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Science Lessons

by W.H. New

Past midnight he stands outside, breathing away
the day, scanning the broad wash of stars
horizon to horizon…

This quotation from “Astronomy,” one of a sequence of 80 sonnets in W.H. New’s first collection of poetry, entitled Science Lessons, will perhaps serve as introduction to this review. The question arises: are all 14-line poems sonnets? My feeling is that most of these pieces are indeed sonnets and that the whole is a very large crown of sonnets encircling a very large head, for the titles of these poems are mostly scientific/mathematical, and the sciences vary from geography to physics, from botany to astronomy. An intellectual tour de force indeed.

However, the poems themselves, by longtime B.C. poetry editor and lecturer W.H. New, are not about science. They are about a city boy placed by the authorities with a farm family. They are about his reaction to this new and quite different life. They are about his struggles to adapt to country ways, to country people whose attitudes may look on the surface much simpler than those of the city he has left behind, but in fact have their own sophistications that he struggles to understand and enter into. They are about his growing up and eventually leaving. Is he on his way back to the city he left as a boy?

It’s interesting that all but one of these pieces are about the boy himself, his thoughts, his actions and reactions. The exception is the poem “Catalyst,” which is about his new “mother”; she is not seen through the eyes of the boy, but through the eyes of the poet.
All heaven breaks or heaven rains
around her, she observes, weighs, waits,
enables, judges – but holds apart,
separate self amid the blind barrage
of opposite and action.

However, the question still arises, what is the poet telling us with all these scientific analogies? Obviously something both more arcane and yet more direct than at first appears. For these speculations and the statements inherent in them almost never seem out of place, almost never impede in the story. In fact they mostly seem to illumine the whole sequence as they apparently illumine the mind of the boy whose story this is. And the few clumsy poems perhaps do more to explain the ineptness of the boy himself than the poet. In the end, one is left with the question, not do these two strands fit together? but rather, how do they fit together? How is the poet able to twist these two strings together to make such a strong narrative, such a satisfactory whole?


Reviewer: Anne Szumigalski

Publisher: Oolichan Books


Price: $14.95

Page Count: 90 pp

Format: Paper

ISBN: 0-88982-155-0

Released: June

Issue Date: 1996-8

Categories: Poetry