Curiosities of Biological Nomenclature
Mark Isaak
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Misc.: Poetry

I have not sought out poetry about the science of taxonomy, but I have found one poem by Nabokov, a song by John Hinton, and written another poem myself.

    On Discovering a Butterfly
    by Vladimir Nabokov, 1943

I found it in a legendary land
all rocks and lavender and tufted grass,
where it was settled on some sodden sand
hard by the torrent of a mountain pass.

The features it combines mark it as new
to science -- shape and shade, the special tinge,
akin to moonlight, tempering its blue,
the dingy underside, the checkered fringe.

My needles have teased out its sculptured sex;
corroded tissues could no longer hide
that priceless mote now dimpling the convex
and limpid teardrop on a lighted slide.

Smoothly a screw is turned; out of the mist
two ambered hooks symmetrically slope,
or scales like battledores of amethyst
cross the charmed circle of the microscope.

I found it and I named it, being versed
in taxonomic Latin; thus became
godfather to an insect and its first
describer -- and I want no other fame.

Wide open on its pin (though fast asleep)
and safe from creeping relatives and rust,
in the secluded stronghold where we keep
type specimens it will transcend its dust.

Dark pictures, thrones, the stones that pilgrims kiss
Poems that take a thousand years to die
But ape the immortality of this
Red label on a little butterfly.

   by Mark Isaak, 1999
   with apologies to Percy Bysshe Shelly

I met a scholar from an antique school
Who said: Two vast and all-embracing clades
Sit in old journals. . . Outside in a pool,
Half sunk, a downy water mold invades
And, mocking if it's plant or animal,
Confused old authors who its visage read
And tried to fit it in accepted folds
These taxonomic articles had spread.
And pencilled on a page these words appear:
'My name is Oomycetes, Mold of Molds:
Look on my genes, ye Cladists, and despair!'
Nothing besides gets read. In here, away
From moist and verdant pond, still saprobes dare,
And brittle yellow books slowly decay.

    The Type
   by John Hinton, 2012

A song and video
So though you may think it frightful
To see how I am stuck,
I tell you it's delightful,
And I can't believe my luck.
I certainly would recommend
As choice of mausoleum,
Being pinned to a board in a drawer in a room
At the Natural History Museum.

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