The Manchester Museum’s Entomology Department welcomes a wide array of visitors. Behind-the-scene tours are one of our regular activities. Such tours give our visitors an opportunity to see the Museum’s extensive insect collections (over 3 million specimens) that otherwise are hidden behind the scenes. Helen Clare, who attended one of the tours to the Entomology Department, is a poet and Science teacher (her personal blog). Helen was so inspired by that particular visit that she wrote about 20 insect sonnets. The one devoted to the famous Manchester Moth is given below alongside some of Helen’s impressions of her visit to the Museum.
“I came to Manchester Museum to see the Manchester moth almost a year ago on a bright autumn day. I remember the time of year very clearly because I very pleased with myself in my new bright green coat. By that time I’d been writing a series of sonnets inspired by insects for many months and was looking for fresh inspiration. I’d seen an article about the Manchester Moth in a local paper and followed it up on the internet and wanted to see the insect in the flesh.
The moment I walked through the museum doors the fire alarm sounded. I almost went home, but decided to be patient and went for a coffee. Eventually the throng of people in the museum courtyard started to funnel through the doors and I went back and talked to the member of staff on duty at reception.
She told me I wouldn’t be able to see the moth as the specimen was so fragile but that there was a video I could watch. I went up and watched the video, which is very interesting and made notes. I was a little disappointed because while facts are important, the stuff of poetry comes from having an emotional reaction to something and it helps to see it for real.
But I was glad to have found out more and went up to visit the snakes and frogs in the top gallery – something I’ve done on a regular basis since my student days and then made my way out, ready to console myself shopping.
As I was about to leave the building the assistant, recognising my coat, called me over and told me that there was a tour of the Entomology stores about to start. A little group of people had begun to gather and Dr Dmitri Logunov, Curator of Insect Collections, came to take us all of to the hidden and rather less imposing part of the museum.
It was a wonderful session. Looking at my notes now I can see that we looked at a brilliant collection of tortoise beetles, we learned that elephant beetles can push 80 times their body weight, that taxonomists must extract the genitals of butterflies to identify them and that the brilliant colour of butterflies that derives from structure rather than pigment never fades. All of which was shared with us by the infectiously enthusiastic Dmitri.
At the time I was most impressed by the sheer numbers of insects tucked away, by the sense of being among things that had fascinated and perhaps even obsessed many generations of people, of being somewhere that was part of the bustle of a working museum and also a strangely chaotic contemplative space.
I drafted the first part of the Euclemensia woodiella sonnet (see below) almost immediately, but it took almost another year to get the final six lines in place. Many other things I’d seen and learned about on that visit also made their way into other poems – including the idea that it was perhaps cockroaches as much as dogs and horses which have been humans most loyal companions since our cave days.
I was very glad that the fire alarm had gone off and delayed my visit to the museum until the tour was imminent – and that my bright green coat had made me so recognisable!”
Sonnet on Euclemensia woodiella (the Manchester Moth) by Helen Clare
Through an unmarked door, we climb the stairs,
concrete and unadorned. The insect store
smells of mothballs. Three million specimens
are under glass, in Dymo labelled drawers, pinned
through their ID cards like meat on skewers.
But only one is ours, is Manchester’s –
this one – small and brown, no abdomen
no legs, three wings, its one antenna broken –
one of three netted by Cribb and passed to Wood.
Cribb, robbed of nomeclature, accused of fraud,
sells the boxful for ten shillings, five up front,
then leaves it with a landlady in lieu of rent.
She burns the lot. He slips into Salford’s
seeping slums, his moth not seen before or since.
Please, visit Helen’s personal blog in order to enjoy by other insect sonnets she has written.
I am very grateful to Helen for sharing her impressions with me and for the permission to post her excellent sonnet devoted the Manchester Moth to our blog (Dmitri).