We usually think of science and poetry as inhabiting very different parts of the human mind, of human culture. When an astrophysicist who spends his days exploring the frontiers of the unknown writes a book of poems called I Know (Je Sais), we might pay some attention. Currently in its seventh printing in France, I Know by Ito Naga has just been released in the United States, translated by poet Lynne Knight, and it repays that investment handsomely.
Ito Naga is the nom de plume of a prominent French astrophysicist living in Paris. Aphoristic and Zen-koan-like, I Know is a collection of four hundred and sixty-nine observations on life and the universe by a scientist whose eye for detail is keen and whose wit is ever-present: “I know that what’s called quick-witted is in fact slow-witted, a wit that takes the time to break things down….” The book is profound without being ponderous, instructive without being pedantic, and engaging even at its most serious: “I know that we are secretly delighted that certain things can’t be explained by science, that some mystery persists./I know that we don’t know why knuckles can crack.” The poems range from thought-provoking to disturbing to downright funny, giving the reader a sense of looking through a lens that combines science’s clarity with poetry’s depth.
While the poet himself is French, his wife is of Japanese descent, and he took the pen name to honor her heritage, and to honor a cherished Japanese friend. The Japanese sensibility seems consonant with the poet-scientist’s attempt to meld the aesthetic and the concrete. In an interview, Naga told translator Lynne Knight, “The Japanese go very far in understanding the senses and our relationship with nature. In contact with that culture, you find yourself paying more attention to subtle things. And this makes you happy.”
I Know was inspired by American artist Joe Brainard, who in 1970 published a book called I Remember, a list of seemingly random, personal memories illuminating the interior of the artist’s life. As Naga told Knight, “One day when I was walking in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Brainard’s [technique] and the question of ‘What do I know?’ came into contact together. Why? I don’t know.”
What drives a scientist to write poems? When Knight posed the question, Nago responded, “Both the physicist’s eye and the naked eye are about observing, aren’t they? And what you learn in one field of your life, you naturally apply to the other fields. The attention that you pay when looking at some scientific data, you inevitably apply it to your daily life. We sometimes say that someone can make you attentive to this or that. Something can make you attentive as well. Writing is an example of this.”
Naga is the author of three French poetry collections: NGC 224 (2013); Iro mo ka mo, la couleur et le parfum (2010), and the original edition of Je sais (2006). Lynne Knight, the American edition’s translator, is a poet-member of publishing collective Sixteen Rivers Press and has been the recipient of many significant awards and the author of four full-length collections of poems and three prize-winning chapbooks. Her chance meeting with Ito Naga at a poetry reading in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris in July of 2010 ended with her bringing Je Sais to Sixteen Rivers Press, the not-for-profit collective press of which she is a member, and shepherding it along to publication.
I Know (Je sais) is available through Sixteen Rivers Press’s own website (sixteenrivers.org) or though most independent and online bookstores.