The Evolution of a Poem
On a visit to the Natural History Museum Abi came across this amazing video of Alice Shirley, an artist creating a life-size painting of Archie, the giant squid, using the medium of squid ink. She was captivated, both by the incredible preserved specimen of the squid itself, and by Alice’s talent.
She contacted Alice through Jon Ablett, the curator, hoping to write a poem about her and about this wonderful creature. Alice was warm and friendly and went out of her way to help Abi with her project, as did Jon. Abi got to see Archie in the Darwin Centre, along with all manner of other pickled creatures. She spent a lot of time researching the squid; its biological, historical and literary origins. The resulting poem was published in her second collection, The Glass Delusion
She clutches a tub of fresh squid ink
from Brixton fisheries.
They let her through the airlock
into the tang of formalin.
Halogen replaces sunlight.
She spreads a ream of paper
as an explorer spreads her map.
She’ll stay eight days surrounded
by the spoils of Darwin’s Beagle,
a library of creatures
preserved in amber green,
their faces pressed against the glass.
3D liquid photographs.
A dolphin foetus with a secretive half smile;
Iguana: curled around the windows
of its iridescent scales;
soft boiled hooves and clunky grin.
A potted auditorium
in the pickled stillness.
But she’s here for Archie, in the centre tank.
Fallen god, laid out:
a toppled totem in the green.
A small car’s length, her edges curled
as if washed up, discovered
on a cloud white beach.
This carcass she will duplicate
and quicken with a willow wand
dipped in briny ink. A skein of squid.
The deflated body hides the hubcap eyes,
Imagine: as she died her tentacles
uncoiled a conjuror’s gesture.
Now reclining dreamless
sealed in a sample of the other world,
she pulses through the artist’s sleep,
pulling the sea right through her,
reeling out parts of herself. The coalescing
of ink touched by water.
A burst of the inexplicable,
twizzling within an ordinary thought.
On the last drawing day,
a catch of fear as willow touches paper.
an image of a parachute
collapsing in the blackest water.
The colour seeps from the artist’s skin
and renders the material of Archie’s flesh.
She adds touches to the suckers,
the shadows of their tiny teeth.
She can almost feel the body
through the glass, supple and resistant,
almost see it breathe as she leaves the room,
paper rolled under her arm
to be unravelled in the daylight.
(The Glass Delusion, Salt, 2012)
After writing the poem, something amazing happened. The giant squid was filmed in its natural habitat for the first time