Poet Robin Beth Schaer is fascinated by science, and her curiosity informs all of the poems in her stellar debut collection, Shipbreaking (Anhinga Press, 2015).
The poems are alive with precise detail and a sense of the poet’s insatiable desire to understand. She is adept at making connections, and maybe connection comes naturally, to Schaer and to all of us, if her poem “Disturbance” is any indication:
… We are
electric; this is not metaphor.
Each of our cells a tiny battery:
membrane the cardboard, ions
the coins. Once, I tumbled down
a flight of stairs, then fainted
each time I tried to stand.
Overcome by nerves in riot,
the body powers down, crumples
rather than abide. Even swooning
is a kind of fainting, overwhelmed
by bliss, instead of pain. …
Later in the poem, she continues exploring the curious fact of the body’s electrical charges:
is the cure for both a stopped heart
and one that beats too much.
And if it must be shocked twice,
the surgeons call it a reluctant heart.
Love is haywire. Hold fast,
between us, pass subtle particles
that singe and seize. We are electric.
One poem, “Middle Flight,” suggests that Schaer’s curiosity about the world is deep and intrinsic, and that she is willing to go to the mats to figure out the answer to vexing questions. Here is a favorite passage of mine:
But to hide in faith
is easier than to contend with doubt.
What moved through sky I once believed
was holy. I buried moths and blue jays, and kept
a shoe box reliquary of feathers, rockets,
and airplane spoons. Somewhere in childhood
an equation is fused between elevation
and milk. It begins this way: too tired to stand,
we reach toward arms and find altitude.
Because I have a personal interest in lighter-than-air flight, I was especially intrigued by this poem, which, according to the notes, “quotes balloonists Joseph-Michel Montgolfier, Jacques Charles, and Colonel Joseph Kittinger” and “Refers to the early aeronauts Sophie Blanchard and John Wise, and cluster balloonists Larry Walters, Adelir Antonio de Carli, and Jonathan R. Trappe.” The poem appeals to me because it takes Schaer’s research and both personalizes and poeticizes it, making it moving and quite lovely.
In my brief interview that follows many of my appreciations, Schaer attests to her love of research and her onetime desire to be a scientist instead of a poet. And the publisher’s press kit for Schaer’s book points out that she spent two years as a deck hand on The Bounty, a tall ship and an accurate reproduction of the HMS Bounty. The ship was ultimately lost in Hurricane Sandy, and its captain and another crew member died. She addresses the tragedy in the book’s eponymous poem, which investigates the event in a manner both nuanced and wise:
We never said sinking. We said
in distress. We mustered on deck.
Waited to abandon ship. Not yet,
we said, still night. She heeled
starboard. Buried the bow. We said
she’s going. We said don’t lose me.
[…] We thought
not this. Not her. We were alive.
We drowned. We were never found.
Schaer’s vivid imagining of what befell ship and crew puts the reader right there, on a ship, going down.
A few observations of my own and some snippets of poems from the book fail to do justice to the poet’s project—a probing of the world and its natural mysteries, not the least of which are its human mysteries. This is a book that rewards careful reading, start to finish, by those who, like Schaer, relish inquiry.
An interview with Robin Beth Schaer …
What did you want to be when you grew up, and why?
I chose the college I attended because it boasted both an electron microscope and a telescope. I wanted to be a scientist; I wanted to peer into the secrets and mysteries of cells and solar systems, and the space in between.
What is the very best word in this collection? Explain.
I love the word “haywire,” which is commonly used to describe something erratic or wild, and originates in the practice of using baling wire for makeshift repairs. In Shipbreaking, I use it to describe love, but the word’s compression of electrical and natural language, and its call to strangeness and singularity, describes what draws me to poetry as well.
Describe your worst poetic habit.
I over-research. I get consumed by an idea and lose myself so fully in research that I crowd out the originating mystery with facts. I wonder if research is also part of my other bad poetic habit: procrastination.
Robin Beth Schaer was educated at Colgate University and Columbia University, and she is the recipient of fellowships from Yaddo, Djerassi, MacDowell, Saltonstall, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Bomb, Paris Review, and Guernica, among others. She teaches writing in New York City and lives in Brooklyn.