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Standard candles

About this book

Available from the University of Alberta Press

ISBN: 978-1-77212-091-2

A standard candle is used to calculate distances. Standard Candles is a poetry collection that juxtaposes distances here on earth (the distances society creates, distances from loved ones) with the increasingly vast distances calculated for the universe.

Much of the book is playful. Suppose, for instance, there isn’t a single, god-like Theory-of-Everything equation on which the universe is founded, but instead a whole pantheon of mini-gods for the math governing everything from prime numbers to teapots? Suppose, in the jumble of cosmological models that scientists come up with, there is one for every temperament: what model would suit an undertaker? A survivalist?

At other times the poems are personal and deeply moving. Where can we look for Sunday school’s personal heaven in the huge cosmos calculated by astronomers? By what mathematics do we measure the nearness of grief, the distances of loss?

Cosmology has formed a background for poets throughout the ages, from the metamorphosing gods of Ovid through Dante’s tiered inferno. Standard Candles alludes to this long tradition as the poet plays with forms like sonnet and Spenserian stanza, terza rima and ballad as well as contemporary free verse and nonce stanza forms.

How else to address the universe if not with all the instruments of a poet’s craft?

Experience a poem

For a preview of Standard Candles, listen in to Alice Major’s reading at Ottawa’s Tree Reading Series.

Text poem: The muse of universes

Text poem: d2 = (X-x)2 + (Y-y) 2 + (Z-z) 2c(T-t) 2

Text poem: God submits a grant application to the Canada Council


“The result is a study of the universe, certainly, but also of childhood wonder, hardscrabble wisdom and inevitable grief. Pythagoras and God both get more than passing mention.

So does Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the American astronomer behind the standard candle, a means of estimating distances of faraway galaxies via the relative brightness of pulsating stars. To Major, the phrase isn’t just euphonious, it’s a poignant metaphor for mortality, loss and the connectedness of all things.”

– Brent Wittmaier, Edmonton Journal

“The Scot-Canuck ranges widely–cosmically–across subjects in this handsome, substantial (164 pages), and beautifully accomplished work.

A late metaphysical might be the best way to describe Major, for her poems often employ scientific terms and metaphors to elaborate her truths and ideals. However, the poems remain accessible, for the science references get explicated either in situ or in several pages of notes that close the volume.

To name poets that Major resembles, one must list the philosophical Jan Zwicky and the science-oriented Jan Conn and/or the Christian Platonist Peg Avison or the Gothic outdoorswoman Peg Atwood. Yet, Major’s more playful and more moving than this quartet.

Standard Candles (an astronomical term) is a trove of non-standard —exceptional–poems, whose brilliance is not “bee violet” (a zoological term), but blazingly evident.”

– George Elliott Clarke, Halifax Chronicle Herald

“Alice Major’s 10th poetry collection, Standard candles, covers a huge distance in its slim text, racing through a dozen different poetic forms and countless cosmologies. It references everything from Greek mythology to quantum uncertainty to Henrietta Swan Leavitt, the inventor of the standard candle itself. The book is like an ultra-dense kernel containing all things–history, theology, astronomy, geometry, an infinite list. It’s the universe right before the Big Bang, titanic forces contained within a few thousand tightly packed words, almost ready to explode and race endlessly out. Or, to borrow Major’s own words, it’s like a silvery egg “which cracked, / and from its glowing albumen and globe / of yolk came tumbling gods, giants, witchcraft / houses of the zodiac, scythes, snakes, odes / devourings, bellies, caves, firmaments / and divine souls salted with corporeal soot.”

– Bruce Cinnamon, Vue Weekly

“Major takes up the poet’s essential challenge to make grand concepts accessible and relatable to the reader. The result is a collection of thoughtfully crafted suites that feel mythological or biblical in scale, yet as familiar and common as our offices or kitchens. …  Space cadets: be warned. In reading Standard candles, there is the potential for a most palpable experience of having one’s mind blown. Readers will certainly find themselves putting the book down to stare out the window at the night sky and feel a sense of loneliness wrapped in communion. Call it the human condition.”

– Steve Locke, Prairie Books Now

“This is a handsomely produced and carefully organized book, divided into themed sections, of which the first is “The set of all gods” wherein we learn that some divinities like to dabble in double meanings. The god of prime numbers chooses to leaves us wondering how long we must remain in a dreary world of common factors; and there is an outrageous punning description of the god of symmetry which could be a sidelong reference to the tongue-in-cheek notes Eliot appended to The Waste Land. The god of quantum uncertainty manifests himself as a trickster figure of North American First Nations legend, immoral immortal coyote; but the baker god appears in more modern form in a (Tim Horton’s?) doughnut shop, crafting the universe’s complex geometries:

Who knows what shape we’re in?

Flat cookie, doughnut-torus,

or perhaps the crazy twisting of cruller.”

– Michael Bartholomew-Biggs, London Grip

“A tall order, but one of Alice Major’s strengths is her ability to introduce an idea as sweeping as “science” and distill it down to a moment, a memory, an object. No one but Major could have written this book: in a way no other poet consistently does, she grasps the edges of the universe and pulls it into a headlock.”

– Kimmy Beach, Arc Poetry Magazine

“From the personal to the mathematics of the universe, Standard Candles takes on big questions: how we place ourselves in the cosmos and how we measure the markers of a life. Veteran poet Alice Major once again turns all the tools at her disposal, scientific and poetic, to contemplations of our place in the vast scale of things.”

– Jury comments, Raymond Souster Award

“Her poems are precise in their diction, dense in their content, and technically proficient. The entire work is a dense and beautiful existential rumination. The comparisons and metaphors are fresh and unexpected.”

– Jury comments, Stephan G. Stephansson Award

“The promise that Major holds out in these deliciously inviting titles is answered, fully, in the poems themselves. She has everything that I most love, most want, in poetry: wit, startling originality, the power to move without a shred of sentimentality or manipulation—and perhaps most of all, the ability to take you somewhere new both intellectually and experientially.”

– Katherine Venn, Anthony Wilson Poetry blog

“…this book was the clear winner, given the depth and breadth of its subject matter as well as the exceptional writing. It is an intricate weaving of complex scientific theory with the stuff of everyday human existence in a voice that is thoughtful, wry, and deeply compassionate.”

Jury comments, Robert Kroetsch Award for Poetry (Book Publishers Association of Alberta)

“A luminous, perfectly calibrated invitations to experience the world as both an ongoing science experiment and an object of vast and mysterious beauty.”

– Rhonda Douglas, Alberta Views Magazine

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