If I asked what you associate with Saturn’s largest moon, would you respond with the smell of bitter almonds? Katrina Porteous’ latest poetry collection, Edge, offers dazzling telescopic associations between the cosmic and the local, considering humanity’s attempts to map our knowledge of the known universe, from gravitational fields to the celestial bodies of our own solar system, including likening the composition of Titan’s hydrogen cyanide atmosphere to the trace amount of cyanide found in almonds
Originally composed alongside composer Peter Zinovieff’s music, and shown as part of an audio-visual performance at the Life Science Centre Planetarium in Newcastle, readers witness a poet grappling with the language of theories of how the universe came to be, and how life beyond anthropomorphic perspectives ebbs and flows without regard for our comprehension.
The collection is not to be read as an educational manual, although Porteous provides illuminating notes on the theories she engages with. Edge is at its most evocative when Porteous is wrestling with indeterminate concepts with such energy that language itself is viewed as insufficient to convey the natural undercurrents of space-time:
The whole Sun – its honeycomb,
Its pomegranate, its brilliant seething layers –
Awash with its choirs
Has no truck with your language.
The precise lineation and careful construction of Porteous’ verse is in wonderful tension with the inscrutability of her subject matter, and as such the contest between technical signifier and generative metaphor is given centre stage for much of Edge.
The reader is made to feel displaced from a concretised image for much of the first sequence, ‘Field’, as the various ‘fields’ of forces such as electromagnetism are presented as distant, divine entities, likened to old gods in their callous disregard for human intervention. Much of the language is austere, not allowing for solid purchase, and Porteous is to be celebrated for this imbuing of ‘mathematical language’ with the Esoteric. Reading the poems in ‘Field’ I felt I was deciphering some occult text to glimpse a reality altogether beyond access.
Throughout Edge the notion of an undercurrent to reality is considered, most revealingly in Porteous’ introduction where Plato and T.S. Eliot act as guiding viewpoints to ask whether our perception of reality, in poetry or elsewhere, can be said to be representative of true fact. The restrained poetics in ‘Field’ is heightened in moments of crystalline beauty, which arise as glimpses of this reality, such as when Porteous describes:
Shoals of galaxies, rushing apart,
Light of the farthest
Bent like a question mark?
In this we see Porteous’ central concern with the scale of endeavour undertaken by human inquiry in the face of the brute matter of the universe. Throughout the second sequence, ‘Sun’, Porteous has constructed a poetics about the sun without explicit mention of humans or how the sun impacts on humanity, and this is a triumph of her aim to ‘create a less anthropocentric poetry of nature’. And Porteous’ nature is truly formidable, as she describes the bodily violence of a solar flare:
[…] an incandescent
Ghost of itself, tearing its hair, ripping its skin,
Hoovering back, holding in, holding
In – until
Its body’s intolerable secrets,
Guts and all.
The use of anatomical reference and the likening of ionised plasma to a migrant being cross-examined at the border offers us the realisation that our effort to scale the universe down to our reference of understanding is merely to translate existence. Translation is central in Porteous’ epistemological concern as she pointedly asks, ‘how much reality / Is lost in translation?’ The reader undergoes a certain freeing in the knowledge that their understanding, outside of mathematic precision, can only be incomplete:
You are only rumours:
On a channel almost
Nobody listens to.
It is elsewhere, the party;
Despite being the first sequence she composed for this project, Porteous places ‘Edge’ at the end of the collection, culminating in a less abstracted, intimate poetics about four moons in our solar system. Here we see riveting formal play in the recurrence of Latin incantations which occupy the right margin, listing the “seas” of dark basalt rock on Earth’s moon, never escaping the reader’s gaze. Alongside this, a dialogic repetition of certain lines creates a round effect that gives the final sequence of Edge a distinct density on the page, which contrasts exceptionally with the sparse and reserved verse of the first two sections.
I only wish more of this formal play had been present throughout the collection, to riff upon Porteous’ often ethereal and elemental language. The sequence ‘Edge’ seems the most engaged of the three in its considerations of the limits of taxonomy, the arrogance of human knowledge in falsely laying claim to the essence of celestial bodies, while simultaneously emphasising the notion that Porteous’ universe is not one which speaks back, though she fills the recalcitrant void of such a universe with beautiful music.