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Volume 38 Issue 2 • April 24-May 7, 2008
now in our 38th season

The Poetry of Science

by Marli Guzzetta

Lennie Germinara, Nantucket's resident poetaster, is a round-the-way, Italian guy from Brockton whose Sox cap is as much a facial feature as his hound-dog eyes.  When Germinara worked at the Boys and Girls Club of Nantucket as a Learning Center Coordinator, kids loved him so much they tried to set him up with their single mothers.  More than a few times I've had people ask me, after Germinara has left a party or other social function, "So what's his deal? How did he get here?"

The answer, and the reason Germinara will not be dating any single women any time soon is Dr. Sarah Oktay, the firebrand biochemist who runs the scenic University of Massachusetts Field Station on Polpis.  Oktay is the academic scientist who dons waders in deep-footed muck or kayaks in inclement weather to attend to stranded marine life around Nantucket no matter when they beach.  She knows this island through the intimate make up of its water and soil and runs something of a lab-cum-open house at the field station, where she is always on call.  "The strandings have a way of happening on holidays," says Oktay, who's the kind of person you'd want on your side if you were stranded anywhere.  That is in part why Germinara, without knowing much about Nantucket, agreed to move with Oktay to the island when she became the director of the UMass Field Station in 2003.


Dr. Sarah Oktay and Lennie Germinaria

Established 35 years ago, the field station includes a 107-acre field site with laboratory facilities, residence space, a maintenance shop and offices on Nantucket Harbor in the Quaise portion of the island.  With sweeping views of moors, scenic walking trails through preservation land and miles of secluded beaches, the property on which the couple lives and acts as gentle stewards is the envy of even the most landed of summer gentry.

During season, the couple sees approximately 500 visitors per week.  In the off-season, the number goes down to about 40 or 50 people per week.

Though the property is massive, the couple treads gently in a modest home, where books threaten to overrun them.  In the mornings, Germinara walks their dog, Jake, down the beaches.  He's learned not to do anything too embarrassing; friends have spied him walking the dog more than once in the morning using webcams Oktay has set up for residents to remotely scan the property through the station's website.  Germinara recently left his position at the Boys and Girls Club to become the Education Coordinator and docent for the Field Station from Labor Day to Memorial Day.  In Germinara's new position, he works as the interface between the Nantucket Conservation Foundation, UMass Boston and any of the groups who visit the property.

"Since we've been here, the usage has gone up," Germinara says.  "Sarah is very good about being able to come out and say hello to people, but we want to be able to do more with people, which is why I'm here."

The couple met in 2002, when Germinara was working as a high school crossing guard and Oktay was a professor walking through Brockton, on her way to the commuter train.  "I knew, at the very worst, it would be a 15 mile walk," she says.  "But I know my way around and can take care of myself, so I was up for it."

Knowing a little bit more about the streets, Germinara offered Oktay a ride.  Well, Germinara got his current girlfriend to give her a lift, which did not make the woman exceedingly pleased.  The chemistry was, apparently, palpable.

This was the end of 2002, and Sarah received a job offer at the Polpis Field Station soon after.

"We met, fell in love, then came out here and fell in love with this place," says Germinara, whose major stipulation in moving to Nantucket was that he would still be able to watch NASCAR.

The couple married on Valentine's Day 2005 and have woven themselves into the fabric of Nantucket life almost inextricably for a generation of families.

The lab is only a short walk from the house. Some nights, the windows of both buildings are lit, until Germinara sweet-talks his wife, a passionate workaholic, away from her lab.

"Sarah's normally spinning around here," Germinara says. "Basically, it comes down to me saying, 'Sarah, you really need to put that down now and come have dinner.' Sometimes she does, and sometimes she doesn't."

In addition to the pond, groundwater and mosquito research and biodiversity initiatives Oktay is currently conducting, community outreach is Oktay's primary goal.

"I want people to understand what we're doing here and what they can do for their local environment," says Oktay, who is also the person responsible for creating an environmentally sound efficiency plan for Nantucket Harbor.  "I've never lived anywhere where a small group of people can make such a difference in the ecology."

The ecology has also made a difference on Germinara, whose poetry has shifted from the stage to the page.

In his life on the mainland, Germinara coached youth poetry slam teams and performed his own work in slam events.  In 2002, the group he coached from Bridgewater won the East Regional Teen Team Slam Championship.  The following year, his own poetry won the award for "Best Narrative Poem" at the Cambridge Poetry Awards.  His long list of chap books and publications include "Everything's Jake", "Dust Bunnies", "Quaise," and "Finding a Bookstore."

When Germinara moved to Nantucket, he, along with Oktay, built a poetry series here that features readings by nationally respected, published poets — the kind of men and women MFA professors encourage their students to hear.  With financial help from the Nantucket Cultural Council, Germinara and Oktay host the Nantucket Poetry Slam, which is free, though guests customarily "pass the hat" for the feature performer.

Germinara also brings poetry into the work Oktay does with student groups at the Field Station.  During the summer, for example, Oktay will spend a week out in the sun and on the beaches with kids — getting sand and dirt under their nails.  After showers and at the dinner table, Germinara will casually steer the kids into talks of poetry.  One night, when a group from Boston was having dinner, Germinara picked off lines of their conversation for a piece of found poetry.  When he read it back to their young dinner guests, it sparked into a poetic brainstorming session.

While Germinara has provided people — especially Nantucket kids — with a venue for reading their poetry, his work has become much more solitary.

"I've become more of a page poet since moving here," Germinara says.  "And also less harried and more confident in my word choices."

The beautiful natural surroundings have inspired his poetry almost as much as they determine Dr. Oktay's work.

Oktay's lab is the stuff of right-brained childhood dreams — computers that act as a sort of biological command center for the island's plants and animals, the carcasses of some of which are individually wrapped in Ziploc bags and stored in old freezers in the lab.  Birds, fish, land reptiles are crammed with a level of reverence into the icebox.

One of these bags contains the cerulean eggs of a four-foot-long, 98-pound pregnant electric torpedo ray, recently found off the shoreline by Madaket Harbormaster Chris Vanderwolk. (see story in Issue 1)  As the sea creature was a pretty unusual find for these waters, fisherman and boaters, along with Oktay, had a hard time identifying the exact species at the pier.  Oktay had to bring it back to the lab to dissect and identify it.  (For details, see article by Dr. Oktay in issue 1-2008 of Yesterday’s Island, archived at www.YesterdaysIsland.com)

"The initial necropsy revealed that is was female with two unusual organs," Oktay reported in her summer newsletter.  "Field Station researchers have identified these as the electrical organs, which can deliver shocks of up to 220 volts."

A week later, a larger one washed ashore in the same place.

The photographs and unusual measurements were sent to the New England Aquarium.

In the process of watching his wife interact with the land using lab equipment, Germinara processes the natural landscape through his writing.  The strandings and beachings, sad in their own way, often beg for poetic processes.

While the ray incident yielded a lab report from Dr. Oktay, Germinara created a poem around the discovery and titled it "Scientific Discovery":

Up from the off shores depth
She clouds the water
A harbor obstruction
Tired and ready for oblivion

The Harbor Master alerted
Takes up a wooden boat pole
Old Nantucket lucky
Had it been new money metal
He wouldn't have lived to tell the tale

This is a Torpedo Ray
A Shark-like tail
A Ray's body
More voltage than an electric eel
Two have washed up In the last year
No one knows why

The cartilage
Like rug matting
Internal organs pastel pink and blue
A sunset postcard from land's end

Bags in a freezer
All that's left of her
A picture, a poem, and the discussion begins

According to Oktay, Germinara's poetry as influenced her as well.  "His way of looking at things has helped me to find more creative ways of communicating what I'm teaching," Oktay said.  "And I consider that one of the most important aspects of being a good scientist — the ability to communicate what they are studying accurately and engagingly to people who aren't in the sciences. I've learned a lot from him that way."

For more on the UMass Field Station, go to www.umb.edu/nantucket.  For more on the poetry slam, go to www.nantucketpoetryslam.org.  The next poet appearing in the Nantucket Poetry Slams series is Christine Korfhage, who will read on May 18.

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