Radial Symmetry – the poetry of Katherine Larson

What is it about the ocean that inspires otherwise precise and stoic scientists to cast off the shackles of structured, rigorously defined scientific language and swim, instead, through a sea of verse and meter. You can find examples littered across the internet, from Kevin Zelnio’s song lyrics featured in the Open Lab, to my own pedestrian attempts at Hardtack and Sardines. Of course, some poets rise above our amateur attempts and merge a deep understanding of the natural world with a precise eye for beauty, bringing both together in a sea of verse which stirs the soul and challenges the intellect. That is exactly what Katherine Larson has done with her first book of science-inspired poetry: Radial Symmetry.

It may seem a strange book for a marine science blog to review, but Larson, a molecular biologist by training, has captured a the spirit of scientific inquiry and the ocean in a way that few other mediums can. Her poetry evokes the thrill of discovery as well as frustration. How many practicing scientists can’t relate to Love at thirty-two degrees, a poem that begins by observing the branchial hearts of a squid,  when she announces:

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Four fish fight for the future

How much of the world’s food supply is locked up in a few crops – corn, wheat, rice (for example) – and even fewer livestock – cows, pigs, chickens? Of the major commercial food production industries, only fish, and even then, only some fish, are still hunted. In a very real sense, fish are the last wild food. That may be changing. In Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, published last year, Paul Greenberg highlights the ways in which commercial fishing is becoming less like hunting and more like agriculture, with a few, often farm raised species, dominating the market.

Greenberg, a native of Long Island Sound who fished there since the 1970’s, documents the changes in four major fisheries – salmon, sea bass, cod, and tuna – and the changing attitudes of the (mostly) men who catch them. He travels to Alaska to meet with First Nation salmon fishermen, to Greece to visit groundbreaking aquaculture facilities, he charters a tuna boat to experience the fight first hand, and across the world he talks to those of whom fishing matters most, including himself. At times, the book becomes autobiographical, focusing on Greenberg’s personal journey – but this is a book about fish and fishermen, and he is, if only recreationally, a fisher.

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