Aug 26 2011: Woodlouse from Poetry Wales (p.33, Vol.20, No.4, 1985)

In London on Thursday, I was making my way towards Tate Modern to catch the Joan Miro exhibition (which is highly recommended, incidentally, especially if a reminder of how dark, strange, affirming, transformative and deeply political visual art can be is needed). On the way there, cutting between tube lines, I stopped in at a couple of bookshops along the Charing Cross Road and ended up rummaging in the basements where I picked up and flicked through an old issue of Poetry Wales. Inside (on page 33, to be precise) was not only something of mine, but something I had (and still have) no recollection at all of ever having written or published:

Woodlouse

(i)

Stepped from a fossil
onto a dishcloth
or hiding under stones
it could be an armadillo
or ankliosaurus
been domesticated.

(ii)

It struggles when overturned,
waves segmented legs
precise and vulnerable
as dental wire.

Once righted,
it swaggers off,
its delicate armour
a testament to immortality.

In truth, there were some glaring faults in the thing and I couldn’t bear to even type out the text without at the very least correcting these basic errors, if nothing else. But I haven’t adjusted much, and with those few things put approximately right, what’s left is a curio that relates to certain themes I’m still exploring. Although I’d completely forgotten about Woodlouse, the insects themselves appeared again in a triptych of poems titled The Order of Seasons, written in 2010, which begins with a long description of rubbish decaying by a disused railway line, and aims to convey a sense of the pleasure I’d felt in realising that the eyesore was already well on the way to sustaining a temporary (if far from photogenic, or even necessarily desirable) ecosystem:

…and here are cigarette butts,
paper cups,
sheets of newsprint blown to the lea
of a railway arch,
already slippery
as their slopes decay:
their seditious move
against the picturesque
is almost done.
Worms graze,
woodlice tumble like trilobites
from age to age,
pigeon, blackbird,
the odd stray dog or urban fox,
dark bacterium,
black meat-fly,
moss and mould-spore,
all feed here,
where waste ferments,
cold to the touch,
brews its liquor of fertile mulch…

The idea expressed by the woodlouse is identical in both poems so even though I have no memory of the older fragment there is obviously exactly the same sense of continuity, the image of the common grey woodlouse as an echo of other long extinct creatures. In yet another poem, A Recipe For Insanity, dinosaurs were said to have survived as birds. But then, as an earlier post on a childhood obsession with dinosaurs readily admitted, some part of the imagination always remains rooted in its own formative obsessions. I’m not sure how the woodlouse = trilobite equation came about, but there it is, running from one end to the other of what I’ve written so far.

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