September 19, 2021

Rebecca Elson, the rhyming astrophysicist

The book. It is true of certain destinies such as supernovae, these giant stars which explode in an intense flash but which paradoxically do not see until after their disappearance, as their light took so long to reach us. Thus the Canadian astrophysicist Rebecca Elson did not really appear in the world until 2001, two years after her death of cancer at the age of 39, thanks to the publication of the one and only collection of poems that she composed, A Responsibility to Awe. Twenty years later, it is finally translated into French, by Sika Fakambi, under the title In front of the immense.

It can’t be overstated whether Rebecca Elson was a rhyming astrophysicist or a star-counting poet, and it doesn’t really matter. As she explained in a short autobiographical text, From stones to stars, science and poetry intertwined from an early age. Young Rebecca was writing poems in the back of the motorhome where her geologist father transbahuted hers for summer expeditions devoted to the search for ancient prehistoric beaches or to the study of such and such a glacier. At home, science was like a second language to describe the world and the young girl sometimes imagined herself as a primatologist like Jane Goodall, a paleoanthropologist like Louis Leakey or an ocean explorer like Commander Cousteau.

The pulsations of the world

Until the sky fell on her head and Rebecca Elson developed a passion for astronomy. But the fiercely masculine microcosm of astrophysics that she discovered at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey, described as “A fortress of men”, suffocated her and her breath of fresh air came to her from a poetry club. She merged her two loves, the rational and the poetic, in the questions that arise in the face of the night and the infinite. The star becomes a familiar being in the privacy of the observatory: “There she is, so close / You could almost / Run your hand / Over her stomach / Feel her vestigial warmth / Her long, slow curves / Every glittering nipple / Where a planet sucks.” “

Rebecca Elson’s poems don’t just evoke the sky. She scrutinizes nature just as, as a child, she examined the pebbles she collected for her father; it tracks the pulsations of the world, in the wimps of nuns flapping in the wind or in the desire for rain of a dry arroyo; it transcribes the questions that the children ask about what surrounds us; she puts herself in the place of the kite (maybe it is him “Who has the most fun”, up there…). Sparing with words, but precise, sometimes bordering on haiku or memento mori, because, ill, she knows that her death lurks. The last poem in the collection begins as follows: “Sometimes as an antidote / To the fear of death, / I eat the stars. ” Not that the stars guarantee eternity, but to remember that they are resuscitated in us, us, stardust.

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