Episode 66

Homunculus by the Shore by Luke Palmer

 

Luke Palmer reads ‘Homunculus by the Shore’ and discusses the poem with Mark McGuinness.

This poem is from:

Homunculus

Homunculus book cover

Available from:

Homunculus is available from:

The publisher: Broken Sleep Books

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: US

 

Homunculus by the Shore

by Luke Palmer

at the tideline with my father              we are the only uprights
sea skidding white fur up the strand            sea always arriving
coming to me and arriving at me           like an eager dog
bringing all its versions                    the rotten smell of itself

my father digs with his big toe           the sea goes through that
he says waves don’t break         they go down
the hill of the sea is inside out       waves roll up it
all the way to the top             they end at my feet

my father swings me           high over the waves
that go down forever           down to the sea’s throat
belching out water          the sea is a generous element
it will hold you up      it will let you in

he plants my feet in the water        the water sucks at them
like a hungry tongue                     I’m brought to the edge
teetering in two places at once               against the flat world
wind stings the line of my lips               salt in the corners of my feet

 


Interview transcript

Mark: Luke, where did this poem come from?

Luke: So I’d already written quite a few homunculus poems before this one came along. The homunculus is the central character, I suppose, or voice rather of my first collection. And he’s the preformationalist child of an alchemist. 16th-century alchemists, as well as the philosopher’s stone, had this idea of this homunculus, this child born without sin that would also become the key to eternal life.

And so the homunculus, it’s Paracelsus’s homunculus, the infamous alchemist and firebrand figure of kind of pre-Renaissance thought, I suppose. And I wanted to kind of cast Paracelsus as a bit of a single father figure, I suppose, with this preformationalist sinless child.

And so the ‘Homunculus By the Shore’ poem came quite late, I suppose, in this sequence as just another way of looking at this relationship. What are the things that a father and a son would do together? So I kind of imagined them by the sea, in this instance, not a nice kind of seaside day. To me, it’s a kind of dreary, overcast, kind of February half term, let’s go for a walk on the beach, kind of sea rather than a kind of, you know, kiss me quick and lots of, you know, sun tan lotion and that kind of stuff.

So, yeah, the poem fits into a kind of a sequence, I suppose, of homunculus poems exploring this father-son relationship, and the son looking at the father and the father looking back at the son as this key to eternal life and living forever, I suppose.

Mark: Okay. So just so we’re clear, the homunculus has been created by the alchemist, brought into the world…

Luke: Yeah. Paracelsus’ recipe was that you take a human sperm and you grow it, for him, it was within a horse. You put it in a horse’s womb. The preformationalists thought that the human sperm, the male sperm is what contained all of the ingredients, I suppose, for a child. And for them, a woman was just where it grew. That’s just where you put it to bring it on, I suppose, like a seed.

And so for Paracelsus, this homunculus, his mother’s a horse. He’s grown inside a horse earlier on in the collection. And, yeah, so he’s born therefore, you know, without the need for sex or sin or anything like that. So he’s kind of immaculately conceived, this child.

Mark: Gosh. So there’s quite a lot of resonances for this. On the one hand, you’ve got all the theological father-son, immaculate conception stuff, and was artificial intelligence anywhere at the back of your mind as you were writing this?

Luke: I’ve played with AI before, just that I really enjoy the kind of the crazy logic of AI poems, I think. So that idea of something coming out of nothing is definitely, yeah, AI’s in the same ballpark, I think. And, yeah, that kind of creating something almost so unexperienced and naive as to be, I mean, I find the AI poems really funny, the strange connections that AI comes up with, completely when you’re just looking at words, almost completely divorced from semantics is a really interesting field to, to play around with. So there’s definitely that element is plugged in, I suppose, the idea of, yeah, a child who’s supposed to be, yeah, bringer of eternal life, but also is completely divorced from life itself, really.

Mark: Yeah. And yet it’s weirdly relatable, I mean, I think those of us who live near the sea can relate to standing there with a parent looking out at the sea. I’ll never forget taking our kids to the sea for the first time when they were really small and, you know, the look on their face, ‘What the hell is that?’

Luke: Indeed. Yeah. I think I do want it to feel very, very human, I think. And very, again, like I said, it’s not a special day out, it’s a dreary walk by the sea. One of the main inspirations, I think when I kind of came up with the idea was the Caspar David Friedrich picture, The Monk by the Sea. Which to me is a beautiful image of, you know, bleak seascape. And the image has almost no trunkage in it. There’s no verticals in it at all, apart from this tiny little monk who’s standing right on the foreshore against this huge, mostly sky, actually, there’s not a lot of sea in the picture, apart from some angry-looking kind of white waves and the kind of horribly cold looking North Sea.

But that bleakness, that isolation, I think that’s something that runs through the homunculus’s journey in the book and also in Paracelsus’s story as well, from what I’ve read about him, of just this feeling outcast, really. This being a figure that’s so kind of at the cutting edge of what he’s doing, the misunderstandings and his constant need, I guess, or constantly being asked to explain himself seemed to me to kind of push him way outside of society, I suppose.

And I guess this image of a father and a son standing by the ocean is them. They’re at the brink of something, I think they’re at the edge and that sense of, you know, quotidian, everydayness is kind of blended with, for me, at least, a real sense of them being out on their own, like, these are the only two creatures left in the world almost. And that painting was a really useful kind of visual touchstone, I guess, to try and to try and capture that.

Mark: Yeah. I’ll put a link to the painting in the show notes, and I mean, you’ve got that wonderful half-line, ‘We are the only uprights.’ It says so much, it’s so evocative. And so Paracelsus for us, you know, he’s kind of old fashioned, but at the time, what he was doing was kind of cutting edge and controversial, wasn’t it?

Luke: It was, and in particular, one of the things I really liked about going back through his old writings and interpretations of his writings is his idea of equivalence really, and his idea of how the world is structured and how people are structured. I mean, this is kind of before Renaissance, no one was really peeling people and looking at how we work.

So one of the things I really wanted to pick up on was the alchemist idea of inversion, the idea that something on the outside is reflected on its inside. And so here the sea takes that on, the idea that the sea is flipped in some way. And what happens if waves don’t come up through the sea? What happens if they’re on the way down? What happens if the sea is the same above as it is below?

And perhaps those isolated figures standing on the foreshore are looking for that mirror. They’re looking for that mirror image, something that can reflect themselves back and something that will hold them, that line about the sea being something that will hold you up. That kind of water is, you know, the buoyancy in water, but also you’re kind of entering it at the same time as being held by it. You know, there’s two things happening at once there, I suppose. So, yeah, that’s kind of going through the poem as well as the other poems, the homunculus poems in the book.

Mark: So, folks, when you see the text, the bits where the father is speaking are in italics. Are those direct quotes from Paracelsus, or was it you channelling him?

Luke: They’re not, no, they’re me channelling. There are a fair few epigraphs not for this poem, but there are a fair few homunculus poems that do come with epigraphs of Paracelsus’s words, but the italicised bits, they’re me.

Mark: But they do sound very authentic. And I think that’s the point where you, you know, at a first reading, okay, I registered the word homunculus, but you know, ‘at the tide line with my father’, I’m suddenly there with my father, or, you know, just imagining a normal father-child relationship. But it’s when he starts coming out with these theories about the waves going down and the hill of the sea being inside out, I’m starting to think, okay, this is a little bit different to the usual father-son situation.

Luke: Yeah. With my own children, I think there’s definitely, you take on this, I don’t know, this mantle for want of a better word, of, you know, I am the person through whom my children will learn about the world. But I guess what if your version of the world is so at odds with everyone else’s or with the world itself, that you know that, what if your version of the world is so at odds that you are struggling to explain it at every step of the way?

I suppose that you’ve got this child in front of you who is pure, perfectly good, and wonderful as they all are and then you are trying to bring them this complexity, I suppose, this whole range of the, you know, metaphysics of the world and how the world is put together and plugged in. I think, yeah, that’s something I as a father definitely deal with quite a lot. Yeah. So I think, yeah, Paracelsus here, or the alchemist, the father needed to be doing it too.

Mark: Yeah. I think my experience is, you know, the window of oracle-like authority, it doesn’t last that long! [Laughter] It doesn’t, but anyway you know, within the poem, the homunculus is this innocent narrator, so you get the sense that he, she, or it is swallowing this whole, this is what father says, and this is the way the world works.

Luke: Yeah, definitely. I think that later on, perhaps in the book, that there’s a few poems where the homunculus starts to sit a little bit at odds with the father. And there’s a little bit of side-eye, shall we say, later on. But at this point, yeah, definitely the homunculus is going for it kind of hook line and sinker and is being shown this wonderful, miraculous world by their, you know, firebrand half-mad dad.

Mark: And so, you know, I haven’t seen the whole collection yet, so I don’t know if there’s a moment where the homunculus comes to life for the father, but at what point did the homunculus come to life for you as a poet? You know, when you realise because you’ve got this whole sequence of poems about this character or persona.

Luke: So homunculus means… it doesn’t mean much apart from ‘little man’, I suppose. and the idea of a little man has been used in science, you know, for ages. I mean, nowadays, if you Google ‘homunculus’, you get an image of a little man or a little human whose parts are bigger or smaller, depending on their number of nerve endings in them, basically. So, homunculus being used as a model for the nervous system.

But the one that I first really fell in love with was the idea that the homunculus that sits in your head and I think it was one of Descartes’s ideas, the philosopher of kind of mind, I suppose, of the idea of that we have a small version of ourselves in our head that watches what we are doing. And to him, that was all about what consciousness is, I suppose, and he called it the Cartesian Theatre, this place in the head where a small version of yourself sits observing what you are doing and kind of casting judgment and kind of pulling the strings, I suppose.

I don’t know, a little bit like, I don’t know, like a creature in a Dalek, maybe. But that idea kind of got me started, I think with the homunculus and I kind of dialed it back to the earliest version I could find and just stopped at the alchemists because they were bonkers and it just sounded so much, there’s so much theatre there, so much fun to be had there, so much play to be had with the idea of a small person that you are creating out of nothing almost.

Luke: And also that weird desire, again, one of the reasons I think we go to history so much is as a reflection for what we’re doing at the moment, that strange desire to create something of yourself completely independently of anybody else, that idea that we self-repeat and the ideal perfect child is one that is just a repetition of you rather than it being anything kind of communal or a linking or a coming together. And that idea kind of, yeah, I stuck on that idea for a while thinking, yeah, what would that look like if, you know, having children was just infinite repeat rather than variety, it was just a case of copying yourself essentially.

Mark: And maybe that also relates to the artistic impulse to make something.

Luke: Yeah, I think, yeah, definitely. Yeah. the idea of, yeah, living beyond yourself, definitely that sense of, yeah, leaving something behind maybe that, you know, do you do it with children, do you do it with art? Finding a version of yourself that you can, yeah, pass on.

Mark: And, you know, for me, one of the drawbacks of writing, you know, short lyric poems of the kind that predominate these days is you get one, you get the idea, and then you’ve done it, and then you’ve got to wait. You know, it’s like waiting for a bus. You’ve got to wait for another one to come along. So what was it like having the homunculus in your poetic life, so to speak, so that maybe you knew there would be another, you know, he or she would be hanging around and you could play with it again and have another homunculus poem shortly?

Luke: It was lovely really, I really enjoyed it, just that constant, ‘Oh, I wonder what the homunculus would think of this.’ I think one of the things you hear as a poet more often than not is kind of people telling you, ‘Oh, you could get a poem out of that.’ Or, ‘That could be a poem,’ that kind of, you know, the expectation that, you know, you are constantly on, you are always looking like a magpie for that next thing to write about.

But having another angle to come at it from you know, that idea of telling it slant, you know, there are very, very, very good poems that kind of pick up on, you know, something that happened and use that as a jumping off point for a wider universal truth in that lyric tradition. But I think I wanted to try to do or look at things in a slight, I don’t know, maybe I was fed up with me and my way of looking at things and was looking for a way of shocking myself into a different perspective. And so this homunculus kind of came on as a bit of a gift really, as this creature, this thing that would have a very different perspective, or at least, yeah, a different perspective, a different take on what was happening.

Mark: And let’s think about the form of the poem. I mean, firstly, how typical is this form of the rest of the collection?

Luke: The homunculus poems all have this central margin, I suppose, this gap that runs down the middle. So it’s quite typical of the other homunculus poems in terms of how it looks on the page. The poem on the page is in four kind of equal standards, four quatrains, but with this split down the middle. And I think it’s probably more formal in that regard than some of the others. But the run-on lines, like I said, that central kind of marginated sculptural split, I suppose, that runs down the middle there. There’s a fair few poems that do that and I think I really enjoyed playing around with that.

About five, six years ago I started toying with a lack of, or very reduced punctuation in poetry, and this poem kind of ties in with that and, I guess, uses breath and space rather than that, I think that kind of probably came from many, many, many, many, many poets do it. But the one that really hit for me, I suppose, with Andrew McMillan’s first collection, it’s a physical collection that use these breath spaces to kind of let some light and let some air into the poem because I do tend to write quite densely in that the images do tend to pile up. And I really like layering sound on sound as well.

There’s a lot of repetition in the poem, there’s a lot of repeated phrases and sounds as well, particularly vowel sounds. And I think a way of really opening the poem up for me is just giving it that physical space on the page, splitting those lines and kind of, yeah, letting a bit more air and breath into it on the page as well.

Mark: Yeah. And we could really hear, you know, the gap in the middle of the line. We could hear that as you read it. I mean, for me, obviously, with this topic, it made me think of the sea and the waves and the details piling up the way the waves and the pebbles pile up on the shore.

Luke: Yeah. I think within each poem that central, you know, marginated blank space seems to do something else within each time I’ve used it. And here, definitely, that wave that one runs through the poem was a real, I like it when, you know, things that you are choosing, you know, methods that you choose that aid one element of your craft, of your poetry also have a knock-on impact on others as well. And whilst, yeah, that breath, that break was brought in as a sound feature originally, definitely on the page visually, it’s definitely doing that kind of wave-like seascape job this time, I suppose.

Mark: And you’ve got this wonderfully understated, but really quite unsettling ending.

Luke (from poem recording):

he plants my feet in the water         the water sucks at them
like a hungry tongue                       I’m brought to the edge
teetering in two places at once                against the flat world
wind stings the line of my lips               salt in the corners of my feet

Mark: So we’ve got that, you know, father’s planting us carefully there, but the water, you know, the sea is sucking at it like a tongue. And he’s brought to the edge. You talked about Paracelsus being at the edge, but you know, every child is brought to the edge really at some point. And that flat world is quite a resonant phrase, isn’t it, in the context of the cosmology of the time?

Luke: Yeah. I think I was probably pulled back towards that painting again, towards The Monk by the Sea. And just that idea of if we are on this flat plane, this two-dimensional plane, you know, where will things catch, I suppose, the idea of what would be the instances, you know, those angles in which things might grab, in which things might get caught. And certainly that last line, you know, if we are on this flat landscape because that’s, I think, how I imagine them, the homunculus and his father standing against this very kind of ostensibly two-dimensional boardscape, I guess.

Mark: Right. That’s what it looks like…

Luke: Where do things catch? Where can things get in? And it’s just those small corners, I guess, you know, the line of a lip, the corner of a foot. I think that’s where I was probably going with that last bit, trying to anchor it in that image again. But yeah, then there is that, I think there a lot of the homunculus poems in with a, not quite a threatening tone perhaps, but definitely a sense of, I don’t know, maybe it is what the Romantics we’re talking about with the sublime, this idea of something huge and terrifying and, you know, awesome in the sense that, you know, it mutes you, it leaves you, you know, it leaves you cold, it leaves you, you know, wondering about your tiny little place in a gigantic world.

And so I think that’s definitely in there at the end of this one. And obviously, you know Caspar David Friedrich is something of a Romantic painter. Definitely his more famous pieces perhaps are those that definitely tie into that romantic tradition of the sublime and the hugeness of nature.

Mark: Absolutely. I once saw William Golding interviewed, I think he was on The South Bank show. And they had Golding sat on a rock at the edge of the sea, and Melvin Bragg was asking him questions. And at one point Golding said, ‘You know what? It’s actually really hard to talk because I’m just looking at the sea and everything just feels utterly insignificant, anything that I would say just next to the sea.’ And I love the way you evoke that feeling in this poem, you know, and it’s the classic walk by the shore on a winter’s day, and it’s not comforting, is it? It’s bracing.

Luke: It’s not, no, it’s not, it is bracing. And I think that’s probably why we do it so often, like kind of particularly this time of year when it’s stormy and it’s moody, and it’s big. And I think against that, yeah, maybe any attempts to explain, you know, why not have a sea that is upside down and waves are coming up from a place in the middle of the ocean that’s being belched out?

I mean, it makes no difference, does it, to the enormity of what’s in front of you. Whether it’s, you know, wind fetch across a vast amount of sea, or whether is some, you know, God pushing water up from the very base of the earth, it makes no difference to what’s going on at the surface. And that’s what we’re encountering is surface. And, yeah. And behind that could be anything, which is, you know, equally incredible and terrifying, I suppose.

Mark: Well, thank you, Luke. Let’s hear the poem again and contemplate that surface.

Luke: Sure.

Mark: And feel small again. [Laughter]


 

Homunculus by the Shore

by Luke Palmer

at the tideline with my father              we are the only uprights
sea skidding white fur up the strand            sea always arriving
coming to me and arriving at me           like an eager dog
bringing all its versions                    the rotten smell of itself

my father digs with his big toe           the sea goes through that
he says waves don’t break         they go down
the hill of the sea is inside out       waves roll up it
all the way to the top             they end at my feet

my father swings me           high over the waves
that go down forever           down to the sea’s throat
belching out water          the sea is a generous element
it will hold you up      it will let you in

he plants my feet in the water        the water sucks at them
like a hungry tongue                     I’m brought to the edge
teetering in two places at once               against the flat world
wind stings the line of my lips               salt in the corners of my feet

 


Homunculus

‘Homunculus by the Shore’ is from Homunculus  by Luke Palmer, published by Broken Sleep Books.

Homunculus book cover

Available from:

Homunculus is available from:

The publisher: Broken Sleep Books

Amazon: UK | US

Bookshop.org: US

Luke Palmer

Luke Palmer portrait photo

Homunculus is Luke Palmer’s first full collection, released in early 2024 following two earlier pamphlets. His poems, described as ‘stark and beautiful’ and ‘meticulously woven’, have been widely published and anthologised. His work touches on many themes, most often parenting and children. He won the 2022 Winchester Poetry Prize for ‘Desire | Fathers’ and has taught on poetry and fatherhood for the Poetry School. Luke is also a critically acclaimed author of novels for young people and has been longlisted for the Carnegie Medal. He lives in Wiltshire with his young family.     

LukePalmerWriting.com

 

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