Chris Price

CHRIS PRICE is the author of Husk (Auckland University Press; winner of the prize for Best First Book of Poems at the 2002 Montana New Zealand Book Awards), and Brief Lives (Auckland University Press), a cross-genre hybrid chosen as one of the best books of 2006 by reviewers for the Listener, Dominion Post and Radio New Zealand National. In 2007 she will take up a writing residency in Tasmania, where she plans to work on a poetry collection called The Blind Singer. Her work also appears in Best New Zealand Poems 2001and 2003.

Price comments: ‘This poem is just the start of a much longer verse essay that appears in an anthology of creative collaborations between New Zealand writers and physicists called Are Angels OK? (Victoria University Press.) The book was commissioned by the Royal Society of New Zealand and the International Institute of Modern Letters to mark the International Year of Physics in 2005. While my verse essay and the anthology share the same title, the book was not named after my piece: rather, I adopted — or stole — the project title, simply because it turned out to be the question that set the poem in motion. Perhaps by the time it reappears in a book of my own I’ll have come up with a better or more original title.

‘It was the first time I’d attempted a poem of such length. The process seemed much like painting a large canvas, even down to the need for preliminary sketches. My “sketches” were more like Venn diagrams attempting to pin down in simplified form the relationships between the key figures in the poem, the ways in which they intersected in time and space, and through their thoughts, works, and the imagery associated with them. This section introduces most of those key figures (the missing one, Charles Chaplin, doesn’t arrive in the poem until later on).

‘A note in the published book gives extensive references, but some particular phrases embedded in this part aren’t explained there. Einstein was prone to tantrums in childhood, and his sister Maja reported that he attacked her with a bowling ball on one occasion and with a child’s hoe on another, resulting in her oft-quoted comment that “to be the sister of a thinker you need a sound skull”. His first wife Mileva studied physics, but her cleverness did not impress her future mother-in-law, who told her son, “Like you she is a book — but you ought to have a wife.” (His second wife Elsa was more successful at performing the conventional wifely duties.) The poem ‘Light is the word for light’ is in Dinah Hawken’s Water, Leaves, Stones (Victoria University Press, 1995). And the remark about two further questions appearing each time one is answered paraphrases a comment made by the physicist Freeman Dyson in a radio programme about Einstein and God.’

Poem: 1905: Einstein, Rilke, Picasso

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