Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight, Sarah Watkinson
Cinnamon Press, 2016 £4.99
‘Getting the Bones Right’ in Dung Beetles Navigate by Starlight
There’s an old trick for writing sonnets. You set out the syllables in a grid. It makes them easier to count. Sarah Watkinson’s poem Getting the Bones Right suggests that the eminent botanist, turned poet, knows the trick. She gives us 140 syllables plotted in their grid, telling the enchanting – if potentially ghoulish – tale of a road-kill collector who re-assembles nature’s perfection from the shattered bones he finds.
She adds a trick of her own: each line of the sonnet contains extra syllables because Watkinson counts off the line numbers from one to fourteen in the caesuras. These numbers – written as words – are set in bold and form a spine supporting the delicate bones of the syllables, which are stripped of their connective tissue.
In a debut pamphlet notable for imaginative typesetting this example catches the eye for its simplicity, its elegant alignment of form and content, and its unflinching rigour. We might properly expect the scientist to show her workings, but it’s the poet who dares to take the trick as far as this:
thirteen ’sa symm et tric al
This is emphatically not a faddish fiddling with the sonnet form, rather a precisely mounted laboratory specimen.
Sarah Watkinson writes with understated, even donnish, humour. Her huge pleasure in words and their elastic possibilities shines in the virtuosity that weaves the numbers into the story, to take this death and dryness and ‘make it life like’.
I'm not going to spoil the ending. The volta is a triumphant resolution of form and content. I defy you not to smile when you read it.