Poems by Lisa Rosenberg and Mini-Review of
 A Different Physics

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Lisa Rosenberg and I read at Green Apple Books last spring for an event held to raise money for victims of California’s terrible wildfires, and that is where I first heard her poems and got a copy of her book. I stayed up late that night to finish A Different Physics, moved by poems condensed to a remarkable degree, packing a wallop in mostly short forms. I’m always drawn anyway to short poems and especially when they are, as here, brilliantly conversant in science and math.

“Offering,” a brief lyric in twelve short lines of free verse, finds order in its stanza pattern alternating couplets with tercets. The poem juxtaposes plenty against scarcity and then allows plenty to win. It opens with two very short declarative sentence fragments (“This day. This hour.”) as if to tell what “offering” is being made, then sets up the poem’s central reciprocal paradox: famine in abundance; abundance in famine. “[W]e are taught,” the poem reminds us, to think in terms of scarcity—remember the apocryphal lazy grasshopper and diligent bee?—but what the world offers, if we can but see it, is plenitude. Here, anxiety about scarcity is likened to birds feeding off a “seed ball,” flitting on and off in a frenzy that to one way of thinking represents diminishment of resources (seeds) and to another, bounty (in the beauty and abundance of birds that arrive). I love this poem for its positive message and for the way it manages large concepts in such a pungent, condensed way.

Another brief but powerful lyric, “Archaeopteryx” packs its message into nine very short free-verse lines. They are distributed in a precise stanza pattern (singleton line, couplet, tercet, couplet, singleton line) whose shape on the page reminds me of the shape of a pair of winds turned on its side like the famous shaped poem written by George Herbert, “Easter Wings,” shown below..












The term “Archaeopteryx,” perhaps unfamiliar to some readers, refers to the genus of a reptile-like bird from the Jurassic period now existing in the world only in fossil form, and the poem’s very first line, “Perfect as Nike,” sets the tone of beauty and awe. Here, of course, “Nike” is not an allusion to the American sneaker manufacturer but to the Greek goddess, winged and surging, who stands for grace and speed. You’ll find many images online but the one found here is my favorite:

[Image: Carl Bento. Copyright: Australian Museum.]

The next lines use compressed language to describe the “imprint” and then remind us that the fossil was once a living creature arrested mid-flight, its “last / flight,” in fact. The poem could have effectively ended there but Rosenberg adds two words that are transformational. “[D]ear prototype” makes this a poem of direct address, and we suddenly understand we are not hearing mere description, but a passionate homage paid directly to the extinct creature. We already know from “wonder” that the speaker is awe-struck by its beauty, but that little word “dear” adds something more: intimacy, and a sense of kinship that sees not just a fossil but the living thing that made it. “Prototype” adds dimension as well, suggesting that Archaeopteryx was important in the evolutionary chain, for birds and also for all living creatures, including us.

“Emily” differs from many poems in A Different Physics in that its primary field of reference is literary rather than scientific and also in being organized into a fixed or received form. It’s a blank verse sonnet, fourteen unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter, with a volta appearing in line 10 where the speaker turns from musing about an entry on Emily Dickinson (in, we presume, a dictionary) to something that sounds like a paean: “Maker of gardens, music, bread, and poems.” In an terrific example of wordplay, Rosenberg uses the companion words that occur before and after “Dickinson”—“dichotomy” and “didn’t”—to say something potent about the way Dickinson’s poems were overlooked in her time because of sexism; then she uses them again in in the poem’s last two sentences to critique sexism that persists today.

While solving the puzzle of the identity of the novelist whose work, during Dickinson’s lifetime, was not overlooked, I found myself—interestingly—hampered by modern technology. We know it was a man because of the word “his” and that his name precedes Dickinson’s by “four entries.” It must be Dickens, right? I retrieved that from memory, though, not from any online list of 19th-century authors. It all took longer than it should have and certainly took longer than it would have if I’d had an old-school dictionary on hand to consult. How many of us, I wonder, have gotten rid of our dictionaries and thesauruses? In the days before the internet many poets, including Sylvia Plath, used bibliomancy with a dictionary to get ideas for poems, and I’ve been thinking anyway that I need to add one back to my shelves.

“Space 2” is also an unrhymed blank sonnet written in iambic pentameter, but in this case, the turn (volta) is heightened by its occurrence in line 9 after a stanza break. Lines 1-8 muse in an abstract way on being and existence, seeking to locate the speaker’s place in space and time, a sphere like other spheres seen in the sky. Lines 9-14 turn to examination of a specific celestial body—the moon during eclipse—and tell the story of the speaker suddenly seeing it as if for the first time, a viewing that strangely transforms her vision, and ours.

One reason I included this poem is for its wonderful sound effects. Although “Space 2” eschews end rhyme, its meter is regular and hence musical, and it makes liberal use of internal rhyme (e.g., “everywhere,” “here,” and “sphere” in lines 1-2 and “myth” and “breath” in line 5), assonance (“feet” and “between” in lines 4-5), as well as word repetition (“sky” in line 4 and “call” in lines 6-7).

These poems are a good representative sample of those that grace the pages of A Different Physics, writing that gleams with subtlety, grace, precision, and high attention to craft. I agree with Irena Praitis, the judge who chose Rosenberg’s book for the 2017 Red Mountain Poetry Prize, when she praised the way the poems “meet at the crux of so many of our contemporary concerns: How do we maintain wonder for the elemental when so intent on molding it for our purposes?” And, I second her endorsement: “This is a terrific book, readers—timely and timeless—don’t miss it!”

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