Rachel McCarthy

Element is Rachel McCarthy’s first pamphlet. Her poems have been broadcast on BBC Radio and Sky TV – the latter as a commission for Anthony Gormley’s ‘Fourth Plinth’ project - and some appeared in their early form in print, most notably in Shearsman Magazine 84/85.

 

'Western science began in poetry with the cosmology of the Greek presocratic poets; the Renaissance began with the re-discovery of De Rerum Natura, a Latin epic on atomic theory. Rachel McCarthy, a first-rate scientist and poet, takes these relationships further in exploring the periodic table, using it to look at human life through the elegant precision of both poetry and science.'

Ruth Padel

 

'Taut, intelligent, lyrical, Rachel McCarthy’s poems wear their scientific impulses as lightly as fine linen. Again and again McCarthy weaves idea, experience and feeling into works that remind us how rich and extraordinary life is in all of its intricate nuance.'

Carrie Etter

 

'The poems in Element are deftly assembled, easily erudite, wide-ranging, sincere. The reader learns from them by being taken pleasurably to science, the classics and personal observation.'

Harry Guest


Riddle

 

I’m a beginning born from an end:

stars die bearing me.

My youth cries

fire, anvil and hammer.

I kill but can’t be blamed.

Middle-aged, I’m the highest honour

of fallen empires –

for Russia they hang me by a red silk ribbon.

In the end though Wales is my lodestone,

those purpose-built towns

where Thatcher had it in for me.

My death the definition of irony.


Rachel on her work

 

i) How did you start writing?  

When I was born, my father was a military aircraft fitter for British Aerospace, my mother a playgroup assistant and my sister had just started high school. I wouldn’t say we were poor but we definitely weren’t well off either. The one thing I always had though were books. I was a voracious reader and my parents quite rightly encouraged this appetite. I studied English literature at A-level alongside the three Sciences, Mathematics and General Studies. To take English alongside Physics made me a bit of an odd-one out, people either did Art or Science, but I’ve always been polymathic - I’d have taken History too, but there wasn’t enough space on my timetable!

Great teachers are invaluable in any subject and I was lucky enough to have a particularly committed and learned English tutor. Her encouragement meant that even though I followed a career in science I never stopped writing, because I’d been shown that writing was equally valid, equally necessary.

I left college with 6 A-levels and went on to study Natural Sciences at University College, Durham, graduating with double first class honours in Physics and Chemistry. I was too busy at that time to give poetry the brewing time and space it needed. It was only when I moved to Exeter in 2008 that I started writing in a quite concentrated manner and the concept of Element took shape.

ii) Which are your favourite poets and poems? 

I’m always a bit uncomfortable about being asked to pick my favourite poets and poems, as I find that changes with everything from the emotional space I’m in to the weather. On my desk right now are; MacNeice, Oswald, Celan, Heaney, Hughes, W.S. Graham, Carson, (Elsa) Cross, Oppen.

I found Hughes quite late, in my mid-twenties, with The Hawk in the Rain from which this extract from the poem ‘Horses’ is from. 

 

‘Till the moorline blackening dregs of the brightening grey

Halved the sky ahead. And I saw the horses:

 

Huge in the dense grey – ten together –

Megaith-still. They breathed, making no move,

 

With draped manes and tilted hind-hooves

Making no sound.'

 

‘Horses’ encapsulates the early morning - that pre-dawn stillness. The anticipation of the line ‘Halved…’is worth consideration. It is the simplicity of the structure, two sets of five syllables, weighted on ‘ahead’ and ‘horses’ that make this line work so well. Hughes has helped me learn balance, to keep the experience tight and focused on where the energies of the poet and poem meet; which here is at the intersection of the consciousness of the observer and the raw, wild power of the moor. Keeping this in mind was a focus for my poem ‘Stag’. 

I’m fascinated by the work of the modern Russian lyric poets, particularly Akhmatova. Her poem ‘Requiem’ stands out for me as one of the most important and most powerful poems of the 20th century. In telling us of one woman, stood in a line outside a Leningrad prison in the bitter snow, week after week, waiting to hear news of her son, she speaks for Mother Russia.

 

‘I should like to call you all by name,

But they have lost the lists. . . .

 

I have woven for them a great shroud

Out of the poor words I overheard them speak.

 

I remember them always and everywhere,

And if they shut my tormented mouth

 

Through which a hundred million of my people cry,

Let them remember me also. . . ‘

 

It’s the direct, strong tone of Akhmatova’s work that makes her a poet I return to again and again - she mourns and fights at the same time. ‘Requiem’ is a reminder of poetry’s responsibility. My poem ‘Memorial at Norilsk’ is an homage to this period of writing, and of the necessity of remembrance and commemoration.

 Of the books that have emerged in the last few years, Helen Mort's Division Street has found a place with me. The central long-poem ‘Scab’, which combines the miners’ strike of the ‘80s with the speaker growing up and being accepted to Cambridge University is a sharp and imaginative look at our times.

 

‘A stone is lobbed in ’84,

hangs like a star over Orgreave’

 

What this poem has taught me is about the attention a poet should pay to their own personal and regional language. Note ‘lobbed’ not ‘thrown’, the former a term I recall from my youth, a regional term, positioning the reader geographically with one word. Also it is a much harsher sound than ‘thrown’, indicating the thrower’s intent without us ever seeing them. Showing not telling, to use the old adage.

iii) Where do you mostly write? What do you do instead of writing?

I write exclusively at home in Exeter, in the main bedroom of my apartment which I converted into a study. I’ve never been the type to go and sit scribbling in a café. It’s too distracting. To me poetry requires so much concentration, not just when the pen hits the page, but maybe as much as days or weeks before. Trying to write next to a milk-frothing machine makes that impossible. I mostly write at night, having a strict rule of being in my study by 8pm at the very latest. This allows me a break between work and writing, but not so long that I’m too tired to concentrate.

Outside of writing my job takes up most of my time. I’m a senior scientist at the Met Office, specialising in the impacts of climate change and science communication. I’m also Founding Director of ExCite Poetry, the UK Poetry Society’s regional group for Devon, and of the Exeter Poetry Festival which is now in its 6th year. 

iv) on Element: 

Element has been almost five years in the making. I’ve written a few poems outside of it, alongside essays, but it has been the main focus since I moved to Devon in 2008. I’ve written elsewhere before that as a scientist having a framework to hang my theories (poems in this case) from has been helpful. It gave me an initial structure to explore poetry within. Research into each of the elements came next. I studied outside my work hours, not just chemistry but history too, the classics, to expand my knowledge base, to build up to the point I could dive off of and into the poem. I learnt to be patient. You have to let knowledge and ideas ferment. Research doesn’t generate poems, but it can enable them. The driving forces of any poem are emotion, rhythm, sound.

As I said, I write at night, so the weekend days I’d use to edit as I’d be clearheaded. I’ve found that editing directly after writing (or even worse – during) means you don’t see the trees for the wood.]

v) What are you currently working on? 

For the last year or so while finishing Element I’ve been writing a stage play based on an imagining of the meetings of Dmitri Mendeleev (the ‘creator’ of the periodic table, and staunch imperialist) and Aleksandr Blok (the Russian lyric poet and husband of Mendeleev’s daughter) in the run up to the Revolution of 1905, a couple of years before Mendeleev’s death

Most pressingly I’m preparing a reading and lecture on Poetry and Climate Change to give alongside David Harsent (winner of this year’s T.S.Eliot prize) at King’s College London this March 19th.

Titles by this author

  Element
Element
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