Book review: A Responsibility to Awe


A Responsibility to Awe by Rebecca Elson (Carcanet, £12.99)

One of my favourite books of last year was, unusually, a poetry book - but with a difference. A Responsibility to Awe is a selection of poems by Harvard and Cambridge educated Canadian astronomer, Rebecca Elson. Elson lived with a terminal cancer diagnosis for ten years from the age of twenty-nine. Her death, at thirty-nine, surely robbed the world of a beautiful spirit, a courageous intellect and a multi-gifted genius.

The book has been put together by her husband and a close friend, and includes a selection of some of her most accessible (but no less wonderful) poems; notes from her journal, which she kept until the end of her life, and a scientific paper on what it meant to her to be a woman in science. All are fascinating, and inspirational, reading: the sort of reading that makes me feel glad and grateful.

Never sentimental or self-pitying, what these poems give us are the finely honed observations of an exquisitely skilled scientist who had the heart, soul and imagination of a poet. It was perhaps her poetry, and her connection with other poets, that enabled her to live her too short life with such emotional vigour and clarity. Above all what comes across is her joy and wonder at the hugeness of ‘life, the universe and everything’.

Elson’s range of interest starts with the stones beneath our feet (a passion inspired by her geologist father’s life-long project of mapping beaches) and reaches, inevitably, to the stars above us - but in between, everything is of interest. There are poems about kitchen appliances (honestly!); about nuns paddling in the Lido Azzurro; even about washing a pair of boxer shorts. And weaving through, always, the stars; the galaxy; it’s all here.

If you love poetry, there is much here to give you joy. If you’re not sure about poetry, try it: she whole-heartedly welcomes you to her world.

  • Published on 20th February 2020

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