Amy May Nunn On The Poetry Of Exploration And Petrified Bones

Amy May Nunn

Amy May Nunn

I wanted to be an explorer. For a long time I had a clear plan, that I would become an Archeologist, escape my family and their art. I would discover tombs and not art. Ocean divers and tomb raiders, these were my people. Growing up I would disappear into the English countryside for hours at a time, eventually developing a ‘Famous Five’ complex, dressing androgynously and insisting that everybody call me George for the better part of two years.  I even convinced myself at one time that the pond opposite our house opened up into the Mississippi and made a raft to float away on, which promptly broke apart and left me with pneumonia. My aspirations of becoming an Archeologist were eventually quieted as I got older (and realised it had very little to do with Indiana Jones), and having been born into a family of artists with sometimes painfully open minds when it comes to my misadventures, romantic, poetic or otherwise, I was robbed of any controversy that growing into a bisexual poet customarily brings.  I feel like becoming a writer was the perfect consolation. It allowed me an entirely new sense of adventure and discovery, one that I could access any time I wanted.

The tiny ghost of an archeologist in me was brought back to life last year though, at a wedding in Dorset where I stumbled across the idea for my current project. I stayed in a small town named Lyme Regis, situated on the Jurassic Coast, and quickly learned this sea worn, crooked little place is renowned for it’s fossil laden cliffs. I began to notice the name ‘Mary Anning’ cropping up in the various fossil shops, on plaques and signposts. It turns out she was a local fossil hunter and paleontologist in the 1800’s, and made some of the most significant discoveries of the 19th century, including dinosaurs such as the first plesiosaur and ichthyosaur. She immediately captured my imagination, and researching her became a new and bizarre obsession.

Born into a poor family, and without any formal education, she was only twelve years old when she discovered her first dinosaur along the Jurassic Coast. Class and gender prevented her from gaining any real recognition in her lifetime, but she’s certainly a legendary figure in the paleontological world, and has inevitably been the subject of various novels, children’s books and non-fiction. Not so much poetry though, which is surprising given the extent to which her life was startlingly poetic, involving everything from class and gender struggle to the newborn world of scientific discovery colliding dramatically with religion, to lightning strikes and loyal dogs dying in cliff slides.

Whilst learning all about Mary Anning, I also started learning an alarming amount about dinosaurs (more than I ever did in my archaeologist days), so much that my friends now refer to me as Sam Neil. I found my imagination took an odd turn, and I started writing a series of love poems to various dinosaurs, in particular the plesiosaur (Anning’s most famed discovery), and this in turn lead to a larger idea, of doing a piece surrounding a series of imagined relationships between Mary Anning and her discoveries. Given the restrictive and almost disembodied nature of her gender at that time, this struck me as the perfect conduit for a project about discovery in every sense, literal, anatomical, sexual, ideological. It’s written as something between a one-woman show and performance poetry, with the odd bawdy folksong in the grand tradition of Robert Burns. The following are three brief excerpts, from what is still very much a work in progress…

On my first night the plesiosaur was a real gentleman- or something. I don’t want to talk about the love, or the hurtful appearance of magic (which is too busy, and having too much fun to explain why it never showed up before). Magic always turns back into a trick, and tricks are small things that happen under dinner tables, involving more fingers than hands. I didn’t ask until much later if it was able to remove the humongous flippers so I could be touched in many small ways, instead of one big way. It said ‘I can either touch you in a big way, or no way at all’.

I storm the Jurassic Coast, furious bloomers and onion in my blood, away from the contagious turnip eaters, who are enjoying a good death for breakfast. You cannot know what it is to find dinosaur bones, unless you find dinosaur bones, but digging in a corset is all you need know about history’s love-making. I should put down my tools, fold my breasts into the linen closet, but fossils are like fragments of genitals and it’s better to touch them than myself. I want them all to come searching for me, I want to teach them about the frisky hug of time.

Dinosaurs loved each other very well, but it felt different to them I think. The plesiosaur wanted to stay near the stove, with the kettle, and so I explained once again that he could hold the kettle with both flippers, so long as it’s not boiling, and you’ll know if something is boiling or on fire because it looks alive. The plesiosaur understood that part very well, because the sky looked alive just before he went to sleep and the rock became his special one and only place, where no one could see him but he could see everything through the rock kaleidoscope. If I were pregnant the baby would be twice my size, so it would burst out my stomach and feet and brain all at once, and there would be very little left, I would be like a popped balloon (just this slither of bright wrinkly skin!). Or it would think my body is the ocean and start swimming.

My sentiment this pride week is that there is a joy and an odd precision to the art of exploration, it can’t always be whimsical, it must sometimes be devoted or self-effacing. I think for poets, lovers and adventurers all, it is with a persistent, elated fascination that the best discoveries are made.


Amy May Nunn is a Melbourne based poet, who sometimes lives in London. She’s been published in various Australian literary journals, including Voiceworks and Verandah. She was the featured poet for last years June One.Seven.Six poetry event, placed 3rd in The John Marsden Prize for poetry in 2010, and received the Matthew Rocca poetry award in 2009.