Review: The Eye of Caroline Herschel by Laura Long

herschel_cover

Regular readers know I don’t write many reviews for this blog. While I keep a reading journal, but generally, I keep my reactions and opinions private. But when Laura Long, a fellow member of the WOM-PO listserv, put out a call for reviews for her recent chapbook, I was intrigued. And not just because I get excited to encounter other poets published by Finishing Line Press.

The Eye of Caroline Herschel: A Life in Poems is many things for such a small book, and managed to hit several points of interest for me right from the start. First, I’m always interested in fictional autobiography/biography; it’s something I studied extensively in college, and still excites me to this day. Second, I’m always fascinated by poems about science and math (even though math is perhaps my weakest subject, and I barely held my GPA together during high school chemistry). And finally, a the chapbook is all based around the life of an eighteenth-century female astronomer, and work that raises new awareness about women in science is always worth a look.

Source: Wikimedia Commons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Herschel_Caroline_1829.jpg)
Source: Wikimedia Commons (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Herschel_Caroline_1829.jpg)

So who was Caroline Herschel? In the nineteenth century, she was a serious contributor to the field of astronomy, discovering a number of comets, including the 35P/Herschel-Rigollet. In addition, she expanded upon the star catalog developed by John Flamsteed, correcting discrepancies in his work and adding several hundred stars of her own.

Born in Hanover in 1750, joined her brother, William, in England in 1772. William Herschel had been supporting himself as a musician, but became fascinated by astronomy, and taught Caroline mathematics so that she could assist him in discovery. They worked in collaboration for a number of years, and served in the position of King’s Astronomer. Although their collaborative relationship faltered after William’s marriage, Caroline continued her work independently, and received major honors for her her discoveries. She died in 1848.

But back to the book. The Eye of Caroline Herschel consists of twenty-one poems written from Caroline’s perspective, starting at age sixteen, and ending with her ghost. We experience her discoveries, her successes, and her frustrations. While Caroline destroyed her diaries later in life, and there is limited biographical information to work with, you won’t leave this collection feeling as though you’ve read fiction. While this chapbook might not always be factual in terms of what Caroline was thinking or feeling, it most certainly feels true. You come away with a sense that you actually know her. But then again, while much has changed since Caroline Herschel died, women still have tumultuous relationships with family, and definitely still face struggles in the face of work. Plus, it’s 2014 and women still have not achieved equality in science fields. Caroline Herschel was an eighteenth-century woman, but her story still resonates today.

As for the poems themselves: what struck me, first and foremost, was the way the book opened and the way the book closed. It’s not always easy to have equally powerful openings and endings. But “Caroline Talks Back to the Poets” and “Caroline’s Ghost Speaks” are two of the most intense, forceful, enduring poems of the book.

Rather than tell you about the poems, though, I’d rather share one with you. The title poem is hands-down my favorite in this collection, and Laura Long has given me permission to share it with you here:

The Eye of Caroline Herschel

I cannot stop how I see even though
sunlight floods in to blind me.
Sometimes a comet startles me
in the middle of the day–a ribbon trails

from a woman’s sleeve, the tail
of a cat slithers beneath a chair,
a bloom at the loose end of a morning
glory vine wavers from the fence

into the breeze. I stare at the flowers
erupting from green. Each blossom
is a comet sprung from seed, flaring
a tingle of scent that bees wobble around

in drunk orbits. The air is shot through
with erased paths. Every spot of darkness
waits to be stung open by light, as a string
on a violin waits to be touched.

What I love about this poem is the way it renders the ordinary extraordinary. Sleeves, flowers, musical instruments, are all imbued with the awesome power of a comet hurtling through space. Everyday things rendered magnificent if you know how to look. That, to me, is what poetry is all about in the first place.

So go read this book. And then consider where you find cosmic brilliance in your own day-to-day life. I know I see comets now in the swirl of flour on the wooden board I use to roll out pita bread. And the arc of two dancers moving around the floor. And the shape a kung fu artist takes when striking with a sword.

Literary Love for January

The new year turned out to be a great month for my reading list. This isn’t a full list of everything I’ve read, just my favorites.

Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo. It’s no secret that Sandra Cisneros is my favorite poet. I read Loose Woman once a year. But I also adore her fiction, and Caramelo is no exception. Stylistically, it’s the kind of novel I want to write. It contains some of the most poetic prose I’ve ever read.

bell hooks, All About Love: New Visions. This is the third time I’ve read this book. Each time, I gain some new perspective on compassion, love, and ethics. hooks does not shy away from the often-derided topic of love, and talks about how it belongs in contemporary American life. It always makes me think, address my own shortcomings. It’s like a way to recalibrate myself, set new intentions for the way I handle people in my life.

Celeste Guzman Mendoza, Beneath the Halo. I’ve been lucky to get to take workshops with Mendoza in Austin and San Antonio, and was very excited when I found out this book had come out. Mendoza tackles family, faith, and trauma, and though each section is self-contained, the poems all play off each other, for a work that has perfect thematic resonance.

Ntozake Shange, nappy edges. I’ve been in love with Shange’s work since reading For Colored Girls… in college, but I’d never read this collection. Reading Shange’s work gives me occasional moments of poetic communion, but at the same time, it challenges me to check my privilege as a white poet and feminist, and think about my own work and what I’m doing with the political side of my writing.

ire’ne lara silva, flesh to bone. I am so proud when I can endorse the work of a good friend. It wasn’t so long ago that I was writing about ire’ne lara silva’s work without having even met her yet. But now, I’m thrilled to call her a friend, and thus be especially happy about this book. Even when she’s writing prose, silva has a poetic voice, and doesn’t shy away from taking long, hard, intense looks at the subjects of her stories.

And, in the audio department, I’ve fallen in love with Welcome to Nightvale, a podcast about a small desert town where nothing is as it seems. A mix of science fiction, comedy, and a bit of horror, too. It’ll hit all your genre buttons, and keep you coming back for more.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest, and Empathy

A few years ago, I participated in a reading experience called Infinite Summer, in which one attempts to read all of Infinite Jest between Memorial Day and Labor Day. I accomplished the goal, but did not enjoy the book. I appreciated Wallace’s ambition, his characters, and his psychological and philosophical insights, but the story itself didn’t resonate me. I even ended up giving the book away to someone else who wanted to read it — I figured it should go to someone interested rather than just sitting on my shelf.

Which is not to say that I don’t care for Wallace’s other work. In fact, I adore much of his nonfiction, and feel grateful that I was at the Kenyon College commencement in 2005 when Wallace gave what I still maintain is the best graduation speech in history. I was, in fact, surprised that Infinite Jest felt like a chore, considering how much I found pleasure and insight in his other work.

Today is the fifth anniversary of Wallace’s suicide. It was a sad day in my household when I heard the news. For the past few weeks, knowing that this anniversary was coming up, I have been pondering Infinite Jest and the ways that, despite not liking it as a story, it had a long-term effect on me.

Despite not caring for the story, I can’t deny that the characters Wallace created, and the insight that he gave me, has worked its way into my brain. In particular, Wallace’s portrayals of people struggling with addiction and mental illness were so real that the novel made me understand such disorders better than any textbook or class ever could. Despite being fictional, Wallace managed to make mental illness profoundly real, and as a result, made me far more understanding and empathetic than I might have been otherwise.

This passage, in particular, has remained stuck in my brain, even though I don’t have it memorized, even though I no longer have a copy of the novel.

The so-called ‘psychotically depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of quote ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom Its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. Yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don‘t!’ and ‘Hang on!’, can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.

From the moment I read that passage, I could no longer claim that a person who commits suicide is “selfish.” I could no longer describe suicide as a “waste.” I had grown up around such rhetoric. In school health classes, when counselors came to talk about mental health and suicidal thoughts, those who killed themselves were described with shameful, judgmental language, considered stupid or foolish, described as people who didn’t care enough about their family and friends to tough it out and get better. There was nothing from the perspectives of people who had suffered on a level that Wallace, or his characters, or the thousands of people in the world struggling with mental illness. There was no humanity to it, only rhetoric.

After reading Infinite Jest, I could no longer be so abstract about suicide. I could no longer feel judgment, use words like “selfish,” and “stupid,” and “waste.” Such language does a disservice to the memory of the victim, inhibits healing, and furthers the stigma of mental illness in American culture, making it even more difficult for those who suffer to get the treatment they need and survive.

Good fiction can teach us just as well as nonfiction. I am grateful that Infinite Jest found its way onto my reading list. But I regret that Wallace reached that point of desperation. And I regret that he will never be able to realize the power of his art, and its ability to change people, and save them, and to make the world a better place.

In closing, here’s a video of “This is Water.” (It’s audio only; I tried to find actual video, but I wasn’t able to locate any.) I re-read this piece annually, and the older I get, the deeper it resonates. If you haven’t experienced before, give it a listen.

What I’ve been reading

I’ve been on a real Sandra Cisneros kick lately. I just re-read Loose Woman (one of my all-time favorite collections), I’ll be starting Woman Hollering Creek sometime this week, and I have My Wicked Wicked Ways on order.

Shannon Hardwick has a beautiful chapbook out. It makes me jealous that I don’t live in the desert.

I’ve been enjoying the work of my fellow poets participating in Pulitzer Remix.

Salon has a cool article on contronyms.

 

What I’ve been reading

It’s been a while since I’ve done a reading report…well, it’s been a while since I’ve done any blogging! But March was a crazy month. Between travel, poetry readings, and getting into the busy season at work, I’ve barely had time for sitting down and writing poems, much less blog posts. But here’s an assortment of great books and articles I’ve read throughout the month.

Sandra Cisneros, Loose Woman. This is one of my all-time favorite poetry collections, and I find myself returning to it as spring really starts to emerge. I don’t do it consciously. But this time of year, this is the book I want to read.

John Darnielle apparently has a novel coming out. This is cause for much joy in my household. (And I am sure I’m going to love it, because John Darnielle made me interested in a novella centered around Black Sabbath, and I quite honestly have no musical interest in Black Sabbath in general. Nothing personal, Ozzy.)

Drew Myron wrote a beautiful post about being a good literary citizen. I’m glad to see I already employ most of these habits.

Poetry in Person: Twenty-five Years of Conversation with America’s Poets, edited by Alexander Neubauer. I just started this book yesterday, and don’t want to put it down. I love reading or listening to poets discuss the process of writing. Often, I enjoy the process more than publication.

Liliana Valenzuela’s Codex of Journeys: Bendito camino. Makes me want to learn Spanish. For real this time.

Poet and friend Debra Winegarten was interviewed for a book marketing blog last month, and I’ve been employing her advice to promote my chapbook. I often say I have to channel my Inner Deb to do the work of marketing. Some people love it; I am not one of them.

 

Weekend Readings

50 Sure Signs that Texas is Actually Utopia” by Summer Anne Buton — The whole list is great, but #4 is where it’s at. I don’t want to live in a state without breakfast tacos.

Calvin & Hobbes photoshopped into real photographs. So wonderful.

Janeites: The curious American cult of Jane Austen” by Jon Kelly — My enjoyment of Pride and Prejudice aside, I’m more fascinated by people’s interest in Jane Austen rather than her work.

Beloved by Toni Morrison — This April, I’ll be participating in the Pulitzer Remix Project and creating a poem a day drafted exclusively from the text of Beloved. Since I haven’t read the novel since college, I’m reading it this month, and then I’ll read it again in March. It’s an interesting experience to read a book for the purpose of making poems out of it. I’ll probably have more detailed reflections on that later.

Tatau (Tattoo) Poetics” by Craig Santos Perez — I have a soft spot for literary discussions about tattoos. Here, Perez discusses poetics and postcolonialism.

 

Weekend Readings

The changing face of ‘nerds’ (and autism) in popular culture” by Noel Murray — A thought-provoking look into comedy, nerdiness, and the autism spectrum.

Dead Writers Perfume” by Amanda Nelson. I imagine that my own scent might be a mix of oolong tea, red wine, rosemary, and tea tree oil. An odd mix, to be sure, but it’s fun to think about.

Hilary Mantel’s Rules for Writers — I’ve never read Brande’s book, but I will now. At some point. My to-be-read list is very long.

New Goose by Lorine Niedecker — Spinoffs of Mother Goose poems based on life during the Great Depression and World War II. Disturbing, in a way, how the work is still thematically relevant.

Our No Audio, Ourselves” by Natalie Shapero — A meditation on language, vulgarity, FCC, and the complicated regulations surrounding decency.

The Roadside Assistance Prayer” by Susan Rooke — Yay local poets! I was also amused because my final poem for the 30/30 project mentioned roadside assistance, and when the poem was done, I opened up my Your Daily Poem email, and discovered Susan’s piece.

Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 Years of Buddhist Widsom by Sallie Tisdale — I just started this book, which brings to life the stories of female Buddhist figures that have been otherwise obscured or ignored.