smaller than the eye can see the living dead
floating in limbo awaiting a host
we don’t discriminate we’ll invade anyone
occupy your secret places incubate and multiply
we’re eco warriors driven by a mission
programmed to restore any way we can
a global equillibrium
we’re everywhere slipping through the net
always one step ahead
About this poem
To celebrate the Quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, twenty-one Scottish poets were commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library to write poems inspired by the College’s collections and work. Like surgeons they have used ‘the hand that sees’, but in this case the writing hand that acts at the prompting of insight and imagination. The poems and their comments, alongside photographs of items that inspired them, were published in The Hand that Sees: Poems for the quincentenary of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, edited by Stewart Conn, and published by the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in association with the Scottish Poetry Library in 2005.
When I was researching my novel, Pest Maiden, in which two of the main characters work in a plasma-processing plant, I read a lot about the tenacity and adaptability of microbes and how hard medical science had to work to combat their effects. When I visited Surgeons’ Hall, there were many artefacts and specimens which were both fascinating and affecting but I was still thinking about ‘invisible’ microbes. In mediaeval days, especially during visitations of the bubonic plague, or Black Death, when the word pestilence was synonymous with death, people fancied they could see the plague coming, that it was a kind of mist which moved over towns.
I can sympathise with the rationale behind such fabrication. An unseen enemy was - and perhaps still is - much more terrifying than a visible enemy. At least with a visible enemy, you have some idea what you are dealing with. You can develop a strategy for combat, put up a fight . The invention of the microscope was a major leap forward, not just in the treatment of infectious diseases but in gaining some understanding of the world we live in and our place in the bigger scheme of things.
In writing the poem I was thinking more about the bigger scheme of things - albeit in a very small poem - and wanted to present an ambivalent response to the microbe. For that reason I chose the layout of detached phrases which can be linked horizontally or vertically, allowing for more than one way of reading.