On Chaos Theories by Elizabeth Hazen

Charlotte Pence

Bethesda, MD: Alan Squire Publishing, 2016. 72 pages. $20.00.

Elizabeth Hazen’s dazzling first book of poems, Chaos Theories, reminds us of the long history of poets who take on science as their subject matter. Indeed, the main impetus for Greek and Roman poets like Hesiod and Lucretius was nothing less than to reveal how the universe worked, from atomic theory to astronomy. Perhaps one of the most successful mergers between poetry and science came in the hundred years surrounding Darwin’s publication of Origin of the Species. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s In Memoriam, for example, is often cited as anticipating Darwin’s evolutionary ideology. The Romantic poetic philosophy of “organicism” found in critical works by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and it echoes Darwin as well. Today the fields of science and poetry are quite distinct. Increased specialization has tidily defined each field, and readers’ expectations have followed suit. Broadly speaking, poetry tends to use language as a method of discovery whereas science uses language as a method to communicate discoveries.

Chaos Theories bridges this divide between disciplines through its elegant articulation of the strange, fluctuating space between the known and unknown—from galaxies moving in reverse to urban garages organized by letters and numbers. Here, the mysteries of human relationships echo through the grand dramas of the natural world, resulting in a book of poetry that seamlessly merges science with lyricism.

With this collection, Hazen joins a few other contemporary poets who have embraced the challenge of incorporating scientific theory into their lyrics. Robert Morgan’s latest work Dark Energy comes to mind as does work by Ruth Padel, Sarah Lindsey, Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, James Merrill, Brenda Hillman, Diane Ackerman, Miroslav Holub, May Swenson, and the late A.R. Ammons.

The question, then, is how does this first book of poems by Elizabeth Hazen represent her unique approach to uniting lyricism with scientific theory? Chaos Theories steadily presents poems with clear dramatic situations—which is no easy feat, especially when the subject matter often involves complex scientific concepts. Concise, poetic explanations of natural phenomena seem to come effortlessly to Hazen. Consider the opening lines of the title poem, “Chaos Theory,” which begin to explain the concept while providing a strong three-beat rhythm within the examples. (The stanzas are also divided into tercets.) “You’d think disorder, anarchy, but chaotic / systems twist into something like control: / patterns algorithmic, self-replicating // infinite.” Perhaps the explanations partly come with ease because her father is a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Geophysical Laboratory and professor of Earth Science at George Mason University. One has a sense that Hazen grew up on a steady diet of scientific inquiry within a household that focused more on hunting for trilobites than playing Twister.

In many of the poems, Hazen will provide physiological facts that attempt to make visible the invisible, such as what causes the rush of excitement around a new partner. In “Skin,” she writes: “Neuropeptides flood my bloodstream. Scientists / can isolate the biological basis / of our connection, deeper than skin, chemicals / reacting. . . .” Also, similarly to the practices of Ammons and Morgan, Hazen has internalized the vocabulary of her subject matter to create texture, rhythm, and depth. She easily calls upon her vast knowledge to create the figurative leaps within her poems such as with this simile: “Taillights glow / like red dwarf stars on the highway out of town.”

The poem “Last Anniversary” highlights Hazen’s particular method. While parenting and divorce are in the background of many of these poems, they are not the focal points. Instead, the poem focuses on the the speaker’s reflections between moments of activity. This poem feels like it’s set in the quiet of 10:00 p.m., when the work for the day is not done but must stop all the same. Alone in this moment, the speaker contemplates her newly-found singledom. The poem is comprised of ten couplets (a nicely ironic choice, given the subject) that first consider the idea of nothing, specifically our universe before the Big Bang. In controlled, concise free verse lines that often use nominal phrases as a way to create rhythm and context, Hazen writes:

Nothingness, as far as we can understand,
implies emptiness, absence, an open hand

waiting for an offering to compensate
our deficiencies, an existential state

of mind, a vacant room; but no space to fill
existed, no time to kill, no weight until

the Big Bang gave us context, relativity,
the nothing we now know so well. . . .

One of the interesting elements about this poem is how the personal context, at first only indicated by the title “Last Anniversary,” imbues the poem with a sense of loss. Later, a detail about sharing a twin bed and an admission that now the speaker needs “more space” confirms a romantic loss. While this poem may be about the aftermath of the break-up, only six lines out of the twenty reveal personal details. Instead, much of the poem meditates on nothingness by drawing upon theoretical physics, resulting in a poem that complicates both spaces it occupies: the personal and the scientific. The short “I” sounds found in “nothing” and echoed throughout the poem such as with “fill—a word that conveys a desire to undo nothing—as well as the languid “s” sounds from “existential,” “absence,” and “emptiness” that slow the poem down and imbue it with a melancholy tone that communicates a sense of loneliness, contemplation, and the vast, black cold of outer space.

While some poems are long meditations on scientific theories, other poems use science in a similar way to how the Romantic poets used landscape to achieve an altered state or transformation. Hazen’s poems replace the source of inspiration—landscape—with scientific knowledge, resulting in a type of lyric similar to the structure of the greater Romantic lyric. A poem begins by explaining a scientific fact. Such contemplation leads to an inward reflection that ultimately returns to the aforementioned knowledge. While the end may wrap itself back to the beginning, the speaker has undergone a change, be it simply an altered mood or changed understanding. This structure presents itself in a number of poems such as, “Physics Lesson,” “Remains,” “Meditation on Entropy,” and one particularly impressive poem, “Burial at Shanidar.”

In “Burial at Shanidar,” Hazen wisely uses the epigraph to present the needed background: “Pollen found in one of the Shanidar graves suggests that Neanderthals, too, buried flowers with their dead.” The poem opens with an alternative to how the pollen might have found its way into the graves: “The pollen could be mere coincidence— / traces left by a prehistoric rat / that ate flowers near the grave.” This thought leads to more musing about what it is that attracts us to the idea of others burying their dead similar to how we bury the dead now.  The poem ends with a wry observation that even with our knowledge and our distance, “we dream of gardens where there should be stone.” In other words, no matter what we may believe about the inherent goodness of progress, discovery, or human nature, one thing is certain: we will not leave anything alone.

While some of the poems adopt science as a muse, a good many of the poems in this collection do not—which adds nuance, range, and complexity to the book. After all, in a book that stresses instability, anything too tightly controlled would somehow feel egregious. “Shark Teeth,” for example, describes the speaker walking the shore and collecting teeth, noting that her “pockets held entire mouths.” Other poems explore sexual escapades in parking garages or childhood memories playing with toy soldiers. No matter the subject, the poems reveal Hazen’s skill for arresting line breaks, the willingness to implicate herself, and best of all, surprise. In poem after poem, the conclusions—and the paths it took to get to them—are never the expected ones.

Fully embracing what the lyric mode does best, Hazen provides the readers with brief, intense poems that preserve a suspended moment in time, attempting to record the thought processes and emotions of the speaker much like tree rings reveal drought, heat, and age. With astonishing clarity and concision, Hazen explores the mysteries of our realities—which are ultimately beholden to entropy.

. . . It is we with our constant chatter,
our endless questions, who wreak havoc, we

with our needs to narrate, fit events to plot,
who find ourselves misunderstanding, who

disorder the world around us. . . .

The result is a book that reminds readers that flowers were once only wild, that the feeble heart cannot maintain a steady beat, and that “chaos wreaks nothing / but time.”

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