Last night was a memorable start to my summer course of Poetry from Art, in Damien Hirst's butterfly room In and Out of Love. The team at Tate Modern went to enormous lengths so that we could be there, as there was high maintenance going on in the rest of the show, including in A Thousand Years, the cow's head and hatching flies vitrine. We shouldn't really have been there but negotations went on (and on) and finally it was decided that we could enter our rooms, Pharmacy, as well as the butterflies, through a 'blue' back route, so the group got to see some secret corridors. We were then escorted directly into the butterfly room, which was so mesmerising that I had to coax everyone to come out the other side to our circle of chairs in Pharmacy.
Twenty-four of us sat assimilating the sensation of having giant tropical butterflies settling on us and tickling our arms. One owl butterfly escaped into Pharmacy with us but luckily he decided to land on me so I walked him back 'home' carefully through the translucent curtain strips. We divided the group into two halves, so half went straight back in, with notebooks and pens, to free-write, while group B stayed for discussion, then we swapped over.
We talked about Hirst's installation, and discussed three butterfly/moth poems: 'Monarchs' by Sharon Olds, and 'In the Pharmacy' and 'Tapestry Moths' by Peter Redgrove. All three poems combine the image of a moth or butterfly with something unexpected. This course is titled Shaping Poems: Image-Making, so we explored the idea of shaping a poem with two images clashed together. Olds' poem merges the Monarch butterfly with a first sexual encounter and a man with hands "like butcher's hands". Redgrove literally has his moths on a tapestry, so that they fly off, taking details of the scene away on their wings, laying parts of the pictures they've eaten into their eggs. Fragments of the tapestry pictures even end up in bats who eat the moths. In 'In the Pharmacy', a moth "like a travelling label walks/ From bottle to marble bottle with floury wings/ Embracing each and tapping with fernleaf tongue" on pharmaceutical bottles in a chemist's and we thought there was a juxtaposition between the chemistry of medicines and the metamorphosis inside a chrysalis. This was particularly apt because we were surrounded by a wall to wall pharmacy.
I think it's hard to write about butterflies. I remember being told that they were a subject to avoid in poems. But butterflies have supersenses. Morphos (which I've seen flying in the wild in the Venezuelan Amazon), have ears at the base of their metallic blue wings. When they flap lazily in the tropical sunlight they look like lightning flashes, and it's thought that this may be a form of defence, since one of their predators is baby jaguars, who catch them in play, much as my cats catch butterflies for snacks. They flash their iridescent wings to dazzle their prey. Butterflies taste with their feet, and maybe when they were settling on us it was to taste their evening visitors. Some pupae squeak when disturbed, so there could be a world of butterfly language yet to be discovered. They see more colours than we do too.
Our session was shorter than usual because of the winding back route to the rooms so the group had even less time to write, only 10 minutes after the note-taking in situ, but already some butterfly poems are pupating. Next week we will be in another part of the Hirst exhibition. I ask that they come with fresh eyes, try to disregard the hype and criticism about this artist. The show is full of invention. For me, it's a dream, stuffed as it is with curiosities of natural history and echoes of Catholic iconography, which must come from Hirst's childhood Catholicism.