Reviews Physics World  May 2015

My star, Sol

Physics World reviews Sunspots by Simon Barraclough

Poetry star Poet Simon Barraclough has dedicated his latest volume to sunspots. (SOHO / ESA / NASA)

The Sun is – as the old song has it – a mass of incandescent gas, a gigantic nuclear furnace. But it is also much more. Throughout human history, the Earth’s parent star has been an object of fascination, study, myth-making and worship. In Sunspots, Simon Barraclough explores these various identities through poetry, deftly juggling science and art. In one series of poems, for example, a chatty Sun muses on the artists who have tried to capture its essence. Ultimately, Vincent van Gogh, J M W Turner, Joan Miró, Georges Seurat and Kazimir Malevich are all judged to be “faves” in one way or another. Other poems are pastiches of works by historical poets. One of the best poems in the book is, in fact, a tribute to Byron’s “Darkness”. Whereas the original version imagined an apocalyptic world starved of sunlight, Barraclough’s homage adroitly flips the problem on its head, describing a Sun that has “stalled at its zenith”, turning the Earth into “a famished, loveless coal”. Literary-minded readers will surely delight in this game of spot-the-allusion, but Sunspots can be accessible as well as erudite. Many of the poems in it are short, stand-alone gems, including one that reads, in its entirety, “Your careless boyfriend, / half-uninterested, / has left a shape of skin upon your shoulder / unprotected, / unsunblocked. / I’ll work all day on that tender, precious spot.” There are scientific references, too, in wry asides such as “I’m starting to repeat myself, my daddy was a pulsar”. The result is a book that seems, in the words of one of the poems in it, designed to “appeal to the dedicated Sun lover and casual astronomer alike”.