramas, and mayhem in fitting vernacular.
Two poems in the collection have lines that resonate, and their reverberations can be felt long after reading. In "Unified Theory," Peelen unites theory, nature, math, logic, and the cosmos in a way that binds people together with unseen forces even in "our wobbling orbit longing for shape / in the quiver of morning." And in the poem "Interim" everything becomes a part of everything else, related and connected. An ocular migraine feels apocalyptic, and in the final couplet there is loneliness and pain:
It's time that strands us here.
We wait for it. It takes so long.
To fill the void there is logic, order, and thought.
In "The Idea of Order at Key West," Wallace Stevens explores language, art, and spirit much as Peelen does in Quantum Heresies, which is not so much a collection of heresies as it is a series of revelations about the interconnectedness of art, literature, and science. From Stevens's poem, in which the poet is a woman singing, language gives order to chaos, illuminating human existence with significance:
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song.
Peelen's collection gives language control over turmoil in the manner of a mathematician, using logic and metaphor (her song) to calm the wilderness, finally returning to the variable in the last poem where it reveals itself in laughter. Its "breath orders the world / in countable sets," and the world becomes understandable, orderly, like "the sound of wind chimes, / . . . a mermaid, . . . cathedral bells," much as our minds search for images when we need simplicity and sense. Like shattering the Aurora Borealis into its parts and knowing how it has come to be, when "oxygen and nitrogen collide," and the knowledge is available to us—was in us all along.