A review by Margaret Rhee of Iris A Law’s Periodicity (Finishing Line Press, 2012).
In Periodicity, every poem is exquisitely embodied as small yet complex anthems of love for the lives and legacies of female scientists. In her debut chapbook collection, poet and editor Iris Law centers women scientists—such as Marie Curie, Rachel Carson, Maria Mitchell, Sally Ride, Chien-Shiung Wu—through poetic language and subversion of narrative. Women historically sidelined in the shadows of men, such as Ada Lovelace to Charles Babbage or Emma Darwin to Charles Darwin, alternatively occupy the body and bones of Law’s wonderfully strange and magical poems.
In the poem “Finchsong,” Law reimagines Emma Darwin’s intimate relationship with husband Charles Darwin: “…fingers that bend the necks of birds would trace blue nocturnes against your spine.” Dedicated to Emma Darwin, “Finchsong” illuminates Law’s commitment to women and simultaneous refutation of the grand narrative logics that often work to disavow women in scientific stories. Thus, Law’s Periodicity does much more than simply re-center women in science. Instead, Law’s poems unravel, “unpin,” and rethread scientific “legacy” at her “luminous seams.”
Law unravels the “luminous seams” of Marie Curie, largely recognized as the first women recipient of the Nobel Prize. Instead of reiterating stories of Curie’s scientific accomplishments, Law gently portrays “Marie Curie, Dying:” “her tongue and in her cheeks, a constellation of throbbing stars./tired mouth and tired mind./She is done with talking.” In the poem, Law describes Marie Curie’s “wounds” and “pain” on a body that is “swollen,” “throbbing,” and “tired.” In doing so, the poem illuminates Marie Curie’s dying body is one that dared to speak and live and is now “done with talking.” Law juxtaposes dying with Curie’s longing, her living: “She had wanted to laugh at God./She had wanted to kindle the heavens in her hands./She had wanted to unpin the earth at its luminous seams.”
Through her scientific innovations, Marie Curie did “laugh at God” and “unpin the earth.” While celebrating Marie Curie, Law guides us to the complex and yet beautiful irony of dying from the very substance Curie isolated, endeavored, and loved as a scientist of radiation. Yet “science” is never overtly pressed upon within the poem. Instead, in “Marie Curie, Dying,” Law remakes Marie Curie from “women scientist” or “Nobel Winner” to a figure who is intimate, vulnerable, and ephemeral. In doing so, the poems render scientific figures as human. In doing so, Periodicity humbles the readers and science into feeling.
Although science threads the collection together, like her intimate portrait of Marie Curie, science is not overt. Instead, the poems work in explorations of the domestic, death, kinship, intimacy, and care. Moreover, the characters within Periodicity are complex and multifaceted women. For example, Marie Curie echoes as wife, lover, and mother within poems such as “Horse and Cart,” “The Girl With the Radium Eyes,” and the title poem “Periodicity.” Instead of relaying expected plot points of scientific discovery or marriage, the poems offer us a more intimate texture of the world in which these figures reside. Complex, complicated, and “lopsided” women are centered in this scientific story. These women say, “In essence, we are all lopsided,” as specified in “Slant” for Chien-Shiung Wu, largely known as the Chinese Marie Curie. And in “This Void Particulate” we enter the voice of Sally Ride, dispersed in space. Law reimagines Sally Ride’s voice through particles, debris, and dust.
Periodicity arrives at a significant juncture of rethinking science and gender. Largely still a “boys’ club,” science is fraught with controversial misogynist tendencies (1). Within this historical and ideological backdrop, Law provides a critical poetic intervention of women and science past and present. As storyteller, meditator, and muse, Law convenes not only anthems of love, but a chorus of and for women often disavowed in science stories. As a feminist science song, “luminously” Periodicity unravels us.
— Margaret Rhee
1) The 1999 MIT study on gender inequality on women faculty in Science (MIT Faculty Newsletter Vol. XI No. 4 March 1999) comments on biological reasons for the under-representation of female scientists by then Harvard University President. See also Suzanne Goldenberg, “Why women are poor at science, by Harvard president.” The Guardian. Tuesday 18 January 2005. And, the omission of women laureates most years the Nobel in Science is awarded covered by Christopher Connelly in “Is The Nobel Prize A Boys Mostly Club?” National Public Radio, October 15, 2012.
Margaret Rhee is the author of Yellow (Tinfish Press, 2011), School of Dreams (Forthcoming, 2013), and co-editor of Here is A Pen: An Anthology of West Coast Kundiman Poets (Achiote Press, 2010). She is managing editor of Mixed Blood, a literary journal of innovative poetics and race and Glitter Tongue: Queer and Trans Love Poems (2012). Upon invitation from the Asian American Women Artists Association, she curated Body Maps: An Asian American (Digital/Real) Feminist Poetics in the Spring of 2012. She is a Kundiman Fellow.