John Liles reviews Karen Lepri’s Incidents of Scattering

“Of heat and work—stoppage, Earth in its Orbit” (Incidents of Scattering, 30)

On October 10th, 1858, George Phillips Bond would be the first human to photograph a comet.

That same year, Robert Virchow proclaims, standing upon the shoulders of those who came before him, “Omnis cellula e cellula” (every cell originates from another existing cell like it).

At just about this same time, Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace are announcing to the world their theories of evolution and natural selection.

The second law of thermodynamics had been formulated just ten years earlier and had still not yet given way to entropy by 1860.

It was within this scientific climate that John Tyndall, a physicist and magnetism expert, would publish The Glaciers of the Alps, Being Narrative of Excursions and Ascents, And An Account of the Physical Principals to Which They Are Related. The title serves as a wonderful synopsis; the book was written by Tyndall as he himself trecked and calculated through the Alpine Mountains. It is this work that Karen Lepri’s debut book of poetry, Incidents of Scattering, “takes a deep breath from.” Tyndall’s work on the fundamental forces of air, heat, and light stood (and continues to stand) unparalleled on the planet earth.

Tyndall was the first to measure infrared light (which he had termed radiant heat) and the first to bring this heat into the visible spectrum. Air, our atmosphere, he put forward, could be understood in terms of the ability of (present) gases to absorb heat—more or less the first moment of awareness of what we now know as global warming. His work necessitated that he have air free from all dust and other particulates, and with no such air available to him, he set about developing a (very successful) process for distilling pure air. Light scattering by such particles is now called “the Tyndall Effect” or “Tyndall Scattering.”

From the lexicon and learning of this human, while he followed glaciers, and heard them move, Karen Lepri sets forth with her own work, so that we may put our bodies against the entirety of this life.

More than a breath, though, Karen Lepri sounds Tyndall, his words, into a new existence. She gets so close as to address him in the poem, “Fig.I, Apparatus for Heat Obscured.” Gestures to Tyndall, the atmosphere, planetary and (other) bodily formations abound through the entirety of the work.

“Let’s begin with the simplest facts: “Dust & Your Body”—how the body must also revert back to which it came. Such is the cosmic equation at the very heart of Karen Lepri’s wonderful debut [. . .]”

These are Dan Beachy-Quick’s words as they appear on the back cover. Consider that all of your bodily elements have their origin in the evolution and formation of stars—cosmic dust interacting with cosmic dust. And you with your human body, shedding pound after pound of skin. It seems as though Lepri consciously began with cosmic body and never departed from those truths. She brings this logic of the body back home, to the human, and the planet we occupy. As this book draw upon Victorian source texts, stellar nucleosynthesis, and a whole mess of other organs, there might be an impulse to call this work a “reduction.”

Yet it is anything but that, as in our common movements Lepri finds an enormous amount of difference to be announced. Lexically exact and unwilling (to step back), there is nonetheless a tremendous amount of care in her language.

To announce our planetary history in “h.”

poleward shift, slow leak from one
            half-earth to the other, […]      (62)

And then to end that very same poem, just a handful of lines later

            of nerves. Frayed

return to feeling as we
            pull our bodies out.      (62)

Requires a keen concern for how we have gone about feeling through the entirety of this all.
It could be said that “we pull our bodies out” is something of a seminal statement in this book. In this relentless shuffle of atoms, what has managed to gather itself back up from the scattering? In the long poem “Hypothesis For Dwelling,” we here might be “this gang of billions,” “spore-like beings,” or as in “l./”:

            Our hands a trend of global

            Dowsers searching us a home      (67)

And that home might be “a womb wide as a pin,” “green juncture,” or “troughs of snake,” tremendously minute and continually enormous on the way up. Something akin to the line by Michael Gizzi (though for very different reasons), “The world is enormous / then you leave the house” (New Depths of Deadpan).

Though Lepri embarks with the exacting focus of a scientist here, there is still a tremendous amount of intimacy to be found in the work. Lepri, as Tyndall did, sets out to illuminate the present, unspoken world before us. The situation is decidedly biocentric—the validity and turbulence of all life forms being spoken for. To be a human here, in this language, is to be nearly helpless, innocuous, dependant on the whole.

But it is also valid, and perhaps unavoidable, to take Lepri’s work first as a force of language. Each of the seven long-form (serial) poems carries its own particular diction and structural logic. “Elegy for Ice Pleasure” uses carefully measured drops of climatology in sparse mirrored stanzas—like catching reflections in the ice. The language is stretched in “Preluminous” and strung together by em dashes, becoming noticeably more intimate and artifactually more human. Indicating another,

seeing you there—stuck still & honey fallen—the paradox of my bare skin in the space you left (…)      (33)

The language in both “As If Bodily Eye,” the book’s first poem, and the book’s namesake piece, “Incidents of Scattering,” remains brief on the line, with a tendency toward coupling (and the occassional triplet).

Aside from a general allowance for breath, no singular patterning principle takes hold. Yet each section bears its bodily rules, rules which Lepri breaks on occasion—a mess of punctuation in “Fig. I” (27) feels jarring and haphazardly placed, yet the uncharacteristically brief

home      (23)

feels expertly done.

It is a work of skill and great care that a measure consistency has managed its way through across these sections. This is largely the work of the poet’s lexicon, atomically concerned and keenly her own. The music is unmistakably like nothing you’ve ever heard before, and with all of the urgency of a new, necessary voice announcing itself.

Dan Beachy-Quick has announced of Incidents of Scattering, “Lepri attends to an ever-diminishing point in which a fact returns to the ether and makes itself available for something stranger than description….”

Was it Jabés who wrote: (?)
“Words do not “capture” a moment as much so they communicate it—they are a bridge that, paradoxically, breaks isolation and loneliness without eradicating it.”

Reading this tremendous work of poetry I think, for the moment, that it might be possible to do both.

John Liles is a dog digging his way out of here, with a heart the size of his fist. He is a member of the Literary Arts MFA program at Brown University. His work has most recently appeared in Arcadia, and has won the Ina Coolbrith Memorial Award and the Stewart Prize for poetry. He is the founder of the soon-to-be fledgling journal Epitoky, and can be reached at