Particle and Wave Benjamin Landry
University of Chicago Press, April 2014
Reviewed by Elizabeth O'Brien
Is a book of poetry's structural conceit descriptive or prescriptive? And how does a conceit inform the experience of reading the individual poems within a collection? I find myself thinking about these questions lately because so many books of contemporary poetry are organized around definable structural conceits. Benjamin Landry's new collection, "Particle and Wave," for example, is built around the periodic table of elements.
Landry chooses 40 of the 118 known elements and devotes a poem to each, in a range of forms varying from orderly stanzas to columns to erasures. Although written in free verse, there are several nods to rhyme and alliteration, as in "Au," which opens, "'Slate,' he said. And it was late." The voice is airy without being evasive; authoritative without being arrogant.
The poems mix technical diction with a more poetic one: "H," for instance, which represents hydrogen, begins with a line that could come straight from an elementary science text, but then is quickly juxtaposed with the more mythic:
Imagine the heat generated
by Daphne transformed into laurel
and you can begin to feel
what the electron feels
in renouncing its steady orbit.
The way Landry's works with both the scientific and the literary in the first pages honors the book's framework, setting up a tone that alternates between these modes. And, although the book begins quietly, the poems gather momentum as the experiments with form become more deliberate, and themes and images initiated in early poems are revisited. As the book progresses, the sense develops that something meaningful is at stake, as when the idea that "Some of us determine/whether an atom stays/together or falls apart" in "Cr" is complicated by Landry's later piece, "U":
We split the atom because we could
and are now outfitting cockroaches with microphones;
our drones have a bird's eye imagination.
Atomic bombs are a natural preoccupation for a book like this to have, and the assertion made hereabout the relationship between power and intention--"We split the atom because we could"--is chilling in its simplicity.
But on the whole, these poems are less preoccupied with scientific subjects than one might expect, opting more often for personal narrative, and using the titular elements as phonemic rather than material symbols, as in "Br," which connects its title with the sound of a ringing phone, rather than with Bromine, a chemical in the halogen group. Likewise, "Ba," features final lines referring in French to lambs. As far as Earth's building blocks and science are concerned, we are given several references to the splitting of atoms, an epigraph from Marie Curie, and a series of moments that describe the natural world, or touch lightly on intersections between science and philosophy or morality.
But to return to the earlier question of how a book's conceit informs the reading of poems--I did find myself judging this book based on my expectations for how its use of the periodic table could play out. I was expecting there to somehow be more science, although now it's hard to say how.
Books with strong organizing frameworks are appealing because an identifiable overarching structure--like adapting the periodic table for poetry's sake--offers an automatic entry point for readers. It's satisfying to sense what a new book from a new poet is likely to be "about." But then, of course, the poet must move beyond the initial impulse that generated the poems: the whole must be greater than its individual poetic parts. And I suspect that books that use a formal conceit, or otherwise signal that they are about a specific subject are at a disadvantage, then, because although they draw readers in with the promise of a hook, they also invite readers to approach with preconceived expectations.
The best part of any new book of poetry, Landry's certainly included, is that you never know exactly what to expect--even if you think you know what to expect. "Particle and Wave" has a strong organizing conceit that is sure to attract attention. But the poems are also individually innovative, offering interesting moments when the scientific and the poetic meet.
Benjamin Landry is a Meijer Post-MFA Fellow at the University of Michigan and the author of An Ocean Away.
Elizabeth O’Brien writes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Her work has appeared inThe New England Review, Diagram, decomP, Sixth Finch, PANK, Swink, New Pages, The Pinch, Versal, Juked, The Leveler, The Liner, Euphony, A capella Zoo,Slice, The Emerson Review, Flashquake, and elsewhere. She is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota and can be found online at elizabethobrien.net.