Star Trails By Alexandra Fraser -Reviewed

Reviewed ByEmma Lee

‘Star Trails’ Alexandra Fraser 

Steele Roberts 

ISBN 978-0-947493-93-6, 

$25.00

‘Star Trails’ is a fusion of science and poetry, skilfully done so readers don’t need a glossary or footnotes to understand each poem. Alexandra Fraser seems to share her father’s fascination with the sciences of light and astrophysics. The book is divided into three parts, ‘Backscatter’, ‘The Backdrop’ and ‘Viewpoint’. The first section is a series of poems about the poet’s late father. ‘Backscatter’ where an x-ray detects the radiation that reflects from the object and forms an image, an appropriate metaphor for the reflection and images of a late father.

He also seems to have been a keen photographer, in ‘Definition: snapshot snap∫ɒt’, 

An isolated observation

just before you turned from the camera

just before the mask came up

the shutter click echoed

loud in the silent room

An informal photograph taken quickly with a small handheld camera

always we wait for the tide

and that instant when the heron

is halfway to flight vanes to the wind

primaries stretched for lift

and long toes still touching the mud’

The poem contains two other definitions too. The first quoted observation seems to come from a child who knows this process of taking a photograph, the father’s careful use of camera, means the child has to stay quiet and indulge her parent. The second quoted observation is of a man patient and observant, waiting for the precise moment to capture the heron taking flight. A man of precision and practice. 

The title poem stays with the subject of photography. It considers a photograph, 

‘it seems                     only a thing

a piece of shiny black paper

with white curved streaks

circling around a still point

a vortex that draws you in

and then you start the step by step

deconstruction        the tearing apart

translating the image

into a vocabulary of memories

and musings

          these are star trails

          traces of burning hydrogen suns

          they are traces of intention

          the camera          aimed to celestial south’

It ends with a quote from Derrida,

‘                    Derrida said            all photographs

                     are about mourning

                     the loss          of the subject         the object

                     the times’

Photographs are about the need to capture a moment before it’s lost in irretrievable archives of memory. The poem is focused more on the physical process of creating a photograph than the picture captured. A little girl grows up sharing her father’s fascination. The poems that show the poet as physics teacher are no surprise. There is one more surprise from her late father, though. In ‘Fifty-year embargo’, the poet is watching a documentary created from the release of embargoed government records and discovers there are photographs of her father, 

‘you with tripod and camera

behind a wall of sandbags

that sillage of faded prints

now falls into place

top-secret research to develop

a tsunami generator

to aim at Tokyo’s heart

if only you had been here

your words could have breached

that long-held barrier’

Her father took this secret research to his grave. The poet does not blame him for remaining silent but expresses regret that her father didn’t survive long enough to talk about his secret research and how difficult it must have been to keep such a secret from his loved ones without the relief of sharing it.

The second section, ‘The Backdrop’, is a brief tour of science history. ‘Weaving rainbows’ looks at Isaac Newton’s research into rainbows, by poking his eye with a bodkin,

‘Newton partitioned light into slices

the passionate red of the lover

and the yellow of alchemist’s gold

green the apocryphal

apple of gravity

fallen Eve-like into his hand

purple buboes of the plague

the Great Fire’s orange flame

and a heavenly calm lapis blue

Newton        last of the magicians

encoded his alchemical notes

but they were thought

not fit to be printed

(though a million hidden

words are now online)’

Later, the poet John Keats, 

‘                             was negative

about Newton             claiming

he stole the poetry from the rainbow

by weaving it

via a small chunk of glass

into a beam of ordinary light

but those of us who watch

prismatic splinters glint

from the rim of a wine glass

or a bevelled edge       rejoice

in the mathematical beauty

of the world’

The poem packs in a lot of understated passion. Newton’s desire to observe, record and experiment to learn more. Keats’ striving to prove his aphorism that beauty is truth. And ordinary scientists who use calmer methods of experiment and observation to build on the knowledge founded by earlier generations.

The final section, ‘View Point’ is a return to the theme of personal observation. ‘Waikato tritina’ starts, 

‘going back to there is harder than leaving

you can’t step no not the same river

and are you still there a silhouette in fog

following the white lines through the fog

driving home after midnight leaving

the farewell party the pavilion by the river’

An adult returning to a childhood home is complex: there’s a temptation to step into familiar roles that are no longer true as the child is now an adult which must be recognised by the parents. When one parent has passed away, the mix of the absent of one parent and the altered relationship with the surviving parent has to be negotiated. The second line plays with Heraclitus’ notion that you never step into the same river twice.

‘The inside dark’ muses on ‘Where does the light come from when we dream?’,

‘These images are postcard-bright

existing in perfect bone-covered blackness

Do synapses produce sunshine

or neurotransmitters make candlelight

                to reveal a death-bed

                a dying chrysanthemum

                a locked door where we fumble for the key?

Within the bone we light our visions

and ignite all that we desire and fear’

Once a scientist, always a scientist, even when asleep.

‘Star Trails’ is a collection of measured, considered poems that explore the poet’s late father, their shared love of science and the poet’s own life in science. Although the poems use scientific theories and terminology, they do so in a way that non-scientific readers can understand without needing footnotes or a glossary. Alexandra Frasers’ poetry comes from a desire to communicate with a reader and share her knowledge and delight.

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