The Protein Songs

This sequence is the core of a longer series of poems on subjects relating to genetics, written in response to a commission from Retina Dance Company in 2006. The Protein Songs was used as the basis for a choreographed section in Eleven Stories For the Body… and later appeared in Poetry Review’s Bread and Roses issue (Volume 96:1, Spring 2006).

The Protein Songs

“In science, as in the rest of life, the paths are paths only in retrospect…in the tree of life itself there seems to be play in the system: what look like swerves and random branches.” 

Jonathan Weiner: Time, Love, Memory (1999)


In the word is a beginning,
a fragmented alphabet,
a dish of peas or bottled flies,
a tray of printer’s metal type,
a John Bull rubber-stamping kit
with half the letters missing
and no full-stops:

agctcgctga, gacttcctgg…

Now a single silver disc
whirrs, unreels
three billion chemical base pairs,
a scroll of letters, a-c-t-g,
expansive as the biosphere,
its flows and anagrams, chants and drones,
unravelling the names of Sumerian gods
in the electronic bowl
of a laptop-drive –

agctcgctga, gacttcctgg …

like an overture.


Here are the song-line’s component notes,
scrawled in the margins
of a petrie dish
where phage is eaten by viruses,
spores proliferate, fruit-flies swarm,
fungi, mould and nematodes
spread through moisture, cultures,
ascending orders and taxonomies;


links the wave of frogs that surges up
from tidal pools
with the storm of locusts, the shoal of fish,
the handful of wheat-seed
with the nest of ants,
the bramble, dragonfly, onion, owl;
joins beetle to blue whale,
lizard to cormorant and spider’s web:
in toads and water
and Phycomyces we trace our names.


There are songs in the darkness,
voices, harmonies, rounds.
There are moon and stars and candlelight
where women in night-gowns
gathered around an open tent
find unison where the warm night air
drifts in from the sea
and twelve voices climb an ascending scale:


The notes – A, G, C-
rearrange like genes in a chromosome
change the shape
of the melody with every breath
to a different song,
the breath itself to random words.
The human voice, singing to and of itself
as it evolved itself to do:



But what evolves? The kora player in next-door’s yard,
tickling rivers from strings and a hollow gourd,
breaks the heart more easily when the dusk sets in
than the multi-tracked choir inside the CD machine.


Still, the heart recovers, cell by cell,
and the heat of the sun, now stored in her naked back,
abandons itself to the stasis and pulse
of cicadas, fire-flies and insect-wings
in the air outside. Grapes hang, molecular, on twisted vines.
Each unripe sphere ascends its stalk
on a programmed course:


We reach our end in breathing,
in protein songs that spill into flesh,
the miniscule shoals of fish
that run their patterns
just below the waves
like code in a laptop, a compound in blood.


What we remember, faintly,
in this deep blue hour
far from beginnings – the world’s, and ours –
is how to open, turn, recall ourselves
up to our ribs in a crystal sea
where shredded ribbons of seaweed
like audiotape
form vast, dark slicks
and the evidence of three billion years
washes in on the tide.


And now the winds return –
the genome’s Torah is chanted plain
as a choir of scholars in a thousand labs worldwide
programme machinery to extract one word
from all creation,
the lines of a ragged, unsettling song:

agctcgctga, gacttcctgg…

What we have been is now written.
What we become remains blank.

(first published in Poetry Review)

That Afternoon

From: The Protein Songs

She sleeps, and into consciousness
swim fish and flatworms, a cloud of moths;
termites building ziggurats, beetles crossing tarmac roads.

She turns, and from the midday heat
comes a fever of lizards with iridescent crests,
a carpet of serpents, a sunlit rain of frogs.

She murmurs, and as her body twists
trilobites scuttle across the coastal shelves,
jellyfish ripple translucently with the flow of the mind.

She stretches, her leg muscles flexing
like the wings of a ray in the turbulence,
prised from sand to pulse and float like breathing gills

on the edge of the shore. When she wakes,
beside her on the floral sheets, is a body, of the species hominid,
picking crumbs from the folds of its clothes

like a chimp with a straw at a termite-nest.
In the window, the windows of another house,
red brick and rain, the aquatic light of TV in a darkened room.

(first published in LeftLion)

Siesta Hour

From: The Protein Songs


A monastery of scientists in the gathering light
peer through tiny windows at the refined machine

of a fruit-fly no bigger than this comma, here,
its multiplicity of precision-tooled parts,

its knowledge, memory, sense of time and love
becoming a world in miniature, not unlike our own.


On a bed, elsewhere, pale bodies entwine,
arm around shoulder, thigh pressed to calf,

ankle to kneecap, wrist circling rib…We sleep,
our body clocks set by DNA, our tangle of joints,

our flesh and sweat, our skins encoded in strings and pairs.
Here are chromosomes, proteins, breath and bone,

the white crystal lattice of drosophila’s eye,
stirring connections with Mendel’s peas,

the handfuls of grass seed that carry downwind
to flourish in hedgerows miles away; the legs

of an insect, weighted with pollen globes,
that touch down, briefly, on her abdomen,

gently dust her sweat with fertile gold. All connects,
the seed to the bird to the fox to the ground.

In this midday heat that unravels all sense,
the mind plays roulette with random words:

… half-blind, vermilion, white & brown,
cinnabar, fruitless, foraging, forked …

The sun pours warmth through empty glass,
casts a glow around limbs, laces shadows through hair,

makes star-fields of dust and blown dandelion seed,
conjures rainbows from bottles and whitewashed walls.


Light gleams on the snow of spores and seeds
that drift in brightness, seeking open flowers.

There’s a song in the leaves of the poplar trees
as they turn and shimmer, as the earth revolves

and their roots adjust. I clench my toes in my sandals
when they slip as I walk, see shadows shrinking

as the sun ascends. The hedgerow roses and geraniums
gape and wilt in the heat, flushed with colour,

pheromones, pollens, scents. All will melt in siesta hour
to soft, moist flesh and flows of blood, to thirst,

the thought that connects a look to a touch,
a cellular yearning that floods the brain

with the body, air with salt water, fire and earth.
The vulva and labia in their nest of hair

might be a fruit-fly’s mandible, an oyster’s tongue,
a gill or orchid or opened ripening fruit

for this toadstool, sea slug, broken dandelion stalk
leaking milk-white fluid that I bear in my hand.

(first published in Brittle Star)


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