The Physicist

February 17, 2014

Contributor’s Marginalia: Leslie Bohn on “Mileva Maric by David Moolten

You bastard, David Moolten, you stealer-of-poems!  This is not exactly what I thought when I first saw “Mileva Maric” as the title of David Moolten’s piece in 32 Poems 11.2, but of course, he didn’t really steal my poem. Once I had thought about the significance of someone else finding a subject in Mileva, whom I have been jealously and ridiculously guarding as if she were a thing I owned, I didn’t just accept this poem as evidence that I was not as original as I had desired (without hope), I welcomed it and poured it a cup of lapsang souchong. With no aims to narrow the scope and purpose of poetry, I want to try to articulate why I need—why I think we need—more “Mileva” poems.

The lines and phrases of this poem are compact like the poem itself. Moolten found what was essential and used it, or it almost seems from the way the poem appears slim and short on the page, he cleaned away his scaffolding and debris after the initial construction was complete.  No biographical knowledge of Mileva Maric or Albert Einstein is necessary to read and understand this poem.  Just enough is insinuated by “…the time to solve/ Time and also for Elsa and Miss S” for the reader to understand that these were Einstein’s lovers and that there was no time for Mileva.  The phrase “His stray eurekas in the dark” alludes to the orgasmic interludes—breaks from the rhythm of family life his wife didn’t take—of his affairs with women and physics, cleverly positioning his work as another mistress.  Moolten shows us how motherhood becomes for Mileva her new field of study; replacing her professors at Zurich Polytechnic are ironic and, it’s implied, dull teachers: her children. “But now he pulled away and she preferred/The monotonous lecture of a child’s breathing.” Mileva is like “one of those observers on the railroad platforms,” and Moolten tells us this before showing us that, unlike the observer postulated in the theory of relativity, time moves differently for her,

she a dull lamp burning
Long into the night, proving him wrong
Again and again, though her discovery
Superfluous, the usual suffering.

The poem’s closing lines do not so much build as diminish, like memory after time.

Notice, the title is not Mileva Einstein or Mileva Maric-Einstein. Moolten presents a Mileva whose identity we should consider, at least at first, independently of that of her famous husband.  Accordingly, in the first line, Moolten does not refer to Mileva as Einstein’s lover or wife or mother of Einstein’s children; she is “the physicist.”  When researching Mileva for my own work, I became entirely disconcerted with the presentation of “facts” about the woman.  In brief, two hyper-antagonistic factions, which include lay-people, scientists, and feminists of all disciplines, raise an obscure argument.  Some suggest she helped Einstein with his work which led to his Nobel Prize and later his theory of relativity; conversely, others say (as if it were fact) that she was obviously not-very-smart because she did not pass her final exams.  Moolten’s poem rejects both of these hypotheses. Mileva, “the physicist,” was Einstein’s peer.  They even wrote their dissertations on the same subject. But “whose cabbage soup/ And lint brush” gave who the time to study and work?  Who was pregnant and yet unmarried in turn-of-the-century Switzerland (the last European country to allow women to vote) as she sat for the exams?  And further, can we not assume that as the only woman in her class, she was having an experience similar to or more extreme than that of women in the sciences today?

What is the experience of women in the sciences today? Should this be of concern to us, us poets and readers of poems?  These questions deserve long answers, and I can only begin by saying that a number of factors still discourage women from entering or staying in the sciences.  I also suggest reading Eileen Pollack’s New York Times piece “Why Are There Still So Few Women in the Sciences?” My answer to the second question then only begins: have you heard of VIDA’s count?

Maybe now, you have a third question: what does this have to do with Moolten’s poem? “Mileva Maric” is a small poem holding whole conversations within its slender frame, not only the representation of women in the arts and sciences but also the “two-body problem,” which affects many couples who both are going to school or working or searching for meaningful work. Who does the research? Who feeds the baby? Who takes what job offer where? Or, we can talk about the hagiography of figures such as Albert Einstein and how so many  Milevas get footnoted or molded to suit a historian’s (or poet’s) purposes.  This is what I need poems to do.  Yes, I need beautiful poems and poems that play with language and make me think about how we use language, to what ends.  I need poems that challenge how I think, and they do; some poems are just innocuous enough to be insidious. But, most days, when I’m listening to my own child breathing or working with my husband to come to one of those compromises with huge consequences, I need poems like the other half of the conversation that I want to have, poems that reaffirm that I’m not the only one out there thinking about these things.  David Moolten’s “Mileva Maric” is exactly the conversation I want to be having right now.

Leslie Bohn

Leslie Bohn teaches writing and ESL at Tennessee Technological University. Her work has appeared in Poems & Plays, Boxcar Poetry, and The Southern Poetry Anthology, Volume VI: Tennessee.

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