Jo Shapcott, Jackie Kay, Don Paterson and seven other poets join laureate's Thresholds project to find poetry in subjects ranging from the first bird to slavery
From National Poet of Wales Gillian Clarke's take on Archaeopteryx to the Costa award-winning Jo Shapcott's vision of the Arctic fox sent out to hunt for Franklin's lost Arctic expedition in the 19th century, the results of poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy's project to match 10 leading poets with 10 Cambridge museums were unveiled on Wednesday evening.
Duffy had invited the poets – who also include Don Paterson, Owen Sheers and Jackie Kay – to spend two weeks in residence at a Cambridge museum or collection. At an event on Wednesday where the poems inspired by the collections were revealed for the first time, Duffy called them "stunning".
"The project is called Thresholds, a word which implies so much. The image is of a door already open, and it's up to us to step inside; and this is what this project has attempted to do. From the moment this project was born, everyone involved has had to step over a threshold," said Duffy. "The poets understood the idea and stepped inside the museums ready to talk and learn and write and blur the artificial boundaries between the arts and the sciences. The museums understood and included the poets in the conversation, took them behind the scenes, gave them access to the riches of their collections."
Clarke, who spent time at Cambridge's Museum of Zoology, wrote Archaeopteryx, which opens with the lines: "The first bird in the world / Stilled in stony silence behind glass", going on to describe "the transition between dinosaur and bird".
Shapcott, at the Scott Polar Museum, has written Fox Collar, explaining in a footnote that "the area of the Franklin searches was vast, and many tactics were used to send information on supply depots and rescue ships to any survivors. Eight Arctic foxes were fitted with inscribed collars and released in the hope that the missing men would read the message. The fox wearing this collar travelled over 120km before its recapture in the winter of 1851-52. There is no evidence that Franklin's men received any of this information."
"Grasp her by the scruff, don't free her / From the trap till the collar's on firm," writes Shapcott. "It won't bother her much / As she goes off and off, with her big eye, / And her empty guts, maybe a hundred / Maybe more miles on a hunt and a flyer / With fur feet which make the snow and ice / Just a game for her, though it do murder us."
Kay, at the modern art space Kettle's Yard, wrote The House of Juxtapositions, reflecting on a dining table from a slave ship: "This table / Sailed the triangular route / And heard the cries of the damned. / This table, made of beech wood, / Numb, helpless, thick as a plank, / Witnessed the jumps, the suicide- / Escapes into the lost Atlantic; the crossings / Where grief, guns, copper, coffee, Rum, / Tobacco, sugar, slaves were carried over."
The other poets and institutions matched together were Sean Borodale with the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Imtiaz Dharker with Cambridge University Library, Ann Gray with Cambridge University Botanic Garden, Matthew Hollis with the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Daljit Nagra with the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Paterson with the Whipple Museum of the History of Science, and Sheers with the Fitzwilliam Museum. The poems will appear in full on the Thresholds website from Friday.