Radial Symmetry, By Katherine Larson
Immerse yourself, but mind the nets
Sunday 29 May 2011
Just eight years shy of its centenary, the Yale Younger Poets Prize is the oldest literary award in the US.
Given annually to a poet under 40 for a first book manuscript, the award has had many of its recipients go on to greater glory; past winners include John Ashbery, W S Merwin, and Adrienne Rich. The latest winner, Katherine Larson, is a molecular biologist, and that knowledge and sensibility permeate her book.
Poem by poem, Radial Symmetry exhibits an extraordinary wakefulness, an immersion in nuance that enriches experience. The title refers to an organism with similar parts regularly arranged around a central axis; it applies to bottom-dwellers and creatures such as mussels and coral. Radial symmetry, as a title, alludes to neither scientific language nor poetic form in the collection, but the poet's appreciation of detail in all she encounters. As Larson remarks at the end of "Solarium", "Either everything's sublime or nothing is", and Radial Symmetry wholeheartedly believes that everything is.
Midway in the long poem "Ghost Nets", the speaker considers these "lost or discarded gill nets" which obtained their name "for the way they continue to indiscriminately trap and kill organisms from seabirds to porpoises". Fish on the edge of extinction "hovered/ last night at the edge of my half-dream, softening their fins to a point of pure/ blur, pure erasure", while another day, the speaker wakes to "sun stars/ stretching in the tide pools/ and the stench/ of the rotting sea lion carcass with the plastic Coke bottle/ lodged inside its throat". We see all too plainly how the smallest act of carelessness can destroy, and that the life the sea harbours is more fragile than we may think. While we've been told this repeatedly, Larson shows it through a single person's experience, powerfully moving in its immediacy.
This immediacy comes with intimacy, a word which recurs throughout the book, and suggests the contiguities among different forms of life and between people, even strangers. "Djenné, Mali" vividly conjures the place's market day and concludes with a standkeeper taking the speaker's hand in her hennaed one: "Radiant palm to my palm–/ Hot flowers with such patient faces." In an impoverished town, or disappearing marine environment, such tenderness evokes our sense of humanity, just one of many insights in this impressive debut.
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