Book Review: Quantum Heresies, by Mary Peelen

Book Review: Quantum Heresies
by Risa Denenberg
Glass Lyre Press, 2019

My world cracked open in fourth grade when we learned our planets. In college, when my chemistry professor said, “Sometimes I wish I had studied astronomy instead of chemistry,” my universe expanded again. Moments like these are precious. The poems in Mary Peelen’s Quantum Heresies offer a similar shattering-of-the known-world effect.

You might say Quantum Heresies is a book of poems about a cancer diagnosis. But on closer reading, perhaps it’s about physics, or birds, or mathematics. You could read it as a collage of superimposed phenomena, as in these lines from “Prognosis” which seem to challenge us to rethink our place in the universe,

If cancer strikes you
as random or chaotic,

remember that like
every other algorithm,

it too has a unique function,
the elegance of its own logic. (5)

It’s rare to find the ordering of poems in a collection to be both enigmatic and  satisfying. Titles oscillate between concepts in physics and bodily experiences, as in the pairing of “Chaos Theory” (4) and “Prognosis” (5).  Soon, you begin to notice the speaker is rarely alone. There are cyphers of love—the romantic kind—here too, as in “Unified Theory,”

Here in the dark, we await the alignment
of Mars and a blood red moon

while an iris blooms in a cut glass vase
in perfect three-sided symmetry. (53)

To trace the love story in these poems you must seek the subterranean narrative where a copy of Birds of San Francisco (27) symbolizes everything that can be lost. You will begin to recognize subplots that resist simple or single interpretations, as in “Origin,”

When first introduced
to the Cartesian plane

we fell in love
with the concept of ordered pairs. (52)

The power in Peelen’s writing is found in her spellbinding juxtaposition of the scholastic and catastrophic, and her ability to turn seemingly random details into metaphors. Here in “Ontology” she says,

California forks at the fault-line

While in the lacy dendrites
of my sympathetic nerve

impulses fire as faithfully
as any branch of mathematics. (31)

The strange logic of Peelen’s work confirms my own understanding of subjectivity—it is possible to understand “Biopsy” (33) by way of “Plane Geometry” (38), or to place side-by-side the agony of “Migraine” (8) and “The Properties of Light” (15).  Patterns are discerned through simple acts of tending to the necessary. In “String Theory” she posits,

Here at the horizon of theoretical extinction
we cut flowers for the table. (22)

and begs the question,

I wonder when the panic will set in. (22)

RISA DENENBERG is co-founder and editor at Headmistress Press, publisher of lesbian/bi/trans poetry. She publishes poetry book reviews at The Rumpus and other venues and curates The Poetry Café, an online meeting place where poetry chapbooks are reviewed. She has published three full length collections of poetry, most recently, slight faith (MoonPath Press, 2018).