Ithaca College Quarterly
Both Sides Now

MeedsA cloud chamber is not, perhaps, so different from a metaphor.

Einstein would have been pleased. Bridget Meeds '91 effected a cold fusion of sorts during a month spent as the first-ever poet in residence at Cornell University's Wilson Lab, a facility for high-energy particle physics.

A New York State Council on the Arts grant funded the experimental fusion of art and science. Meeds's mission: to expose the scientists and staff to the poetic process through workshops and discussion, and to write a daily poem chronicling her own reactions to the high-tech environment around her.

And high-tech it is. Wilson is home to the Cornell Electron Storage Ring, one of only 10 particle accelerators in the world. In its half-mile loop 40 feet below the green turf of a football field, electrons and positrons collide, producing new particles that include the "beauty quark," a fundamental building block of matter.

Both beauty and truth are to be found in even the smallest of things, as Meeds knows. "Physicists focus very closely on small objects --- particles --- in order to understand the nature of the universe," she notes. "Similarly, poets focus on very small images to reveal universal themes."

But why teach poetry to physicists? "Because poetry is the realm of living, active, changing language, and that's where new ideas happen," says Meeds. "We should always invite people into this place where they have access to new thinking." Indeed, she got the idea for the project through her own part-time work as a testing supervisor in Cornell's physics department. The project was innovative enough to catch the attention of the North American media, including National Public Radio, the Canadian Broadcasting Company, and Science.

Meeds in lab with David CasselEach day Meeds would descend to the underground lab, don a dosimeter (a radiation-detection badge) and explore the mysteries of creation, both physical and poetic. Her own epiphany came when one of the physicists helped her create a tabletop cloud chamber that visibly captured the silvery trails of cosmic rays as they passed through its mist. "We lean in and stare together/ at this spider's web of revelation," concludes her poem for that day.

And, through a series of workshops, Meeds in turn provided poetic epiphanies for the scientists, technicians, and administrators of the lab. Some discovered a passion for writing haiku, others a talent for limericks. At Meeds's suggestion, they wrote poems about the tools they used, "haiku of recommendation" about their colleagues, and a group piece that involved writing a line on a Frisbee before throwing it to the next poet-in-training. "They saw poem writing as a puzzle, a way to tell jokes, a way of being clever, and --- for a few --- an opportunity to capture images and express emotion," observes Meeds. The results, together with Meeds's own poems from the underground, have been published by Vista Periodista Press with the title Tuning the Beam.

This volume marks Meeds's second book appearance: her poem "Light" --- written during a year she spent in militarized Northern Ireland --- was published in a collection by Faber and Faber four years ago. Next up: a film project on General John Sullivan, who destroyed native villages along Cayuga Lake during the Indian wars. It's clear that Meeds loves the richness that emerges when one crosses disciplines and arts. As the physicists of Wilson Lab discovered, it's way, way beyond "twinkle, twinkle little star."

--- Christi Cox

Photos: top -- Barbara Adams
bottom -- Charles Harrington