Issue > Book Review
Kim Jacobs-Beck

Kim Jacobs-Beck

Kim Jacobs-Beck is the author of a chapbook, Torch: Poems (Wolfson Press). Her poems can be found in GyroscopeApple Valley Review, SWWIM Every Day, roam literature, Peach Velvet, and Postcard Poems and Prose, among others. She has reviewed for The Rumpus, Gigantic Sequins, Crab Creek Review, Entropy, Los Angeles Review, and drizzle. She is the founder of Milk and Cake Press and is a professor of English at the University of Cincinnati Clermont College. A native of metro Detroit, she now lives in Ohio with her husband and three cats.

Mary Peelen was born and raised in Michigan. She studied mathematics as an undergraduate, then traveled widely before completing an M.Div. at the Graduate Theological Union and an M.F.A. in creative writing at San Francisco State University. She lives in San Francisco and Paris. Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in InterimGulf CoastRedividerAlaska Quarterly ReviewAntioch Review, Bennington ReviewMichigan QuarterlyHarvard Divinity BulletinCrab Creek Review, Beloit Poetry Journal, Poetry Review (UK), and other journals. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Kim Jacobs-Beck reviews "Quantum Heresies" by Mary Peelen

Quantum Heresies
Quantum Heresies
by Mary Peelen

86 pages
Glass Lyre Press

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Facing the grave illness of oneself or of a loved one is a common experience. While every individual's illness is unique, the ways others process their grief about those important moments resonate and feel familiar to us. Winner of the 2019 Kithara Prize, Mary Peelen's Quantum Heresies relies on science, philosophical belief, and the careful observation of daily life to explore the meaning of suffering and death. Peelen uses the language and mechanisms of chaos theory (which focuses on dynamic systems very sensitive to change), quantum mechanics, the study of the movement of subatomic particles and their energy, the flocking behavior of birds, and mathematics to illustrate the shifting nature of a progressive illness and its emotional impact.

In the face of a loved one's cancer diagnosis, Peelen works through the illness scientifically, using the language of mathematics and physics to place life and death into some kind of context. Peelen suggests that religion won't help her, though philosophy might. For example, in "Awake" she writes: "For Descartes, metaphysics was quick as/a thought, ergo sum. // For me, there's Calvinism to consider, / its inbred unworthiness, the voice of my mother" (p. 21, ln. 1-4). Physics and math are the better disciplines for developing some kind of acceptance; it's their orderliness that Peelen is drawn to:  "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" (p. 5, ln. 15-20).

Peelen's style is spare and conversational but closer examination shows poems with rich sonic qualities. In "Proof," she uses alliteration with easy skill: "Despite persistent elements / of planetary suicide / like pesticides and / leafblowers at seven A.M. // the cells of the honeycomb / remain perfectly hexagonal" (p. 17, ln. 1-6). All but four poems are written in unrhymed couplets, reinforcing the sense of space and simplicity built by Peelen's vocabulary. Some poems presume the reader's knowledge of complex mathematics, such as "Mandelbrot Set," but the majority of the book uses accessible images to develop the emotional texture of the book. Birds, especially crows, reoccur in several poems. In "Prophecy," crows serve as eerie harbingers of environmental apocalypse: "Crows overpopulate San Francisco, // convocations grip the olive tree/in full avian convulsion, // foliage quivering with / the rage of corvid premonition" (p. 29, ln. 8-12). The patterns of bird behavior—their flight paths during migration, their flocking behavior—allow Peelen to reinforce the abstractions of chaos theory and quantum mechanics with a more common phenomenon that most readers have observed, but which still invokes a sense of wonder, even mystery, at natural patterns.

Of course, all of these natural phenomena echo the unstable, unpredictable nature of a cancer diagnosis. Whether a patient survives into remission or dies is based upon numerous variables, such as risk factors, how early the treatment is applied, genetics, and sufficient financial resources to afford treatment, among others. Peelen's prose poems "Draw" and "Stagecraft" are direct and unsparing discussions of the complexities patients face. Peelen use the verb "draw" as title and as the beginning of numerous phrases containing that verb: "lots," " a conclusion," "the line," "a blank," among others, each followed by narrative describing the patient's experience. In a similar way, "Stagecraft" uses theatrical language to show the patient , "let's say her name is Jane," (p. 35, ln. 2) working through the same process as "Draw" does. Both of these poems are made more poignant through the inventive form.

Quantum Heresies is a powerful, forthright, and challenging book that draws parallels between nature and medicine and portrays the narrator's daily life while someone she loves struggles toward death. Peelen's quiet, observational style adds delicate reinforcement to the emotional weight of her topic.

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