http://m.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/27/pesticide-bees-scent-food-neocotinoid Just after my piece about how bees see and smell – their ‘plastic’ sense of shapes becoming scents – I was sent this story. So perhaps pesticides are changing the shapes of scents to them: my film noir PI cross-cutting image may be more apt than I realised. It is a sad thought, a hives workers stumbling around drunkenly, seeking what they have for millions (or more?) of years, but unable to sense its real shape.
I’m brewing a project – a series of workshops and performances – around BEES (I always feel I have to capitalise it) for this summer, called BUZZ WORDS (I credit thanks to Mr Ian Billings for assistance with the title).
So, with that in mind I’ve been looking out for bee-related stories, inspiration and reading – and tweeting bee-related excerpts from poems too. (They should show up on my Twitter-widget, bottom right).
One such story was this – the amazing symbiosis and (literally) electrical relationship between flowers and bees: plants can ‘communicate’ with bees how much pollen they have ‘in stock’, by changing their electrical field (excuse my usual mangling of scientific language). But the weird thing is that, from other reading I’m doing, bees don’t see in the same way we do at all – and nor can we really understand their ‘plastic sense of smell’, where – get this – shapes have fragrances. All very synaesthetic, which lends itself hugely to poetry, I reckon…
There’s an inherent impossibility trying to perceive as another animal might – but for me, that’s part of poetry’s job. To enjoy the plasticity of language and our imaginative faculties – which are, to a large extent, uniquely human. So this poem was trying to point towards what ‘being a bee’ might be like, but on human terms. (We don’t have any others, do we?)
The title takes its name from a terribly courtly and gorgeous song by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (the acoustic version) – so do have a listen (after reading). Just as flowers and bees have a symbiotic relationship, so do bees and humans – but who ends up the ‘shadow’ is still unclear. Hence the conclusion of the poem, perhaps: certainty is always plastic, being is always relative.
Imagine that montage moment in the film
noir, where the PI ranges the city streets,
neon lights lurid and rain-streaked and longing:
thinking thinking thinking about
what it is he doesn’t
yet know. See it?
Imagine that, but now see it POV
and at nine-thousand times multiplicity
and instead of a He, you’re a She and you’re
flying flying flying about
at roof height, just knowing
Imagine that cutaway shot of a sign
which in the film says
GIRLS GIRLS GIRLS
all luminous-pink curving
tonguelike, now says:
ASTER X FRIKARTII.
That louche flashing purple
PRIVATE SHOW, now reads: SALVIA
NEMEROSA CARADONNA. Yeah?
And that raunchy Latin text becomes
a shape that bypasses your eyes
nine-thousand times and becomes the aroma
of everything – literally everything –
you have every wanted
or known. Right?
Imagine those nine-thousand
cutaway shots above a bar
of endlessly-pouring holy beer
have become a pendulum, pulling
your entire being with the breeze
of its transcendental scent,
the gravity of its colour. Yes.
And imagine that there’s no mystery,
only endless little shadows of yourself shining,
weaving through every single city street,
drinking drinking drinking in
the plastic certainty
So Friday was International Women’s Day – and Sunday Mother’s Day. Hurrah for women!
(I realise I’ve rather missed the boat for both, but sometimes having time to sit down and write topical poetry doesn’t quite happen, alas.)
Anyway – this week’s piece is inspired by an exhibition at Newcastle’s Discover Museum, which presents portraits of eminent women scientists. Thinking about the act of portraiture and its power, I wrote a piece which – as the title of the post suggests – is very archaic advice for the artist on how to present a lady-scientist.
And yes, that’s why I’ve used that irritating little -hyphen- in there, for these are not just ‘scientists’, they are ‘lady-scientists’. The hyphen attaches them to their gender and all its holographic-accoutrements throughout the poem and, sadly, still throughout some of the scientific world. So the poem’s about the surface notion/image (much like a portrait) of women and women-in-science which used to abound but which is hopefully – slowly – being eroded.
I used the odd word ‘unbecoming’ as the alternative title to convey the idea that a woman’s work (indeed, anyone depicted in a portrait) can be curiously undermined, undone, by how they are presented. What does it mean: ‘unbecoming’? Un-becoming what? Not-becoming who? It is only ever used in relation to women, isn’t it?
My dear friend Emma – another amazing woman – is writing a blog post every day during women’s history month to celebrate women’s achievements in many different fields (including some ‘Lady-scientists’). You should check them out: there are many amazing women to read and learn about there.
And, as it was Mother’s Day on Sunday, I’m dedicating my very tongue-in-cheek poem (I italicise for extra emphasis) to my Mum. A memory came back to me which was part of the thinking behind this: we once went to buy a family car and visited a second-hand showroom.
The salesman (yes, I know Used Car Salesmen are not usually the most progressive of beings) attempted to sell Mum a car solely on the merit of the fact that it had very shiny rings at the front. As in, “Well madam, if it’s you that’ll be driving it, have you seen these bright, shiny rings at the front? Like the ones all little girls crave to receive when being proposed to by Prince Charming? Hmm? Shiny shiny, madam?”
No, he didn’t really say that: but his insistence that the cosmetic, surface element of the car was what she’d be interested in was quite enough. We didn’t stay long and certainly didn’t buy from there. So the poem’s in his voice, but projected from last century – and dedicated to women who, like my Mum, do not suffer such fools gladly (or, indeed, at all).
I think it took a slight lead from a great poem by Sylvia Plath called ‘The Applicant’ – which uses direct address and questioning to the reader, implicating them (you decide in what – I think it’s marriage, or some sinister pact). You can hear her read it – and be chilled and delighted – here.
And so here’s my poem for this week:
Advice for the Artist When Depicting a Lady-Scientist
Firstly, how is the subject sat? Be careful
the angle does not make her
appear too confrontational.
A slight turn, a light smile and the proper
amount of space before her
should serve to diminish any
in her stance.
Is the subject a geologist? Unfortunate.
Try not to make any instruments she holds
appear too…hard. A petite
hammer, perhaps, or dainty brush
for indoor artefacts. Do not depict granite.
After all, there are types of rock more becoming
for a Lady-scientist. Softer, more sedimentary layers
must surely declare her to be dainty.
When painting a biologist, flowers
may seem demure – but really, is
reproduction something a
Lady-scientist should be associated with
That elusive creature, the Lady-physicist,
must be gently regarded with
the relevant relativity.
Above all, avoid anything which proves
unbecoming to the Lady-scientist: for
great strides have been made for the
fairer sex to grace laboratory floors.
And even the slightest lapse in
judgement could undo progress
to their cause.
Well, I’ve oscillated back from animals (Whales, T-Rexes) to SPACE again: so here’s something comic about telescopes. Earlier, I read this story on the UK’s financial commitment to the European Extremely Large Telescope (from the Guardian) – and was reminded how funny I always find the naming of telescopes. I’m pretty sure the last one was called the European Very Large Telescope. So it also begs the question of where they’ll go after ‘Extremely’…?
So that’s the starting point for this – the act of naming telescopes (and, perhaps, the difficult act of naming in something like astronomy) – and it takes the form of a conversation between two (antagonistic) astronomer-colleagues, perhaps in another telescope. The main thing is: it’s hopefully a bit of (if not Very, or Extremely) fun:
Very Extremely Very,
“BREATHTAKINGLY!” he gasped, before even a greeting, crashing the door against the wall. “That’s got to be it.”
“It’s hardly very objective,” the reply sighed. “We’re scientists, Dave – not advertisers. And good morning to you, too.”
“But that’s what I mean. ‘Extremely’, compared to what? Compared to the things we’re going to be looking at it’s not ‘extremely’ large at all.”
“We’re not comparing it to the things we’re looking at, Dave – we’re comparing it to the other telescopes. Compared to them, this one is extremely large.”
A silence as both men make notes, turn dials, type furiously – front for figuring out their next line of attack.
“By your rationale,” Simon quickly established a new angle, “each measuring instrument would then be relative to that which it measures. What would have become of the Large Hadron Collider then? The Super-Massive Underground Mega-Hoop Measurer of Ultra-Tiny But Super-Important Things?”
“Actually, that’s not a bad –
“ – oh for Heaven’s Sake.”
An impasse – the almost-daily ritual.
“I just think that ‘Extremely Large’ doesn’t do it justice. Although I guess it makes sense as part of a kind or product range, or something.” He assumes a sales-voice in the vein of QVC or similar: “If you enjoyed the features of the ‘Very Large Telescope’, you’ll just love the new features of the ‘Extremely Large Telescope’: now able to blend the distribution of dark matter and finely slice the evolution of black-holes and galaxies!”
From the other desk, he can almost hear Simon’s smile being suppressed:
“I’m not sure anyone’s going to call in and pay for it: the cost would barely fit on a TV screen.”
There is a pleasant spaciousness, both enjoying a rare intersection of humours.
“Well today,” Dave takes back up his hyperbolic cudgel, “I’m backing ‘Breathtaking’ – what else could it be described as? It’s as big as all the other ones put together. If you did that with a cake, people would be impressed. And cakes can’t see into the origins of Time itself, not that I know of.”
“That might depend on the cake. And anyway: isn’t that a compound word, ‘Breath-taking’? You’re like a kid, making up numbers to win a competition.” He assumes the manner of an eight-year-old Dave: “A squillion, a gazillibazoolian-squillion!”
A brief silence as Dave decides whether to be offended, or flattered, at the impression. Then:
“How many zeros would that have?”
“A bloobazoolian zeros, OK?”
The tapping of keyboards. This had become the tacit sign now that they had wasted enough time and should get on with some proper work – nebulae were on the menu today, as they had been for the last four years.
“I just think we’re not going to give the public a real sense of the scale of this thing unless the name truly reflects it. It just sounds so mid-range – like a family car: ‘extremely spacious’. We may as well call it the ‘Pretty Gosh Darn Big Telescope’”.
Now the silence of someone studiedly ignoring someone else. Then, the final barrage, the day’s last attempt:
“The Almighty Telescope?”
“Oh the Churches will love that.”
“The Strikingly Large Telescope?”
“We don’t want it striking anything or anyone except light, Dave…”
“Dave: get off Thesarus.com – NOW.”
Running a little behind after being struck down with a lurgy last week, but here is my latest sci-po – no wait! It’s a story.
I won’t say too much about the news story which inspired this, apart from the classic disclaimer: any likeness to persons living or fossilised genuinely is purely coincidental! So if Dr Dave Hone should read this – the curious narrator in this story is not you, it’s just inspired by the work you do (there’s the link to Project Daspletosaurus) and where it could take someone a lot less balanced than your good self (and their diet).
It’s a piece about the feeding habits – which may have been sporadically-cannibalistic in nature – of Tyrranosauridae (those terrible lizards of ‘Jurassic Park’ fame). The research is looking at how the T Rex’s scary cousins – such as the Daspletosaurus – ate, and supposes that they ate with a great variety of bites (not just swallowings-whole, as in ‘Jurassic Park’ – the science of which may, of course, be secondary to the story – and the merchandise).
No matter what fine-diners they were, it’s one family reunion I’m glad that evolution, meteors and the like has put pay to (nothing personal, I just think I’d get stuck in their teeth).
Here’s my story:
The Numbering of Teeth
The bones are the hardest part. As in, the most difficult. But – like all good researchers – he knows that 3-D computer models will only take him so far. He just wants to know – to really feel – what it would be like to have one as a guest at the dinner table; to witness their repertoire, the one he is sure they had, of chomps and nibbles.
At the start of the week, it was subtle – a basic attempt to avoid that simian lateral-chewing motion. An action, he muttered, evolved for plants. And that meant missing a whole link in the food-chain: those plentiful yet elusive herbivores, the duck-bill Hadrosaurs and horned Ceratopsians. The pelvis of one such creature – a Triceratops – was situated directly opposite the Daspletorsarus skull. His prime exhibit. He sat between them, fossil-eyed; glancing back and forth from the punctured pelvis to the sharp-toothed skull.
Small arrow-shaped marks were placed at each and every one of the impacts on the pelvis, like it was the scene of some 70-million-year-old crime. This was the analogy he used at public lectures, invoking CSI television-forensics cool: he needed, he said, to establish the Daspletosauruses ‘M.O.’.
Before this week, he had something of a routine: Monday was often a salad, pricked with cherry-tomatoes; Wednesday, leftover Mexican day – long enchilada tubes, dripping in cheese; Friday tended towards something hearty – a pie, perhaps, or a lasagne, layered like rock rich to be dug into. But salad had become too, well – brontosaurus, for the venture. Redundant. Hefty. Out of date. Now, many other foods just seemed so inauthentic to him.
By mid-week, his needs had outgrown the habitat of the laboratory canteen – there was just too much chicken. He would never learn anything from chicken – too splintery, too avian. He needed something chunkier, a larger leaf-eater. Beef was OK, or perhaps…giraffe, rhinoceros? Unlikely. He had to be reasonable. Perhaps this was what happened to the Tyrranosauridae, he thinks – to make them turn. Outgrowing their food supplies; that’s when they started to become cannibals.
So the packed-lunches began. Whatever protestations he made about being a feminist, his wife wore the trousers where it came to food. So, gingerly, as he stepped from the Friday front doorstep:
‘Leave the bones in,’ he said, maintaining earnest eye-contact. ‘And cook it quite rare. Really rare.’
She scanned his face for some sign of the joke that was to follow, but it did not come.
‘But what’s the point in a lamb-chop sandwich, when you have to remove the bones anyway?’ she entreated.
‘Rare,’ he repeated. ‘Please? I’m just feeling red-blooded this week.’
‘Lamb-chop sandwiches. Rare.’ She confirms. ‘Really rare.’ A sigh.
So this lunchtime, he sits above the white expanse of table and leers in the way he imagines his subject would: salivating at the feast to come, spreading out across the ceramic plain, the prey’s bills and horns scattering away from his mighty incisors. Nobody has sat with him for the last couple of days, but why would he mind? He is, after all, a top predator – and they hunt alone. He looks at the sandwich and considers which type of bite to deploy – something bone-shattering and bold, or something delicate and tendon-stripping.
Back in the lab, he gazes admiringly at the skull atop its plinth, numbering its teeth; as he tries to remove some lamb gristle with his tongue, he counts the incisors and molars his own skeleton sprouts. Insufficient, he thinks, as he reaches the end of the row and meets gummy nothingness.
Several tonnes, not 13 stone; over 60 razor-teeth, not his piffling set of 32 – nay, 31 after today’s lunch – blunt instruments. He wasn’t even a Daspletosaurus drumstick, barely a rump steak.
In the company of his skull and his other, he sits quietly, contemplatively, numbering his teeth – he doesn’t want to end up anywhere, you know, weird, with all this. So he imagines – just imagines – his own, as twice as numerous and twice as sharp as they really are.
Imagination, he thinks. Empathy. That’s what separates us, from the cannibals.