Category Archives: science

Antarctic poetry

The Antarctic Poetry Competition is unusual in asking entrants to submit both poems and photographs, and specifying that the photographs must include the poems entered! I’m excited that that one of my entries for this year’s competition was shortlisted and will be on display, along with work by all the other shortlisted entrants, at Dunedin Public Library in New Zealand from 8th-31st October.

As well as my shortlisted poem, Polar Exploration, I’ve included a selection of photographs below. These were taken on the polar research vessel RSS Discovery, a research vessel launched in 1901 during the ‘heroic’ age of polar exploration. Discovery is a connection to Antarctica which is now permanently docked where it was built, in the city of Dundee, near to where I live. Gill Poulter and Suzanne Paterson at Discovery Point kindly arranged for me to have access to Captain Scott’s cabin, the chart room and other locations aboard, and also to access some of the unique objects from the Discovery collection. I’m very grateful for their help.

Reading about the experiences of polar travellers, it seemed to me that people journeying in these regions are as much exploring something within themselves as experiencing an unknown place, or a physical challenge. In the poem I tried to riddle basic challenges which Antarctica presents to human beings alongside questions about this kind of inner journey.

 

Polar Exploration

Who are you in a place with no name?
Stranger here or home at last?
Are you an Adam now, or a wiser Eve?

What are you in a place with no life?
Curiosity of transient biology?
Are you an alien, or a fresh infection?

Where are you in a pyramid with no stones?
Smiles alive under Scott tent shroud?
Are you a moth unformed, in swaddle-down cocoon?

When are you in a land with no night?
Pacing on and on or clock unwound?
Are you awake still, or persistent dream?

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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.


Transhuman™

This poem was my contribution to a collection made by the Wyvern Poets with Dundee University as part of this year’s ‘Being Human’ programme in Dundee. The collection took the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a starting point to think about how the story still resonates.

Mary Shelley had probably either seen or was very aware of the showmanship of a character called Giovanni Aldini, who was the nephew of Luigi Galvani [that’s the famous electrical pioneer and zapper of frogs’ legs]. His nephew Aldini went one better and presented spectacles involving electrifying the (human) dead. In the preface to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote:

“Perhaps a corpse would be re-animated; galvanism had given token of such things: perhaps the component parts of a creature might be manufactured, brought together, and endued with vital warmth.”

As a novel bound up with the question of what it means to be human, Frankenstein remains very much relevant to now. Today there is a collection of real and often troubling ideas involving topics like gene-splicing, bio-hacking, body augmentation, digital consciousness, and no less than the reanimation of cryogenically frozen heads … all enterprises that find their ground somewhere around the idea and under the the banner of “transhumanism”.

This poem came (perhaps from a slightly tongue-in-cheek perspective) from thoughts about Frankenstein, transhumanism, identity and ‘being human’ …

 

Transhuman™ [some assembly required]

Six million dollars doesn’t buy the dream team of once-upon-a-time,
the future’s DIY, blister packed, bubble wrapped, and shipped by UPS.

… check the manifest of better-than-you-were-before;
better, stronger, faster, custom body parts …

They say deluxe membership guarantees personality upload,
your destiny securely backed-up in the eternal cloud.
They just have to work out how to do it, and how,
when, where and if, you might finally come back to life.

… fix cryo-preserved head to brass neck collet
with twin 15mm chromed boris-karloff bolts …

I wonder if bionic organs will harbour residual bodily charms,
some gene squeezed vestigial glamour, post bio-hack-and-splice?
Could you courie in to perfect bliss, a bench-grown better embrace,
cosily snuggle up to a pale cyborg, un-sun-kissed but so sublime?

… kneel and carefully tighten the jesus nut, but note:
improper fitting may fatally void warranty …

Reborn as carbon composite, I discover built-in lingering doubts,
has something (maybe still in the flat-pack?) somehow been left out?

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Franken-poems

I’m going to be joining fellow Wyvern poets for a Franken-poetical event on Wednesday November 21st at 17.30 in The Global Room at Dundee University. As part of this year’s Being Human festival, we are celebrating the 200th anniversary year of the publication of Frankenstein with readings of new poems ruminating on Frankenstein, technology and identity, and Mary Shelly’s own early association with Dundee.

Tickets are available free from eventbrite.

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Of the Marvels

This month’s prompt from Wyvern Poets was ‘a found poem’. I’d been looking at tweets by Martin O’Leary with images from HiRISE, an incredibly high resolution camera on the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter.

The pictures are amazing. Some of them make me think of colour field paintings by Rothko, some of lush folds of the richest silks. The titles of the images interested me too. They seem to make an accidental blend of succinct description and (at least to my ears) sensuously exotic place names.

I decided to make a piece that brought these titles and images together with some found words by another famous traveler to strange lands – Marco Polo.

The result was this found poem/video.

With special thanks to NASA/JPL/University of Arizona for the use of their fabulous images, and to Martin O’Leary for @HiRISEBot.

Of the Marvels

Best viewed with sound ON, and better yet, some nice cosy headphones…

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Ting-a-ling-a-ling

This poem was written after reading an article in New Scientist recently. The article shone a light on current thinking about human brain transplantation.

As the magazine’s leader suggested, whatever we might think about some of the ideas discussed, it is important that they are talked about. Scrutiny matters.

The title of the poem refers to a
World War I airman’s song:

The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling / For you but not for me:
For me the angels sing-a-ling-a-ling / They’ve got the goods for me.
Oh! Death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling? / Oh! Grave, thy victory?
The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling / For you but not for me.

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Ting-a-ling-a-ling

The man who would transplant
a human head, or properly,
exchange a human frame,
Frankenstein or Doctor Strange?
He talks his plan, so far so good,
and sure, well, perhaps, maybe?
Until chillier air keens a chime,
whispering the unsafe word,
                                                      immortality.

An itinerary reminder bings aloud,
it’s Monday, almost midday,
whether my head is there or absentee,
in two minutes the Bute in test
will scream alarm like a scorched banshee.
And in my arms a little twitch,
fingers flicker startle ready,
fumbling set to save my ears – fair warning
                                                      for you and for me.
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Review: Harmonious Complexity

I enjoyed a visit to the exhibition Harmonious Complexity at the University of Dundee Tower Building.  This is part of a season of events celebrating the 100th anniversary of the publication of D’Arcy Thompson’s book On Grown and FormContinue reading