Not surprisingly, Petrucci is profoundly interested in how science and writing meet. Whether or not a writer has scientific training, Petrucci sees an overlap between them. Writers, like scientists, ‘have to attempt to look beneath surfaces... Writers don’t have the same tools as science, scientists don’t have the same tools as writers. The opportunities are different, but the disciplines overlap rather than merely touch at the borders.’
Like many writers, he started his career as a teacher. He taught high school science after taking his first degree in physics from Cambridge. Continuing with post-graduate study, he became a research physicist, completing a PhD in opto-electronics at University College, London.
By 1989-90 he had felt ‘burned out in the scientific direction’ and was also ‘affected by events in his personal life’ — notably the death of his father. ‘Science has many answers — but it did not have answers for me at that time.’
In fact, Petrucci was becoming increasingly excited about the possibilities of the written and spoken word. He could perceive ‘a vast unexplored sea of literature... To paraphrase Einstein, physics was for me like picking up a pebble here and there when a great ocean lay beyond.’
As his interests began to shift, he also completed post graduate studies in the departments of Environment and Literature at Middlesex University, gaining first class honours in ecology and the environment.
How has being a scientist impacted on his writing? ‘Scientific training gives you a way of looking at the world, a way of being precise, a desire to discover exactly what it is that’s there... which is not always the thing that presents itself. That skill spills over into writing. It’s a great bonus.’
He points out that ‘the scientific way of looking at the world is beginning to enter public consciousness. In the 19th century only a few writers, like Coleridge, possessed a profound knowledge of science — now many writers are flying above the cloud line.’
He sees the issues for the next ten to 100 years as being technology related — nuclear waste, genetically modified food, cloning, ecology. This is another area, he says, in which writers and scientists share common ground. Both will have to address these issues.
Inevitably those affected by the downside of technology will usually be the bystanders, ordinary people, like those whose voices ring out in Petrucci’s Heavy Water. The poem was ‘born of an urge to remember’. It is partly a counterbalance to what Petrucci sees as the present Western trend to not only undervalue history but to disregard histories of ordinary people or ‘the Other’.
The Chernobyl disaster of 26 April 1986 was more than a decade past being ‘hot news in the West’, when it ‘accidentally’ resurfaced for Petrucci early in 2002. After a dull day filling in tax forms, he leafed through a library book his Brisbane-born fiance Anne Prouse had sitting on her bedside table. It was Svetlana Alexievitch’s searing book, Voices from Chernobyl, consisting of first hand accounts from people who were drafted in to help and of nearby villagers, including their children, who suffered from the fallout.
Riveted, Petrucci read a section of the book each day and wrote poems in response. The poems were, in the main, simply the stories those ordinary people were telling him through the pages of the book. He holed himself up in his study for two months, day and night, producing 82 pieces which he soon realised were all parts of one long poem. He later wrote in an article in the NSW Writers’ Centre Newsletter Newswrite: ‘Alexievitch demonstrates that most sensitive of instruments, a fine and uninvasive sensibility which permits the testaments of ordinary people to pass onto the page in such a way as to concentrate and amplify them into the realm of the extraordinary.’
Petrucci acknowledges his immense debt to Alexievich, referring to a harrowing quote from her book: ‘If the scientist knows nothing, if the writers know nothing, then it is for us to help them with our lives and our death.’ Surrendering to the ‘uncommonly eloquent common voices’ that were speaking to him so powerfully an insistently, Petrucci felt that in composing Heavy Water ‘three-quarters of the writing was already done’ for him. Unambiguous accolades can be few and far between on the British poetry scene, but not so on the day the London’s Daily Telegraph carried its award results. Petrucci’s winning poem was described there by the judge’s as: ‘Heartfelt, ambitious and alive’. Reading his completed manuscript one cannot help but note how Heavy Water juxtaposes the ordinary with the extraordinary and how, like Alexievitch, Petrucci can render the ordinary extraordinary. Here is a brief excerpt from the poem:
I still believed I could save him. Milk, soup, kisses. As if
he could digest the touch of my lips, feel my making of broth
in his dissolving heart-chambers. When his breath shut,
when he began to cool — then — I called for family. It was
almost a miracle, the Doctors said. Four times the fatal dose
and he nearly turned round.
Asked whether the role of poets in the twenty-first century was to be historians, Petrucci says he is ‘very wary of anything that talks of itself in terms of its role’. He says if there were a role for poets it would be ‘to be themselves’. Things that poets do can make us aware of ‘the presence of the Other’ or ‘draw attention to important issues we’re forgetting to look at, or perhaps even to the more fundamental problem of no longer knowing how to look’.
He adds: ‘Most writers have some sense of history — which our civilisation is losing. Society is shedding its attachment to history. Popular culture is not concerned with the past. Music and TV, as a whole, are not concerned with history. Our Western culture is busily compressing itself into the present moment.’
Getting back to the role of poets. ‘Great writers distend the moment — some into the past, some in spirit, others into the future.’ Enthused, he quotes Milan Kundera: ‘The important thing for people is not to forget. As Kundera says: “The struggle of people is the struggle of memory against forgetting”. ’
Petrucci moves on to discuss a phenomenon he experienced, which science does not yet have answers for. ‘Writing Heavy Water was less like composition than dictation. Those men and women. The innocent courage of their children. Once I’d heard them, I couldn’t remain silent. They continued to speak to me beyond the point where Alexievitch’s book stopped.’
Petrucci believes he somehow tapped into ‘information that does not come to us through the senses. Although I did not have any direct experience of Chernobyl, when I read my poems to Russian people they tell me: THAT is exactly what it was like!’