Poetical Science

Mario Lena is Bagni di Lucca’s unofficial poet laureate and a much-loved citizen of the comune and beyond. Now just ninety, but no less hale and hearty, he has had a full academic and political life as professor, mayor (it was he who confirmed the twinning of Bagni di Lucca with Longarone – shown on all road sign approaches to our comune – after the catastrophic event there in 1963 when a mountain fell into the reservoir causing an overspill of water which killed almost 2000 persons: the idea of building a similar dam up the Val di Lima at the time was quickly scotched).

Mario began writing poetry relatively late in life but has more than made up for his previous neglect of this art form by a not inconsiderable number of poetry volumes, sometimes one a year. He did say that his last one would be some years back but his creative energy is still, enviably, flowing,

We first knew about Mario as a poet when we attended the presentation of his collection “La scala di Mohs”, back in September 2005 at the Teatro Accademico of Bagni di Lucca.

What’s “La scala di Mohs”? It’s a scale based on the hardness of minerals devised by German Geologist Friedrich Mohs in 1812. For example, if a diamond can scratch a piece of granite then it’s higher up in the scale and so forth. Of course, today minerals are classified according to their chemical characteristics rather than their hardness but their physical properties can still be useful in the field.


The first poem in this volume is based on that scale which proceeds as follows: talc, gypsum, calcite, fluorite, apatite, orthoclase, quartz, topaz, corundum and finally, diamond.

Where do these physical characteristics enter into the world of human experience? Metaphorically, of course. We talk about “hard cases” and “tough nuts” and, throughout our live, have experienced encounters with those persons who, for some reason or another known to themselves, pride themselves on their “hard” characters. I have had one for some years with an Essex policeman. Those of you who know will understand.

The mistake many of us make is to see if we can scratch even harder than they can and so place ourselves in a very black-and white, win-lose situation.

There is, of course, a positive side to this. It’s possible to challenge oneself (and others) in a competitive area. The ultimate arena is, of course, sport and I wish so much that sports could be used to settle disputes rather than taking Kalashnikovs up.

I would have like to have seen First World War generals of opposite sides fight it out in a football stadium rather than sending millions of their respective country folk to an early death. Today’s football violence is a small price to pay to avoid the slaughter of war.

It’s significant that part of the peace-keeping process in places like Afghanistan is to build up a national football team.   I wonder if there are any football fans in ISIS or among the Taliban? Somehow I doubt it!

To return to the physics interpretation of hardness: Lena magisterially combines physics with poetry- two area which have been separated ever since after the seventeenth century school of English metaphysical poets, after who supreme poet T. S. Eliot famously wrote “a dissociation of sensibility set in”. It’s truly a tragedy of our modern age that specialization has meant a separation between those who are fluent in science but are less so in literature and vice-versa, creating a huge divide between rational and speculative thought, between rationalism and religion, between reality and vision.

It’s a great credit to Mario Lena that not only does he write poetry of a consistently high standard, and often touchingly evocativeness, but that he has also made a great literary effort to recompose those metaphors which once bridged the empirical and the sensual worlds and which were once immediately understood by all educated people in Europe.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating so here is a tiny selection of Mario’s poetry. This one is from “La scala di Mohns, published in 2005 by that ornament of Luccan publishing Maria Pacini Fazzi. (My translations)

This collection, my first entrée to Mario’s work, is prefaced by a quote from Sylvia Plath:

If you don’t love me

Love what I write

And love me for what I write

Here is a Lena poem I particularly associate with (my trans follows):



Queste parole


Nel tuo profondo.

Puoi farne perle,

se vuoi.


lasciale andare nell’azzurro,

a navigare

nell’infinitamente grande,

a perdersi

per troppo spazio

e troppa libertà.




Welcome these words

In your innermost self.

You can make them into pearls,

if you want.


release them in the blue,

to journey

in the infinitely huge,

and loose themselves

through too much space

and too much freedom.


Here’s one related more to a more “scientific” field, the tantalising Mobius strip discovered by German mathematician August Ferdinand Moebius in 1853. (In case you didn’t remember what a Mobius strip looks like here’s a picture of one).


Daisy chains can be used to make endless ones! The object is that if you were a tiny ant you could go from one side to the other of this strip without having to cross any edges. Moebius discovered a mathematical formula (in the topological field) to express this concept.

Here is Mario’s take on the strip:



Andare dalla partenza

alla partenza,

dalla fine

alla fine,

per una volta

per molte volte

per sempre:


l’alto col basso

la destra con la sinistra

e viceversa.

Questo Anello di Mòbius

è misterioso

e semplice:


uno scorrere geometrico,

nulla crea

nulla distrugge.


tutto si ripete

con profili diversi

e valori immutabili.

Sfumature indistinguibili

riconvertite nel reale.

Poter essere per essere: non per ieri non per domani, ma per questa ora e questo istante.


Ci attendono

innumerevoli giri.

Mentre innumerevoli braccia

ci accompagnano

e ci aiutano

a restare noi stessi

verso una conclusione

che non c’è.

Ci sarà solo una lunga sommessa malinconia

od anche una imprevedibile


fragorosa risata.




Go from the start

to the start,

from the end

to the end,


many times



high with low

right with left

and vice versa.

This Mobius strip

is mysterious

and simple:


a geometric scrolling,

it creates nothing

it destroys nothing.


everything is repeated

with different profiles

and immutable values​​.

indistinguishable shades

converted into reality.

Be able to be, not for yesterday or tomorrow, but for this hour and this moment.


We expect

countless rounds.

While countless arms

accompany us

and help us

to remain ourselves

towards a conclusion

that isn’t there.

There will only be a long subdued melancholy

or even an unpredictable


belly laugh.


What is the relationship between mathematics and physics? Einstein’s famous formula:

E = mc2

is an equation which confirms the equivalence and the conversion factor between energy and the mass of a system of physics.

E indicates the energy contained or issued from a physical body. M is its mass and C the constant velocity of light.

This formula is now one hundred and ten years old so there’s no excuse for not knowing it! Einstein formulated it in the context of a constrained relativity theory. It’s probably the most famous (and most misunderstood) mathematical formula in existence.

Any physical phenomena can be expressed in a mathematical formula. With the micro world of quantum physics as developed by the second greatest physicists after Einstein, Max Plank, the formulae have been greatly expanded, although a unified theory between “classic” physics and quantum mechanics is still some way off and remains the Holy Grail of scientists today.

Incidentally I can’t resist a Max Plank joke I heard from a friend.

Plank was often bored delivering lecturers so one day he asked his chauffeur. “” Can’t you pretend to be Plank today and deliver my lecture and I’ll be you  chauffeur.” The chauffeur durtifully carried out Max’s recquest . When he finished reading out the lecture the questions from the audience began. “Hold on a minute”, he said.” I’d better consult my chauffeur on that one”….

When new discoveries are made in the physical field then the mathematical formulae may have to be modified or even discarded. This can happen with alarming frequency. And where does poetry come into all this?

Poetry is an intuitive probe into the world of science, mathematics, sensory perception, psychic phenomena, memory and everything that is perceived by humans through their senses and grasped through their intellect Poetry grasps everything of the past and much of the future too! It expresses the inexpressible and communicates concepts to us we can perceive without as yet understanding them.

These ideas, Mario Lena strove to show in the Unitre’s final lecture before the summer break at Bagni di Lucca’s Biblioteca inglese yesterday.

It’s incredible that a ninety-year-old can enthuse us with so much energy of thought. Old age has its advantages too…

All praise to Mario and his fusion of scientific and poetic worlds. We need more of that to heal that terrible disassociation of sensibility which so sadly set in after the mid seventeenth century and which can only harm our mental evolution both in the spiritual and material dimensions of this ever-expanding universe.





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