The poems in Kimiko Hahn ‘s Brain Fever (2014) are the result of the poet’s engagement with science articles in the New York Times. The articles referenced in this compelling collection of poetry loosely revolve around cognitive research on memory, emotion, brain development, and perception; i.e the science that reaches for a parsimonious explanation of human experience only to find itself further into tangled rationals and improbable (also to the many searching for order, comforting) leaps across time, generations, and species. A science that is closer to Gertrude Stein than Einstein.
This post is not, for example, about flies on cherries, but you may see how I eventually get there. In the poem Cherry Stems , Hahn begins with her dismay at learning that flies have brains, and those brains are complex enough that they are studied as a way to understand human cognition. She’s dismayed because, like most of us, she has spent summer afternoons swatting them. Her learning of their use in neuroscience experiments begins with this confession, and then an explanation:
…“I know about their brains because I met a
who tinkers with their ‘learning circuitry’
the ‘actual mechanics
of how a memory trace is laid down in a nerve
neuron.’ ” -from Cherry Stems , K. Hahn
What then, constitutes memory in a fruit fly, how do scientists get into their tiny brains? One approach to studying fly memory is through olfactory memory trace experiments, where flies are exposed to Pavlovian training involving nice smells and electric shocks. Once shocked, flies who apparently have a lot of common sense, can remember not to go where the smells are, and even can pass on these memories to off-spring. Some researchers can even stimulate false memories of trauma in flies using laser technology. Recently, they have been able to trace the activation of these memories during complex social activities using brain activity. All of this is designed to translate into solutions to common human problems such as memory loss, post traumatic stress, and autism.
The poet takes us from there down another memory path, and reminds us of the unpredictable way that memory lays its tracks, not in a straight line from New York to Chicago but from a many dimensional and circular explosion, from fly cognition to cherry stems to summer in Florence. In Cherry Stems, Hahn recalls her own problems with learning to type, of her mother’s expert typing and how she seemed to pass on her own left-right confusion to her daughter. This does not translate into another neurological trait of her daughter’s:
she can twist a cherry stem into a bow
with her tongue
no doubt an ancestral brain
but also reveals something of a summer in Florence.
In other words, too-much-information
memory trace. -from Cherry Stems, K. Hahn
What else is poetry if it isn’t memory, or what it means to be a human being? We escape into it, we run from it, it lays its tracks on our neurons and muscles and bones, we pass it on to our children and grandchildren through our blood, whether we want it or not.
Emily Dickinson seemed to imagine us all like fruit flies, escaping from memory.
To flee from memory
Had we the Wings
Many would fly
Inured to slower things
Birds with surprise
Would scan the cowering Van
Of men escaping
From the mind of man -E. Dickinson