Book Review – Radial Symmetry: Poems by Katherine Larson

One of the most dynamic qualities of this collection of poetry is the fact that Larson is not only a poet, but also a molecular biologist and field ecologist. The author’s expertise in these areas brings a specificity to the language that connects poetic and abstract ideas to the cellular, often organic level. The collection is broken down into four sections, each one focusing on a different thematic element.radialsymmetry.jpeg

One introduces nature, and Larson tries to depict a oneness between the self and nature. In the first poem, “Statuary”, Larson concludes, “But somewhere between/ the crane and the worm/ between the days I pass through/ and the days that pass through me/ is the mind. And memory/ which outruns the body and/ grief which arrests it.” The poem takes the reader into the sky and the earth, juxtaposing this high and this low with imagery of cranes and earthworms. Larson offers that earthworms connect everything together.

The following poem is the first introduction into Larson’s concerns for love, intimacy, and connectedness in the romantic sense. It also familiarizes the reader with the type of language that Larson utilizes for information and poetry. “The man next to her has fingers trapped in a botanical book.” The woman in this poem “thinks of dinner with the man” later. She recalls a time when “they strayed/ through terraced shales and grey-blue/ limestones searching for fossils, the sea/ licks pale lichens off the rocks/”.

Next, in “Study for Love’s Body”, Larson is concerned with theories of love becoming overcomplicated. This poem is broken into four sections, ranging from drastically different tones, themes, and poetic structure. From contemplating how Gauguin told van Gogh that “in his painting he wants to suggest/ the idea of suffering–without ever explaining what kind/” to the symmetry of octopus arms, to wanting to kiss a stranger’s hands. Throughout the rest of One Larson talks of dissecting squid, tortoises as priests “of an exclusive past”, and the difference between “Crypsis and Mimicry”.

Two takes the reader to Tunisia, Mali, Uganda, and Naples to contemplated Death, “a woman selling hills of green powder/ (alcove of shade)/”, and a confession to Paul Klee: “I cheat on everyone I love./ My tired letters shuffle through dusk/ like summer insects.” Three is one poem in eleven parts. “Ghost Nets” ranges in tone by altering scene and theme in each section. Some of Larson’s more vivid messages in this section include: “Memory. The invention/ of meaning. Our minds with deeps/ /where only symbols creep.”, “All living is brushwork, you say./”, and “Ask the blind how carefully we build our world on light./ Ask the octopus how the evolution of our eyes converged./”

The poems in Four see less cohesive or linked thematically. Each poem is more independent in this section. By teetering on the bleak, Larson poses many significant questions such as in “Landscape Tilting Towards Oblivion”, “Why do some plants wear human faces?/ What makes stars shiver in their burning coats?”

Larson connects biological and universal truths with the precise eye of a scientist, linguist, lover, and poet. In the end, Radial Symmetry is a transcendent reading experience; each poem draws the reader in with the natural ebb and flow of nature, of the heart, of the body, and the mind. It is impossible not to see the symmetry in ourselves and nature, which Larson portrays seamlessly.