Andrew Wynn Owen
Before the time of skiing on Europa,
Enceladus still a far-flung starry dream,
When humankind had met no interloper
To shake its trust in being God’s only scheme –
When hope was cheap (since all the wildest hoper
Concocted was a proton-bashing beam),
When life was good, before the hadron drama,
A scientist lived and labbed in Alabama.
It’s said she changed her body to a vapour
And surged, at hurtling speed, across the prairie
Dispersing dust and ruffling reams of paper
So jottings fluttered free above the airy
September clouds. Her particles could caper
And coalesce as an engorged canary
Which chirped – before her molecules defaulted
To human form, with wing and thorax malted.
She set a gauze of copper near the sun
To gather photons whizzing off its centre,
Which made a fleet of flying saucers run
In fluctuating orbits. Each would enter
Its perihelion before it spun,
With bleeps of data, free, to its inventor
Who plugged these findings in a database
Comprised of maps for charting outer space.
She programmed microscopic drones to fill
Their pores with water, and transport the load
To desert regions, where each cell would spill
A droplet, till a gushing river flowed.
She bioengineered, with chlorophyll
Embedded in a goat’s genetic code,
An animal that synthesized the light
And grew, in hours, to an ungainly height.
And then she launched a harvester in motion
To capture hurricanoes as they blew
Across the wide and wet Atlantic ocean
And redirect them – where? Ah, no one knew
But sometimes when a town was in commotion
From seismic devastations, quick winds flew,
Like Valkyries, to help, and air would bubble
As gusts restored old buildings from the rubble.
Later, she rode a chariot made of grass
And dragged about the ozone-layer by Boeing,
Diffusing thunderclouds and dribbling sparse
Evaporation trails of purple, flowing
Horizon to horizon. When the grass
Absorbed their showers, each spikelet started sowing
Sentient saplings, clustered in societies
That grew to breed high-yielding crop varieties.
She fixed a laser to a diplodocus
Constructed out of fiberglass and fossil,
Then rode it round the town. It was a locus
Classicus for her to shove colossal
Boulders, when thinking, in volcanoes: focus
Came easy watching quartz and lava jostle.
That’s how she chanced on fresh techniques to mould
Confectionery, and cured the common cold.
Controlled manipulations of dark matter,
Allowed her to reverse the flow of time.
She set a sludgy pig’s head on a platter
And watched it reassemble from the grime.
She caged a fly and spider: watched the latter
Cough up the former, shrink, and uncombined
The interwoven tightropes of its home.
She made her hair retangle through a comb.
Another of her marvellous inventions
Distinguished large and small infinities
And weighed up cosmological contentions,
Concluding that, for speculative ease,
‘The Multiverse’, with all its many tensions
And the glamour that it gives the lightest breeze,
Awards the most discursive weltanschauung,
A world of trillion-tasselled sturm-und-drang.
She carved a chamber in which gravity
Altered according to one’s state of mind:
It was a vivid wonderment to see
A sapling leave its clod of soil behind
And levitate across a vacancy
To feed an antelope that was confined
And, growing hungry, startled to discover
Its food approaching like a much-missed lover.
Experiments with time proved her undoing.
Sure, she could travel – but who really knew
How far one’s present self was misconstruing
Precisely what one’s future self would do
Or wish to do? This problematic gluing
Of future yearning (judged by what one knew
Was probable) to present hope produced
An attitude both fearful and confused.
And yet she would and should and did continue,
Concocting bots and bugs and neuromatic
Computers, quantum monsters made of sinew
And nanotubule, shambling through her static
Test-spaces. She’d a ray to look within you
And pinpoint thoughts and feelings: an ecstatic
Shudder, a moment of unravelling doubt,
A movement that prompts the moment when you shout.
But no one, as we know by now, is simple.
No one is not in some way complicated.
The smoothest skin can rupture with a pimple.
Our oceans will, one day, be desiccated.
A nun, come Friday night, discards her wimple
And boozes freely. Even time – dilated,
Contracted – will, with spatial twisting, differ
At certain points, like swirlings in a river.
She was obsessed with Death. Or rather, not
With Death itself, but with its dissolution.
She wishes to put a kibosh on the rot
That saps us everywhere, this foul pollution
Ubiquitously found, which cools the hot
And heats the cool, and proves us Lilliputian
Flies to be swatted. Champions of dissection,
We lack – still, still! – the art of resurrection.
The overthrowing of the overthrowing;
The great undoing of the great undoer;
The banishment of nothing’s bleak unknowing;
The numinous pursuit; the reconstruer
Of what inform us us that we should be going;
The fight against what makes us thinner, fewer,
And more despondent year on weary year.
The death of Death. The death, perhaps, of fear.
So she conducted many a detailed test
To study Life and how it might be held.
She mapped the way bacteria divest
Unneeded nutrients, how cells are swelled,
And how flagella mobilise the quest
Through microscopic landscapes. She compelled
All fields. She had a lithe celestial air.
Who was Verona? What had made her care?
Verona’s parents were intense, utopian:
Her mother, pure Romantic philosophe;
Her dad, a physicist, anti-entropian.
On summer evenings they’d sit late and quaff
Smirnoff together, two straws like fallopian
Tubes that extended to a single trough.
As they got smashed, their brilliant minds would glisten
And young Verona dropped her toys to listen.
Her toys, which were bizarrely whirring things:
A helter-skelter made of ammonite,
A schooner with retractable glass wings,
A futuristic baton-wielding knight,
A tin containing ultraviolet strings
Which she could weave to trip and trick your sight,
And a stack of space-age doodads from her dad,
Designed at Cal Tech when he was a grad.
But now she was a grown-up, all alone,
And dedicated to those tricky arts
Which humankind first called on to see stone
And stick make fire. She held the many parts
Of earthly knowledge in that fertile zone
Behind her eyes, where synapse-linkage darts
Between ideas and, in the course of time,
Discovers separate realms that seem to rhyme.
Phenomenologists would journey far
To witness one experiment in action:
She’d lock a putrid aardvark in a jar
Filled with potassium and some extraction
Shipped in by shuttle from a distant star.
It fizzed and fulminated till reaction
Gave way to calm: subsiding foam revealed
A living aardvark, every lesion healed.
About her other triumphs, I will speak
At greater length hereafter: how she flew
Through far-flung galaxies on just a weak
Duracell battery; how she laughed and threw
Convention to the solar wind to peek
Inside our sun; and how she followed through
On manifold harmonious inventions
That filled the news reports in higher dimensions.
Andrew Wynn Owen is a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He received the university’s Newdigate Prize in 2014 and an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors in 2015. With the Emma Press, he has published pamphlets including a narrative poem, lyrics, and a collaboration (with John Fuller).
‘The Scientist’ by Andrew Wynn Owen was first published in the February/March 2019 issue of The London Magazine.
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