the physics of wrikle formation poems by vera schwarcz

picture of vera schwarcz

Author photo by John Wareham


Vera Schwarcz has performed a rare feat in The Physics of Wrinkle Formation: she has managed to combine a fascinating foray into medical and scientific lore with a highly charged, moving series of elegies for her husband. Nor is the book purely elegiac, for it moves from the darkness of grief to the gradual advent of hope, the illumination of a way out of desolation. About the book, Sarah Glaz has written, “In these complex and beautiful poems, written in the first year of mourning, Vera Schwarcz employs the language of science to express the depth of her grief and pay homage to the life of her late biologist husband, Jason Wolfe.”
  the physics of wrinkle formation by vera schwarcz cover image
  Front cover platinum print by William Johnston..

Vera Schwarcz is a China historian and poet. She was married to Jason Wolfe for thirty-one years. Together, they raised three children—Gavi, Elie, and Esther—whom Jason lived long enough to see married with children of their own. After forty years of teaching at Wesleyan University, Vera has retired and is working on a new book concerning a Jewish woman who was a refugee in Shanghai during the Holocaust. For now, Vera divides her time between Connecticut and Jerusalem.





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ISBN: 978-1-943826-01-8

Copyright © 2015 by Vera Schwarcz

6" x 9" paperback, 64 pages



Copyright ©2015 by Vera Schwarcz




The sex life of the single cell
was your early passion.

Electron microscopes made possible
a peek into nuclear preparation.

Even before merging, the tips
of tertrahymena become more blunt.
A short hour after conjugation,
deeper changes start. Attached
in pairs, cytoplasmic channels open,
the micronucleus begins to lengthen.
Lengthening fifty times its original size,
it curls around the nucleus as we used to,
tired after love.

This organelle both grows and becomes
less dense at the same time. Its secret lies
buried in the microtubules you photographed.
They tell part of the story.

The thinning air in our bedroom
completes the picture.

Like the gutted mouth of a eukaryote,
these poems tumble into an elegant
and elongated emptiness.


House, Are You Ready?

Here, where we learned, prayed,
fought, made love, cried, cooked,
cleaned, read, wrote, joked, hosted
guests, tickled grandkids, listened
to friends pour out heavy secrets—

you are coming home to die.
House, are you ready?

May each word of Torah you spoke
at the table cushion your bed,
smooth those rough plastic waves
supposedly good for aerating wounds;
may each man, woman and child
who found wise counsel here
hold your hand as you travel
across the thorny land of new pain,
old blasts multiplying, pressing
beyond the marrow.

May each doorway graced with a mezuzah
protect you and guide your eyes away
from the darkness of grief toward
the light that waits and already
surrounds you.

May your beautiful orchids
adorning every room blend
into a passageway of purple petals
and stately stamens to witness
the journey forth.

And may the endless Shabbat
coming your way as certain
as woodpeckers, doves, jays
and cardinals outside the window
shield me as well,

for loneliness looms large ahead.

A Tiny Twinkle Orchid

How to find words
of gratitude for your life
unfurling from of my aching soul?

The answer came from
a tiny Twinkle Orchid
blooming the day you died.
You had watered its lanky leaves
for seven years, long before
your spleen ballooned
to triplets,

long before clinical drugs
bought us a few extra years,
before leukemia
took over, blasts bursting bones
like a prisoner breaking free.

For you no relief, only the slow
descent into the haze of pain
and laudanum
as breath slowed, heart raced.

I searched the knife-green forest
of potted Oncidium.
Among shy branches
a couple of taciturn buds.
I looked some more.
Finally, a single crown,
orange glistening
on winged white
helped me to pray.


The human brain and spinal cord
are coddled by the thinnest cloth,
dura mater so fragile and elastic
and so kind during our mishaps,
our danglings near death.

When it breaks irrevocably
we grow rigid with pain.

I know this first hand.
When grief grows heavy
during the night’s long hours,
the petrified mind whimpers
louder than any paraplegic.

Now, biochemists have built e-dura
out of supple platinum and silicone.
They can calm Parkinson’s twitches,
propel the lame on untried paths.

Ah, if only e-dura could garb sorrows
as gently as it enrobes
broken spines in mice.

Physics of Wrinkle Formation

We could have grown older
together. But no complaints.
We had already mastered
the physics of wrinkle formation:
skin thinning, folding, crumpling
in a chiral pattern, breaking
symmetries of youth.

We had, unknowingly, mimicked
the mimosa, learned to curl
upward at the lightest touch.

If only the hydration of tears
could revive withered leaves,
unwrinkle worried brows
unbuckle the weak diagonals
along which our days were severed,
a new physics would take root.

You’d wake again and we’d buy
a mail-order house complete
with sofas, books, bird feeder.

We’d follow simple instructions:
Compress to unfold.

Botanical Brilliance

Like horsetail ferns
bereft of seed and flowers,
I seek shards of light
under the foliage of death.

I try to mimic
master problem solvers,
roots guided by gravity
toward nitrogen and water.

Does a tree have consciousness?
Some say that the cambium layer
acts as a judge who weighs
the value of individual limbs.

Like a mellifera colony
collecting information
from the waggle dances
of worker bees, so too,
an injured sequoia
distributes scarce
nourishment only
to aspiring boughs.

I, too, survived a lightning strike
that halved my trunk. No choice
but to adopt the ancient strategy
of self-pruning and regeneration.


They have found our oldest
mammalian kin,
an arboreal artist
sporting limbs once used
for burrowing
newly adapted for heights,
and teeth tailored for grubs
turned to chewing leaves and nuts.

You too went from below
to above—favored vegetarian
delights, until blood viscous
with white cells made red meat
a temporary antidote to death.

Your fate, however, was not
evolutionary extinction
like that tiny shrew
found in the caves of China.
No dental fossils needed
to proclaim Yosef Shimon,
son of Avraham Isaac and Rifka,
ancestor of a thriving Jewish tribe.