When anyone asks what I do, I say, “I’m a poet and writer.” This is true now, and it has always been true, although for more than thirty years I held job titles like Math/Science Specialist, Chemistry and Biology Instructor, Science Writer/Editor, Life Sciences Staff Coordinator, Director of the Hall of Health (a hands-on museum), and Staff Scientist. How did this happen? How did these jobs impact my poetry?
It was clear to me by the time I was six years old, when Eisenhower was president, that I wanted to be a poet, and I wrote poems enthusiastically at home and at school. Every discovery about poetry was thrilling, including my second-grade realization that I could write about negative thoughts as well as positive ones: “When trees are red / It’s lovely to see, / But when trees are bare / It’s ugly to me.”
One of my first encounters with science, though, was a definite turnoff. My sixth-grade teacher, Mrs. O’Gara, gave an assignment: select one chapter to read in our science text and present one of the activities at the end to the class. I chose astronomy. My demonstration would be to hold a nail in a flame. According to the book, it was supposed to turn red, then white, then blue, just as stars do as they age and get hotter.
I brought a candle, a nail, and a pair of pliers to school. In front of the class, I lit the candle and, holding the nail with the pliers, put it into the flame. As I explained what was supposed to happen, the nail turned not red but black. Everyone snickered and laughed. Mrs. O’Gara said she didn’t think the experiment was going to work. I said, “Maybe it just takes more time,” and insisted on continuing for another few minutes, by which time everyone was pointing at the black nail, hooting, and yelling, “Lucille, it’s not going to work!” Mrs. O’Gara, who gave me a C for this debacle, said I should have tried the experiment at home. It occurred to me that the people who wrote the book should have tried it too. Perhaps a particular type of nail was required; if so, this should have been specified. When I told my mother what had happened, she assured me that I and everyone else would eventually forget about it, and it would be as though it had never happened.
But twenty-two years later, I remembered the incident well when I co-authored a book entitled How to Encourage Girls in Math and Science: Strategies for Parents and Educators, which included activities and experiments for kindergarten through eighth grade. My co-authors and I not only tried all of the activities ourselves, but had children do them, as well, before we put them in the book.
I also remembered it thirty-four years later when I wrote a poem entitled “Homage to Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon,” which was included in Infinities, my collection of science and nature poems:
The first computers: spinsters
who scanned photographic plates
at Harvard College Observatory
in the late nineteenth century,
recording the colors
and brightness of stars
in fine Victorian script.
Barred from taking classes
and earning a degree,
one woman could catalog
five hundred thousand stars
in a lifetime, betrothed
to the universe. An ordinary
person might have cursed
all the elements in the spectra.
Their work considered
too menial for an astronomer,
the women knew the sky
more intimately than anyone.
was Cepheid variable stars.
She watched them day after day,
growing dimmer and brighter
through weeks and seasons—
grains of salt on dark plates,
until the sky told her,
The brighter the star,
the longer the cycle will take,
and she showed the way
to measure distances
between galaxies, even
light-years from Earth
to the edge of space.
Every fact is a valuable factor
in the mighty whole, Annie said,
and she told the astronomers
how to classify stars
by temperature and color:
O, B, A, F, G, K, M.
Oh, be a fine girl, kiss me,
the students would say,
missing the irony,
and the blue-white, white
and yellow-white stars
beat like pale hearts
millions of light-years away.
The yellow, orange and red ones,
colder, were closer now,
familiar as lemons, oranges
and apples glowing
on the breakfast table
in a black lacquer bowl.
These women actually had the job title “computer” and did the work that electronic computers do today. Annie Jump Cannon, who worked at Harvard College Observatory from 1896 to 1940, single-handedly catalogued 230,000 stars and did groundbreaking work on star classification. Better late than never, she finally received the title “astronomer” in 1938.
After the sixth-grade fiasco, I might have permanently avoided science, but another memorable incident occurred in seventh grade. A rebellious and unmotivated student, I frequently found myself in the office of Louis Ferry, principal of Piedmont Junior High School. On one occasion he said, “You have a good mind. Unfortunately, instead of putting it to work, you use it to get out of working. If I had your mind, nothing would stop me.”
“What would you do?”
“I’d be a doctor or a nuclear physicist. I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here arguing with kids like you.”
I had no idea if this were true, but I took it as high praise and thought of it four years later when I was a sixteen-year-old mother, divorcée, and high school drop-out stapling lids, napkins, and salt packets to chicken dinner plates for a living. With beads of perspiration on my forehead and the scent of frying chicken in my nose, I remembered Mr. Ferry’s words and asked myself, If he was right, why am I wasting my life at Chicken Delight?
Back in school after a three-year hiatus, working toward my high school diploma at Oakland Adult Day School, I read Madame Curie’s biography by her daughter, Eve Curie, and promptly decided that I would be both a scientist and a writer. No one suggested that I might have to choose one of these careers. Maybe the idea that someone who had already made such a mess of her life would do either seemed so outlandish that no one took me seriously enough to warn me about the difficulty of trying to do too much.
As an undergraduate at the University of California at Berkeley, the first major I declared was physics and biology, although I remained as passionate as ever about writing in general and poetry in particular. I knew I would have to study science to be a scientist, but, naively, I thought I could pick up writing on my own. Physics was not a snap for me. Although I earned all As and Bs, it was my most difficult subject. At the time, I had a young daughter, tutored minority students in physics, chemistry, and math, and craved a social life as much as any other young woman in college. Something had to give, and it was the physics. I changed my major to biological sciences, with specialization in cell biology.
I stayed at Berkeley to pursue a Ph.D. in zoology, and by the time I started graduate school, I so desperately wanted to spend my time reading and writing poetry that I started to fear that majoring in science had been a big mistake. Yet I persisted and at the end of my first year of graduate school, I won a three-year National Science Foundation graduate fellowship.
To feed the other part of my soul, I joined the Berkeley Poets Cooperative and thrived there, even though it wasn’t easy for me to write good poems and I wasn’t always understood. One of the poems I read at the Wednesday night co-op workshop concerned my research on age-related changes in brain enzymes in mice:
Past the insectary and deserted labs
I stride. Like boredom and bad dreams,
empty rooms open on either side of me.
In blue jeans and tie-dyed coat I climb
past the boa cage and metal boxes
of rats and mice, smelling of sawdust and crap.
I select a cage containing five pink-eyed
puffs of white fur, and take my scissors—rusted,
blood-stained, and dulled from cutting through bone.
It’s the brain I want, with its stellate cells
and elegantly fluted lobes. The mice
know my coarse white gloves. One whiff and they
scramble, squealing, in every direction,
but I grab one around the soft, pulsing belly.
When it writhes, I tighten my grip.
Quickly I cut through the neck and drop
the twitching body into the sink. Blood spurts
as the heart clamps shut. I hold the head,
mouth open, eyes distant, glazed; I prepare
to enter the skull, looking for what fills
that hollow place: mud, quicksand, love.
One of the women at the workshop said, “I don’t believe that mice feel love.”
The poem, of course, is not about mouse love. It’s about trying to fill the hollow place inside myself. Also, neurochemists use mice as models for humans; what they really want to understand is how the human brain works.
But neurochemistry was not for me. I couldn’t even anesthetize the mice, because that would alter the enzyme levels in their brains, and I kept having nightmares about it. In one, naked, decapitated human bodies were thrashing around in a huge sink. In another, the elevator in the Life Sciences Building took me beyond the top floor to an attic where human bodies were being cut into very small pieces and stuffed into plastic bags.
I switched to electrophysiology to work in the laboratory of Professor Richard Steinhardt, where I would attempt to measure the fertilization action potential across the membrane of an egg cell of a marine snail. Psychologically, I could handle piercing snail eggs with electrodes. The trouble was that my hands were too shaky to do it with any reliability. I learned that I have a “familial tremor,” a genetic hand tremor so slight that under normal everyday circumstances, no one, myself included, had every noticed it. The first—and last—problem it ever caused for me was inability to use a micromanipulator to place electrodes in the snail eggs. Good thing I never aspired to be a surgeon!
If the tremor had been my only problem, I would only have needed to change projects again, but women weren’t yet quite trusted as scientists, and Rick Steinhardt was suspicious of me. Once when I came back to the lab after visiting the women’s restroom, he asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I work here.”
“I thought you’d gone home for the day.”
On another occasion he asked me to come to his office to take a test. It had twenty questions covering a wide range of topics in biology. I finished it quickly and waited as he corrected it.
“You got everything right,” he said. Before I could begin to feel pleased, he continued, “Do you know what this means?”
“You’ll never be a great biologist.”
“You’re too good a student. You’re too concerned about grades. I’ve given this test to undergraduates, graduate students, and other professors in this department, and no one else has ever gotten everything right. But I’m not surprised. You’re so good at taking classes and passing tests, you have it down to an art. It’s all you care about.
“None of the great biologists were good students. Darwin was not a good student, and Francis Crick was not a good student. Great biologists care about ideas, not grades. They learn what they need to know in order to pursue their ideas.”
I was stunned. I agreed, of course, that scientists, or any other scholars for that matter, need to be more concerned about ideas than about grades. His logic was flawed, though, in his assumption that someone who got good grades must care about that above all else.
I tried to defend myself, but he’d already made up his mind. I thought he was right that I would never be a great biologist, but he had the wrong reason. Grades had nothing to do with it. I would never be a great biologist because I didn’t enjoy working in the laboratory and wasn’t any good at it.
There was more: “You’re getting a B+ in Comparative Neurophysiology.”
“Why did you mark me down?”
“You spent more time working on your report than you spent in the laboratory because all you’re interested in is your grade.” He paused before adding, in a tone that anticipated being challenged, “B+ is a respectable grade.”
I had an aha! moment. I had indeed put a lot of work into my report (although I don’t think it was more than I’d put into working in the laboratory), but it wasn’t because I cared more about my grade than I did about the experiment. No, what I instantly realized was that I was more a writer than a scientist, and I could not understand my results until I started writing about them. Sitting in the laboratory and staring at the oscilloscope screen didn’t do it for me: all those squiggles didn’t make any sense until I started translating them into English. Moreover, I would have gotten more pleasure from writing a poem about the experiment than the boring report. There was no point in arguing with Rick, because in truth I didn’t care about my grade.
What would I do with my life now? It was clear that I wasn’t going to earn a Ph.D. in zoology working with Rick. I decided to take the exams for a master’s degree, and I headed for the University Placement Center to check out my job options.
There was only one opening that required my background in science: sewage-treatment specialist for the nearby city of Richmond. The job entailed sampling and testing sewage to see if it was being properly detoxified. The application instructions said that a limited number of applicants would be selected to take a written test, and those who scored highest would be interviewed. I applied and waited. A couple of weeks later a postcard arrived saying that hundreds of people had applied for the job, and I was one of sixty who had been selected to take the test. I pictured myself trudging between great vats of sewage in hip boots and a yellow slicker. I saw myself in the laboratory in a gas mask, goggles, and gloves. I didn’t show up for the test.
I made an appointment with the community college adviser at the placement center. “If I get my M.A. in zoology, what are my chances of getting a teaching job at a community college?” I asked him.
“Zero. Community colleges aren’t looking for Ph.D. dropouts. They want people who’ve planned a career in teaching and are committed to it.”
“How can they tell the difference?”
“It isn’t difficult.”
“Suppose I tell you right now that I’m committed to a career in teaching. I loved working as a teaching assistant, and I was good at it. I hated working in the lab, and I was bad at it.”
“Your chances are still zero.”
“The community colleges want someone who’s married, has roots in the community, and is a man.”
“I have roots in the community. I’ve lived here all my life.”
“But you’re not married and you’re not a man.”
“I expect to get married soon.”
“But you’ll never be a man.”
The word “sexism” was just starting to surface in 1973, but I knew it when I saw it. Of course, I would teach chemistry and biology at a community college one day, but that would be in the future. For now, during this terrible interview, I realized what I had to do. There was a new interdepartmental group on campus that offered a Ph.D. in science/mathematics education, and so far, only a handful of degrees had been awarded. The requirements for admission were a master’s degree in math or science and a professor committed to supervising your dissertation.
Rick Steinhardt was enthusiastic and said he would give me a good recommendation; Max Alfert, also a zoology professor, agreed to supervise my dissertation. Hugh Rowell, another professor in the department, urged me to stay in zoology and do my dissertation in ecology instead of cell biology, which would enable me to do field research instead of lab work, but I didn’t know if I would like fieldwork, and I didn’t want to risk embarking on another project that might not suit me. I knew that I liked to teach, as well as to write, which would be handy for writing curricula. Doing research on how people think and learn appealed to me; I thought I would find it interesting and rewarding.
I took my NSF fellowship with me to the program in science/mathematics education, and the degree led to jobs that enabled me to feel that I was doing something worthwhile. In a public school district, I worked on a project to encourage girls in math and science; at a community college, I taught chemistry and biology classes to prepare remedial students, mostly minorities, for regular college science courses; at a national laboratory, I translated the latest scientific research into terms a layperson could understand; and for seventeen years, I served as Director of the Children’s Hospital Hall of Health, where I also co-directed a project to develop a fourth- and fifth-grade curriculum in health and biomedical science.
All the while, I kept writing and publishing poetry, always believing that I was more a poet and writer than a scientist, but that I had necessary work to do in the other realm. Sometimes, it seemed that my science writing and curriculum writing were at odds with my creative writing. In one realm, I had to avoid ambiguity, emotions, and the personal pronoun; in the other realm, these were perfectly fine and often desirable. In one realm, careful explication was a virtue, in the other, a potential disaster. Yet I found others—including Pattiann Rogers, Alison Hawthorne Deming, and Roald Hoffmann (a Nobel laureate in chemistry)—who were bringing the ideas and imagery of science into poetry to the benefit of both realms, and their work inspired me to continue straddling both worlds myself:
Fear of Science
I have no fear of Dolly, whose genes came
from the nucleus of a starved mammary cell,
or of tomatoes sprayed with gamma rays
to kill maggots, worms and Salmonella,
or of mice whose mutant myosin disrupts
the alignment of muscle fibers in the heart.
Nor do I fear the frog and carrot, cloned
from mature cells long ago, or the outdoors
where cosmic rays bombard my DNA
and radon gas emerges from the earth,
or people with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy,
whose heart cells are in disarray.
Should I fear grana stacks, where chlorophyll
molecules capture light in an oak leaf,
or the sunbeam itself—dancing photons
arriving after a long journey through space,
or the beat of my own heart, squeezing
blood one way through its four chambers?
I don’t even fear the way neutrons
from a uranium nucleus cause fission
of a second nucleus, changing mass
to energy, making a chain reaction possible,
and certainly not the electrical signals
traveling like thoughts through silicon chips.
What I fear is the imperfection
of the human brain, quick to anger,
oblivious to the needs of frogs and carrots,
mice, oaks, sheep, confused by too much
or too little dopamine, unable to remember
clearly the color of manroot, the cry of geese.
In addition to joining the Berkeley Poets Co-op, while I was still in my twenties I attended the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and enrolled in writing workshops at both U.C. Berkeley and San Francisco State University. I learned to get rid of extra words, use images and action rather than explanation to convey meaning, and sometimes take routes other than a straight line of thought to get from point A to point B. Twenty years later, I went back to San Francisco State to earn an M.A. in English and an M.F.A. in creative writing with the idea of teaching creative writing. My poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction all improved, but in the end, it didn’t make sense to leave the career that so reliably paid my mortgage, and I never applied for a creative writing position.
Instead, until 2009 I continued to work at the Hall of Health. This position brought me into close contact with the scientists at Children’s Hospital Oakland Research Institute and also gave me many opportunities to travel to Washington, D.C., where I served as a grant reviewer for the National Institutes of Health and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. More and more, I found that my passion for poetry and science, image and fact, and emotion and reason came together in poems about health and environmental issues. Global climate change, loss of species, destruction of ecosystems, and widespread pollution of all sorts are some of the most significant problems we face, and such issues remain among the driving forces of my poetry:
Where the Radiation Goes
When an earthquake cracks
a reactor, iodine molecules
ascend. Tumbling in hot wind,
they drift to a grassy slope
where mottled cows graze.
Soon children will drink milk
that scintillates like a galaxy.
A woman opens an umbrella,
but broccoli, lettuce, mustard
and spinach are suddenly
bathed in strontium rain.
There’s nowhere to go except
earth, sky, and sea—algae,
fish, clouds, birds, trees.
Radiation from a test in China
ends up in Utah and Colorado.
Fifteen years after Chernobyl,
the isotopes were still found
in stalks and delicate gills
of wild mushrooms gathered
by picnickers in France.
Many times through the years, I have asked myself if I would have written more and better if I’d never studied science and instead had pursued a career focused solely on writing and literature. This question, of course, is unanswerable. What I can say for sure is that my poetry has benefited from my work in science and vice versa. I’ve written many poems that would never have occurred to me without my engagement with science. Also, just as writing the report for my Comparative Neurophysiology class so long ago enabled me to understand the results of the experiment, so too writing poetry has helped me broaden my perspective and clarify my thoughts on many scientific issues. Moreover, I’ve learned that the flexibility of thought required by poetry is useful in solving scientific problems: whether you’re dealing with a poem or an experiment, sometimes to make it work, you have to let go of a particular approach or idea and try something entirely different. The similarity between a poem and an experiment does not stop there: both go through many drafts or iterations even when they’re going well, and both require careful attention to variables, whether they be things like temperature, light, and duration, or rhythm, line breaks, and vowel and consonant sounds. In both realms you can ponder everything from the ozone hole to the behavior of voles, and the two cultures converge in the end.
Poetry credits: “Homage to Henrietta Swan Leavitt and Annie Jump Cannon” and “Fear of Science” from Infinities, by Lucille Lang Day; “Neurochemist” from Self-Portrait with Hand Microscope, by Lucille Lang Day; “Where the Radiation Goes” first published in Canary.
Lucille Lang Day is the author of a memoir, Married at Fourteen: A True Story, which received a 2013 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award and was a finalist for the 2013 Northern California Book Award in Creative Nonfiction. She has also published a children’s book, Chain Letter, and eight poetry collections and chapbooks, including The Curvature of Blue, Infinities, and The Book of Answers. Her short stories, essays, and poems have appeared in more than one hundred literary journals. The founder and director of a small press, Scarlet Tanager Books, she lives in Oakland, California. For more information, see http://lucillelangday.com. Twitter: @LucilleLDay.