Like a pearl or a bee…

I have spent my morning rereading the novel I wrote for the Three Day Novel competition. It’s not as painful as I thought it would be. Here’s a bit I like:

Across town the light from her window would be shining on the mountain. They had unpacked her belongings together. She had all sorts of things she had found on the cliffs, little objects, smooth polished fragments of glass and shells. She chose her favourite ones and they put them by her bed. Harry knew she had Mickey Mouse pyjamas and a red toothbrush. She used Nivea face cream.

It was strange, how it had happened. He thought he understood why people call it falling in love. That hysterical lurch he felt in his stomach, that was just like the feeling you get when you’re falling. The flailing attempts to right himself, to stand on his two feet, the desperate attempts to clutch at a rock, a hand. And there had been no warning, no opportunity to try and work out a strategy, perhaps rig up a flying machine. If she was falling too, maybe they would both reach out their arms and cling together, like two parachutists, and then they would fall together.

He’d never been in love before. His parents were happy, but. But everything else. When people really fell in love, he thought, they just disappeared. Like two halves of an oyster,  or the petals of a flower, they closed up, and something they shared vanished, like a pearl or a bee only they could see, that grew in secret inside them. Afterwards they would walk and talk just like other people, but they wouldn’t really be there. They fell inside an opaque liquid: love, syrupy and viscous, that protected them like amniotic fluid.

He felt see-through, looking at himself in the mirror. He passed his hand in front of his eyes.

And how did these things end? Maybe, if it all worked out, the two people who were falling together would pass through, somewhere, into another world, like falling through the ocean. To the kingdom of love. Then they would live, submerged, forever.


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.)