Chief Science Correspondent
I recently happened upon the work of Pattiann Rogers, a poet from Joplin, Missouri with a somewhat unconventional educational background that encompasses both science and creative writing. I highly recommend her work to poetry- and science-lovers alike, as her poems offer a fresh perspective on humanity from both sides of the disciplinary spectrum.
In an interview, Rogers said as a young writer she wanted to use her love of science to express how scientists view the natural world. Although she initially struggled to find direction as a poet, she has developed a genre of poetry that is entirely her own. As a poet, Rogers synergizes her knowledge of science with religion and philosophy, addressing questions that deal with the larger questions of the natural world.
In addition to science and nature, Rogers incorporates reflections on religion and spirituality into her poems, showing how these different forces of nature and humanity stand in harmony, rather than in contradiction, with one another. She once described several of her poems as “prayers.”
decisions and actions on, and it is a story that affects our definition of spirituality and what being human means."
Rogers said science and art are generally regarded as fields that are divided, often standing in
contradiction to one another. Yet Rogers maintains that the universe, largely regarded for both its scientific and philosophical relevance, is “overflowing with passion."
Two of my favorite poems by Rogers are “Co-evolution: Flowers, Tongues, Talents” and “Address: the
Archaeans, One Cell Creatures." Based on these titles, the poems appear to encompass a very technical theme, yet they are beautifully written in a way that connects science to humanity as a whole, addressing critical social issues within culture.
Co-evolution: Flowers, Tongues, Talents (from the Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry)
All those tongues lapping and sucking,
licking and probing, the flurry-hover
of feeding hermit hummingbirds
and clearwing moths, bee and butterfly
flutter on shaky petals, and the pinpricks
of bat claws, the shiver and rub of furry
heads and bodies pushing into the deepest
crevices for nectar, coming up dripping
sugar and powdered with pollen
for the next one—the lesser long-nosed bat
plunges with its bristly tongue, perfect
to sweep the sweetness of the saguaro
blossom, and the hawk moth’s tongue
delves exactly to the far bottom end
of the comet orchid’s narrow nectary,
and bumble bees with magic keys
are opening everywhere snapdragons
with magic locks.
In those early days, when we came
upon flowers—dawning blues, golds
and violets, startling scarlets and pinks
growing in among the monotonous
greens—we were happy. Their perfume
rose spicy, sweet, nostalgic with sun-
and-moon fragrances. We fed,
though they were not food, left them
to bloom in our scratched-out plots.
Their seeds, mixed with the others,
we scattered and sowed.
And they thrived, all the while
cultivating the gentleness they required in the bones of
our hands, a finer
finesse in the discernment of our eyes,
urging our genes to a greater yearning
for beauty, an empathy with the vulnerable in the
muscle of our hearts.
I would be a night pollinator,
my fur-covered wings of skin spread wide,
flying north from Mexico over the deserts
toward the mad musky fragrance
of the organ pipe cactus, melding
with its flowers swelling now
into their full budding.
I would be still, stationary, a blossom
of the lightest shade of lavender,
smooth as white in the night, scented,
sedate, rigorously accessible, undone
on the tip of the tallest stem.
I believe the speaker in this poem is attempting to capture the desire and hunger that drives pollinating animals, such as bees, bats and hummingbirds, to seek pollen from flowers.
Rogers writes, “All those tongues lapping and sucking, / licking and probing…coming up dripping / sugar and powdered with pollen / for the next one." The image of an animal entering and consuming a flower provides a sexual image, a commonly used metaphor.
However, in this stanza Rogers very deliberately does not describe the female flower’s experience of the encounter. She only notes how, because the animals and flowers have coevolved, the two fit together perfectly. In nature, coevolution generally indicates a mutualistic affiliation, in which both parties benefit from a relationship.
And scientifically, pollination is beneficial for both the flower and the pollinator, just as human sex was meant to be beneficial for all involved parties. Nature was not designed to be cruel. Yet sex can be selfish, harming one party that does not desire it.
By portraying the somewhat violent, lustful desire of the pollinators against the passive silence of the flowers, I believe Rogers could be exemplifying a flaw within human nature: the difficulty in viewing a situation objectively. America has often been labeled as a “rape culture” because it has been argued that the rapists are often pardoned, while the victims are blamed for their actions.
By simplifying the situation as an encounter within nature, the dynamics of a rape become very clear. One party benefits while the other sits silently and is denied a voice. Without that voice, it is impossible to judge the flower’s actions or desires. And without that voice, the reader cannot fully understand the encounter within the first stanza. There’s no possible way to make a judgment because the weaker, less dominant party has been repressed and silenced.
In the last section of the poem, the speaker actually embodies herself as the flower. She writes, “I would be still, stationary…smooth as white in the night, scented, / sedate, rigorously accessible, undone / on the top of the tallest stem."
By describing the flower with a calm, serene tone, Rogers pulls away from the previous chaotic overwhelming image of savage, hungry animals attacking and depicts the victim.
The flower appears to be untouched, as it is smooth and still. Even when observed on its own, the flower is passive. It does not move, but waits quietly, waiting to be “undone.”
Yet the flower has not chosen to be weak and stationary; it is stuck in that position and not given the opportunity to choose another fate. Although this metaphor applies most directly to women, it can be applied more broadly to anyone who has been oppressed or sexually exploited. When a woman, a child, or even a man is raped, or when a person is sold into sexual slavery, he or she has not chosen to place herself in a vulnerable situation.
Society has exploited a weakness at the expense of a human being. And, rooted into a situation by the power of a culture that often does not respect young women, the flower is disempowered, denied control over her own situation.
She can only sit passively and wait to be “deflowered.”
Rogers is calling her readers to understand that when a woman is raped, there is nothing she can do to prevent it. She did not sit still and allow herself to be violated because she enjoyed it, but because she was physically trapped.
In creating this image, Rogers is not disempowering women; rather, she is highlighting how an oppressive society cultivates second-class treatment of citizens.
In “Address,” Rogers similarly explores the difficulty in understanding the lives and worlds of other people. She chooses to describe the silencing of Archaea, a kingdom of unicellular, prokaryotic organisms that are not very well characterized, as they were originally mistaken for bacteria.
Address: the Archaeans, One Cell Creatures (from The Poetry Foundation)
Although most are totally naked
and too scant for even the slightest
color and although they have no voice
that I’ve ever heard for cry or song, they are,
nevertheless, more than mirage, more
than hallucination, more than falsehood.
They have confronted sulfuric
boiling black sea bottoms and stayed,
held on under ten tons of polar ice,
established themselves in dense salts
and acids, survived eating metal ions.
They are more committed than oblivion,
more prolific than stars.
Far too ancient for scripture, each
one bears in its one cell one text—
the first whit of alpha, the first
jot of bearing, beneath the riling
sun the first nourishing of self.
Too lavish for saints, too trifling
for baptism, they have existed
throughout never gaining girth enough
to hold a firm hope of salvation.
Too meager in heart for compassion,
too lean for tears, less in substance
than sacrifice, not one has ever
carried a cross anywhere.
And not one of their trillions
has ever been given a tombstone.
I’ve never noticed a lessening
of light in the ceasing of any one
of them. They are more mutable
than mere breathing and vanishing,
more mysterious than resurrection,
too minimal for death.
Rogers writes that, like the flowers in “Co-evolution,” these simple cells, of which “most are totally naked," have not been granted a voice. They are largely overlooked.
However, Rogers is eager to attempt to understand these cells, noting that despite their strangeness and small size, they are relevant and worth understanding. She says that they are “Far too ancient for scripture, each / one bears in its one cell one text, / the first whit of alpha…beneath the riling / sun the first nourishing of self."
Archaea have been a part of life since the beginning, almost infinitely longer than any complex eukaryotic organism. She is urging her readers not to dismiss another culture just because its people wear simple clothes, or their voices are foreign or difficult to understand. Primitive does not have to equate to inferior or insignificant.
Just as a small, unicellular organism can teach scientists about the origin of life, a small underappreciated tribal culture can teach humanity more about itself.
Rogers does not attempt to directly embody the subject of her poem, viewing them from an outsider’s perspective. However, she attempts to explain why they have been so widely misunderstood and overlooked.
She explains why these people have never fully been appreciated by the dominant culture. She says the organisms are “Too lavish for saints, too trifling / for baptism, they have existed / throughout never gaining girth enough / to hold a firm hope of salvation."
Archaea are a strange mixture of different types of organisms that do not fit well with the rest of life, and, as a result, they are difficult to understand. It is impossible to understand something different from ourselves when we don’t provide ourselves with context.
One culture is often judged by the other’s standards, and the problem is that this type of analysis leads to an incomplete, biased view of the world. The American Indians were dismissed and almost completely expelled in favor of European culture. They were stripped of their languages, religions and customs, because the practices appeared savage to outside observers. And, as a result, “not one of their trillions / has ever been given a tombstone."
If humanity does not attempt to appreciate ancient cultures, their legacy will be forever lost. Ignoring an entire culture provides an extremely limited view of humanity in which every person is understood in terms of narrow standards set by the dominant culture.
Rogers uses scientific phenomena to demonstrate how our understanding of the natural world reflects back onto humanity. Science and humanities may appear far removed from one another, but the reality is that humanity stems from nature and, even as we continue to progress, we can still find parts of ourselves within it.
Rogers is using these natural phenomena to highlight problems within our culture that are difficult to otherwise view from an unbiased perspective.
It may be difficult to emphasize with a girl being raped when we live in a culture than glorifies sexuality, but an image of a flower being attacked is easier to rationally understand. It’s easy to dismiss other cultures as foreign and primitive, but a parallel to ancient organisms reminds us that these people are deeply rooted in our history as human beings.
By combining science and nature with philosophy, Rogers helps us to better understand not only the world, but the dynamic roles that we are called play within it.