Basically, I spend a LOT of time watching nature documentaries. I have adored them since I was a bookish and unloveable child, squinting at the screen on a Sunday night whilst lions mated with ferocious intent. When it all got really bad at school, I’d bunk off to watch really old ones in the daytime too. Even the unglamorous 1970s ones about the breeding habits of marsh pipers.

This has left me with a ridiculous talent for that 20-questions-animal-guessing-game thing. The one kids play on car journeys. The one where you ask questions like, “Is it a bivalve?” The one where you try to trick your partner with odd choices (mammals that lay eggs, birds that can’t fly, fish that can…), or resort to mythical chimeras just to win. I am a demon at that game.

My anthropologist housemate teases me, as does my biker ex-boyfriend, about anthropomorphisation and the manipulation of narratives by documentary filmmakers pushing their agenda. Blah blah blah, say I. Where’s your imagination? We always made up stories about animals as though they were people. My very favourite nature documentaries are made by David Attenborough, with his beautiful voice and calm demeanour, who seems to feel affection and wonder even for flies and maggots.

However, this poem was inspired by the underwater shots in Werner Herzog’s fantastically weird documentary, “Encounters at the End of the World” and a vivid dream I had about diving down into the undersea trenches to find someone and save him.


a song of ascents, a terrible shard

“Sampling via deep trawling indicates that lanternfish account for as much as 65% of all deep sea fish biomass. Indeed, lanternfish are among the most widely distributed, populous, and diverse of all vertebrates, playing an important ecological role as prey for larger organisms. With an estimated global biomass of 550 – 660 million metric tonnes, several times the entire world fisheries catch, lanternfish also account for much of the biomass responsible for the deep scattering layer of the world’s oceans.” (wikipedia)

“What Beebe saw on that trip—and reported with such vividness—was a glowing world of creatures so astonishing that for decades many doubted his veracity. The clear sea stretched endlessly, and was so full of luminescence that it sparkled like the night sky. Cavalcades of black shrimps, transparent eels, and bizarre fish approached the descending sphere, and when Beebe used his spotlight to see them, great shadows and shifting patches of light hovered just out of view, leading him to postulate the existence of giants in the Bermudan depths. And below the bathysphere? There, said Beebe, lay a world that “looked like the black pit-mouth of hell itself.” (wikipedia)

When I was seven, I wanted to live in a bathysphere. – Smog

some years ago i ate mandrake roots

and i slept in the beds of wildmen

and wandered over cities, and

i sank to the depths,

of the abyssalpelagic plains

of the hadalpelagic trenches,

as many as 6000 lanternfish there.

hauling my bathysphere down

in a cloud of harps and shadow,

against walls of rain.

oh chordata! deep sea strata!

fata morgana!

Tether my submersible

with ropes of


nemertean worms.

we were shoaling from the pinnipeds

in milky iridescent seas

low and lower,

love and  lovers, flowers and plovers

dissolve in the pressured

blind amnesia.


in the drifting marine snow.

but reaching into it

all the books the fish have written

are read de profundis

by the voice of one psalmist.

into which radiates all the knowledge we have lost

and climacteric progressions fall away

voices illume the cathedral of neon flutes

and steam

and worms.

diel vertical migrations

daily rise and daily fall,

photic zone to heav’ns above us

lift your voices, pilgrims,

for their shifting silver shatter

fools the sonar.

what the sailors thought the bottom was really just

five million metric tonnes of little fish.

the deep scattering layer.


cod and chips.

flock, cluster

lustrous army

sea angels

ascend and drop

in spring blooms

or in dark



If on your chest one wave of mine would break

(you remember, and for trains, for trains did take)

You’d wake!

(By the way, this is another of my favourite parts of “Encounters at the End of the World”, in which Werner narrates the fate of a suicidal penguin in frosty Germanic tones. I always want to laugh, but immediately feel guilty, as though I had got the giggles at a funeral. Poor old penguin.)