Anne Blonstein: Experimental poet whose work was informed by her scientific background

Click to follow

In her measures and encryptions, Anne Blonstein was a poet in and for our digital times. To read her poetry is to be made to reflect on what reading is. In code-breaking, the keyboard is where both encryption and decryption happen. A poem, Blonstein writes, should work on "the inner keyboard" of the reader's mind, disrupting the brain's "automatised" processes of transmission and interpretation.

Though poetry was to be the core of her life, she came to it by an unusual route. At Selwyn College, Cambridge, she studied natural sciences and specialised in plant genetics. Her doctoral dissertation on "dwarf mutants in barley" was her first publication, in 1986, and she could write with authority about scientific matters, molecular, neural, cellular; the encodings and decodings in the nervous system are of a complexity that even Blonstein's poems can only shadow, wittily:

please gap the mind
between the thought
and the performance

The inclusion of Blonstein in the recent anthology Infinite Difference (Shearsman, 2010) brought her new readers in Britain, and a wider recognition of the exceptional ambition of her work. Cancer had been diagnosed in 2008; word play gave rise to the memorable yet justly uneasy term "oncoexistence".

In 1983 Blonstein was appointed to a post-doctoral fellowship at the Friedrich Miescher Institute in Basel, where she was to live for the rest of her life. Though an outstandingly gifted researcher, in 1991 Blonstein abandoned a career in science. She took with her, on leaving the laboratory, her analytical and mathematical skills, together with a recondite vocabulary, and set out, modestly, to challenge the potential of poetry. She took "numbers" seriously, not only in terms of syllables and lines but in computing the ratio of letters to word, and words to line. She was a poet writing in English who had no higher education in English (or any other) literature. And when Blonstein first read poetry intensely, in the 1980s, it was American women of experimental cast, from HD and Gertrude Stein to Denise Levertov and Susan Howe, who impressed her with the possibility of making poetry new.

Blonstein was a devoted reader of Paul Celan, the Romanian Jewish poet who had lost both his parents in the Nazi camps. Settling in 1948 in Paris, he wrote poetry in a highly distorted and compacted German. In Celan, Blonstein found a vision and mastery of language to which she could respond, and an unwavering ethical austerity.

Steeped as she became in his work (and that of other writers in German) Blonstein subverted any assumption that language might be related to national identity. If Celan fits uncomfortably within the canon of German poetry, so Blonstein, as a poet in English, belongs neither to the English nor the American poetic canon. Her years in Basel meant that she was detached from English-language literary circles. She might be mistaken for a German poet writing in English.

Celan brought Blonstein close to the heritage of her great-grandparents, all eight of whom were Jewish immigrants to Britain. Hebrew as an alphabet and a calendar, and rabbinic devices of interpretation, would be constitutive of her poems, not always visibly so. Her lexical and typographical inventiveness and her fascination with coding may owe something to her immediate family. Born in 1958 in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, Blonstein grew up in an entirely secular and technological milieu. Her father was an engineer who designed satellite communication systems; her brother is a former technical director at Texas Instruments.

Encryption has become essential to our modes of communication; Blonstein's poetry draws attention to the devices by which written words are formed on screen, sent, and received. Blonstein uses "notarikon" as a code in worked on screen (2005) and correspondence with nobody (2008). This device takes each letter of a word as the initial of another, the set of initials forming a new phrase or sentence. (This is familiar in English not as an interpretative mode but as a mnemonic aid, as for the musical scale: "Every good boy deserves fudge".)

Blonstein goes further than the rabbinic use in applying notarikon between and across languages. Each of the 108 poems in worked on screen is inspired by a drawing of Paul Klee's whose title (in German) provides the ground of the notarikon. Thus Klee's title "Blaue Nacht" [Blue Night] yields: "Bomb-lit/ absolutely unmodern / engagement / Now another charred heaven / templeless' – which is by no means stilted or forced when encountered in a sequence with its own narrative movement and patterns. The most ambitious of the works so far published, correspondence with nobody, extends the play of dialogue between languages by using as the ground of notarikon the 21 sonnets of Shakespeare translated by Celan into German, a project he had started in 1942 in the ghetto of Czernowitz. Blonstein brings Celan's German back into English, but into a language very different from Shakespeare's.

One can enjoy a sonnet without even realising that it is a sonnet (or read an email without being aware of the encrypted state by which it reached us). Blonstein's poetry has an eerie beauty and a disconcerting ethical charge; reading is not obstructed by the device, though once the device is reckoned with, the reader must marvel at the way the poem frees itself from the constraints of its composition.

For 15 years Blonstein failed to find a publisher; in 2003 Salt issued theblue pearl and in the following eight years a further five volumes appeared, the most recent – to be continued – from Shearsman. Blonstein is thus,bibliographically, a poet strictly of the new millennium: in a digital world, codes and crypts become much more than compositional devices. Whenever we write on screen each letter is encrypted, as is each space. Blonstein fascinates us with the properties of spaces, exploiting the unprecedented precision of lay-out made possible by word-processing.

Last November, in his inaugural lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Geoffrey Hill disclaimed a traditional prerogative of the post, the encouraging of younger poets. He supposes a female scientist, absent from his lecture: "If one of the as yet unknown great poets of the new millennium is already out there, working as an instructor or lab technician ... she knows who she is, and what she is, and is able to judge her unique excellence without our help". Few poets have had such a disciplined confidence in their gifts; very few could live for so many years with so little support in judging the exercise of those gifts. Blonstein's was truly a unique excellence.

Anne Deborah Blonstein, poet: born Harpenden, Hertfordshire 22 April 1958; died Basel, Switzerland 19 April 2011.