Dorothy Porter is one of my favourite modern poets. This may not mean as much as it sounds, because what I know about modern poetry could scarcely fill whatever small container you prefer for your analogies. I am a medievalist, folks, not a lit major. Her most famous work, The Monkey’s Mask, is a verse novel following the murder investigation of a lesbian private eye. It is exquisite; the imagery is vivid, the detective work tense; the sex scenes exciting. While I am trapped still in ‘I knows what I likes’ when it comes to modern poetry, I definitely likes Porter.
Wild Surmise (2002) is Porter’s fourth verse novel, and so far as I am aware the only verse novel in the world which incorporates astrobiology. For that reason alone I would urge this upon you, the fact that it is a beautiful read notwithstanding.
Alex is an astronomer obsessed with the possibilities of life beyond Earth; she falls from fixation upon Europa to the exclusion of all else into love with her hard-souled colleague, Phoebe while her husband Daniel slowly perishes of cancer. Metaphors of ice and fire, hard vacuum and sea life are used to detail the slow collapsing of these elements as Alex’s twin obsessions lead her husband to feel abandoned and helpless before his disease. She will realise what she has done until after his voice speaks, and is silenced.
Toward the final parts, Wild Surmise switches ‘voice’ and we hear Daniel’s bitterness with academia, the wry resignation at his ineptly arrogant undergraduates and the terrified, wavering voice of a man confronted with the infidelity of both wife and body. He turns increasingly to Dante in his pain, and the final verses of his life and peppered with quotes from the Inferno. What better, I found myself wondering, to help someone through death than the descent and return from Hell?
I will take Dante.
Dante and I will weep
as the leopard and the lion
and the gaunt grey wolf
all take their bite
and the Dark Wood
tangles us together
in a brotherhood
of shivering necessity.
Wrap me close
in your warm brave eloquence.
[from ‘Hospital‘, p. 150]
For all the joy Porter took in weaving classical poetry into her work, the real pleasure of Wild Surmise is the poetry clearly inspired by astronomy. Dawkins has written about how poetry and science could, if combined, create astonishing works of art. Wild Surmise does so, word-painting boldly of the possibilities of the endless void out there. An example, from ‘The wonder’ (pp. 73-74), where Phoebe is speaking with Alex:
‘Astronomers are the chosen ones,
how can anyone go out at night
and not want to be one of us?
I wet myself once
because I couldn’t leave the telescope
because I was looking back
to the beginning of time.
I was looking at the real dragons, Alex,
quasars with blow-torch jets
as long as three galaxies.[…]
When I was five, I did. Reading Wild Surmise, I do again. The sex scenes are breathtaking, Porter’s use of language shines like the stars, but the scientific poetry of this verse novel is what continually brings me back to it, over and over.
There are weaknesses here; her characters seem similar to some of those in The Monkey’s Mask; some of the classical allusions are close to pretension; for a novel there is insufficient plot. These weaknesses would cast shadows on the fact of the work if Wild Surmise were a traditional novel, but this is a work of poetry. Here, the beauty of the composition outweighs other considerations, and Wild Surmise is gorgeous.