Lalia on Chax being my first new full-length collection in almost a quarter-century, I’m given to reflect on my sources and preoccupations. First among these is the poetry and worldview of William Blake, who, to use his own expression, has been my Friend and Teacher in Eternity since I was 18. At the center of what he has taught me is a famous passage from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which is perhaps the most brilliantly subversive text in the entire Western tradition:
If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.
For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things through narrow chinks of his cavern.
Also at the center is an equally famous quatrain that introduces the series of aphoristic couplets Blake named “Auguries of Innocence”:
To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour
I grew up in Cambridge, Ground Zero for the explosive development of molecular biology, and in particular the discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA by the crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, appropriated by Francis Crick and James Watson. In my early teens I yearned to be a scientist, but by 16 had realized I had no gift for it, but rather a gift for poetry. That was the path I took.
Over the ensuing decades, I came to understand that science too gives humans the ability to see the infinite beyond the “narrow chinks of [their] cavern”—the corporeal senses. I further understood that even the evidence of the senses, such as fossil remains in layers of sedimentary rock, or simply the contours of the land, reveal the vastness of time if viewed with what Blake called “the eyes of imagination.” It was with these eyes that my ancestor Charles Darwin saw the fossils in the cliffs of South America and connected them to Lyell’s geological theory that the Earth must be many millions of years old, concluding that countless species of animal and plant had arisen and died out. Therefore, he reasoned, they must have a common ancestor, the deep root of the Tree of Life. Deep time opened up along with Newton’s deep space, and Einstein married them together.
Science sees a crystalline world of quantum fields in a sand-grain and a heaven of beautiful complexity—cell structures, morphology, phototropism, photosynthesis, relations with other plants and with insect pollinators—in a wildflower. Most recently I have been learning that not only do other animals besides humans—crows, parrots, prairie dogs, bees, dolphins—use language and in some cases exhibit self-awareness, but that trees communicate through microrhizal fungal networks, and that the cells of our bodies are in constant, intricate chemical “conversation.” Quantum physics tells us that we live in an infinite multiverse, as does the new cosmology.
Shelley wrote two centuries ago that the task of poetry is “to imagine what we know.” What he missed—and that Blake understood–-was that we truly know only through imagination, in science as in poetry. To bring these two branches of imagination together, now that I’m beyond the preoccupations of youth, is the primary purpose of my work. Look!