Rachel McCarthy: the climate change scientist and poet
unlocking elemental forces
Inspired by ‘hardcore’ chemistry, the poetry of Met Office scientist Rachel McCarthy has been called mesmerising by British laureate Carol Ann Duffy
Rachel McCarthy pictured at her home in Exeter, Devon. Jim Wileman for The Guardian.
It’s not every poet who manages to work a demanding day job as a Met Office climate scientist. But when Rachel McCarthy isn’t walking the corridors of Whitehall, on secondment to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, she is to be found polishing her poems.
Despite achieving a double first in physics and chemistry, McCarthy always wanted to write. As the founder of Excite Poetry, the Devon wing of the Poetry Society, and the director of the sell-out Exeter poetry festival, her verse-writing skills are matched only by her ability to draw crowds to big events.
Strolling through Exeter’s arty West Quarter, blinded by a low winter sun, McCarthy ducks into her favourite junk shop, Otto Retro. “I used to run this open-mic night here,” she says, eyeing up the curiosities that include an Austrian zoological chart and some Czech apothecary jars. “It was such a warm environment. We’d have poetry readings – and people could shop during the break.”
In 2015, the British poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy named McCarthy one of the country’s most exciting new voices, describing her work as bold and mesmerising. Last year also saw the publication of Element, under the Laureate’s Choice imprint, curated by Duffy.
Each of the 19 poems in the volume was inspired by elements from the periodic table, which McCarthy is adamant shouldn’t be dismissed as “a thing stuck on the wall in your GCSE class that you had to memorise”. Everything is made of elements, she says. “You and I. This table. It’s an alphabet of our existence.”
The collection spans history and tackles subjects from bees (chromium) and butterflies (iridium) to love (yttrium), disaster (osmium) and art history (zinc), via unsung aircraft fitters such as her own father (titanium). Short notes at the end of the booklet explain the significance of each poem’s element. Copper in octopus blood, for example, carries oxygen more efficiently than iron in haemoglobin, helping the octopus survive deep under water. The poet Alice Oswald says of McCarthy’s writing: “strong interesting poems, full of tension and symmetry. They are alive.”
Read the rest at The Guardian