Ethan Hsi reviews Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s ecopoetics of cosmic interconnection.

Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, A Treatise on Stars (New Directions, 2020), 99pp.

The universe exploded into light, and eventually grew eyes to see itself. Mediating between the body that sees and the visible universe is the mind, performing the dual acts of thinking and perceiving. It is within this nexus of seeing, thinking and being that the poetry of Mei-mei Berssenbrugge’s fourteenth collection unfolds. Where Berssenbrugge’s previous collection, Hello, the Roses (New Directions, 2013) was held to its roots on Earth by its interest in plant and terrestrial life, A Treatise on Stars launches into the space between celestial bodies to accrete through gravitation an ecopoetics of cosmic interconnection, positing a unity between perception and light, between the infinitude of the mind and the infinitude of the universe.

The first great achievement of A Treatise on Stars is its understanding of the natural alliance between science and poetry. Many of its poems draw inspiration from certain ordered understandings of the physical universe handed down to us by physicists and astronomers: the wave-particle duality of photons, the imperceivably nonlinear nature of time, the physical mechanics of the life cycles of stars. They also seek to do what nearly all great poems do: “intuit cosmic allurement” (3). But Berssenbrugge’s book is not scientific nonfiction (despite what its title may suggest), nor poetry that merely pays lip service to the vocabulary of astrophysics. Instead, it intervenes against the received dichotomy in which language-as-science and language-as-poetry are held to be antithetical, performing incompatible functions. This is a limiting yet persistent framework, in which the capabilities of science and poetry are caricatured and narrowed. To the chagrin of the poets, sealing language-as-poetry off from language-as-science tends to give rise to a value judgement bias in favor of language-as-science, because an instrumentalized language cleansed of poetry’s ambiguities is better suited to the quotidian work of commodity production. But poets are likewise implicated in uncharitably caricaturing their scholarly counterparts, often imagining science to be inflexibly rational, coldly unimaginative, an analytical debunker of the little magic remaining in the world.

Yet in A Treatise on Stars the languages of science and poetry appear as intertwined activities of the cosmically curious mind. The critic Elizabeth Sewell, in her seminal study of the relationship between science and poetry, The Orphic Voice, defines their common goal as discovery, each mode of language being “a choice of operations of the dancing mind by which it can learn to understand itself and the world” (26). The treatise and the poem are two overlapping paths to sublimity; we take both because “there’s joy in transmuting a supernova into science and wonder, at the same time” (45).

Take, for example, Berssenbrugge’s rumination on light in “Darkness.” In the age of quantum mechanics, it is clear that a description of the natural world must have the capacity for profound ambiguity, for holding conflicting truths in one mind. Light can be thought of as an object in motion, traveling from star to eye across lightyears, but also as a wave, a pattern that cuts across space and time:

Light remains whole, but our understanding of what’s elemental changes.

We thought smallest, most indivisible, was fundamental.

Perhaps for light, it’s not in smallness, but wholeness of particle and wave.

We no longer measure a single photon moving through space with its attributes.

An attribute is somehow shared property now, of a new kind of object, the whole.

Myriad superpositions replace a photon’s trajectory; the entangled one, no longer “traveling,” is both here and there. (65)

Here we resist the impulse to divide and subdivide in search of the fundamental, and instead reorient our perception around totalities. A point of light is in a continuous relationship with the temporal positions of its past and future self, and in this way it does not so much travel between a star and our optic nerves but rather connects them. The poem concludes that “seeing opens in psychic congruence with the galaxy, connecting wonder and space to one source” (66), the source being light, simultaneously here and there.

The sixteen poems in the collection all follow a path structurally similar to “Darkness.” Each poem is divided into a handful of sections, no more than five, and each section proceeds through a sequence of long sentences. As a result Berssenbrugge’s lines work quietly and methodically, as they elliptically pursue their own thread of celestial wisdom. Each poem proceeds like a stargazer charting a constellation. Looking at the night sky, the poet begins with a brief moment of wonder, and casts about for connection: “I construct lines from indivisible points, bind seeing to an infinity of points and single brights, at the same time” (11). That moment of wonder, derived from looking, is pursued to its full metaphysical consequences, usually culminating in a revelation of harmony, of connection: “psyche becomes increasingly collective, as it assimilates with the gorgeous world” (60).

Wholeness and collectivity are the main refrains of A Treatise on Stars, making it familiar territory to readers of Berssenbrugge’s past work, as well as readers of contemporary ecopoetry in general. What is most notable and artfully accomplished in this collection is the careful drawing out of the sublime inherent in simple acts of perception. The ultimate source of the sublime, it is always clear, is coexistence with the cosmos; to perceive is to participate in something larger than oneself. Berssenbrugge’s treatise concludes forthrightly with her theory about the interrelated functions of perception and poetry: “My book describes how communicating with star beings can teach us to continue our world through love and grace, communal grace” (99).

Ethan Hsi is a poet and critic based in Boston, Massachusetts.