Starting with her title, Field Theories, Samiya Bashir challenges the vocabulary of science, finding inflections and echoes within that vocabulary of the long and brutal history of race and racially based economic exploitation in the U.S.A. When used within the respective sciences of physics, psychology and social science, the term “field theory” (singular) has specific meanings. “Unified field theory,” in particular, coined by Albert Einstein, refers to the attempt to find a single framework behind all that exists (gravity, however, continues to escape this effort). But by changing “theory” to “theories,” (plural) Bashir subverts that idea of a singular framework to reveal the multiplicity of reality: where there is one reality there will be other realities told in various forms, splitting the dominant narrative into a prism of narratives. In contrasts and convergences, she questions history (histories) and how it is (they are) articulated in even the most objective of “fields.” In fact, “field” itself is a loaded word within slavery’s context, indicating enforced agricultural labor.
Field Theories is organized into five sections, three of which include a subsection titled “CORONAGRAPHY,” comprised of a crown of sonnets, also known as a “sonnet corona.” Coronagraphy refers to the “coronagraph,” a device for viewing the sun’s corona, along with faint or invisible planets, stars or comets around the sun, by blocking the sun’s direct light. In this sequence of fifteen sonnets (which includes a final “mastersonnet” that qualifies the series as a “heroic” crown), mythic American figure John Henry — known for winning a race to hammer steel faster than a steam-engine only to die from the effort — recounts, together with his wife and fellow steel-driver, Polly Ann, the lifelong, relentless expectation of physical labor, from birth to death.
When I said—Mama? she dropped me clear to
the floor and jumped back quick—Mama I’m’a
be—but she dropped her head in her hands and
cried—Papa I’m’a be steel—I started
—I’m a die with my hammer my—was I
born with it?—Mama don’t cry. I’m’a be—
Typical of the sonnet crown sequence, each poem begins with a word or words drawn from the last line of the preceding poem, setting up a remarkable series of responses between two people whose relationship exists within work, labor, and unbearable constriction. Polly Ann calls herself “useful” because of her “milking body” and states “all my time I spend picking up/ putting down moving things around and still// I can’t drown out the whop whop whop of steel…,”
I swear I wasn’t born to cry so I’d
be a lie if I say I wept when I
left my mama’s house—like I ain’t know life
up here would be hardscrabble rough—what’s not?
The stories of John Henry and Polly Ann are part of what coronagraphy reveals, eclipsing the too-brightly spotlighted stories of white America. “Dark things have a way of manifesting themselves,” says Neil deGrasse Tyson, in one of the section epigraphs by African American writers, artists, scientists and astronauts such as June Jordan, Mae Jemison, Keyon Gaskin, Jean Toomer and others. In that vein, Bashir explores the concept of the “blackbody,” a scientific term for something that absorbs all radiation — in contrast to the supremely reflective “whitebody” — as the blackbody converges with the “black body” existing within the racist American economic, political and cultural system.
“When I say radiation I mean
light that you cannot contain”
—“Methods of heat transfer”
In addition to blackbody theory, “Field theories” addresses a spectrum of scientific concepts and how they might intersect with everyday life — and poetry. The five larger sections of the book count down through the laws of thermodynamics starting with “consequences of the laws of thermodynamics,” through the first, second and third laws and ending with “Zeroth law,” which refers to the equilibrium between three thermodynamic systems. Within these sections, a range of poems are titled variously after additional scientific concepts, such as “Planck’s constant” or “Law of total probability” (but also interspersed with the occasional title such as “Universe as an infant: fatter than expected and kind of lumpy.”). The dissonance between the scientific titles, and the concepts they denote, with the content, and form of the poems often creates cognitive openings for understanding how science, history, life and poetry intersect.
Like the laws of physics, which determine and undergird these “everyday” experiences, race determines and undergirds everyday experiences, as well: poet Fred Moten has discussed how large race is — so large that one cannot outrun it. In the particularly powerful “Law of total probability,” a law that, according to Mathspace, “allows us to calculate the likelihood of an event whose occurrence is influenced by which of several other disjoint events occurs,” the text is disrupted with bullet-shaped lacunae, obstructing the narrator’s tale of meeting a security guard who shows off his own gun to overcome the narrator’s “fear no implacXX terror of guns”: “nothing culd be safXXhan a gun in good hanXXfety engaged nothing to fear — see aXX when it went off its bulleXXore through old guy’s security desk anXX whizzed past my hip so close it burned the breeze.” How was this modern-day occurrence influenced by gun rights, and how are gun rights influenced by racism and the history of slavery, the need to keep the slaves contained? And even in the distortion of poetic form — the poem shot through with holes—how does the poem become another “event” as well, shaped by all of these factors?
The “blackbody” is also sometimes in physics defined as a “hole in a container” that captures and holds radiation. Within this definition is the deep echo of the captured black body and continual motion of escape — think of Henry “Box” Brown enclosing himself in a container to escape slavery. And yet, Bashir also asks how the black body exists today, in the incoherence of American culture. The poem, and the shape of the poem, may be a kind of container too — it catches and contains these questions and observations, which in turn shape it — the coronagraph is shaped by the radiation it chronicles. How, Bashir asks often in her poems in all their various forms, can we exist today in this place, in this time, as who we are? How do we stay and be, as a blackbody/black body?
But this is the world spinning in the vast
dark. Not any of the million spots we
see in the night sky but the one we
can’t. Rushing to the serenity shop
And fighting and hiding and crying and
eating in our cars with our volume pumped
against the birdsong. We are animals.
We need orgasm regularly. Now
even that lies just out of reach hostage
to the ding of our nearby cells—a poke
a text a like a love a comment: WELL
DONE! Aaaahhh! Aaaaahhh! Aaaah. Aaahhh. Aaahh. Aaah. Aah. Ah. a.
Yearn for the road. Ache for the unfettered
journey. Grow weary of it. Namaste
the mat says. Killed people kill people it
says. Shock. Disbelief. Wildly darting eyes.
Same old jive. Look steady through the pane.
Go on. Trust me. Really take in the light.