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

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Homer’s equation, in an episode in 1998, comes close to the truth, as revealed 14 years later
science
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003