Review of Anna Leahy's Constituents of Matter

Leahy, Anna. Constituents of Matter. Kent State University Press, 2007. (73 pages). ISBN 978-0873389259

Anna Leahy’s Constituents of Matter is a carefully constructed first book of poetry in which the author explores a unified theme while writing in a clear and consistent voice. This book, which attempts, and often succeeds, at making science seem intimate, is divided into three sections after the six types of quarks: I. UP/DOWN, II. CHARM/STRANGE, and III. TOP/BOTTOM. As Leahy, who received her MFA at the University of Maryland and her PhD from Ohio University, explains in the notes at the end of the book, “Up and down are first-generation quarks; charm and strange are second generation; top, the most recently discovered quark, and bottom, are third generation” (72). Leahy also notes, “A single quark does not occur alone” (72). These poems, like the quark, which is one of the two basic constituents of matter (the other is the lepton), are about relationships.
     Several of the poems, for example, attempt to humanize the scientist. For example, in the poem, “Notes on a Few Atomic Scenes,” a five section prose poem, Leahy shows us a scene in the life of five noted scientists: Albert Einstein; Marie Curie, who discovered radium and polonium; Werner Heisenberg, a German physicist known for his uncertainty principle; Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist; and Richard Feynman, an American physicist. Each of these sections focuses on both the scientists’ discoveries and their relationships with others. For example, in section two, Leahy says of Curie, “At the evening garden party, Marie Curie lifts a glowing test tube out of her pocket to show her colleagues what she has discovered. Everyone stares at her husband’s hands in the strange light. Later, she smooths ointment on his hands and bandages them. She knows it is too late for anything more” (15). Likewise, the poem, “The Biologist’s Fall,” which is written in couplets, Leahy focuses on a scientist in a less than glorious moment— when he’s flat on the ground in his driveway where he’s fallen because of the ice. The speaker of the poem humorously notes, “You think of Newton, Skinner, bacon and eggs./Perhaps your wife will run across you/on her way to the mailbox, the trip/you have failed to complete” (18).
     One of the reasons why Constituents of Matter is so resonant is because it’s a collection of poems about searching. In one of the poems, “Recurring Dream (5),” we see the poet as a bit of seeker and a mystic. In this poem, a nun (Hildegard of Bingen) “in her awkward Latin calls out: Scribe. Ama. Haec eadem sunt” (69). The Latin here was not translated. Despite having attended Catholic school, like the speaker in several of these poems, my own Latin is a little rusty, but I know that ama is a form of the verb amo, which means to love, perhaps the command form here. Perhaps this was meant to come from the Latin Vulgate Bible? Elsewhere, the Latin was usually translated and was often included in the title of several poems, for example, one poem was called “Contract, From the Latin A Drawing Together; another was called “Collaboration, From the Latin To Slip Together.” Translated or not, the Latin served the function of giving the poems a spiritually resonant quality or a kind of gravitas. One of the most memorable of these Latin-titled poems was, “Deterioration, From the Latin To Wear Away.” This poem begins with a quote about rust from Lucille Clifton. Like many of the poems in this collection, it incorporates scientific facts about rust in an almost textbook-like way: “Rust makes visible the power of oxygen—/pair of atoms, breaths/not yet taken—on metal/which is supposed to be unyielding” (47). But, as the poem continues, the reader learns that it is not, in fact, an abstract meditation on rust in general, but rather a concrete meditation on death, and not death in the abstract, but a very particular death, the death of the speaker’s father. The speaker reveals that she has kept her father’s watch, and time, as well light, is one of the recurring themes in these poems. The speaker says, at the funeral, “It’s time to move, allow force to overcome/inertia, air against my throat and suddenly/all of me spun from the cloud” (48). The casket, she notes, is “hemmed tight for burial,/against water, oxygen, and transformations” (48).
     While life and death, serious subjects, recur in many of the poems, so too do less serious themes. One poem, “The Stars Don’t Dance” explores dancing using the metaphor of meteors while “Inhabit, from the Latin To Have and Hold” meditates on Audrey Hepburn’s fictional character, Holly Golightly, in the film Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The speaker asks the reader playfully, “Who wouldn’t want/ days and days with nothing to do but live/even if they came with a past one didn’t always want/ to forget? Who wouldn’t want the chance, the song?/ The writer upstairs is needy.” (54).
     In the poem, “The Properties of Light and Villanelles,” Leahy juxtaposes scientific information such as "A saint must be both particle and wave" (1, 18) with specific information about Saint Lucy, who according to legend, had her eyes gouged out. The name Lucy comes from the same root as the Latin word for light. Leahy plays with this fact when she writes, “Beyond light is immeasurable mass./ The space between crests are what her eyes crave” (2-3) In "Starstruck," Leahy discusses two types of stars— movie stars like Claudette Colbert and Katherine Hepburn—and the literal stars in the sky. She observes, “On Saturday night, with love a thousand miles away/like stars to my naked eyes, I search the screen” (1-2). Leahy says, drawing on the concept of searching for light in the universe, “To find Katherine Hepburn, now that's something–” (9-10). Throughout this book, Leahy makes interesting connections like this and asks thought-provoking questions, questions we, as readers, very much want to know the answers to. As a result, Constituents of Matter is a book worth reading and re-reading, and Leahy is a poet to watch in the future.

Lori D'Angelo is an MFA candidate in fiction at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia, where she also teaches composition to freshman and sophomores. She has a master’s degree in theology and once worked as a journalist.

Boxcar Poetry Review - ISSN 1931-1761