Tuesday, 1 September 2009

'A Responsibility to Awe' by Rebecca Elson

Katrina Naomi on A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (Carcanet, 2001)

It was hearing Rebecca Elson’s ‘Antidotes to Fear of Death’ being read at The Troubadour recently that made me head straight out to get a copy of A Responsibility to Awe. The opening stanzas really grabbed me:

Sometimes as an antidote
To fear of death,
I eat the stars.

Those nights, lying on my back,
I suck them from the quenching dark
Til they are all, all inside me,
Pepper hot and sharp.

I love the imagery, how Elson saw stars, how she could bring her work as an astronomer into her poetry, and make space - something I have previously had no interest or understanding of - attractive.

While many of her poems concern the planets, her reaching out and up also coincided with the knowledge of her terminal illness. A Responsibility to Awe was published posthumously in 1999, after Elson’s death at the age of 39. The editors - Anne Berkeley, Angelo di Cintio and Bernard O’Donaghue - have assembled a fantastic collection. Moreover, they have also extracted draft poems and entries from her notebooks, which are as impressive poetically as they are insightful. I am incredibly envious of her ability to write notes that seem, in many cases, to need little more to become fully fledged poems. I also enjoyed the glimpse into her editing processes, to see some of the workings that went into several of the poems at the front of the book, giving the lie to the sense that these poems were easily won. For example, from notes made on 10 June 1996:

The sky like a firework
Stopped mid-shower
A bee causes a shower of rose petals provokes an avalanche of petals

Unusally, A Responsibility to Awe ends with a short autobiographical essay entitled ’From Stones to Stars’, which describes her Canadian childhood and her life as an astonomer. I’ve never read anything on ‘dark matter’ before, or nothing I could hope to understand, and it gives a real insight into her love of astronomy, and her poetry - and how hard she had worked to achieve all that she did. I was left with the impression that Elson’s years of looking into, and really considering, the various galaxies, had really paid off in her poetic observances too.

A Responsibility to Awe has also made me start looking up at night. All good poets enable us to see or consider life differently. Here is just such an example from ‘What if There Were No Moon?’:

There would be no months
A still sea
No moon songs
Terror of eclipse
No place to stand
And watch the Earth rise.

Katrina Naomi's first full collection The Girl with the Cactus Handshake will be published by Templar Poetry in October 2009.