I don’t think I’ve written a poem inspired by a diagram before. This particular diagram came to my attention as part of my “day job” as a designer. Over the past couple of months I’ve been working on graphics and media for an exhibition at Dundee Science Centre about research studying the songs of humpback whales in the South Pacific. The study was undertaken by researchers from the Sea Mammal Research Unit of the University of St Andrews.
It’s fascinating work, and one piece of it is distilled in a diagram made by Dr Ellen Garland and her colleagues. It shows how humpback songs recorded by scientists over a 10 year period have not only travelled regularly in a west-to-east pattern over a 10,000km long stretch of the Pacific, but have changed year-on-year as humpback whales learn each new season’s “score” and sing it across the ocean. You can find out more about this remarkable, and as yet little understood observation of whale culture on Ellen’s website.
The more I thought about Ellen’s diagram, the more I came to feel how deceptively simple it was. I think that as you look more and gain a sense structure over time, you realise this is showing something genuinely astonishing, that had previously been so hard to see (or hear!) as to be effectively invisible.
So, here we are – a poem about a diagram… (who knows, maybe not the last.)
poem and reading by Steve Smart
original humpback whale photograph by Nicolas Job
original field recordings by Ellen Garland
montage by Steve Smart
Ellen’s diagram is like a child’s quilt.
I turn her checkerboard about,
swap out strident Microsoft primaries
for shades that hurt me less,
and in handling the squares,
in redrafting with attention,
I accommodate their stories.
These colours are movements,
in many meanings of movement,
like impressionism, baroque, punk,
shifting cribs of style from one mind there
to another even more far-out,
where we’re somewhere deep
in exotic waters,
for this all seems deeply exotic
The song square game is played
with cryptic southern ocean rules,
some tunes drawl short seasons,
just a few months drift afloat,
while others go pacific, spun for
a whole year swum on seaborne airtime.
She’s charting trends of alien voices,
the whales’ just discovered folksong,
sung to some purpose still unknown,
and sung untold, in all this time.
The exhibition at Dundee Science Centre was supported by the Royal Society, the University of St Andrews, and Dundee Science Centre. It’s aimed at children, but there is lots for anyone to enjoy and find out. It launched on Saturday 28th September, and will be open for several months.