I have been a fan of Tricia Dearborn’s poetry for a decade. My initial encounter with her work was in an anthology chapbook published for National Science Week in 2010. I spotted her contribution in the table of contents and was probably hooked before even flicking ahead to find the poem itself. The poem’s title was ‘Making Pipettes’.
As an emerging poet and former laboratory technician, coming across ‘lab language’ in a literary setting was for me quite new and very exciting. I immediately tracked down and devoured Dearborn’s first collection Frankenstein’s Bathtub (Interactive Press, 2001) and since then have continued to follow her career, often leaping straight to her work in journals and anthologies before reading that of other poets. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to work with Tricia on the development and adjudication of a science poetry competition and later to receive a gracious offer to help co-launch her latest collection, Autobiochemistry (UWAP, 2019).
All this is to say that what you are currently reading is not a review. Too often, much so-called criticism of Australian poetry is written by friends and colleagues and is subsequently rather uncritical. Given my admiration of Tricia’s writing, the fact that I was able to read some of these poems while they were in development, and that most of what follows here has been adapted from my Autobiochemistry launch speech, I ask that it be viewed not as review, but as appreciation. That said, I was more than happy to be asked to share my thoughts on this book.
Autobiochemistry, hybrid creation of ‘autobiography’ and ‘biochemistry’, is the title of Dearborn’s third full-length poetry collection. I’m unsure how many others she tried on for size, but the name could not be more fitting for the book’s 64 poems organised into five sections. These sections are ‘Autobiochemistry’, ‘Covalent bonds’, ‘Virginia Wolfe’s memoirs’, ‘Elephant poems’ and ‘The change: some notes from the field’.
The collection’s first section, ‘Autobiochemistry’, the part I was invited to launch, and on which this non-review primarily focuses, rises to meet the title’s formidable challenge. These opening poems succeed in beautifully combining the universal objectivity of chemistry with the intimacy of autobiography. Using the periodic table of elements as organisational framework, Dearborn gives us 22 poems named after select chemical elements, all presented in ascending order of atomic mass. Before you have high school flashbacks to tedious lectures given in front of a faded chart, relax and rejoice. These poems bring chemistry to vivid life, drawing the reader in with captivating gems of knowledge about their eponymous elements.
In ‘Hydrogen’, we learn the following.
Most of earth’s hydrogen is not free
in the atmosphere, diatomic,
but tethered to oxygen, in water–
the human body’s solvent. (p 15)
In ‘Fluorine’, we discover the element ‘will provoke into combustion/ things that you might think inflammable,//like glass. Steel. Water.’ (p 16)
Dearborn, a freelance editor, surely knows that inflammable means ‘capable of bursting into flame’, but she wisely chooses for the sake of the poem to use it to mean ‘non-flammable’, a word less pleasing to the ear were she to have opted for pedantry over a looser usage. We (well, I) know what she means and it somehow just works. Many poets wouldn’t get away with a trick like this, but Tricia Dearborn can. In the poem ‘Phosphorous’, we are informed that in laboratory conditions, the volatile element must be ‘stored underwater,// forcibly tamed’. (p 20)
Other poems wake us up to the chemical elements’ often forgotten omnipresence in our world: mercury’s silent role in measuring temperature; iridium making up the tip of a pen; silicon inside the microchips that power our technology.
But where these poems really transcend preconceptions of chemistry, where Dearborn’s verse truly verges on alchemy, is in their linking of science to the human experience — Tricia is a trained biochemist after all. In ‘Hydrogen’, the element’s shared role with oxygen in forming water allows for some of the most human of functions:
we require regular watering;
in the name of homeostasis
our bodies regularly wring us out.
Besieged by infant need,
surprised by sorrow, laughter, eros,
we brim, we drip. (p 12)
Elsewhere, the reader is reminded of the role of iron in blood through a memory of a first menstrual period, and the part silver plays in the photographic-development process, aiding our recall of childhood memories. Whether you’re interested in chemistry or not, Tricia shows you in Autobiochemistry’s opening section just why you should be. At times, it’s deeply personal and unflinchingly autobiographical, as in the near-drowning in ‘Chlorine’ or the impending personal crisis in ‘Tin’, unlike any encounters with chemistry the reader might have previously experienced. Whilst the specifics belong to the narrator’s experience, the door is opened for the reader to find the chemistry in their personal history.
Something I particularly enjoyed discovering in many of these poems was the tangible immediacy of the modern laboratory. Dearborn’s lived-experience of labwork throughout her studies and previous career inform many of these poems with a spot-on realism. Though you might not be familiar with the odd reference to a scientific technique or piece of apparatus in her poetry, you can rest assured that Tricia’s always got it right. She knows her stuff and is a stickler for specificity. Having a past in laboratories myself, I almost cheered whenever I found flasks, solutions, precipitates or the taring of a scale amongst Autobiochemistry’s pages. We need more poetry that shows how modern science is actually done.
The remaining two thirds of Dearborn’s new collection are comprised of four additional themed sections, all proudly bearing the hallmarks of her previous work — truth, rawness and scalpel-sharp language choice. ‘Covalent bonds’ extends the chemistry theme in name, but leaves behind the organisational strictures of the periodic table of elements. The poems in this section explore human relationships, addressing love, intimacy and sexuality. ‘Virginia Wolfe’s memoirs’ focuses on that author’s experience of sexual abuse at the hands of her half-brother. ‘The elephant poems’ deals with the acknowledgement through therapy of a figurative elephant in the family room of one’s life. ‘The change: some notes from the field’ is a lyrically frank and at times refreshingly humorous exploration of perimenopause. Whilst each of Autobiochemistry’s sections is as equally expertly crafted, the science nerd in me has a soft spot for the collection’s opening poems.
I was so pleased to discover that all of the elements that originally drew me to Tricia Dearborn’s poetry are still present in her new collection Autobiochemistry. Heightened and honed, her scientific accuracy and her keen observation of the natural and social worlds are expressed in these poems through pristine, yet fierce language. I look forward to whatever comes next from this accomplished Australian poet. Perhaps we’ll be treated to more element poems — after all, there are 96 more from which to choose.
University of Western Australia Publishing, 2019
104 pages, $22.99
Benjamin Dodds is a Sydney-based poet who grew up in the NSW Riverina. His debut collection Regulator was published by Puncher & Wattmann Poetry in 2014. His poetry and reviews have appeared in Best Australian Poems, Southerly, Meanjin, Cordite and on Radio National. He co-judged the 2018 Quantum Words Science Poetry Competition. His second collection Airplane Baby Banana Blanket is forthcoming from Recent Work Press in 2020. To find out more about Ben, you can follow him on Instagram.