The final poem of Michael Lally's moving new collection, Swing Theory, keeps coming back to my mind. I think this is because it illustrates so well what's uniquely cool about poetic thinking. Check it out:
SWING THEORY: 5
When I first read about string theory I thought
What about swing theory? The ways the uni-
verse is secretly governed by the same laws
that sparked The Big Band Swing era, park
swings and taking a swing at something or
someone. I thought of "Swinging on a Star"
or Swing Time I mean the ways reality swings
not just in the Hegelian sense but in the re-
galing sense and sensitivity to the ego swings
and mood swings of The Creator or whatever
force initiated this swinging cosmic vibe we
call Being Here Now, always, where every
sound's a note in the song of everything, ev-
ery moment a scene in the movie of our lives.
String Theory, of course, is supposedly notoriously difficult to fully grasp. It's a theory, as I (dimly) understand it, whose ambition is no less than to integrate the discordant elements of contemporary physics (quantum theory vs. Einstein's version of gravity) into an elegant, visionary whole.
But rather than be struck speechless in the face of the "scientific sublime," the poet here, as thinker, uses it as springboard for inspiration, offering his own "grand unified theory" of the cosmos--presented from what the proto Beat performance artist Lord Buckley might have called the hipsomatic angle.
And that Lally's poem draws from music for its metaphors is no accident. String Theory itself is a sort of reinvention of the "music of the spheres." Here's how that authoritative text, The Complete Idiot's Guide to String Theory, describes it:
"String Theory...proposes that subatomic particles are sub-sub-subatomic strings. If we zoom in on the particles closely enough, what we usually think of as little billiard balls reveal themselves to be tiny loops or lengths of a more primitive material. These strings vibrate like miniature guitar strings, and each type of particle corresponds to a string playing a certain pitch--as though quarks were middle C, electrons were E flat, and the world around us were a symphony of unimaginable intricacy."
All of which is to say that poetic thought shares some deep similarities with that of science. In their impatience with conventional realities, both scientists and poets are thinkers who make a habit of (as philosopher Richard Rorty put it in another context) "looking for new interpretations of the Book of Nature."
The jazzy, improvisatory freedom of a poem like "Swing Theory: 5" becomes especially striking in the context of the other poems in this book, some of which specifically address the reality of a brain not functioning as freely as the thinker would wish. This is the result of recovering from a (successful) brain surgery the poet underwent to remove a growth.
In "So, And" for example, a longer poem written specifically for a performance at DIA, the speaker remarks "I wanted to write/a special poem for/this night like I/sometimes have before/to tell what I know/as well as I know/my heart's scars". The poem continues like this:
"but my brain's scarred
now too and it doesn't
work as well as it once
did, nor do the connections
between my thoughts
and the fingers typing this"
As the poem continues (sometimes leaving in the errors that register the side-effects of the surgery), the speaker describes how even the shape of his desires has been modified. All of which throws another light on ideas of self-will, agency and even identity--or, put another way:
"[the] mysteries of what I always
believed was me
but now know as merely
electric impulses in
the thought battery
that's the hybrid
of my brain..."
These observations gain even more significance when you consider that they are part of a poem that ponders the struggle for artistic freedom (with the Chinese government) by the artist Ai Weiwei. From this perspective, the poet's internal fight to write the way he wants can be seen as a metaphor for preserving one's freedom against bigger forces beyond one's control--whether these forces take the form of physical or political laws.
And one way writers, artists and scientists all try to preserve this freedom is to step outside of the situations they face, by observing and reflecting upon them. As Rorty puts it, "mechanism stops, and freedom begins, at the point where we go metalinguistic--the point at which we can discuss which words best describe a given situation."
Swing Theory goes "meta" like this: the poems here are often encounters--with politics, one's past, or, in the examples I've given, scientific reality and its laws. But rather than let the nearly overwhelming power of these forces have the last say, the writing here re-describes them, translating them into a language of its own. One that swings.