NaPoWriMo 4: Breath or, Inspiration / Exhalation

An Iain M. Banks Style Spaceship

A curious task today: make something using the names of spaceships from Iain M. Banks sci-fi books.

It must have been a synchronisity (or was it responsive?) for this to appear on the day that Iain has announced that he’s very ill with cancer and will probably not recover. (His very moving and pragmatic statement is here, too).

So I wrote a piece based on two of his ships’ names (all of which are wonderful fun):  Refreshingly Unconcerned With The Vulgar Exigencies Of Veracity and Just Another Victim Of The Ambient Morality. I’ve taken them as the first word for each line in the poem, to push me into a structure.

And, in keeping with my series of poems inspired by science news stories, I was looking on BBC Science and found this story: about the possible diagnosis of (particularly) stomach cancers, using the breath. Essentially, our breath is – the research suggests – like our fingerprint: unique.

Whenever I’ve got stuck in writing, I looked for a next word from the article (a bit found-poem-y, yes) and also sought some Banks quotes too. So it’s a drawing together of today’s announcement, that story, and Banks’ amazing spaceship titles.

It is something of a sketch, with lots of SPACE in it – as it should be…

I’m copying it in as a JPEG below (which may be a bit small) and a definitely-readable PDF here: Breath or, Inspiration / Exhalation

(WordPress is NOT good at poems with any unusual layout in them and I would not sacrifice it!).

A NaPoWriMo poem based on the spaceship titles of Iain M Banks.

A NaPoWriMo poem based on the spaceship titles of Iain M Banks.

 

Can You Take a Moment to Rate This Whale? or, The Appening

A Whale App? But not one like the one in my poem-story, I hope.

It appears I’m once again interested in all things animal (as opposed to all things Cosmic) right now – so, from Tyrransauridae last week, to Cetacea this.

Last week, I read a story about the Boston Port Authorities encouraging ships’ captains to use an iPad app which locates the likely positions of whales off the coast and then enables them to chart a slightly different course – thus avoiding the whales. It sounds like a very successful and important initiative -and a great use of the technology. We’ve been making the seas increasingly-noisy for our Baleen cousins which – so research suggests – is making life very hard for them down there. Not only that, but sometimes ships (as per the horrible image on the news story above) even strike whales – causing them injuries and possibly death.

In fact, it’s not my first piece of writing about whales – there’s another piece I wrote, called Whale Fall, which you can read by clicking here on the site for Heads and Tales (a storytelling group with whom I was involved in Bristol). The image of ‘whale fall’ – when a whale dies and sinks to the bottom, creating a ‘feeding frenzy’ as its nutrients and body dissipate amongst the bottom-feeders of the abyss – is at the centre of the story.

But save that for later, until you’ve read today’s poem-story about – well, decide for yourself. Certainly, the idea stemmed from this feeling of intrusion (an Intrusion is the collective noun for cockroaches, by the way – about which there’s a poem-post here). What would it be like if there was something we were drawn to, but which hurt us? (Such things are plentiful, actually). And which kept filling our space until we couldn’t avoid it any more?  I think that was what my subconscious was getting at – how the whales must be with Sonar signals – but I really can’t speak on its behalf, or on whales’ behalf.

And, as someone quoted to me – and I don’t know who said it, or something like it, so this may be a misquote: “Structure the things that come to you”. So that’s what I’ve done. The chance to fuse the ever-more-pervasive app-culture and this news story in s lightly sci-fi way was too tempting . The intersection between nature and technology is of great interest to me: what is ‘natural’, what is ‘technological’, are they always and forever anathema?

The results, I admit, are…odd and perhaps unsettling. But imagine how the whales feel.

 

Can You Spare a Moment to Rate This Whale? or,

The Appening

 

It was not even a noise, to begin with:

hovering somewhere between

sound and sensation. Not quite

synaesthetic – more like a key

which accessed new depths formerly

inhuman, imperceptible.

 

That was at around

10,000+ downloads, but

with each it became

more abyssal.

 

Your lowest vertebra would chime,

softly, sending the feeling through

the tissues joining the spine

to the ribs, oscillating up the neck and

the inner-ear’s instruments –

boiling like a fumarole –

clanged.

 

At around

500,000+ downloads

you could not tell whether the object

you were looking at was itself shaking

or if the optic nerve was being played

as a myelin harp in your head.

 

By that point, on the large screens in cavernous

departure halls, edited-in

between rolling news, the image of a winning

Humpback would flash up, having supplanted

last week’s five-star Narwhal.

 

Then, the merchandise, mimicking

the rounded-off baleen icon: children

wore woolly-hat Rights (attesting

their allegiance to a species) with

a broad hair-toothed grin

on their foreheads, and fleecy-fins,

flopping down, at once

scarf and mittens.

 

But as the number became ever larger,

100,000,000+ downloads,

words began to be missed, then sentences.

Records were broken and now

graphs and arrows struggled

to find space on the screens

between fast-cut images

of flippers, flukes and spouts.

 

On one occasion, a dolphin was slipped in

to the slide-show – a test, perhaps – but

the tabloid headlines and message-boards

turned the air blue

as the Atlantic once was.

 

At some point, the written reviews

stopped – when download figures exceeded

the screen’s capabilities – and there were only

five-star ratings. The app store, mute,

silently swam in icons

of cetaceans.

 

And then the first trip to A&E,

the first fatality. But still the stars,

still the sensation.

The Angry Birds

Part of an excellent comic strip on cat killers from: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/cats_actually_kill – go on their website and buy their stuff!  (There – hopefully now he won’t mind my borrowing the picture and linking to the site…)

 

Last week, I read this story about just how many birds and other small mammals our domestic cat friends (or fiends) actually kill…And the answer is a LOT of small birds and mammals: in the USA, “between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 billion mammals annually”. Wow.

Now I make no secret of the fact I’ve always had a patchy relationship with domestic cats, even though I had them in the family home growing up. There’s just something I don’t trust about a lot of cats. Which is not to say I don’t meet a cat sometimes I get on with – but I’m not of the mindset of a lot of cat-owners and cat-lovers who see them as these charmingly-aloof and ever-so-‘sassy’ little characters. To me, they usually seem just plain rude-aloof and scheming, not sassy. Not all cats. But yes, for me – most cats. It’s not personal, cats – it’s general.

I realise I’ll probably get ‘trolled’ for expressing my ambivalence about cats, but so be it. I’m a dog person. There we are. (And yes, I know dogs have been used to hunt for millennia.) So perhaps this story played into my feeling that cats are up to something – which is mostly irrational on my part (see dog comment). But it’s not irrational to be concerned about the amount of wildlife they’re killing.

As is my first-person fashion, I wrote a piece from the birds’ perspective. And, being as it’s something of a cultural phenomenon (have you seen the amount of kids wearing Angry Birds hats?), the title references a popular app-game – adding a definite article to avoid any pesky (c)opyright issues. Hopefully? Surely?

Poetry from apps – how postmodern. Po-app-ry. Said game seems to involve hurling bird-heads (or weirdly-spherical birds) at platforms in order to destroy them. This – call me macabre (I call myself macabre) – reminded me of those little ‘gifts’ cats seem to leave on doorsteps and hence informed some of the poem. Once, a cat of ours left a blue-tit head, facing the door, the right way up and in the centre of the doormat. Aww, a….gift?

 

The Angry Birds

 

Dusk. The swish of the tear

in the door. Silence. The sky a cage

of black-blue branches. Breathing.

 

A darkness thickens our feathers,

sticks to the points of our beaks.

We petrify. By the table of bait,

it waits. A first screech flickers

life into the street-lights. Then –

reflected on narrow green eyes –

a manicured lawn of limbs.

 

The baby ape takes in tiger cubs.

We watch you through the glass,

face alight, twiddling your thumbs.

Playing games in the night,

with our heads.

 

From up here, we look down on

the pastel television-picture within:

Kitty returns, is named, tickled under the chin;

delicately purrs at an opening tin.

 

And you, unwitting napkin,

with blood all over

your hunter’s hands.

 

 

And the news story by which the poem was inspired: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21236690

 

774 or, Darkling Child

"Two vortices their nuptials swore..."

“Two vortices their nuptials swore…”

 

I’ve been continuing to read Paul Matthews’ excellent book on writing, Sing Me The Creation. One of his various suggestions on how to extend the imagination through writing practice (particularly working together, as a group), is to have a go at rewriting a style of repeated-simile poem, like this famous one:

There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
‘Twas like a garden full of snow;
When the snow began to melt,
‘Twas like a ship without a belt;
When the ship began to sail,
‘Twas like a bird without a tail;
When the bird began to fly,
‘Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
‘Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
‘Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
‘Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
‘Twas death, and death, and death indeed.

………………………………..………—Anonymous

It’s strangely compelling and vortex-like, I thought – drawing you into the images, then on to the next, then on to the next. A kind of chain reaction in verse and simile, ending in doooooooooooom.

So it struck me that it might be a suitable vehicle to write about a science story from last week – that of the’discovery’ (if that’s the right word – it happened a while ago) that during the Middle Ages (774-775, to be precise) a kind of ‘Cosmic Burst’ (or Bang – you decide) hit the Earth. And now, scientists are in more accord that it was due to two black holes or neutron stars merging in our galaxy – sending a big ol’ Gamma Ray-Fest our way (Hulk references, anyone?).

However, it seems it barely even ruffled any tunics, or whatever it was that folks were wearing at that time (which would have varied a great deal globally, of course). Instead, it deposited  some unusual radiation signatures in the ice of Antarctica and the cedar trees of Japan, only now being deciphered. And this is what has led to accord about the distant union of two black holes/neutron stars. Anyway, the link is at the bottom of the page – I shan’t mangle the science any further here.

But before that, my take on the simile-vortex verse form – using this news story as a starting point. (Perhaps black holes in verse require such a vortex/vortices, form and subject aligning?) I tried to stay true to the form as much as possible, including a ‘dreich’ and bleak repetitive ending. I hope you enjoy it…

 

774

or, Darkling Child

 

 

In seven-hundred and seventy-four,

Two vortices their nuptials swore;

As they swore, the rings did shatter,

Twas like a child of darkling matter;

When that child swam through the dark,

Twas like a silent toothless shark;

When that shark began to bite,

Twas like a breath in dead of night;

When that breath it ceased to blow,

Twas like a wilting flake of snow;

When that snow began to melt,

Twas like a kiss that was not felt;

When that kiss began to frown,

Twas like the seas turned upside-down;

When the seas began to wave,

Twas like the turning of a grave;

And when that grave it did open,

Twas over and over and over again.

 

And so to the original BBC Science story by Rebecca Morelle:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-21082617

Crinkly Fingers or, A Lonely Fisherman Sings to the Catch

The Loneliness of a (Prune-Fingered) Trawler Fisherman

This morning, I read a lovely news story by Jonathan Amos about research on crinkly fingers:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-20951232

Scientists led by Dr Tom Smulders have discovered that prune-like bath-fingers may have more to them than simple ‘Ooh, look how old and wrinkled my fingers look!’ value. They have surmised that this may be an evolutionary development to aid in handling wet objects: in their experiment, this was marbles – but out in ‘nature’, this could be fruit or fish, I suppose. Or anything that is – as the saying goes – slippery when wet (is it a saying, or just something that many things are?).

The researchers asked people to carry out a marble-moving task and discovered that those who had wet hands – and consequently got prune-fingers – were more effective at the task. I suppose if those marbles were actually tiny berries, or some curious spherical animal-foodstuff (wood-lice? frog-spawn? Small wet round things all seem a bit witch-y…), then having crinkly fingers could make all the difference to a hunter-gather-omnivore species like Homo Sapiens Sapiens. The difference between eating (and being ‘selected’ by evolution) and starving (and being ‘out of the evolutionary race’). So perhaps that’s why – so the researchers say – it might be triggered involuntarily by our nervous system, instead of being simply a ‘side-effect’ of being soggy.

As I enjoyed the story so much, I thought I’d base one of this week’s sci-poems around it. Here’s a sort of ballad, or song, I suppose – written by a character I thought would have wet, crinkly, prune fingers much of the time – a fisherman. Perhaps I’ve seen too many Neutrogena adverts, or something. (And maybe as a boat-dweller, I’m drawn to such characters!)

As it went on, it evolved (as poems and humans do) into something a little sad (and silly, all at once) – but I hope you enjoy its rhyme-y mariner-y quality.

(Incidentally, while looking for some appropriate music, I found Britten’s ‘Four Sea Interludes’: I hadn’t ever listened all the way through and I recommend them – incredibly oceanic, panoramic and gorgeous).

 

A Lonely Fisherman Sings to the Catch

 

My coral fingers, these shrivelled hands

Grasping now Oceans, are slipp’d from land,

But my ship and the mesh, they can be no match:

For you are slippery when wet, dear Catch,

And your flicking tail is hard to get.

 

The crests of waves are your steely eyes,

Your limbs froth the clouds from the salty skies –

Yet my bark only ever glimpses a snatch:

For you are flicking hard to get, dear Catch,

Though my gaze and fingers are become a net.

 

These delta’d thumbs, these puckered claws –

Could they not lift you up from the swell’s great maws?

I will climb down the line, I will scratch at the deck

If you ne’er flicker in my net, dear Catch.

My candle sinks low now, my eyes stinging wet.

For your light slips away, dear, and the night’s bitter yet.

 

Oh and if you enjoyed that one, then here’s a link to another piece – Powder-Monkey – which I wrote a couple of years ago and is of a similarly seafaring and slightly-tragic (and very rhyme-centric, as a villanelle) vibe:

http://skylabstories.wordpress.com/2010/08/07/powder-monkey/