If scientific instruments and objects – the early twentieth-century cloud camera or Herschel’s ‘comet sweeper’ telescope or Florence Nightingale’s diagram of hospital deaths or Freud’s couch – could have a dream life, the poems in Cloud Camera are an attempt to evoke it. The book inhabits an imagined, even a haunted, world of science and technology – there are poems that conjure anything from the first balloon flight made by a woman or the effect of experiments with laughing-gas, to how Braille was invented, when the first artificial plant hybrid was created and what the impact of static electricity on the human body looks like. The poetry both celebrates and laments the endless human curiosity to find out ‘what the terrestrial body can stand, / at what point the mind turns itself inside out.’
‘This precisely-realised, elegant and resonant new collection by Lesley Saunders recalls Leonardo da Vinci’s Principles for the Development of a Complete Mind: ‘Study the science of art. Study the art of science. Develop your senses – especially learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.’
‘There is nothing “clinical” about these poems except their sharpness of vision and their ability not to flinch; they let us inside their subjects – scientific, medical, historical – with a disconcerting physicality. In poem after poem you meet rich and arcane knowledge with a sense of new discovery as well as recognition: fundamental human work is being done. Most of all, it is a book of delights, to be pounced on, read with appetite…’
‘I was impressed by their unusual scientific context and vivid imagery…’
‘The poet of Cloud Camera knows about “the portable ache of self” and knows that the world of dreams and desires co-exists with the world of empirical data. She can generate excitement out of that understanding. That is what makes Lesley Saunders extraordinary. Anyone can write about dreams, and anyone can write about data. But not everyone, contemplating an anatomical model, can move from “Apparently I am made of parts. A locked box of troubles” to this conclusion: “I am unlit rooms, a visionary anatomy shaken by small fevers. / How I live is dark science, fretful fugue; a mirror under a shawl.” The rigour that goes into “I am unlit rooms” is worthy of a Donne.
Science means knowing, and poetry about knowing – philosophical poetry – is one of the oldest traditions in writing. To write about the man who holds the record for the longest and fastest sky-dive, or Fanny Burney’s mastectomy, is like writing about the shield of Achilles, in Lesley Saunders’s hands: that is, it becomes a profound inquiry into the nature of experience and knowledge. The dynamism of her responses, across a wide emotional and factual spectrum, makes Cloud Camera the most intelligent and thrilling book of poetry I’ve seen in several years.
Michael Hulse, Poetry Review