REVIEW by Ros Hudis

NWR Issue r17

Guests of Time: Poetry from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

by John Holmes (ed.)

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is known as one of the finest examples of Pre-Raphaelite art. Built in 1855 to provide the university's first dedicated science faculty, it housed collections, laboratories and teaching facilities under one roof. But it was intended to go beyond the merely pragmatic. The building itself was designed to exemplify natural history visually and conceptually. For this purpose, the museum's founder, Dr Henry Acland, engineered a remarkable collaboration between scientists, and artists/artisans associated with the Pre-Raphaelite movement – chosen for their espousal of exact renditions of nature. . Several of those who acted as consultants, or worked on the building, were also poets, including Dante Gabrielle Rosetti, Elizabeth Siddal and the sculptor John Lucas Tupper, who wrote a companion poem to his statue of Linnaeus that stands in the main court. Thus, from the start, a literary link was established with the museum. Equally, the mid nineteenth centuary fervour for natural history, and Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics, informed and inspired writing by other poets associated with Oxford at the time, including Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Both this historic thread of collaboration, and an ongoing literary connection, were impetus for the museums's 2016 project during which it hosted three poets in residence, Kelly Swain, from London, Steven Matthews, resident in Oxford, and Ceredigion's John Barnie. Eight pieces by each poet are included in the resulting anthology Guests of Time. ( Valley Press. 2016. ) intermingled with poems by some of the 19th century authors described,. The title itself is taken from a sonnet by John Addington Symmonds, The Old Gordian Knot.
The anthology is appropriately aesthetic in presentation. Glossy paper, smooth texture, evocatively lit photographs of architectural details, or specimens, that complement the poems, an earthy, understated colour palate in bothe text and graphics. And there are other layers of pleasure to be had. The anthology's three contemporary poets lead you through engaging, precise and provocative responses to the museums's archiecture, varied contents, time zones, and associated specialists – much like the experience of wandering through the physical building. We move from Barnie's gateway poem that evokes the 'Grand Concourse' through Matthew's homage to the O'Shea brothers who carved the pillars, to reflections on particular scientists, specimens or species, like Swain's 'Argonauta,' and on living creatures displayed in the museum. Barnie memorably rehabilitates the feel-appeal of cockroaches in Cockroaches on my Mind' :

'.. ….......the cockcroaches who prick;e the skin
with a delicate stipple of multiple feet, antennae
feelingly trying to tell where they are...................'

Viscerally rendered observation characterise pieces by all three poets, but there is also the pleasure of their differing voices interposed and contrasted, in museumly manner. We can enjoy Matthew's use of visual shape allied with philosophical or historic comment – as in the rolling weight of Corsi Marbles. We can enjoy Swain's combinations of economy, quizzicality, and depth charge enquiry – as in Lyme, where she asks 'What if the real gods/ are the deer ticks/ not the deer ? ' And we can enjoy Barnie's playful if sombre repartee, and reflections on time, as in Lets Do It which picks apart fantasies of reviving the dodo. Interspersed poems of the nineteenth century provide a sense of the artistic scientific/ context, and former debates, that animate the museum, and acts as both a foil and a pathway to the twenty-first century view. These include such treasures as May Kendall's the Lay of the Tribolite which satirically, if obliquely, takes issue with social Darwinism's estimation of women.
For all its eclectic pleasures, Guests of Time is far more than coffee-table material. It is exactingly comprehensive, and the over-all message is sobering. The museum has its roots in
the melting pot of debate that followed the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. But the nineteenth century poets in Guests of Time largely express an at-homeness in the alliance of science and nature. The natural world is evoked as secularised-Edenic, where knowledge, and self-knowedge, are untainted by lapsarian shadows. In The Garden, Walter Deverell celebrates Newton:

Look down upon the walks - a shady screen
Of languid coolness: emerald and bright.....
It might be thus that Isaac Newton paced,
Ans saw the apple drop upon the mould.....

With Barnie, Swain and Matthews, however, there is a prevailing awareness of the ways man has damaged natural ecologies. They suggest that now more than ever there is need to learn from the past. Matthew, in The Spirit Room, appeals for a reconnection to the ' unhampered truths/ of lostness and purpose..' Museums, like poems, are partly repositries of just these 'unhampered truths' – eclectic, mournful and celebratory in one. Thus Swain, in her concluding poem, Oxford :

If hope is a thing,
it is a thousand languages,
a thousand
libraries, chapels, collections


previous review: This is Not a Rescue
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