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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Song of Two Worlds

Alan Lightman

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Title: Song of Two Worlds
Author: Alan Lightman
Genre: Poetry
Written: 2009
Length: 99 pages
Availability: Song of Two Worlds - US
Song of Two Worlds - UK
Song of Two Worlds - Canada

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Our Assessment:

B : interesting search-for-meaning tale in verse

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Song of Two Worlds is a personal account in verse that balances and contrasts several sets of worlds. Though set in a North African Islamic locale, its narrator had studied in Europe; he is a scientist, but once again lives in a world dominated by the spiritual and religious; he writes his account in verse but is also drawn to scientific precision and logical thought. Moving between cultures, he refers to Netwon and Einstein as well as classical Arabic philosopher-scientists; moving between different aspects of cultures he includes a chapter made up almost entirely of the first several hundred digits of pi and another of DNA combinations, while his account as a whole is made up of ninety-nine verse-chapters (as in the ninety-nine names of Allah -- presented here over exactly ninety-nine pages as well, despite the chapters not all being of neat one-page length).
       At the outset he wonders whether he has: "Grown numb to the world of belief ?" but is moved to once again pick up his pen, "dry for some years". He's clearly still in the midst of a long, lingering crisis:

What should I write ?
What should I think ?
       But he realizes that it is time:
Now wakened, I must remake the world,
One grain at a time.
       He slowly begins to organize his thoughts and feelings -- and to reveal more about himself. A scientist who returned to his homeland after studying abroad, he no longer has his foreign wife or two children. His only companion is old Abbas, who takes care of the household.
       He looks for some hold in science and especially the abstraction of numbers -- mindful that even in the end of the universe:
With no heat, with no life,
But the numbers remain.
       He tries to work through his predictable spiritual crisis of not understanding what his essence might be:
     What thing am I ?
Many or one ?
Where is the nub of me ?
Is it my spongy gray fold of a brain,
Nerve endings,
Lopsided cavities ?
       And, yes, the man of science sees that science doesn't have all the answers:
I knock on the doors of the universe,
Asking: What makes the swirl
of ghazali love songs ?
And the parallel singing of loss ?
And the choice to live life alone ?

I surrender my calipers, rulers, and clocks,
Microscopes, diodes, transistors,
Glass flasks. For how can I measure
The warmth of a hand ? Or dissect a face
With the digits of pi ?
       Events -- yes, there's a bit of background action moving things along, too -- bring these questions (and others) even more to the fore. In this world of unknowability there can be no neat resolution, but in its twinning of cultures -- "Al-Haytham and Einstein ", "Rembrandt and Omar Khayyam", as well as the scientific and the spiritual -- there comes some understanding of the infinite greatness (and absolute nothingness ...) of ... well, everything.
       Inspired by Tagore's Gitanjali (from which the epigraph is also taken), the two-part work -- 'Questions with Answers' and 'Questions without Answers' -- is a fairly appealing poetic take on the big questions, carefully presented in a construction that is clever (if perhaps a bit too obviously thought-through). The poetry -- very free verse -- can feel a bit forced, but reads well enough -- and there are some very nicely turned phrases:: "Adrift in this strange jittered world", for example.
       In taking on several more layers than the usual two-cultures-debate-featuring works, and quite successfully dealing with them, Song of Two Worlds is a nice addition to the scientific-poetic library.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 October 2009

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Song of Two Worlds: Alan Lightman: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry under review

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About the Author:

       American author and physicist Alan Lightman was born in 1948.

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© 2009 the complete review

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