Grappling with science and faith: Dr Robyn Rowland reviews ‘Dancing with Stephen Hawking’ by John Foulcher

Dancing with Stephen Hawking by John Foulcher, Pitt Street Poetry, 2021.

 Grief is a shape shifter, emerging through mediums we least expect, challenging our core beliefs we struggle to hold onto. The largest is perhaps our smoggy visions of afterlife and where the loved one has finally realised themselves.

As this book is dedicated to John Foulcher’s brother, Ian, nothing can be underestimated about the tinge of grief as each poem flutters in and out of a sense of religious faith and that’s faith’s challenges. The moon landing, the paintings of Crewdson, and physical love, the body is paramount as our capsule and here it is presented in its ragged faults and its skin passion.

Superb craftsmanship with powerful precision in word use, serves to build the mature emotional and intellectual questions this book invigorates. The final lines of the book stay indented in the mind:

I think of my poems, how time will burn them.
What’s gained, other than all that I’ve learned?

 But the gift to us is the sharing of both the learned and the questioned things in life.

The book carefully and cleverly arouses the questions the poet seeks to answer, which lie almost hidden in the poems. The underlying balancing act between a continuing faith and a dispersal of it into the theories of the universe, inform these poems as they do the poet’s life.

How can it be a random event, that he chose to live in a deconsecrated and rebuilt Catholic church; a church from which he and his brother

took down the confessional first,
that plywood box of sins, splintering it
with hammer holes of dullish light,
extracting penance from the dust

 – Nine Chapters

Out of grief for the loss of his brother, questions of faith, of purpose, of the steady hand of a God or the explosive power of a universe ruled by theorems, explained by the theories of physics , the poems pose, query, assert, leave unanswered the very quandaries faced in later age prodded to the surface in the death of a truly loved person.

The book had me reading into Stephen Hawking, Gregory Crewdson, Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong and Mike Collins. References to the moon landing, Kennedy’s assassination, David Bowie, Speilberg and Jurassic Park, also locate the book in the age bracket I share with the poet, so there is a warm resonance here.

The body as our capsule carries us through the book too. From the more obvious bone and skin poems, to the death of his brother, the body is both aflame with love and a failing vehicle.

The title of a book is always difficult to set and Dancing with Stephen Hawking allows the underlying debate on faith to be established. Coming then to the title poem itself in the middle of the book is a surprise. Not a treatise on ‘the theory of everything’, it is based on poet Melinda Smith’s random meeting with the scientist in a night club in London during her ‘punk days’, being asked to dance with him, having fallen outside and torn her stockings, scraped her knees. The man himself ‘mind in the machine’ becomes human and again, the body is at the forefront.

… From a distance I thought him
all thought, the body’s ruin savaging desire,
but something simmered there.

And so, they danced as he ‘swayed’ in his ‘choreography of wheels’.

Outside, she is captured by the sky, wondering if a cloud is a galaxy, thinking of black holes, ‘breathless nebulae’, the atoms spinning in her eyes, looking up ‘with my bloodied knees’, almost worshiper.

The book is in three sections: ‘Skin’, ‘The Theory of Anything’, ‘In our Bones’.

The first poem ‘Facing Medusa’, from which a glance away would mean a loss, sets every word the precision of a master craftsman. Powerful in image – ‘the silk, crumpling ocean, convulsions / of rain … birds like an ink splatter’ – the poet sets up the position that as Perseus, he can strike, opening choice.

From the mythical and metaphysical straight into the physical, in ‘The Babel of Rites’, the body is weighed down with itself: ‘your body feels like a sack /made from skin’, stone stairs on the island Syros worn smooth ‘like the skin /on the hill’s body, the body’s hill’. Age is wearing:

While the young laze on the sand
in bronze relief, we lug our old bodies
into the tired Aegean.

Yet the weariness is also around the question which Foulcher has raised in other books such as The Sunset Assumption. He reads about Mary Magdalene at the cave, her body being the only thing which ‘made sense, as she came alone to the tomb’.

He uses the image of climbing up to Ermoupolis, calling up religious imagery:

how hard this will be,
the atonement,
of my slow steps to the sky.

But what is the possible sin?

In the church, flooded with the Babel of rites,

we sit in a cloud of unknowing,
searching for something familiar,
something that could be enough.
I scan the walls, where the saints
are faultless. 

and eventually, ‘we go down, into the dark’. 

Religious allusions are everywhere: ‘the bees, who whisper their insect sins’ (‘Pleasure 9), ‘The Prodigal’ with sheep in silent prayer, Pilate and his decision: ‘compromise is out of the question’.

In the eerie ‘How to Recant’, with its methods to avoid the worst of the fires (at the stake, in hell?), there are tricks for ‘learning to stay on your feet, even when the rat / is ripping at your gut’.

The body powers on through this first section “Skin’ with ‘rolling children’, the replacement of old worn hands with the artificial which ‘fit like gloves’, to the arrival at a challenge of belief in ‘Dust and Bones’:

the scales are falling from their eyes, the glass is dimly
sheer. Faith is so last century. There’s always less to learn.

The gaze turns outwards then from ‘skin’ towards science. ‘Earthrise’ is for Bill Anders in the Apollo 8 moon mission, who photographed earth; ‘this blue marble’:

… People say it changed the way
we think, this otherworldly earth, its littleness –

the genesis of exodus, or thoughts
of it, though we were in the death-throes
of believing anything, then

The moon landing itself becomes an encasing of Aldrin and Armstrong in their protective clothing and headgear, forever now inside ‘a vacuum of fame’. Yet for all the scientific precision involved, Armstrong takes that first step, only ‘because he is closer to the door’! Mike Collins, waiting above, disappears around the dark side of the moon: ‘here on the dark side, me and God knows what’. The conundrum, neatly expanded by John Glen in 1998 returning from his final trip to space at age 77: ‘To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible … It just strengthens my faith.’

Part Two builds on this into ‘The Theory of Anything’, a play on Stephen Hawking’s The Theory of Everything.

I was taken with the powerful prose poems that follow the first stage-setting poem ‘Theology’, which sets up the discourse between the work of Gregory Crewdson, questions of faith and inescapably, the body. Crewdson’s photographs, particularly in his ‘Cathedral of the Pines’, are challenging and muted grey. Set as pictorials, they are a mix of surrealism and physicality; the perfect vehicle for Foulcher’s themes. ‘Theology’ describes them:

those stiff and brittle figures

clothed only in the body’s
inventory, staring into the pixels,
staring at bare truth.

I tried to piece them
to a kind of living, close prose
and short lines.

The final lines of the leading poem ‘Among the Pines’ paves the way into these 12 poems, as well as reinforcing the poets’ dilemma:

You started at something you cannot see,
which is right here in front of you, right here in the room

Foulcher breathes life into the scenes with imagined thoughts, spoken lines, feelings of the ‘characters’ in the photos and their settings: ‘they are wondering what to do next’; ‘an acrid smell hangs in the air’.

The personae in these poems flits between she, they, you and I: ‘My mother was lying like this when she told me my father had died. Then, / there were wild cries in the room. Here there is silence’, as if there is in actuality a confusion about where he places himself. The final poem ‘Liturgy’ has agony in it. In the pine woods, tall trees making a cathedral, a man alone. There is a shed with an open door and a light inside. ‘It is like a confessional. Perhaps this what we mean when we talk of the mysteries… I think of the rooms where I have lived. I think of my sins.

And so we return to the impetus in the first of these poems: ‘He is staring at something I/cannot see, which is right there in front of him, right there among/the pines’. The forest in fact; the forest of uncertainty, of sin, of little redemption.

‘In Our Bones’, the third section, presses us back in time. Familial poems, for a son, a daughter, and memories of kids at school, as well as the poems on the death of his brother, Ian. The body is strongly with us, but also with ‘love in the afternoon’, as the sun burns through from sky to bed where ‘embers settle among the sheets’. But we are not a allowed to forget the passing of time as age again enters ‘to make sure we remember the years’.

‘An Atheist for God’ continues the dilemma of faith but with humour as the poet recalls his son’s first awakenings with spectacles that opened the world and his own need for them, mistaking a library book ‘A thirst for God’ as ‘An Atheist for God.’ Apt.

The sequence for Foulcher’s brother, Ian, is heart breaking in its open love and loss, over its ‘Nine Chapters’. I don’t understand why the poem ‘Incense’ in the previous section is not here, as for me it makes a moving 10th chapter. Beginning with a quotation from Faulkner: ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’, the poet recalls a visit with his brother to Notre Dame, remembered now because of its recent burning. The poem tells of their visit and replies to Faulkner:

The past will always be past. Once loved,
things become incense, lingering in the space
where we held them and knew them and let them go.

Sharing the loss of their parents, their father when they were very young, the brothers’ bond must have been forged in grief. In ‘Epilogue’: ‘dignity is a seamless, regular beat’, and this is true of these poems. From their companionship in Paris as they viewed art, to that same companionship when rebuilding Foulcher’s church into a home, and the jokes shared, ‘On the edge of emptiness’, his brother converts to Catholicism, saying ‘I don’t know about heaven and that, / but I want my church around me, you/know?’ And of course, both that death and his brother’s conversion raise again the issue between faith and doubt, struggling to find ‘a proper sense of self, in a universe of wonders’.(The Universe of Wonders:

….. I’m wondering where God is. You can’t
help but think. Clouds part, and the sky falls on the floor from the
sharp, arched window, here in our church. It lies there, and makes
the floor shine, though it’s not like the window itself, which is a
hull of shimmering blue day. And the window is not like the sky,
which goes on and on, out into the stars.

 – ‘The Portable Church’

Perhaps Hawking might conclude commentary for Foulcher’s work here:

The real reason we are seeking a complete theory, is that we want to understand the universe and feel we are not just the victims of dark and mysterious forces. If we understand the universe, then we control it, in a sense. 

Stephen Hawking Academic lecture: Godel and the end of physics, 2002

 – Dr Robyn Rowland AO

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Robyn Rowland, an Irish-Australian citizen, has been living between Ireland and Victoria for over 30 years, and working in Turkey since 2009. In December 2019 she returned to NSW, caring for her father who died 2 years late at 102. She has 14 books, 11 of poetry, most recently Under This Saffron SunSafran Güneşin Altında, (Knocknarone Press, Ireland 2019) and This Intimate War Gallipoli/Çanakkale 1915 – İçli Dışlı Bir Savaş: Gelibolu/Çanakkale 1915 (FIP, 2015; repub. Spinifex Press, Australia, 2018), bilingual with Turkish translations by Mehmet Ali Çelikel. Mosaics from the Map came out in 2018 (Doire Press, Ireland). She has won or been listed for various prizes and awarded Australia Council and CAL grants. Robyn’s poetry appears in national/international journals in 9 countries, over forty-five anthologies, and eight editions of Best Australian Poems and in Being Human, ed. Neil Astley (Bloodaxe Books, UK, 2011). A selection of her work also appeared in Rochford Street Review. She has read in India, Portugal, Ireland, UK, USA, Greece, Austria, Bosnia, Serbia, Turkey and Italy, and is published in translation. She is filmed reading for the National Irish Poetry Reading Archive, James Joyce Library, UCD, available on YouTube, e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E-gzWdQlBEE. An extensive interview with Denise O’Hagan appeared in The Blue Nib December 2020 https://denise-ohagan.com/robyn-rowland-in-conversation-with-denise-ohagan/. Further information is on https://robynrowland.com/

Dancing with Stephen Hawkins is available from https://pittstreetpoetry.com/book/dancing-with-stephen-hawking/

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