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  • Jennifer Preston Chushcoff

Poetry for science nerds

Years ago I discovered, ON THE NATURE OF THINGS (De rerum natura), a poem by Lucretius, Roman poet and philosopher (c. 99 BC – c. 55 BC). Here are some excerpts:

First, goddess, the birds of the air, pierced to the heart with your powerful shafts, signal your entry. Next wild creatures and cattle bound over rich pastures and swim rushing rivers: so surely are they all captivated by your charm and eagerly follow your lead. Then you inject seductive love into the heart of every creature that lives in the seas and mountains and river torrents and bird-haunted thickets, implanting in it the passionate urge to reproduce its kind. (Ode to Venus, Translation by Martin Ferguson Smith)

Who knew ancient physics could be so sexy? Or simultaneously brooding, exultant and distilled in a handful of thrilling lines?

This terror, then, this darkness of the mind, Not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light, Nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse, But only Nature's aspect and her law, Which, teaching us, hath this exordium: Nothing from nothing ever yet was born. (Translation By William Ellery Leonard)

Then, a little late to the party, I discovered a 2011 New Yorker article, The Answer Man: An ancient poem was rediscovered—and the world swerved by Stephen Greenblatt the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard and award-winning author of THE SWERVE. I hope you get a chance to read both the article and the book. Greenblatt explores the poem in great detail. Here's one of his observations:

The stuff of the universe, Lucretius proposed, is an infinite number of atoms moving randomly through space, like dust motes in a sunbeam, colliding, hooking together, forming complex structures, breaking apart again, in a ceaseless process of creation and destruction. There is no escape from this process. When we look up at the night sky and marvel at the numberless stars, we are not seeing the handiwork of the gods or a crystalline sphere. We are seeing the same material world of which we are a part and from whose elements we are made. There is no master plan, no divine architect, no intelligent design. Nature restlessly experiments, and we are simply one among the innumerable results

Lucretius called the unpredictable swerve of atoms, clinamen, in his defense of Epicurus' atomistic doctrine. It describes the unexpected movement of matter. The notion, and his poetic work, moved me to write a poem titled, The Swerve, and create accompanying artwork.

As I was looking over my years of writing poems, I noticed that I tend toward nature, no surprise, but also, scientific discovery. Perhaps, it is the influence of my maternal grandfather, a self-taught engineer, inventor (with several patents to his name) and contractor for NASA. (There's an interesting story about the moon landing and the initials "JP" that I'll have to share with you sometime.)

As a teen, I wanted to go into the sciences, but I didn't have the mathematical chops. So, it was on to the humanities for me. Combining poetry with topics like, early atomistic theory, ice crystal formation and the deleterious effects of dams on anadromous fish became my ultimate workaround. It allows me to read, research and discover. Without the math.

Putting it all together, I realized that I write nerd poetry. (And no offense should be taken here. I consider myself a nerd and friend to nerds). I also write love letters to the universe and ponder daily the nature of nature. This inclination to inquiry and tendency to weld the visual and literal have produced a handful of public works projects, personal projects, exhibits and commissions.

When I was younger, I couldn't see the linear progression. Now, halfway through life, I see it all beginning to connect. What authors would call "finding your voice." And all without mathematics. I am one lucky lady.

If you're interested in "The Swerve" poem print, it can be purchased in many formats, printed on metal, paper and canvas at Fine Art America, to mini framed prints perfect for gifting at Society6.

Be well,

Jenn xo


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