Poet Kathleen Housley has long been interested in science and faith, two topics that feature prominently in her latest book, Epiphanies. We caught up with Kathleen to gain some insight on what inspires her to write and how she manages to navigate the terrain of both modern science and theology to honestly reflect both in her work. Here, we’re featuring a few of the poems from Epiphanies.
The poem Demotion is deceptive because it appears to be a light narrative, funny in a self-deprecating way. Its genesis was the idea of our species, Homo sapiens, being wise; yet, other extinct hominids had larger brains and lasted longer. The reason for naming the new epoch the Anthropocene was because of the extreme effects humans have had on the Earth. That prompted me to think about the irony of our species name. In the last stanza, the poem morphs into something much larger: the nature of language, wisdom, and failure.
“Get wisdom, get understanding.” Proverbs 4:5
In ninth grade biology class back in the dawn of time,
my teacher taught us that we were all classified
as Homo sapiens sapiens, meaning doubly wise,
smarter than smart, the best of all creatures
who walked the face of the earth, having dominion
over lesser life-forms that didn’t have a single sapiens,
let alone two, as part of their genus-species names,
evolution and natural selection having conspired
with Almighty Providence to place us fifteen-year-olds
(even Kenny “the Missing Link” Shapiro) just above
the great apes on the tree of life, though my mediocre grades
made clear there was room for improvement even at the top.
Blessed to be young in the Holocene’s balmy days,
blissfully unaware of glacial melt and rising seas,
I went on to earn a living and procreate my superior kind,
and aside from browsing through waiting-room copies
of National Geographic for updates on Olduvai Gorge,
I fell behind the times, which explains my surprise
on hearing the news that I am living in a new epoch,
the Anthropocene. What’s more, my species name
is in question because gene sequencing has revealed
a percentage of my nuclear DNA can be traced back
to Neanderthals, those heavy-browed cavefolk
who carried clubs and are supposed to be extinct.
Having given up dominion, settling for just getting by,
I am now in danger of demotion, reduced to Homo
without a sapiens to my baleful name, lumped into
the tribe Hominin, a term that sounds very like homonym,
signifying a word with many meanings and various truths,
such as the word fluke that is at one and the same time
a parasitic flatworm, a bottom-dwelling flounder,
a whale’s tail fin, a part of an anchor, a chance event.
Out of context, meaning is severed from its mooring
and wisdom is set adrift among the flatworm-flounder-fins
of anchored chance leaving behind one regrettable truth:
I never was able to live up to my name.
NASA’s Spirit Rover was last heard from on March 22, 2010. Its mission to Mars was supposed to last ninety days. Instead it lasted six and a half years. It is hard not to think of Spirit as human, even though I know it is a machine. All those years, when I heard of a new exploit, I would cheer it on. When Spirit finally stopping responding, I felt sad. My propensity to anthropomorphize led me to consider what were the robot’s attributes that seemed heroic, in the mold of Antarctic explorers. The last line of Tennyson’s poem Ulysses is inscribed on the memorial to Robert Falcon Scott and his men on Observation Hill in Antarctica.
Pavane for a Dead Rover
Nothing human about you, little Spirit,
only six but full of self. For three years,
you have been silent, embedded in soft dirt
on Mars while we wait here on Earth,
hoping that with the return of spring,
the strengthening light will fall directly
on your solar panels, cleaned at last
of reflective dust by strong winds,
resurrecting your dead batteries,
so that once again you flood our screens
with data on mineral-rich rocks dredged
from a volcanic plateau named Homeplate,
the last place you were seen alive —
if we can use that word for you.
You are our titanium Scott, our lithium Byrd,
who when your computer chips were down,
braved your own elements and persevered,
dragging your locked wheel in a slow dance,
like a pavane through an empty kingdom.
How can we not anthropomorphize you?
The contrary one who didn’t follow commands,
draining yourself with too much work
even when you were told to sleep.
Yet until the end, you sent us dispatches
from a newer world, like Tennyson’s Ulysses,
“made weak by time and fate, but strong in will,
to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Not all poems spring easily into existence, like Athena springing full-blown from the head of Zeus. Sometimes I have an intriguing idea, but to bring it into being takes much work. For this poem, I read Godël’s writings as well as a few biographies. His theorems are far beyond my reach, but his essays and lectures are graspable, to a degree. My interest was rooted in my desire to explore the nature of insight in science and religion. The psychological studies that had been done on insight were disappointing in their lack of scope, relying on puzzles and brain teasers, which really have to do with problem-solving, not insight. So I decided to look at the farthest reaches of the human mind that could still be considered normal; that led to higher mathematics, to Godël, and to his Ontological Proof for the existence of God. All that research culminated in my essay, published on the Metanexus website (August 9, 2011), titled Seeing the Thunder: Insight and Intuition in Science, Mathematics and Religion.
It also led to the poem The Mathematician’s Wife Ponders Ontology. In reading about his life, I was intrigued by Godël relationship with his wife, Adele. I happen to know a similar couple in which the husband is a brilliant mathematician and the wife is of average intelligence with few interests outside the home; yet, the marriage works. This led to my envisioning Kurt and Adele as components of a binary star, she being the small invisible companion who holds him steady. The poem was published in the journal Isotope.
The Mathematician’s Wife Ponders Ontology
The fundamental philosophical concept is cause.
It involves will, force, enjoyment, God, time, space.
The affirmation of being is the cause of the world.
I have no head for numbers, counting on my fingers
when adding up the grocery bills. Yet it calmed Kurt
when I encouraged him to talk about his theorems,
the two of us sitting at the kitchen table, the sunlight
angling through the window onto the checked linoleum,
the coffee perking lazily on the gas stove, though he
muttered it would be easier to describe the color red
to someone born blind than to make clear to me
his cosmological models that, as far as I could tell,
were like gyroscopes wherein all of time twirled
just as I had once twirled in a Viennese nightclub.
That was before we were married, before the war,
before we fled from Austria to the United States
and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton,
traveling at night to avoid detection by the Nazis,
heading eastward via the Trans-Siberian Railway
to Japan, then across the Pacific to San Francisco
toward the most undecidable of all propositions.
But how can I even use the words before or after
when, according to Kurt, past, present and future
are simultaneous and, therefore, non-existent?
Just after we were introduced, I overheard someone
say that Gödel possessed the greatest mathematical
mind of the age. Later on, one of his acquaintances
patiently explained to me the liar’s paradox—
a Cretan said “All Cretans are liars”—that lay
at the heart of his work, saying that it had to do
with certainty or its lack. I didn’t care. What does
a divorced Catholic dancer whose face is marked
by a port-wine stain know of certainty anyway?
Perhaps it was that stain, rather like the sign of Cain,
that drew us together, two exiles whose only security
was within each other’s arms, if there. The first time
we waltzed, he placed a finger on my left cheek,
as if to see whether the mark rubbed off like chalk,
while his other hand, moth-like, fluttered against
the small of my back. We talked about the tulips
in bloom at the Hofburg. Later we went to see them,
but they were past their peak, their petals drooping.
Even then he had strange quirks: avoiding certain foods,
anxious about his health, and afraid of people; peering
through his round spectacles at a world less real to him,
and far more frightening, than the realm of pure numbers.
Like the small invisible companion of a brilliant binary star,
I helped to hold him steady. When he insisted that his food
was poisoned, I tasted it first. When he was attacked in Vienna
by a gang of young thugs who thought he was a Jew,
I beat them back with my umbrella. When he suspected cyanide
was seeping from our refrigerator, after our move to America,
I stuck my head inside and breathed deeply as if enjoying
the sweet scent of roses. If he became agitated beyond my aid,
I’d ask Albert to take him for a walk around town
during which they would discuss their thoughts on relativity,
cosmological constants, rotating universes, and his favorite
movie, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
We were vacationing at Asbury Park on the Jersey shore
when Kurt tried to explain to me his ontological proof
for the existence of God. There was a dangerous riptide
caused by a hurricane far out to sea, so we did not swim,
instead we sat on the beach after he had beaten me
in several games of skittle ball in the boardwalk arcade,
and he began to talk of God as a positive property
or sum of perfections. When I did not understand,
he picked up a piece of driftwood and drew a formula
in the damp sand. A wave washed away the essence of x
to the third power, so he began again further up the beach
only to have a second wave deposit a little cockle shell
on the equal sign. He became upset when I started to laugh.
If God were perfect with no negatives in his essence,
I asked, how could he be aware of the two of us, human
cornucopias of fears, uncertainties and imperfections?
And what difference would divine proof make to the boy
flying a blue kite, or the starfish dying above the tide line?
Knowing Kurt tended to dwell on proving God’s existence
when his own seemed precarious, I reminded him gently
that he had not eaten breakfast that morning at the hotel,
suspicious of strychnine mixed into the scrambled eggs.
I took a loaf of pumpernickel bread from the picnic basket,
broke off a big piece, spread it with butter and nibbled
nonchalantly while he watched for signs of a fatal reaction.
“It’s an exercise in logical investigation,” he said softly,
accepting the broken bread when it appeared I would live.
“Spinoza’s God is less than a person. Mine is more
than a person. He can play the role of a person.”
Years after his death, I donated his papers to the Institute,
most written in German shorthand, almost undecipherable,
as if the rush of his ideas could not be captured by anything
as slow as ordinary script. In them was his ontological proof.
Other than the formula he scribbled in the sand that morning,
I never read it, nor wanted to. Love was the only proof needed.
Until my stroke made it impossible for me to save him,
spoonful by spoonful, from self-imposed starvation,
I let him know in the decipherable domestic language
of clean sheets, ironed shirts, and fresh Viennese pastry,
that no matter how many men he thought wanted him dead,
I wanted him alive. In this we agreed: not everything true
can be proven and not everything proven is true.
It is not commonly known that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s older brother was a physical chemist, who would eventually lead the Max Planck Institute. Dietrich himself read scientific books, including The World View of Physics by Carl Friedrich von Weissacker. At the time of his death, he was expanding his theology, pointing out the absurdity of a God-of-the-Gaps approach, and stressing that God must be at the center of life. But what shines through in his letters written from prison is his kindness. His statement about attempting to comfort frightened people after a severe night bombing is both humble—he says he is bad at it—and profound. He reminds me of two other prisoners: John the Baptist and Paul. Bonhoeffer also reminds me that far more important than all our theology, all our science, is compassion. The poem was published in The Christian Century.
The way Herod liked to listen to John the Baptist,
summoning him from his cell for private chats,
but could make no sense of what he said;
the way Festus kept Paul locked up for two years,
because he enjoyed hearing him talk,
although his words made him afraid;
the way German guards, terrified by night bombings,
sought out Pastor Bonhoeffer even though he was,
by his own account, a provider of cold comfort—
writing to a friend, “I can listen all right,
but hardly ever find anything to say.
Yet perhaps the way one asks about some things
and is silent about others helps to suggest
what really matters”—
none of those things could stop
the sharp rap on the prison door,
or the words “come with us,”
as if for one more quiet conversation
about what really matters.
Two things came together in this poem. I picked up a millipede that immediately curled up into the most beautiful and perfect red whorl. The entire point of its spiral magnificence was self-preservation. Not long after that, I read about the discovery in Scotland of the fossil of a similar type of creature that breathed air on land. The two things came together in a way that opened up the ideas of incarnation and inspiration, which took on a double meaning. The poem was published in The Christian Century.
Holy Spirit: do not descend as a dove.
Better to return as a millipede hidden
beneath decaying bark than anything
that can soar. Ponder the incarnational
worth of Pneumodesmus newmani,
the oldest known form of life on land,
linking air breathing with the surname
of the Scottish bus driver and amateur
paleontologist who chiseled its fossil
from harbor rocks north of Stonehaven,
observing through his field lens small
openings in its exoskeleton used
for inspiration, meaning it moved its
many legs on dry ground, not seabed.
Or consider this descendent of Pneumo,
younger by four hundred million years,
curled for self-preservation on my palm,
a hard button of red legs whorled inward,
circled by dark armor plate, both of us
breathing air while we wait for a sign
that it is safe to resume whatever it was
we were scurrying to do prior to this
disruption of our forward flow to make
a theological point: Of what use are
metaphors of flight for things with feet?