Friday, September 14, 2012

Poetry In Larvae: The Love Songs of Walter Garstang

by Stephen J. Gertz

After dinner and drinks you've charmed your prospective lover to come up to your place for "a cup of coffee."

You dim the lights, ignite the fireplace, cue Miles Davis' Kind of Blue. The two of you settle down in front of the fire.  You make your move and open a volume of verse you keep nearby for such occasions and begin to read aloud.

The Veliger's a lively tar, the liveliest afloat,
A whirling wheel on either side propels his little boat;
But when the danger signal warns his bustling submarine,
He stops the engine, shuts the port, and drops below unseen.

Thus begins The Ballad of the Veliger or How the Gastropod Got Its Twist by Walter Garstang, and if you've invested your recitation with the seductive baritone verve of Barry White you'll be able to drop below unseen, work your bustling submarine,  get your gastropod's groove back, and win your heart's desire.

Perhaps her swoon was underwhelming. Double-down with this kinky paean to Eros:

Oikopleura, masquerading as larval Ascidian,

Spins a jelly-bubble-house about its meridian:

His tail, doubled under, creates a good draught,

that drives water forward and sucks it in aft.

If that ode to  Oikopleura doesn't warm her she's an invaginate gastrula, will flee like a gazelle chased by cheetah, and you'll sleep alone.

One of the more unusual volumes in the annals of poetry, Larval Forms by Walter Garstang (1868-1949), is a collection posthumously published in 1951 that includes these salutes to marine invertebrates:

• The Amphiblastula and the Origin of Sponges
• The Invaginate Gastrula and the Planula
• The Origin of Cnidoblasts and Cnidozoa
• Conaria and Co.
• Mülleria and the Ctenophore
• The Onchosphere
• The Trochophores
• Mitraria's Fan Dance
• The Ballad of the Veliger, or How the Gastropod got its Twist
• Echinospira's Double Shell
• The Nauplius and the Protaspis
• Kentrogon
• Isopod Phylogeny
• The Millipede's Egg-tooth
• Actinotrocha
• Cyphonautes
• Echinoderm Larvae and the Origin of Quinqueradial Symmetry
• The Pentacrinule
• Tornaria's Water-Works
• Oikopleura, Jelly-builder
• The Ancestry of Vertebrates
• Leptocephalus brevirostris, the Larva of the Eel
• The Axolotl and the Ammocoete
• An Oceanographer's Dream
• To a Herring Gull

The poems cleverly limn the form, function and development of various larval invertebrates as well as illustrate some of the contemporary controversies in evolutionary biology.  The Ballad of the Veliger is Garstang's most well-known poem, originally privately published in a small edition in 1928 and distributed to fellow members of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom.

Walter Garstang.

 During his career "Garstang made fundamental contributions to biological theory...and for more than half a century was one of the outstanding personalities of British zoology" (Obituary, Journal of the Marine Biological Assoc. of the U.K., Vol 29, No. 3, 1951).

To a Herring Gull originally appeared in the Oxford Magazine, February 6, 1920. It is clearly not about a marine invertebrate; marine birds were another interest of Garstang's. It is not to be confused with To a Schmaltz Herring, Chaim Yonkel's ode to Clupeidae filleted and preserved in brine and brown sugar and rendered in chicken or goose fat; the Jewish food with magical aphrodisiac powers typically employed when The Ballad of the Veliger fails to inspire oomph when the Sabbath ends on Saturday night and foreplay begins.

Tornaria's Water-Works is, as you've likely guessed, Garstang's retelling of the myth of Niobe from the perspective of a marine invertebrate that eventually metamorphoses into a worm. Read it and weep.

GARSTANG, Walter. Larval Forms, with Other Zoological Verses. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1951. First edition. Octavo. 85 pp. Illustrated. 

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