Guests of Time: Poetry from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History – Review
By Joe Forshaw
This very aptly named book of poetry is a reflection of the pre-Raphaelite origins of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The museum foundations were laid in 1855 which was shortly after the formation of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848.
The concept of the museum as described in the Introduction was to ‘bring together Gothic architecture and modern materials to reveal nature to be at once God’s creation and a resource for industrial progress’. To assist in the realisation of these aims Pre-Raphaelite artists and sculptors where brought on board to assist with the design. The museum now holds an internationally significant collection of geological and zoological specimens housed in a stunning example of neo-gothic architecture.
In 2016 the museum hosted three poets-in-residence; John Barnie, Stacy Matthews and Kelly Swain. This anthology of poetry, which includes poetry from writers linked with the early days of the museum, is a product of the time ‘in residence’ of these three renowned poets.
For those who spend their time patiently chipping away at rock formations with delicacy and admirable patience this collection might add to their rewards by identifying the poetic as well as the geological nature of their toils. For those with a purely poetic bent the book is a fascinating read as it demonstrates that poetry has no limit to its application and has the ability to bring beauty and sentiment to all and any subjects.
Kelly Swain, who specialises in the crossroads of poetry and science, offers a delightfully gruesome piece on Daphne, The Orchid Mantis, quote ‘she eats the cricket alive starting with its head’.
Steve Matthews, a poet and critic, presents a poem written in the circular form of an Ammonite, spiralling out from the centre. Neck-achingly difficult to read, the denouement states ‘my uniqueness shaped and brailed, my place identified and my home discovered’.
A piece by Gerard Manley Hopkins is included covering the ornate columns titled Boughs being pruned and contains the line ‘Enriched posts are chamfer’d; everywhere’.
May Kendal, born 1861, gives us a beautiful and succinct poem titled ‘The lay of the Trilobite’ ending with the words:
‘For oh it was a happy plight
Of liberty and ease,
To be a simple Trilobite
In the Silurian seas!
The anthology is interesting, surprising and a delight to read. At once educational and poetic, Guests of Time is a delightful mixture of the old and the new.
‘Guests of Time’ is edited by John Holmes, with photographs by Scott Billings, published by Valley Press, £24.99, ISBN: 9781908853806