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Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pygidium: Trilobites in Literature (Triple Trilobite Special!)

Trilobites, as seen in 1916 by the German painter Heinrich Harder.

Welcome to the 'Triple Trilobite Special', a series of three issues covering trilobites in art. I decided to name each issue from trilobite anatomy:  'Cephalon' will deal with visual arts, 'Thorax' will take into account music and this issue - 'Pygidium' - is dedicated to literature, with particular focus on poetry.
Among the geologic subjects used in poetry, trilobites occupy a privileged position. The reasons are evident: the seductive charm of these ancestral creatures, their curious morphology and the grace of their librigenae. Kenneth Gass has been recently seduced by trilobites, and wrote a volume entitled “Trilobite Poems”.
Here is a snippet:
While breaking open rocks one day,
I found something that made me stay,
To see if I could find some more
Of what I’d never seen before.
— from Mackenziurus lauriae by Kenneth Gass

How to comment on these verses? David Rudkin (Royal Ontario Museum) expressed his opinion in “The Trilobite Papers”: «[These] verses reflect much of the joy and wonder that all trilobite workers share, but that we seldom express».
Trilobites (and many other geologic items) illuminate the poems of Clark Coolidge, an American poet with an  explicit interest for Earth sciences. Coolidge authored several geologic works, either in prose or in poetry (“Smithsonian Deposition & Subject to a Film”, “A Geology”, “The Book of During”, etc.). His untitled poem  from 1970 says:

ounce code orange
trilobite trilobites
— from the collection 'Space' by Clark Coolidge

Coolidge’s poem is undoubtedly visual, apparently impenetrable, a liminal experience between concrete poetry and sound. The hardcover edition of “Space”, the collection including the trilobitic poem, describes Coolidge’s poetry as follows:
“At first glance, Clark Coolidge’s poems appear to be completely impenetrable parades of apparently unrelated words arranged in meaningless patterns across the page. If you keep reading, though, the poems begin to have a strange effectiveness, and eventually you begin to see the words themselves in an entirely new and exhilarating way”.
Trilobites are found in another visual poetry collection by mIEKAL aND. The author describes his visual poems as “typo-fossils embedded with syntactical mysteries & multiple possible references, missing links between semantic precision & indecipherable code”. Hence the title of the collection, “Trilobite”. In this work the typographical arrangement of words is an important means of expression, often accompanied by the drawing of a trilobite. If you are interested in, it is possible to read the entire work on the website of Xexoxial editions.

The "typo-fossils" of mIEKAL aND. The work was originally published in 1983, the pictures come from the 2006 online edition of 'Trilobite'.

The aforementioned examples illustrate the role of trilobites as “paleontological catalysts”. Together with ammonites and dinosaurs, these extinct arthropods are the quintessential icons of paleontology, evoking the symbolic and philosophic values of this discipline. This is particularly evident in the poems of the Victorian period, when paleontology and fossils were a sort of fashion. These aspects were accompanied by the  evolutionary quarrels that followed the revolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. These elements (fossils and evolution) are the main focus of the satirical “Lay [=song] of a Trilobite” by the Victorian poet May Kendall.
 An excerpt:
A mountain’s giddy height I sought,
Because I could not find
Sufficient vague and mighty thought
To fill my mighty mind;
And as I wandered ill at ease,
There chanced upon my sight
A native of Silurian seas
An ancient Trilobite.
— from ”Lay of a Trilobite” by May Kendall (1887)

Even before “Lay of a Trilobite” fossil arthropods had raised poetic inspiration: for example in “Ode to a  Trilobite”, written by Timothy Conrad in 1840.
And since the trilobites have passed away
The continent has been formed, the mountains grown
In oceans’ deepened caves new beings play,
And Man now sits on Neptune’s ancient throne.
The race of Man shall perish, but the eyes
Of Trilobites eternal be in stone,
And seem to stare about with wild surprise
At changes greater than they yet have known.
— from ”Ode to a Trilobite” by Timothy Conrad (1840)

Victorian Trilobitic Poems in my book 'Geology in Art'.

Trilobites have been cited also by the master of science fiction: Howard Phillips Lovecraft.  Even though geology is used sporadically in his writings, Lovecraft shows to be intellectually influenced by  geologic themes, including Deep Time. “At the Mountains of Madness” is probably Lovecraft’s most geologic story as it revolves around a geologic expedition in Antartica. Here weird fossil remains are discovered: “Appears to indicate, as I suspected, that earth has seen whole cycle or cycles of organic life before known one that begins with Archaeozoic cells. Was evolved and specialized not later than a thousand million years  ago, when planet was young and recently uninhabitable for any life forms or normal protoplasmic structure.  Question arises when, where, and how development took place.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness”

“At the Mountains of Madness” was partly inspired by the geologic findings made during the polar expedition  of Richard Evelyn Byrd, which took place in 1928-1930. Lovecraft mentions the explorer repeatedly in his  letters, remarking at one point on “geologists of the Byrd expedition having found many fossils indicating a  tropical past”. The main character of “At the Mountains of Madness” is the fictional character William Dyer, Professor of Geology at the notorious Miskatonic University.William Dyer’s expedition was to be particularly adventurous and the character would appear in another of Lovecraft’s tales, “The Shadow Out of Time”:
“In certain of the sandstones, dynamited and chiseled after boring revealed their nature, we found some highly  interesting fossil markings and fragments; notably ferns, seaweeds, trilobites, crinoids, and such mollusks as  linguellae and gastropods - all of which seemed of real significance in connection with the region’s primordial  history.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness”

 Trilo Temporalis, a trilobitic steel sculpture by Jud Turner.


  1. I have found a "fossil" and I am not sure what it is... If anyone is willing to help me figure it out I would be very grateful... E-mail me at
    Thank you very much

  2. nice blog, i liked it;)