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Write On Ottawa: Songs of science in Henry Beissel’s Fugitive Horizons

By Rob Thomas on November 29, 2014


Henry Beissel. Photo from

Beyond the furthest point that you can see. What exists there? Can it be captured? Can it be measured? Can it be understood? What about the furthest point you can imagine? What exists beyond that horizon?

These kinds of questions are turned over and over in Henry Beissel’s Fugitive Horizons. They are studied and considered like the geometric boxes in a crystal lattice. Those themes are just what some people might expect from a poetry collection—particularly a collection of highly structured, meditative poems, impelled by argument and a strong narrator. But what is surprising—and good books should always be surprising—is discovering that modern science is also enamoured with these themes. Here’s an example from a poem called “Night Song:”

            Enjoy the tranquility darkness delivers on lake’s smooth surface,
            for beneath it atoms move at a frenzied pace, colliding with each other
            more than a hundred billion times a second The perpetual tornadoes
            at the heart of matter would spin you out of mind There are more atoms

            in a teaspoon of water than there are drops of water in all the world’s             oceans.

Too often we think of science as a reduction when it is actually the opposite. It is a point that Fugitive Horizons makes over and over again. The images and conceits are drawn from astronomy, microbiology and quantum physics. And Beissel makes the inquiry and wonder—the instincts we should have realized science and poetry share—feel like a great discovery for the reader each time. Such as in “Why Should There Be More:”

            Why should there be more or less than meets the eye
            here on this god-forsaken rock spinning uncontrollably
            at the outer limits of a galaxy remarkable only for being
            unremarkable? Here what is there is what it is, and more.

            We enter this world through the portals of perception.”

Fugitive-Horizons-F3I don’t want to make it sound ponderous and dense. The poems are challenging and sophisticated, sure, but the language is also playful, maybe even a touch goofy at times. A couple of examples leap to mind.  “Put that in your pipe dreams and see if it’ll light up your sleep,” he writes in the poem “Music of the Spheres.” Or the image of sprawling cities “choking the living daylights out of the soil” from “He Walks Across the Night.”

I’m embarrassed to admit that I stumbled upon Beissel’s work because of his Ottawa Book Award nomination this year. Fugitive Horizons was among five finalists in the “Fiction” category. The prize went to poet David O’Meara for his book A Pretty Sight. Embarrassed because Beissel has had a long and distinguished career as a poet and playwright. Ah well. I know better now. “Here what is there is what it is, and more.” Indeed. Pick this book up if you enjoy discovery.

Fugitive Horizons by Henry Beissel is available at the Guernica Editions website for $12, tax + shipping extra.


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