In Heisenberg’s Salon, poet Susan Lewis draws inspiration from a principle of quantum mechanics. In 1925, physicist Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) published what is known as his uncertainty principle—that in any system, you can’t know a particle’s exact location and exact velocity simultaneously. You can exactly know one or the other, but not both at the same time.
This idea of uncertainty is what Lewis develops in 54 prose poems—but not applied to quantum mechanics. Instead, she considers uncertainty in relationships, in human actions, in human thought, in our perceptions, and in how we understand the world. Here’s one example:
It was time for something, although she could not for the life of
her imagine what. So she assumed her post on the stoop & waited
for the future to declare itself. A tattered bird of dubious
provenance landed on the banister & inspected her with his
ancient gaze. She exhaled with emphasis, but otherwise managed
to keep her preconceptions to herself. The old fellow cocked his
head & screeched. Terrific, she said. How am I supposed to know if
you’re the one I’m waiting for? Terrific, he squawked. How am I supposed
to know if you’re the one I’m waiting for? I get it, she said, bravely
extending her arm. I get it, he echoed, latching on with admirable
decision. It was the last conversation they ever had.
The use of the prose poem form is intriguing. Visually, a paragraph looks more definitive, and more substantive, than a series of lines arranged in the familiar verse form. It implies solidity, definition, fact. Yet Lewis turns the form on its head by the substance of each poem, taking us not to answers but to questions.
In the poem above, the speaker knows it’s time for something, and the arrival of a “tattered bird of dubious provenance” might have the answer, or might be the answer. The bird merely repeats what the speaker says, and “it was the last conversation they ever had.” It was also the first conversation they ever had. The conversation doesn’t come to a point—and that, perhaps, is the point. The uncertainty of the speaker is never defined or identified.
Lewis is the editor of the literary journal Posit. She received her MFA degree in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence University, and her BA and JD degrees from University of California-Berkeley. In addition to her several published books of poetry, she writes flash fiction, which has been performed on stage in Denver, and compositions with other artists performed at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie’s Weill Recital Hall. She lives in New York City.
Heisenberg’s Salon is one of the most innovative collections I’ve read.