This post lays down my thoughts on the development of my first poetry collection. It explores the objectification of once living creatures through two characters. Both characters are imaginative creations with some basis in fact. The main character is based on fossilised bones, the second on the man who dug them up. Lucy is the nickname given to these bones. Donald Johanson, her discoverer, built his career around her re-constructed personhood and further discoveries he made. In 1977, Johanson assigned her a new species, Australopithecus afarensis, in honour of the eponymous Sunni Muslim people of the Afar region of Ethiopia. It’s clear from his writing that Johanson had great affection for the people living in an arid, politically and economically unstable country. In the period after Lucy’s discovery, a violent dictatorship ruled Ethiopia. This made fossil-searching dangerous and sometimes impossible.
My interest in paleoanthropology grew from childhood exposure to fossils by my stepfather, a mining engineer, who took me on fossil collecting trips to Whitby on the Yorkshire Coast in England.
I also have a fascination with fossilised skulls as artefacts, a source for my drawing and printmaking and an interest in them as beautiful objects which I choose to celebrate in a richness of line, colour, tone, and texture. Lucy, I hope, would share this sapient enjoyment of the aesthetic for its own sake. Without forgetting that this visual distillation can be a part of an othering process which contributes an uneasy edge to some poems.
One source of my visual fascination is a gorgeous coffee-table book co-authored by Johanson called From Lucy to Language. This book labels and categorises the fossilised remains of distant ancestors. Its attraction to me is its carefully lit photography. These images of astonishing ivory shaded perfections, shards of long dead individuals, captivated the artist within me. This visual enjoyment casts a dark shadow, for death turns us all into objects to be valued in the letting go. My uneasiness intensified as I browsed the glossy photos of skulls, seeing many with category numbers scrawled on forehead or cheekbone. The value of these objects changes in a cataloguing that makes me queasy. Out of this discomfort comes the sassy personality of the Lucy in these poems. She quarrels with labelling. She is a counterpoint to the understandable scientific lust for collecting data; the need for information structured into this illustrated ‘database’ of our ancestry, showcasing these fascinating ivory-stained relics as species representatives finding their ultimate resting place as branches on the family tree of our Homo Sapiens exceptionalism. She is an argument for extending her a form humanity on her terms. Lucy was/is a living being.
I also express in the poems an interest with deep time. I am accustomed to thinking about the fate of our species on a geological and cosmic scale. This results from innumerable readings of Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Man when I was an adolescent. Themes expressed in the sequence reflect that interest. My feelings that within the next few thousand years we may have to find the strength to accept our ultimate extinction, perhaps sooner and because of the last 300 years of capitalist-driven growth. If some descendent accepts that fate with grace, I imagine them leaving behind, carved in stone, a distillation of our mistakes, in mathematical and poetic symbols a post human future has a chance of interpreting. Though whatever species follow us may develop a more balanced mentality, is my fervent hope.
I am fascinated by debates about storing nuclear waste and leaving a warning message projected thousands of years into the future as planned for a facility in New Mexico, or burying it in deep stable rock and allowing its location to be forgotten. Homo sapiens struggling to be a responsible ancestor. There is a very forbidding description of the latter facility in Finland in Robert MacFarlane’s book Underland: A Deep Time Journey. I see Lucy as her own messenger from the depths of time, who wishes to be forgotten.
I base some incidents in the poem sequence on events described in a book called Lucy’s Legacy, which Johanson co-authored with Katie Wong, a columnist with Scientific American. I interpret and embellish these events with views and comments that do not always reflect Johanson’s. The creative interpretation of the facts of Lucy’s discovery and the subsequent fate of her remains are my own.
This sequence of poems ends with a tribute to Maeve Leakey, from a family of paleoanthropologists, who had some disagreements with Lucy’s discoverer. Maeve shows a respectful but analytical approach to her profession in her book The Sediments of Time. This shows a deep respect for Lucy and her kin in a way which I hope Lucy herself would approve of.Read more