Erin Noteboom’s A knife so sharp its edge cannot be seen is a slow burn of simmering wisdom. First perceptions and origins are central themes, as is “unlocking a surge of awe” through first discoveries. In quick time, scientists Marie Curie, Wilhelm Röntgen, and Abū Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham make appearances to delve into the nature of scientific discovery. Optics, luminosity, and radioactivity all overlap to become the metaphoric knife edge. Poems with sharply observed details contain the strongest moments of the collection, when the specifics of the science also create an experience for the reader. Such strength is seen in “Curie Abundant.”
Like raspberries in their fever, like blueberries at the end of July,
uranium ore is heaped in a Paris courtyard—
mine tailings dark and welted,
black and bruised. They shovel it into bushels,
scrape-drag them into the shed, pick out the pine needles.
Noteboom simmers fragments of insight throughout, most notably in the poem “What is Eden but a thing that is Lost.” The aftermath of Chernobyl is described and then: “You could name it in time: / the twentieth century growing points like a stag, / belling, branching like daughter particles.” The destruction of a nuclear accident accumulating damage and growing metaphorically as buck points is stellar. The poem elevates off the page and into the place good poems should live – in memory as imagery.
However, the collection is uneven, and the overall organization is a puzzle. The second section of ghazals suddenly invites itself over like an unannounced guest, although it maintains a gauzy thematic tie. “By ten to one, the ants outweigh us. / But what of sorrow?” The weight of the decisions of mankind are evident and Noteboom’s concerns apparent.
A third section titled “poems with movement towards the particular” makes a promise and fulfils it in “Untitled poem about sensitization”:
As with bee stings, so with grief.
Sometimes something terrible happens.
Sometimes you step on a hive.
Stung three hundred times, you survive.
But always after, the smallest thing
can slay you. Always after,
the smallest thing.
Noteboom brings the era of environmental trauma vividly to the page. In this section, memory and lived experience inhabit the text, and again subtlety is the order of the day: “there is no guessing what will be struck / in memory. Think of the chance even in archeology.”
A fourth section asks, “What marks us?” In a style reminiscent of Paul Celan, it traverses through a series of surreal questions. In this call and response, the most charming example might be “What Remembers?”
Skin. Scars. Stones
from the river. Language like a basket
made for carrying water.
The nest of mice
in the box of papers.
The collection reads as though a couple of chapbooks had been pinned back-to-back, with a final Curie poem tacked on the end to mark a conclusion. While the book is somewhat uneven, it holds real moments of clear and present insight.