I saw the Argentine poet Lila Zemborain discuss science and poetry in Seattle last month. Her book Mauve sea-orchids (2007, Belladonna Books) take its name from the Proust quote she includes as an epigraph:
“When I was following on my own instinct, the jelly-fish repelled me at Balbec, but had I known how to look at it, like Michelet, from the point of view of natural history and aesthetics, I would have seen a delectable girandole of azure. Are they not, with the transparent velvet of petals, like the mauve orchids of the sea? -Marcel Proust.
In the north Atlantic, there are mauve stingers (Pelagia noctiluc), which may be what Proust was referring to, that invade the fishing nets and beaches. A nuisance. Dangerous- jellyfish are among the most venomous creatures in the sea. Maybe anywhere.
For us here, between 8 and 12 days after the full moon, the box jellyfish (Alatina moseri) return to the south shores of O’ahu. Scientists tell us they follow the zooplankton, whose biomass is influenced, like much else that is made of or exists in bodies of water, including ourselves, by the moon and tides and climate. Water mass movement. They have been especially heavy lately, maybe with the climate change, but their density has always fluctuated in four-year cycles.
Signs are posted by lifeguards, and swimmers are warned. Still, we go in; on a sunny beautiful morning it is just too hard not to, and invariably, swimmers get stung. A sting from the box jellyfish can send you to the hospital. One bad sting and now we watch the calendar more closely; can not remark on the moon without noting the return of the box jellyfish. Their rhythm has become a part of ours.
Mauve Sea-orchids is written with the detail of a naturalist’s notebook. our bodies a dreamy ocean, with imagined glandulas amorosas (loveglands) -cells that are jellyfish-like creatures carrying the energy of love:
“loveglands not only distill carnal love, their/energy has more to do with the self-indulgence/of deep sleep in a state of bliss: their consistency/is like the cavernous tissue of sponges in water; ” (11)
“beings of dreamlike shapes that trudge across/the icy depths of the ocean and are suddenly/lit up by an underwater lab, the glands will/ be surprised by the arrival of the subhuman/device searching for them; gland after gland/after gland, they will form a unique species of sea anemones;”(17) -Lila Zemborain
Reading Mauve Sea-Orchids is as alluring as watching the jellyfish lit up in an aquarium. Maybe we recognize the beauty in jellyfish because they mirror the pulsing energy of
our own cells, floating in our body the sea. Maybe we need to teach ourselves how to look.