Thursday, 5 October 2017

What Says the Millipede?



As I limber up for the re-publication of my collection Little Creatures: Poetry of Insects, Small Mammals and Micro-organisms, I find myself thinking of the many animals which missed boarding this particular Ark, whose lives go un-remarked on in this particular zoological conglomeration.  My afterword, on the book's back cover, acknowledges:

...It has not been my intention to document all such life ... Thus, this collection marks only a beginning.

One of the creatures who slipped through my poetic net is the millipede. When writing poetry of animals, unless the poem is intended to be humorous, surreal, for children or to be taken as anything other than a realistic depiction of the creature, I prefer to wait until I have actually laid eyes on that animal, and as I had never seen a millipede by 2013, they remained, unlike their close relatives the centipedes, largely absent from my writing.  In recent years this invisibility has been rectified!  Yet, having seen the elusive creatures - which first appeared in the Silurian Period nearly five hundred million years ago -  the poetry I have composed in their honour has tended to be anything but realistically descriptive. Instead, I am drawn to daydream-like reflections on these unusual beings, as millipede memories crawl through my mind in slow, interweaving trickles:
MILLIPEDES OF THE MIND

A liquorice empire,
ringleted re-jiggings of real-life sightings,
now screwdrivering their sleet-soft bodies
through the nooks and crannies of the mind,
slick as quicksilver and shimmering
as shiny slime.

A times, they have even scurried into my dreams:

 DREAMING OF MILLIPEDES

Like border-seeping oil-slicks,
they spool,
striped galaxies,
a living,
twisting,
jungle of slivery silver,
viperish, leech-like,
slim slugs,
slender devils sliding
like poisoned quills
leaking streaks of indigo ink
across the blackboard of the mind.



And at other times, I have contemplated what might become of this planet if it were taken over by millipedes, if its geography and climate were contorted by a seasonal swivel into a millipedal element, even if only for a flicker of time:

 MILLIPEDE SEASON

A time of long dark days
and darker days,
where every body feels softened,
every mouth hungers for detritus,
dead leaves and delicacies of decay;
every foot feels the urge to scamper,
every waist the urge to twist
and curl in grooving spirals,
every soul the wish to be divided
into distinct sections,
and every eye sees the world in stripes.



I confess to a slight surprise on finding that I seem to be almost the only poet who has written about millipedes.  Surely others have been inspired by these many-limbed detritivores, of which we have a whole twelve thousand species to choose from!  Apparently not.  At least, this was my conclusion until I discovered the work of Cameroonian poet Simon Mpondo, in particular his wonderful 1975 poem The Season of the Rains - oddly similar in its season-denoting nature to my first offering on the millipede.  Needless to say, the animals play an integral part in the poem.  

The season of the rains
signs its name in a thousand fashions.
Those who want to read omens there
will find their signs
in the flowering beard of the maize
and in the black and red rings of the millipede. 

Perhaps a poetic prerequisite for writing about these burrowing, cylindrical Silurians, is that one must be called Simon?





I have been thinking much about Mpondo's poem of late, given the heavy rains we have encountered in the Valley.  Here, in this altitudinous enclave of West Yorkshire, where our precipitous hill are tinseled by an endless weave of streams, where our landscape is cleft by the broad flowing current of the Calder, where directly below y own window runs the sleek blue blade of the canal, winding through the Valley like a silver millipede, water is everywhere, and rains are regular - I write this on a rare afternoon when the day has yet been dry, though even now at midday the pavements still glisten with the residue of last night's stormy downpour.



Indeed, it might be said that in the Calder Valley, the whole year is a kind of "Season of the Rains."  But the heavy showers of late summer and early autumn are especially torrential, which is perhaps why I have been thinking of Mpondo's poem so much.   Drawing on themes as varied as African agriculture, legend, and the struggle for survival, he delivers a kind of microcosmic evocation of the rainfall's impact, while comprehensively rebutting suggestions of folkloric significance - managing to skillfully meld a modern skepticism with beautifully delineated myth.

Does the swallow's departure for the Margui-Wandala
announce many storms and floods along the Wouri?
Has the spider woven its web,
stored up insects and the sun's warmth
to vanquish a cold season of a thousand days?

What says the black millipede?
What says the red millipede?
They say what the omens say.
Yes or No, or even Perhaps.
But they tell mainly what happened in the dry season
and not what the rains will bring forth.
Plenty of labour in the dry days
translates itself as maize in the wet
and in food for millipede's colour























Born in 1955, in Cameroon's largest city,  Douala, the poet was a sometime lecturer at that city's Libermann College, published widely in magazines and co-edited several anthologies of African writing.

 

 As a son of Douala, he would have been well used to the country's "season of the rains," as the city is known for being the wettest in the whole of Cameroon. It seems that we have more in common, then, than our first names and a penchant for millipedes!


Although enjoying its poetry, its music - Bebe manga and Ggrace Decca among my favourites - and, of course, its football, I have never had the chance to visit Cameroon, but I remember when I first saw the country on the map one childhood Christmas, courtesy of an atlas that I still possess, and the great excitement of the country's unexpected surge to success in the 1990 World Cup, beginning with a shock victory over champions Argentina, and culminating in a famous evening in June 1990, when I watched with family and friends the dramatic Quarter Final between England and Cameroon - the latter sealing their place as second favourites in my own heart to the former from that night on.  The following day at school, we were charged with writing reports of the game, with the Cameroonian player's surnames providing much fascination for our almost entirely English class.  Kunde, Nkono, Ebwelle, Makinacky - the heroic superstar Roger Milla ... names and faces indelibly printed on my psyche ever since.  Indeed, I suspect for many of my generation, that emotional night in 1990 was the first they had heard of Cameroon, a country whose English name dates back to the Fourteenth Century, when Portugueese explorers, noting the profusion of shrimp in its rivers, named it Rio dos Camarões (Shrimp River), is bordered by many lands to the East, North and South, and the Atlantic Ocean to its West.


Climatically, Cameroon alternate between two seasons - the Dry and the Rainy.   The latter, pondo's "Season of the Rains," generally lasts from April to October, and as such must now be drawing to its close.  But Simon Mpondo's poem is perennially relevant, reminding us on dry days of the power of the rain, and reflecting on the many questions of survival and the struggles of life that are emblemized by its presence, or lack of presence, on the landscape and life of Africa.

THE SEASON OF THE RAINS (Trans. Mpondo)


The season of the rains
signs its name in a thousand fashions.
Those who want to read omens there
will find their signs
in the flowering beard of the maize
and in the black and red rings of the millipede. 

Does the swallow's departure for the Margui-Wandala
announce many storms and floods along the Wouri?
Has the spider woven its web,
stored up insects and the sun's warmth
to vanquish a cold season of a thousand days?
Does the plucked chicken speak of hard, or easy times?

What says the black millipede?
What says the red millipede?
They say what the omens say.
Yes or No, or even Perhaps.
But they tell mainly what happened in the dry season
and not what the rains will bring forth.
Plenty of labour in the dry days
translates itself as maize in the wet
and in food for millipede's colour,
and the largeness of its rings
which the sorcerer measures in his secret hut 
owe nothing to the season.
Those colours will always vary.
Some rings will always be huge
and some narrow.

Let each make of it what you will .
The signs of the rainy season
say exactly what everyone wants to hear.
Surely there will be plenty of water,
plenty of swamps and mud.
This is the message we read
in the season of the rains.


















No comments:

Post a Comment