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Selections from Elusive Beasts, A Life-in-Poems of Proto-Paleontologist Mary Anning



A note on the poems:  This selection comes from Elusive Beasts, a life-in-poems of proto-

paleontologist Mary Anning (1799-1847) of Lyme Regis, England.  Chronically impoverished, Anning persisted in digging up and selling fossils to the wealthy collectors, academics, and 

tourists who visited the shop she ran with her mother, Molly Anning.  In 2022, a statue of 

Anning and her dog, Tray, was erected in Lyme Regis, a belated honor to one of England’s most significant self-taught scientists. 

Miss Philpot, You Ask Did I Wish Once 

for daughters?  Not for me, a coddled, blood-tied brood.  But this: sisters a-chime   

in chisel-song.  Girls gathered  

in the coven of diggers, gossip-givers, scattered school   

of letter-writers.  Picture such women as are we – long threads loosed  

from the same bright spool.  Let my ladies be no ladies.  

Rather:  outrageous outcrop  

of female curiosity.  Strange animals in glorious league:  skirt-clad, 

boot-heeled tribe.  Adepts in pick-axe audacity! 

Witness this, our legion: shovel-wed rucksack rebels.  With fists  

we strike our adamant claim.   

O, consider us keepers of age and auger, maidens who wield   

the musical hammer, chip chert, and offer counsel  

in the urgent cause of rock! How fortunate we found  

ourselves, for fully-formed we sprang  

from the sorority of stone:  fossilist-females.  Our courage all our own!    

By Lamplight Miss Anning Answers Her Curious Mother 

An accurate and rigorous knowledge of zoology is requisite in anyone who ventures on the 

subject; a superficial acquaintance with it can only lead into confusion and error. 

  -- Mary Anning 


Mum, when I lift back the skin-shroud, take up the slime of organs,  

I search.   


Not for the secret to turn from my appointed mortality, nor for an elixir to tighten  

my frame into the form of a man and his muscle. 


It's the common life and its mechanisms I seek.  How the living creature can persist  

without motor, without the engine of a sun  


burning energy in its dark parts.  Within the walled animal, blood churns through vessel  

and chamber.  Thoughts scamper atop  


one another in the vast, convoluted rafters of the mind.  What soft parts might be guessed at, 

might have been tangled once, in the frames  


of my rock-bound children, in the mineralized skeletons that writhe and cinch in their stasis?   

I find reason for compassion in the stink  


of glossy innards, the festering ruin of these newly-dead.  I am not God Who made them, Who roused them into breath.  Nor can I  


resurrect them.  I expect to sink into soupy stench myself one day, past knowing, beyond  

the muscular struggle of the brain to hoist  


thoughts on cells.  When I picture how fin compelled flesh through water or wing lifted torso  

to air, I restore  


some lost, dear ransom got by Time.  With chert-scarred hands I trace my way across the fossil  layers.  Free each bone and story together.  And see:  they live again, in me.   

The Ammonite Recalls a Minor Landslip 

[T]he death of my old faithful dog quite upset me, the Cliff fell upon him and killed him in a moment before my eyes, and close to my feet, it was but a moment between me and the same fate. 


                        -- Mary Anning, letter to Charlotte Murchison, 11 October 1833  


                            Just a lowly creature stuck in stone, a discus crowded 

                            with my kind.  Parched by the eons, our ocean gone.            A

tremor troubled me and my kin.  The tool the woman 

                                         Anning used banged against the rock.  All round 


                            our matrix groaned as the wave barged in:  a shift greater than the one wrought

                                         by Anning's arm.  From her throat she reared a terrible roar, then rose

                            another creature's whine.  The ground grunted, rolled shoulders, but gave

                            no fight.  A quiet hunkered close and the gravel-spatter stopped.   


                            Her wails clambered up that space.  Jagged rasp of "Tray!" 

                            Against the clay her hands scrabbled till the men's calls

                neared, and the ground's silence told she was carried off.  Yet a mind

                            tarried.  Some fresh and curious spirit searched the chalk.   


                            Of its substance we knew not.  An energy panted, rushed our huddle

                                         as though it could not brake.  But then a great outgush of breath, a sigh. 

                            The circle of sediment unsettled in its wake.   A gust like something solid dropped

                            into our bed.  And we understood:  this new animal joined in our rest. 

Miss Anning, On Her Reticence 

Door to door, I carry my satchel, dispense dedoctions, infusions, what I can 

to the villagers.  Little is there to share.  Mum's and my hunger hold  

first claim.  Wild eye of the fossil fish – or whatever creature he be – holds all other.   


When through that crazed socket God glances, I look back.  I do not shrink  

from His gaze.  Nor do I suspend myself from His cross, but hang  

from the cliff's arms alone.  My canniest monster.  Triangular face of a tortured merman   


struck speechless by stone.  Tethered.  I gather close my own silence:  bonnet I lace tight.  Tied  

bow that keeps my words safe from the cravatted gentlemen who seek  bones and secrets

from my store, my shore.  No more shall they take  


the kindred I've unearthed, my fantastic fish from their life in the mineral  

sea.  Cast in sand, cast in silence.  Hard, sharp jaws locked in rock. Off  

men carried my plesio-babies, my dragon-darlings, to sell for a ransom in the city.  Published  


their findings as if they found them.  No longer.  Should I grow old, I will keep   

what stones I can.  Too many of them gone.  The gentleman-scholar roams  

our cliffside:  peculiar hat-topped locust.  No more will I feed such pestilence. 

Her Eye Upon the Hours, Miss Anning Hears Her Late Dog Sing a Hymn to Laudanum 

                A veil, a curtain, a wavering sheet,  

                              a phosphorous drape, a scintillant sleeve  

                                           of motes and must, of objects and those whom they arrest

                behind  their cover, such covert drape  

                              of light across the senses spread  

                                           to sieve the sighs that cannot cease, the pinch  

                of a sound shaped like a shell  

                              coils in her cochlea.  An eavesdropped prayer, a bell  

                              rung once in the throat of her terrier.  Garlands of notes   ride the

                palate's rafters and round 

                              the ooooout-arch of the singing dog's  

                                                                                                mouth.  Hollowed, they sound 

                                                        the walls of the phial.  His canine calls  

                                           contract to lozenges 

                              swallowed by words that swell   

            no song, each silent octave  

          swirls:  cupped in the lantern's oil, each lead-lidded note roils. 

Note: Anning lived with breast cancer for the last three years of her life.  Laudanum was one of the few palliatives available to the dying during this period.

MAGPIE MILLER writes about the history of women and their work as healers, midwives, scientists, farmers, and artists.

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