Friday, March 23, 2012

`The Civility of These Little Citizens'

On the cover of No End in Strangeness: New and Selected Poems (Cormorant Books, 2011), against a depthless black background, the Canadian poet Bruce Taylor has reproduced a photo of Hydra viridis, the freshwater cousin of sea anemones, jellyfish and coral polyps. The credit for the photo of the microorganism goes to Taylor, in what is perhaps a first in the history of poetry publication: “from a local pond, shot with a video camera using semi-darkfield technique.” 

The title of the volume is drawn from its ten-page centerpiece, “Little Animals,” a lyric poem with the narrative drive of a good short story and the free-wheeling discursiveness of an essay or one of those marvelous prose curiosities from the seventeenth century – Religio Medici or The Anatomy of Melancholy. Looking through his microscope at the roiling ocean of life in a drop of water from the pond, Taylor writes:

“And there is no end to them,
no end in numbers,
and no end in strangeness,
no end to their appetites, and all of it
exactly as van Leeuwenhoek
described it to us all those years ago,
when he, being the first to look
became the first to see
that what the wise men said was wrong,
what gnaws at our lapsed and sinful
world is not death at all,
the old machinework mannequin
swinging his scythe, he is not there.” 

I can’t think of another poem that so compellingly documents the sense of wonder engendered by science and direct observation of the natural world – an effect heightened by Taylor’s plain style and our knowledge that he actually bought a microscope and observed another world, one within our own. There’s no pantheistic gush, no yawp, no nature mysticism. Most of the poker-faced sense of excitement is latent, as was the single-cell menagerie before Antonie van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) fine-tuned the microscope and founded a new scientific discipline, microbiology. “Little Animals” begins seemingly by indirection:  

“That old book has a million moving parts
and when you open it to look inside,
they all spill out, like the escapement
from a sproinged clock,
spelling up the life and correspondence
of a Dutch cloth merchant call van Leeuwenhoek.” 

Soon he identifies “the old book”: Antony van Leeuwenhoek and His `Little Animals’: Being Some Account of the Father of Protozoology and Bacteriology and His Multifarious Discoveries in These Disciplines (1932) by Clifford Dobell (1886-1949), the English protozoolgist. As a kid I read the 1960 Dover paperback reprint before anyone told me the lives of scientists weren’t always heroic. Taylor’s poem, among other things, is a hymn to reading, and he gives “Little Animals” an epigraph from Chaucer’s “Legend of Good Women”: “On bokes for to rede I me delyt.” Here’s the rest of the first stanza: 

“A regular little factory, this book,
as busy as a Jacquard loom
constructing its bustling world
of high-piled clouds and shambling
courtyards and canals,
and copper gutters filling up with rain,
a 17th-century rain, curled
like a great cascading periwig
over the cankered rooftiles of old Delft.” 

Throughout the poem, with its irregular rhyme and meter, Taylor returns to images of rain and other water, as did van Leeuwenhoek. Dobell quotes a letter the Dutchman wrote to Hendrick van Bleyswyk on Feb. 9, 1702: 

“…in all pools and marshes, which have water standing in them in winter, but which dry up in summer, many kinds of animalcules ought to be found; and even though there were none at first in such waters, they would be brought thither by water-fowls, by way of the mud or water sticking to their feet and feathers.” 

Dobell comments on this observation by van Leeuwenhoek: “These remarks recall a well-known passage in The Origin of Species, where Darwin discusses the dispersal of organisms by similar means.” 

It’s not mentioned by Taylor in his poem, but Dobell uses as an epigraph to the second section of his book, “The `Little Animals,’” a passage from Religio Medici by van Leeuwenhoek’s older contemporary, Sir Thomas Browne: 

“Ruder heads stand amazed at those prodigious pieces of Nature, Whales, Elephants, Dromidaries and Camels; these, I confess, are the Colossus and majestick pieces of her hand: but in these narrow Engines there is more curious Mathematicks; and the civility of these little Citizens more neatly sets forth Wisdom of their Maker.” 

“Little Citizens”: “Little Animals.” Taylor’s is one of the best new poems I have read in years – exciting, shrewd, rich with meaning and life-celebration, bookish but not dusty, impossible to exhaust. I can’t resist quoting a passage in which Taylor describes the organisms he sees in the pond water under his lens: 

like an angry emoticon, with two long hairs
embrangled on its scalp,
one like a revolving cocklebur,
and another like an animated spill,
(as if an accident could live!)
and crescent moons and popeyed gorgons, things
with knives for hands,
frenetic writhers, tumblers, bells
on stalks, a sort of great loose
muscle flinching and contracting,
diatoms like crystalline
canoes serenely gliding
down a coast of brown decay, and suddenly,
what looks to be a throbbing bronze
Victrola trumpet
rocketing around as if it won the war!” 

Go here and scroll down to read all of “Little Animals” (complete with typos, which I have corrected in the passages quoted above.) Go here and here to see videos of living specimens of Hydra viridis. Go here to read the review by Bill Coyle that alerted me to Taylor's book. Go here to order “bokes for to rede I me delyt.”

[And thanks to Dave Lull: Go here to hear Taylor read a poem and talk about is work with Nigel Beale.]

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