16 May 2009

Giles Watson's poetry–"little celebrations of the secret"

Carrion beetles Ptomaphila perlata
hunting maggots on a dead rat
These pictures have been posted here as inspiration for Giles Watson and others, not excluding the world auto industry (Imagine an all-terrain war/disaster transporter with this armour and cab-chassis independence).

"All of these reactions of the recently initiated are, of course, so much better than the indifference of the many, who for the most part are unaware that the mysteries even exist. These poems have been written not in an attempt to decipher the code or unravel the mystery, for this is largely impossible. They are merely little celebrations of the secret."
— Giles Watson

Giles Watson's subjects and his poems are very much alike—wonders too little known. Some of his poems (plus "source material" commentaries as intriguing as his mind) are on his site:
Cryptogams Poems—The Secret Lives of Spore-Bearing Plants.
Some accompany his stunning pictures here on Flickr.

He writes not only of what he sees, feels, and has often tasted—
I remember them so well, still sizzling in their buttered bath,
In a white dish, and the way their pink-white flesh slithered through my lips,
A paroxysm of sense. The melting in the mouth of my first initiation.
but of the soil that clings to these things—soil composed of tales about them, dense, ancient and complex as peat; history that surrounds them, be they small as a spore or large and unmapped as the insides of a certain tree; reputation fearsome, musty, and beloved. Always, and unusually for one who writes, he stands away from the centre of attention, even when he says:
There is more flesh
here, than in many louder tongues.
I asked Giles to write a poem for my recent post,
Bryophytes and grandmothers and many other things
and his response is too good for this blog. One day I hope to own a book by him—a type of book that as a class, is more viewed with horror (the look away or flight reflex) by most people than any scene of carrion beetles feasting: that most overrated, undersold "slim volume" (when written by a manufactured poet).

A book of poems by Giles Watson, however, would be as surprisingly beautiful as a carrion beetle, as irresistible as something glittering in a hole. A collection by him would remind me of another of my favourite books-to-save-if-I-could-only-save-a-bagful—Alan L. Mackay's A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (Institute of Physics Publishing, Bristol and Philadelphia, 1991)—not to mention another small and powerful volume that influenced Mackay.

A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations is a unique, idiosyncratic collection that includes many great, witty poems that I've never seen anywhere else. From the Preface to the First Edition:
". . . after work in industry, I was able to join Bernal's crystallographic laboratory at Birkbeck College, London. The years in which Bernal was active were immensely stimulating. Besides the revolution in biology all kinds of social, scientific and political movements had their base there and the decrepit buildings which housed the laboratory were an important international and intercultural crossroads . . . Bernal's example of the excitement and wholeness of life remains an inspiration. However, it is to my father, whom a book of poetry helped to carry through the Great War, from September 1916 to the end, that I would wish to dedicate this selection."
- Alan L Mackay, Department of Crystallography, Birkbeck College, London
Are all your favourite poems, too, written by people obsessed by the curiouser—mathematicians, accountants, physicists, school teachers, trash collectors . . . ? Anyone but a certifiable poet?

At the moment, we cannot pack a volume of Giles Watson's poetry, and must settle for the web. Since he also left some "little celebrations" in the comments section of another of my posts, I'm reprinting them here so you might notice them:
Three poems by Giles Watson

I'm glad you have written an ode to the dung beetle. Life would be a lot poorer without them. I hope you don't mind me posting three poems at once, but here are three more insects whose reputations have, I am sure, been unjustly maligned:


It doubled as our larder,
This horse turd where we grew;
One day we pupated
And another day we flew.

We have hairy legs,
Dung-coloured are our bristles,
We fly and look for fresh new piles
Among the grass and thistles.

When you walk by we’ll gad about,
A merry cloud of yellow
Where the dung is steaming
Or where it has grown mellow.

When we were grubs, we gobbled dung
Like all the other flies,
But now we’re homing in on them
Fixed in our compound eyes,

And all the scatophagic flies
We’ll gobble where they sit,
For now that we are fully grown
We’re sick of eating shit.

Source material: Despite its scientific name, the adult dung-fly Scathophaga stercoraria does not eat dung, but preys on other species of fly feeding on it. The larvae develop in the dung. The males, yellow in colour, are the most commonly observed; the females are rarer and greyer. This song was inspired by observation of their habits on Port Meadow in Oxford, where there is a ready supply of horse dung. They are equally partial to flies which feed on cow-pats.



I am of fine lineage; my forebears
Skulked in the crevices of London
In 1670. Aristophanes knew them too.

To prevent our coming is impossible;
A greatcoat holds enough of us,
In its hems, to stock a house.

We keep to the cracks by day.
Or secrete ourselves in old socks;
By night we suck your blood.

You can stop every nail hole with putty,
Every crack with plaster of Paris,
Smother the ceiling with white lime,

Dip the bedstead, disassembled
In turpentine or corrosive sublimate,
And sprinkle the sheets also, to no avail.

Though your house reeks and drips with spirits,
I’ll crawl the crack between your legs;
You’ll be scratching by the morning.

Source material: Curtis’s British Entomology, 569.



Sylla the dictator fell to our host
As Pliny’s discourse will tell you -
He scratched and he groaned
And he gave up the ghost -
And if that’s not enough to repel you:
We have lobster claws
We have bloodsucking jaws
For tapping our guts to your pulses,
And our dinner’s apparent,
For our bellies transparent
Make it easy to watch peristalsis.

Source material: Pliny records that Pherecydes Sirius and Sylla the dictator both died phthiriasis, a disease caused by louse infestation, and Quintus Serenus adds: “Great Sylla too the fatal scourge hath known;/ Slain by a host far mightier than his own.” See G. Shaw and F.P. Nodder, The Naturalist’s Miscellany, 1789-1813.
Thank you, Giles Watson.

NOTE: All poems and commentary by Giles Watson are copyright © Giles Watson and are not to be reprinted without his permission.


Giles Watson said...

Thank you! Believe it or not, I'm lost for words: no one has ever written me a tribute like this before!

I'm not lost for words on the subject of carrion beetles, though. A few years ago, I had the privilege of discovering an English sexton beetle under the body of a mouse. It is one of those memories which will remain vivid all through life, both for me and for my companion, who loves insects as much as I do. This particular species is black, but decorated with striking orange splodges. Fabre, predictably, was no stranger to the joys of the Necrophorus:

Sexton BeetleClairville watched the Necrophorus
Conducting the funeral rite, where
Life had ebbed, on stony ground,
Observed one bewildered male
Raise his ruddied elytra, and fly,
Returning with a host of friends
Who, like navvies, manoeuvred
The inert mouse to the place
The first had designated: thus proving
Insects think, like men.

Gleiditsch, wishing, arbitrarily,
To dessicate a frog, gibbeted it
On a stick thrust in the earth.
Necrophori inspected it punctiliously,
With wavering antennae, and promptly
Undermined the stick, the inert
Batrachian crashing to ground.

So, Fabre gathered moles, mice,
Slow worms, goldfish, snakes,
And bits of butcher’s beef,
Laid out on bricks, impaled
On sticks. Constructed
Wire cages, mustered
Patience, and watched
Necrophori at work.

The mouse, laid out stiff on a cold
Slab of brick, caused consternation.
There was no summoning
Of willing fellow workers;
The diggers came unbidden,
And heaved it, laboriously,
To softer ground.
The frog turned crisp,
The gibbet base ignored.

Thus are confounded the advocates
Of intelligence in arthropods, and yet
The mouse, inert on couch grass tangles
Animates in death from backs arched
Beneath, descends inexorably, as cellulose
Cables are severed, and where one claw
Hooks around a root, the joint bisected.
Bones are sheared through,
The charnel house lovingly prepared
By a verminous, altruistic horde.

The heaving soil proclaims
Chitin’s dominion over cartilage,
And reason by resilience dimmed.

The progeny lap up putrescence.

anna tambour said...

Thank you, Giles!
A poem to one of my favourite passages by my hero, Fabre. The detailed illustrations add much to the chapter, so I'll have to post them in another way, as I've tried here but don't know how.

You captured so much so well that others might like to read the chapter in the Fabre site.
Chapter 5, "The Burying-Beetles: The Burial", The Wonders of Instinct by Jean-Henri FabreAs to the Australian Carrion Beetles, William Archer posts another in his superb series, for the Ptomaphila lacrymosa.
I do think that the lacrymosans got a splendid name. I did so want to name the mil/transporter the Lakrimosa.

Your joy in discovering the Sexton beetle is something that must be common to many. I felt the same way with these, as they mainly shelter under the body during the day, so the ones partly hidden underneath were like the proverbial C. p's under the C.t., but better because I've never celebrated C., but can always hope to find p's wherever there is a wafting body.

Giles Watson said...

I have put the two cryptogam poems on my Flickr account with a slightly silly picture:


I'm hoping that this will encourage some of my contacts on Flickr to explore your wonderful blog.

The delta-intkey site, which normally hosts my poetry, is currently not working, as they have had to seek a new server for it. It should be up and running again soon, and I'll post a note here when it is.

anna tambour said...

Looking forward to your note.

Giles Watson said...

For the time being, some of my natural history poems are available on:


... but not all of the links are working.

All of the poems will eventually appear as a part of:


... but they're not there yet.

Giles Watson said...

I have at last started to get some of my stuff together in book form. There will be a lot more here in a week or so:


anna tambour said...

Giles, these are beautiful productions and very nicely displayed. Great to be able to peek before buying, too.
I especially like The Witch's Natural History and look forward to seeing more from you. It's about ti

Giles Watson said...

Thank you very much for the encouragement. I have had to withdraw 'A Witch's Natural History' from Lulu, because it is due to be published by Troy Books in the next couple of months, but all of the poetry books will continue to be available.

anna tambour said...

That's wonderful news. Congratulations! I'll be looking for it.