Category Archives: animal

Sea Symphonies

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

 

Sea Symphonies

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,
like skiffle,
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
to me.

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.
.

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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.


Walking out the words

Back in December I posted about The Curlew publishing one of my poems called ‘Horizoned’. Recently the editor got in touch with me to ask about using the poem for some teaching she is planning, and if I could record something about my motivation in making this kind of poem. I was delighted to do this of course, but I thought it might be fun to try to show something about what goes into some of my ‘wandering’ poems.

Really I wanted to take people on a wee walk, because there is something about being there (and getting there!) that is essentially important. An aspect of embodied poetry perhaps.

There’s a long tradition of walking poets – the Wordsworths and Bashō prominent among them. When I googled about the topic I found some fantastic work by Mike Collier of the University of Sunderland which is well worth a look.

Here is my wee piece, with a reading at the end. I tried to cover the questions of what and why seriously, but answering using images, sound and physical effort(!) as well as words. I hope the result is entertaining as well as informative…

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More posts about walking.

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Monikie’s Mariners

I had a pleasant donder around Monikie Reservoir with my pal Cavan this morning. Lots of interesting birds on the water just now. We spotted some redshank and heard their lonely note calls, but at this time of year it’s the large number of cormorants in from the coast that are most noticeable visitors.

Apparently in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan took the form of a cormorant to disguise himself in order to enter Eden. More tragically, but romantically, Norwegian mythology says that those who are lost at sea can visit their homes in the form of one of these birds.

I don’t know about that, but I suppose the well-stocked quiet waters of Monikie must seem like paradise to a cormorant – at least compared to a chilly winter gale battered coastline. Curiously when they come to Monikie they always roost together on only one of the three islands, the one on the south side of the water. And they really do roost – seeing such large birds perched high in the branches of the trees is a little unexpected.

I wrote a poem inspired by these winter visitors a few years ago. Visiting them again this morning made me make look back for a wee redraft…

Heliopause 1: Mariners

[northern hemisphere: 23.4 degrees obliquity, perihelion]

Black stroked full flaps down
over un-cast overcast naval greys,
wingtip taps reflected wingtips
a parallel rhumb line rhythm flight
ruled over inshore mirror water.

Pulling up in a clumsy prehistoric stall,
a drunken marine’s shore-bound landing
pitches the branches of this,
their February Isle.

Around again our orbit wheels
past drear and dreich northern months,
until anglers rewound cast again
from their wooden clinkers.

When longer days’ winds whistle
and fetch and chop and slop the surface.

And, filled with heat and hunger,
the cormorants quit to seek
saltier sustenance
from deeper waters,
from driven seas.

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Horizoned in The Curlew

 

Curlew

Original Curlew logo drawn by Hester Cox

Very chuffed to have both my poem Horizoned and one of my ptarmigan photographs (double cheer!!) published in the most recent edition of The Curlew.

The Curlew is a terrific non-profit printed periodical dedicated to fine writing and illustration about the natural world which seeks “…passion, images that make us smile or shiver, word pictures that stay with us and make us think. Writing and illustration that enriches our lives.”

Sales of each edition benefit organisations and charities dedicated to protecting habitats, stopping wildlife trafficking and educating people worldwide about conservation and animal welfare.

More details: https://www.the-curlew.com/

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Old dog standing

Old dog standing

You’re an old dog now, no mistake.
Titanic as you weigh anchor to embark
from under the table, your safe-harbour
day-bed, out on to the linoleum sea.

The idea of standing is there
but between your back feet cross
caught napping, and front feet
skiting wide like a novice pond skater,

it takes time and struggle for the plan
to swim. Trying to float, confusion flaps
behind the George Clooney gaze,
signals flag a drift cast slightly all-at-sea.

Until at last you stand four-square
floor-launched to general relief,
we all tracked your slipway staggers,
familiar waters met though bearings lost.

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Just

It’s intriguing how movement can turn one thing into another…

Just

A sudden start
as the passing wind
of preceding cars
eddies squirrel shimmies
from an unseen discard,
and the label, darker
than a clear bottle,
squirms a small
mammal’s jig.

Fists clench wheel,
I’m ready to pedal hard,
hazard up-thumb mercy,
break and clutch and pray
for life. But, no.
Time split squints
and it’s empty dead,
just more trash,
more unkillable
plastic.

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Struck

Very pleased to have ‘Struck’ published at the Poetry Shed. 

This one was inspired by an object shown to me many years ago by the very knowledgable Sandy Edwards, who was curator of the Bell Pettigrew Natural History Museum at the time. Since then I have (amongst other things!) spent many years being fortunate enough to do ‘media odd jobs’ for researchers involved in studying the scope and meaning of sounds made by marine mammals. My knowledge of what they do is slight, but I continue to find what they discover remarkable and inspiring.

Struck