I have recently had a poem published in a small press journal, run by the Centre for Alterity Studies, which is a resource for the work of an international network of artists and researchers with interests in non-human otherness encompassing animal, plant and mineral alterity. The brief for this particular edition of the journal was to create pieces using the words of The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, which states that ‘animals are conscious and should be declared as such’.
This project interested me greatly, as I deal with animal consciousness first hand; I know beyond doubt that all creatures think, feel, love, fear and doubt just like we humans do. It seems totally ridiculous to me to ever believe that any of our relations on this planet are any less conscious than us … Even fungi, viruses and bacteria have sophisticated communities, city structures, communication channels, use tools, can heal others and teach their young.
The brief was to take the Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, cut it up and reform the words into a poem. Nothing could be added from elsewhere and every word had to appear exactly as the original, in any order or placement. I loved the idea of this, so I printed out the pages and started to cut. As I was looking at words falling all around me, I noticed the way that they fell; all higgedly-piggedly, randomly, without any purpose whatsoever and I was then reminded of the beauty of a murmuration of starlings, each individual bird flying so precisely and in-sync with each other across the fields before going to roost at night. How could we ever match the skill of those creatures and we are the ones who dare to doubt that they have consciousness?
An idea was born; the poem was constructed.
After many hours, I had the final piece set and ready and I sent it off to Alterity in the hope that it would be selected for publication. It was. Not one word was changed and every single one that appears in the poem can be found in the original document. The result is a thing of beauty; in no way as beautiful as the real sight of thousands of starlings flocking together for their aerial display ~ swooping and swirling like a million insects rising on a hot summer’s evening but as near to beautiful as this clumsy, half-forgetting human could ever hope to achieve.
Poetry has many layers and I hope with this piece, I achieved just that. I cut out words from a document – that to a starling, an orang-utan, a bacterium or a star is completely meaningless – but then like magic, gave those words an animation of sorts; sorting them into a schema that decided itself to fly. To be honest, compared to all the creatures of the world, I am ashamed of myself, of humans, of scholars, even though some of us are moving towards a greater understanding of the subtleties and nuances of animals’ lives. I applaud them through the publication of this poem in Alterity 5.
I also want to applaud the other poets featured in this issue and the editor Richard Skelton who was so generous to allow me to appear alongside them, most of all however, I want to thank the starlings for showing me the way home.