I was listening to the Caedmon Poetry Collection when "The DNA Molecule" caught my attention. I was on my way to Robert Graves' "Poem to My Son" when what sounded like a science lecture started playing. This was naturally confusing. In the past year I have reread some chapters of a biology textbook and skimmed some Science journals, but I have not taken out any audiobook more natural-science-oriented than Guns, Germs, and Steel, to which I was familiar enough not to confuse with the explanation of base pairing that I was now hearing.
As you can tell from this post, what I was listening to was a poem, and not a science book. I still don't fully understand the poem, and I've read and listened to it at least ten times now. Part of me is still confused to see DNA in a poem, and I am curious about her biology choices. The other part of me is able to stop and appreciate the image of butterfly wings in juxtaposition to replicated DNA.
THE DNA MOLECULE
is The Nude Descending a Staircaseby May Swenson
a circular one.
See the undersurfaces of the spiral treads
and the spaces in between.
She is descending and at the same
time ascending and she moves around herself.
For she is the staircase
“a protoplasmic framework an internal scaffolding
that twists and turns.”
She is a double helix mounting and dismounting
around the swivel of her imaginary spine.
The Nude named DNA can be constructed
as a model with matches and a ribbon of tape.
Be sure to use only 4 colors on 2 white strands
of twistable tape.
“Only matches of complementary colors
may be placed opposite each other.
The pairs are to be red and green
and yellow and blue.”
Make your model as high as the Empire
State Building and you
Have an acceptable replica of The Nude.
But and this is harder you must make her move in a continuous coil
an alpha-helix a double spiral
downward and upward at once
and you must make her increase
while at the same time occupying the same field.
She must be made “to maintain a basic topography”
changing yet remaining stable if she
is to perform her function which
is to produce and reproduce the microsphere.
Such a sphere is invisible to but
omnipresent in the naked eye
of The Nude.
It contains “a central region and
an outer membrane” making it able to divide
“to make exact copies of itself without limit.”
The Nude has “the capacity for replication
and transcription of all genesis.
She ingests and regurgitates
the genetic material it being
the material of her own cell-self.
From single she becomes double and
from double single.
As a woman ingests the demon sperm and with
the same membrane regurgitates
the mitotic double of herself
upon the slide of time
so the DNA molecule produces with a little pop
at the waistline of its viscous drop
a new microsphere the same size as herself
which proceeds singly to grow
in order to divide
and double itself.
So from single to double and double to single and
mounting while descending she expands while contracts
she proliferates while disappearing
at both of her ends.
Remember that red can only be
opposite green and blue opposite yellow.
Remember that the complementary pairs
of matches must differ slightly in length
“for nature’s pairs can be made only with units
whose structures permit an interplay of forces between the partners.”
I fixed a blue match opposite a red
match of the same length
in defiance of the rules pointed them away
from the center on the double-stranded tape.
I saw laid a number of eggs on eggs on the sticky side
of a twig.
I saw a worm with many feet grow out
of an egg.
The worm climbed the twig a single helix and
gobbled the magnified edge of a leaf
in quick enormous bites.
It then secreted out of itself a gray floss
with which it wrapped itself tail first and so on
until it had completely muffled
and encased itself head last as in a mummy pouch.
I saw plushy iridescent wings push moistly out
of the pouch.
At first glued
together they began to part.
On each wing I saw a large blue eye
open forever in the expression of resurrection.
The new Nude released the flanges of her wings
stretching herself to touch
at all points the outermost rim of the noösphere.
I saw that for her body from which the wings expanded
she had retained the worm.
- Which lines are most effective?
- What is the poet’s feeling towards DNA?
- To what purpose does the poet sexualize molecular biology?
- Does the conclusion of the poem (“she had retained the worm”) surprise you?
- The poet describes DNA as a “Nude Descending a Staircase.” Does this image necessarily exclude epigenetic elements?
- What does it mean to exhibit non-Watson-Crick base pairing (“I fixed a blue match…in defiance of the rules”)?
- The poet is selective in her description of the cell. By what criteria do you think she chooses features?
- How does butterfly metamorphosis compare to DNA replication and mitosis?