Versed in Science. Some questions pathologist Michael Lieberman can't answer in the lab

In the afternoon, around four, the interns and researchers snap to attention when Michael Lieberman enters the lab. A boss-is-here current runs through the room; everyone has something to show him, some result he should see, some quandary for him to ponder. What does he think of this microscope slide, these cells from a mouse's uterus? See how the tint is much stronger on one side than on the other? And what about this spectrographic analysis?

Officially, Lieberman is the chief of pathology at Baylor College of Medicine. Unofficially, he sees himself as the head of a small manufacturing company, a factory that transforms grant money into scientific advances. In one way or another, everyone in Lieberman's lab tinkers with DNA, trying to produce mice with specific defects: mice missing particular genes, mice especially vulnerable to toxins and other "environmental insults." The research's ultimate goal is to make humans less vulnerable to those insults. Figure out how to screw up a mouse's immune system, and you might learn how it works in the first place, and by extension, how to extend human lives.

But here in the lab, where knowledge advances a millimeter at a time, that goal looms in the hazy distance, too far away to be worth discussing. Here in the lab, everything focuses on mice, on the composition of their cells and urine, on the small concrete questions of medical research -- the questions about life that can be answered, the problems that can be solved.

Lieberman: Cells in the daylight, souls in the dark.
Deron Neblett
Lieberman: Cells in the daylight, souls in the dark.

Of course, even scientists face questions not easily answered. Life is more than biomechanics, and death something more than a system failure. "My father," Lieberman once wrote,

let the mucus plug his throat

the monitor go haywire then flat,

not out of yearning for expansive otherness,

but from conviction, as a gift.

In the dark hours between four and 6 a.m., before Lieberman's wife wakes up, he sits alone with a yellow pad in a room full of books. As a young man, he abandoned poetry. He grew up in Pittsburgh, and wrote the stuff in high school; at Yale, he considered "being" a poet. But instead he pursued science, entering medical school, then taking a Ph.D. in biochemistry. His research focused on things like "the role of oncogenes in the modulation of cellular gene expression in vitro and in carcinogenesis," and he was good at what he did. He published papers. He won awards. He landed impressive jobs.

By the mid-'80s Lieberman was in his middle forties, the chairman of the pathology department at Philadelphia's Fox Chase Cancer Center. He and his wife, Susan, had two sons, Jonathan and Seth. By almost any measure, he lived a good life, but it contained its share of pain: He was growing older; his father had died; his sons, he knew, would grow up and go their own way. Science could address environmental insults, but not insults to the spirit. Lieberman returned to poetry.

In '88 he took the Baylor job, another professional coup, and moved to Houston. His writing began to ooze lush subtropical words ("oleander" and "bayou" and "lantana"), and he started to win poetry prizes. He found publishers for his books.

His first two collections (Praising with My Body in '92, A History of the Sweetness of the World in '95) were intensely personal. Lieberman wrote about his father: how in his sleep, he moaned in Japanese for a woman who wasn't his wife; how he chose to die "after sitting in our living room one winter / listening over and over to songs from the Civil War / sobbing, unable or unwilling to explain." Lieberman imagined performing his father's autopsy -- a poem so vivid, and so of a piece with his profession, that some readers mistook it for fact.

Lieberman wrote, too, of his own felt life. He imagined his body being disassembled by the women he'd known, the ones who'd loved him, the ones who'd rejected him. He wrote about his hungers: for blackberries, for sex. ("My praise for blackberries is impure. / It is the cock's for the beloved, / the wild plunging and shuddering beyond decency.") He wrote several poems about Aphrodite, a thoroughly modern goddess of love who drives, braless, with her car windows down ("He knows that at fifty he should be praising other things / but he is obsessed").

Still, Lieberman maintained a small zone of privacy. He did not write, or at least did not publish, work directly about his wife and sons. He wrote about Susan's previous lover, who died young, leaving the way clear for Lieberman. He wrote about Seth's name, and of his own realization that his sons will leave him, hardly looking back ("On that day, you will have learned what I taught you"). But he did not write about his wife's and sons' lives, as he wrote about his father's. Poetry requires an invasive honesty; Lieberman didn't want to inflict it on the living.

His more recent work has been less personal, less intensely subjective. Sojourn at Elmhurst ('98), a mix of poetry and prose, tells the story of a fictional biochemist committed to an asylum. More recently, Lieberman has dabbled in "flash fiction," short bursts of prose he describes as "entertaining, droll, maybe even thoughtful, but not flesh of my flesh."

Another project -- a collection of Holocaust poems, tentatively titled As a Matter of Fact -- cuts closer to the bone, though the subject is at some remove from Lieberman's own life. He didn't suffer the direct effects of the Holocaust, nor is he aware of any family members who did. What interests him isn't the past, precisely, but its echoes in the present, the way they affect him as a human being and a Jew. He seems surprised by the work's spiritual overtones. Ask his public self whether he believes in God, and he'll reply that he's an agnostic. Examine his poetry, and a different answer emerges.

At his Baylor office, down the hall from his lab, Lieberman discusses his poetry enthusiastically. The talk emanates from somewhere between his public self and his poetic self. He's warm and charming and funny, but maintains a socially acceptable distance from a recent acquaintance. There's none of the transgressive intimacy of his poetry, no uncomfortable talk of plunging cocks or evil or death's altogether too close approach; emotions remain decently in check. Windows let in the afternoon light, and the papers heaped on the couch are a grant proposal, not poems. The world seems sensible and organized, a place that will reveal itself to science one small objective answer at a time. The bookshelves hold scientific texts, not poetry, and that seems right. Lieberman's poems belong to darkness and privacy, to the hard, yearning questions too embarrassing for daylight, too large for the lab.

E-mail Lisa Gray at

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