Sister Prometheus: Discovering Marie Curie, by Douglas Burnet Smith
Reviewed by John Herbert Cunningham
Douglas Burnet Smith was born in 1949 in Winnipeg. Author of twelve volumes of poetry of which Voices from a Farther Room was nominated for the Governor General’s Award, he currently divides his time between Paris, France and Antigonish, Nova Scotia. He teaches English literature and creative writing at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish.
This collection reminds one of Richard Parry’s Imperfect Penance in which Parry explores the life of Georg Trakl. Here, Smith engages in a poetical exploration of the life of Marie Curie. Is this a new direction in poetry? One perhaps derived from David Solway but substituting real, although fictionalized, characters in the stead of the ones Solway invents.
The introductory poem to Sister Prometheus is titled ‘Le Panthéon, I: Installation, 21 April 1995. A bit of background is needed to understand this poem. The Panthéon is located in Paris, France. In 1744, King Louis XIV vowed “if he recovered from an illness he would replace the ruined church of Sainte-Geneviève with an edifice worthy of the patron saint of Paris.”(Wikipedia) Although construction began immediately, innumerable delays prevented the completion until 1789. By that time, the French Revolution had begun “the new Revolutionary government ordered it to be changed from a church to a mausoleum for the interment of great Frenchmen.” Such literary luminaries as Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo and Émile Zola are buried there. In 1995, Marie Curie became the first woman to be interred there which leads us to the latter part of the poem:
They’re fond of quoting themselves, especially on the subject of female intelligence, how it contaminates their world: “First it was the respectability of the Sorbonne, the good name of Science. And now, on all occasions, France.” And so, Pierre & I dance, & share the last, eternal laugh, since it turns out that my demure but irrefutable presence here, & not the clever equations of Foucault, makes the great men rotate in their marble graves.
The Foucault referred to is not Michel but the one whose pendulum rotates in the entrance.
In ‘Warsaw, 7 November 1867, we are introduced to Marie and the times into which she was born:
The rest are whipped stumbling in chains to Siberia & the luckiest are the hundreds who will become meals of thawed flesh next spring for the hundreds who will follow, & unfortunately live. In the midst of this official ‘Russification,’ under the sign of the horseshoe, the arrow, the cross, on Freta Street, the fifth of five, I was born & named immediately after the Black Virgin of Chzestochowa: MARIA SALOMEA SKLODOWSKA.
A pattern emerges, a pattern of prose poetry, and the question is raised: why is this not prose? — a question which has been asked since Baudelaire. The only answer is the elevated language in which it is written and the compression of images which state without stating. We can see the fictionalized account of this biography by which it vaults into the world of poetry in ’On the Way to School, Gymnasium No. 3, 1879’:
A bomb in St. Petersburg had delivered Czar Alexander II to his examination by the angels. Knowing he’d fail, Kazia & I danced gleeful in an empty classroom. Mademoiselle yanked us by the braids to the office of the Superintendent. But he already knew I’d win the gold medal, & merely sent us home with stern letters of instruction on how to properly mourn the nation’s loss. So we did, in secret, with lemonade & chocolate ices.
The style is interesting. There is one problem though. Unless the reader is interested in the life of Marie Curie, the prose becomes quite ponderous. Devoid, for the most part, of any poetic devices such as metaphor, rhyme, meter, interesting endstops or caesuras, there is not much to hold ones attention. Certainly, prose poetry can be entertaining, even delightful. And certainly, Burnet Smith has taken the risk of extending the prose poem to comprise an entire book. For the fact that he has taken that risk, he can be thanked and appreciated. Unfortunately, at least for this reviewer, interest stops midway through.