The Super-Kamiokande, a Cherenkov detector, is a large stainless-steel tank holding 50,000 tons of ultra pure water, sunk deep underground in the Kamioka-mine of Hida-city, Gifu, Japan. These conditions make it possible to observe the oscillations of solar, atmospheric, and man-made neutrinos—illustration of the creation of matter in the early universe. The detector also searches for evidence that protons decay; as the Super-Kamiokande home page notes, “if the proton decay is observed it may be possible to prove the GUTs [Grand Unified Theories].” If we believe the scientists (and Google), about 100 trillion neutrinos flow through your body every second.
In his fourth collection, Midday at the Super-Kamiokande, Tierney riffs off of a complex body of philosophy and physics: Duns Scotus, the Pythagoreans, Bohr electrons, Schopenhauer, Sartre, WIMPs, syzygys. Science fiction films (Contact; 2001; Bladerunner), aliens, and the nuclear-mad 1950s also have walk-on roles. In an interview with Open Book, Tierney described the book in this way: “The poems in this book revolve around, touch upon, tease and outright raspberry the idea of evidence—empirical evidence, but also evidence of meaning, evidence of presence or evidence of absence.” Midday is down a long road from Full Speed Through the Morning Dark (2004), his first collection, and I confess I miss the breathless exuberance and velocity of those early poems. With each subsequent collection, the poems shorten, tighten, become more elliptic, cryptic, as if under constant surveillance of the lyric self. Each poem can be read as word puzzle or philoso-scientific koan. The same obsessions come through: Japan, technological impacts on humans, perception and the theoretical frames of time and space. But language has contracted, and now observes the very large in the very small.
Many of these poems play on pun and paradox, astute scientific analogy skewed by absurdity; language as particle decay. Meaning is elusive, allusive: “For Pythagoreans / uneven numbers are ‘more perfect,’ / which is extraordinarily odd” (“Dodecahedron Inside a Sphere). It helps to have at least an armchair philosopher’s grasp of ontology:
At heart a Jewish rationalist, just
diagnosed with fear and trembling—
is it possible to conceive of
but never having existed? (“Inbreaking.”).
In “Both Neither and Nor” we encounter:
‘A Manichean would say
there are two kinds of Manicheans:
practicing and non-practicing.’
So quips the Wikipidean.
The human in itself appears only in soft glimpses:
looking forward to French Toast Friday
with real maple syrup,
when my wife momentarily flickers.
Her true alien self in a rose-pink bathrobe (“Routine Maintenance Mission”)
In “Spin, little neutral one,” the speaker observes, “Love inheres. / Love is zero or non-zero. / Love, is it ever dark in there” and then instructs his infant child in utero:
Before you pass through,
hear us, your interlocutors,
in outer space.
However, the real focus is abstract thought.
Extensive endnotes help contextualize physical phenomena such as velocity, time dilation, and the manner of determining the mass of the Higgs boson, the so-called God particle. The analogy Tierney uses in “Both Neither and Nor” is too cryptic to outline in a brief review, involving as it also does negative theology and Manichean allusion. In fact many of the poems flirt in this way with ideas of faith and God. I love poems with intellectual depth, poems that wrestle with complex ideas, but I would prefer more depth to the explorations in this collection, and less illusion.
Kim Trainor’s most recent book is Ledi (Book*hug 2018), shortlisted for the Raymond Souster award. She lives in Vancouver.
ARC HITS THE HEART HARD.