As a child I loved the London Natural History Museum. One free afternoon in the summer of 2010, I went back nostalgically with my husband only to regret the heat and school holiday hordes.
I found myself lingering in front of a case that contained rounded stones in a range of sizes, quills lacking feathers, fragments of bone, under the label gastroliths (‘stomach stones’). These objects had been recovered, I read, from the gastrointestinal tract of a crocodile, which swallowed them deliberately to aid with its digestion. Crocodiles tear off gobbets of their prey, but lack grinding teeth to break down the meat.
This connected up in my mind with another image I had encountered some time earlier. One evening I caught a few minutes from the middle of a TV documentary called Inside Nature’s Giants. That episode, the team were granted permission to perform an autopsy on a zoo crocodile that had mysteriously died. I remember gloved hands carefully lifting the animal’s severed stomach, like a brimming water balloon, before pouring out its contents into a beaker. The zoologists gasped at the soupy mixture’s bright green hue, perhaps indicating that the animal had ingested some sort of poisonous plant, sprouting accidentally in its enclosure.
Around these two natural-historical particulars, the narrative of ‘Crocodile’ began to form. The story of the human couple – the pea soup, the chilly summer restaurant, their dinner conversation – was all reverse-engineered out of the simile I knew would be the poem’s climax. I made a note at the start of my thought process, which contained the poem’s seed:
The contents of its stomach pouring out, for all the world like one-time treasures tucked and forgotten in a childhood purse.
The London museum trip had set me thinking about relics and throwbacks from childhood, my mind harkening on the primary-school purse I still sometimes stumble across at the bottom of the chest of drawers in my childhood bedroom. In this initial nugget, the crocodile stomach was a girlhood purse: a time capsule for things long forgotten, then dredged back to the light.
‘Crocodile’ was one of the first poems to come to me after a long fallow period following the publication of my debut pamphlet. With speed – and a sense of relief – I set down a first draft in one sitting. I typed straight into a Word document. Normally my poems are born of long biro doodlings, warm-ups and stretches of quasi-automatic writing into my dog-eared, narrow-ruled US letter pad. (I bought it in the States a decade ago and am still using the same one, which I guess shows how unprolific I am!) Something about the poem’s narrative voice, its slightly fussy constructions, seemed to demand prose, which called in turn for the crispness of the word processor. The prose poems of Robert Hass’s Human Wishes were my immediate inspiration, and probably also suggested the ‘he’ and ‘she’ of my scenario (Hass is always writing about married couples). If you know where to look for them, there are all sorts of little tributes to his work spread through Loop of Jade.
Later I printed out the first draft of ‘Crocodile’ to scribble on:
You can see how the final poem’s territory is already mostly mapped out in that first draft, bar a few insights it would take me much longer to reach. A lot of these edits clustered around the poem’s final section, its final sentence even. My first stab at it read like this:
‘perfectly rounded stones, the hollowed quills of birds, a small girl’s purse, a broken comb.’
By this point, the girl’s purse from my initial note no longer stood for the crocodile stomach-cum-reliquary, but had become one of the swallowed relics inside it. My notes in the margin – something more extreme… too pretty + nice… more startling… – reveal my dissatisfactions, as well as the direction later drafts would take.
It wasn’t until I sat down to write this feature that I made a conscious connection between ‘Crocodile’ and Captain Hook’s ticking nemesis in Peter Pan. How funny the mind is! And yet I can imagine Hook’s Ahab-like drive for vengeance present in the background here. It took showing the poem to trusted friends for me to realise that ‘a small girl’s purse’ was too subtle to create the stir I desired: a crocodile could swallow a purse without having necessarily swallowed the girl. The ending needed more violence to work.
Many of the poems in Loop of Jade depend on extreme understatement for their effect. I find myself drawn to Freud’s concept of the ‘omission’ (Auslassung), which in The Interpretation of Dreams is the piece missing from the dream that provides its key. Structured around unsaid or hidden things, several of the book’s key poems derive their emotional charge from those repressed subtexts paradoxically looming at their centre.
But in the case of ‘Crocodile’, I needed to turn up the volume. Between drafts, I changed ‘a small girl’s purse’ to ‘a small girl’s hand’. That sense of an impersonal, emotionally disinterested gaze was something I arrived at instinctively; I can see in retrospect it’s created by the order of the items in the list, which pans on beyond its sensational penultimate item. After that small but vital change, the rest of the poem slotted into place.
Over the years they had had many similar meals. The starter was a
chilled pea soup, its oddity just enough to hold the attention; that
unexpected cold, spreading in waves over teeth and tongue. At that
moment, the blunt end of his spoon connected softly with the table.
The evening light skewed down from the high–up windows and
glittered off a hundred knives poised to cut. Maybe¹ she was thinking
how quickly the summer would go from now on. He feared that she
would leave him and said so too often when they were alone. She
looked down at her napkin, then up; in that second, when no eyes met,
it seemed perfectly right that words should be things you have to
digest². Why had she had to say it?³ He imagined all the conversations
in the room pouring from their unknown protagonists as though from
the excised stomach of a hulking and battle-scarred crocodile, an
eighteen-footer dragged straight from the Cretaceous. When the
triumphant fisherman tipped up that membranous sac, out would gush
an uncontrollable bilge of fluorescent green goo: he watched it
swilling across the restaurant’s parquet, chuckled as the tray-poised
waiters skidded on their windmilling hams, so many Michael Flatleys.
As the reeking ooze receded, the diners became aware of diverse
objects beached between their corroded chair legs4: asymmetrically
polished stones, the barb-stripped calami of ibis or other broad-quilled
waders, one rifled musket’s intact silver flintlock, a small girl’s hand,
an acid-dinted comb.
1 – ‘Maybe’ – My early drafts switched point of view freely and omnisciently between the man and woman. As I revised, it seemed important to cling to his consciousness, entering more deeply into his mind alone. Thanks to the later addition of ‘maybe’ at the start of this sentence, her thoughts suddenly become a matter of anxiety and speculation, viewed from outside.
2 – ‘words should be things you have to digest’ – Floating round my head was the association Renaissance writers drew between reading and eating, or more precisely between bad writing and vomit: the character in Jonson’s Poetaster who is forced to sick up a stomachful of pretentious bombast, or Spenser’s monster Errour, whose ‘vomit full of bookes and papers was’.
3 – ‘Why had she had to say it?’ – Another late addition, I think of this question as the poem’s supressed punctum. I have no idea what the ‘it’ she said was, or even whether it was said at this meal. (Between the lines of the second draft, you can see I inserted by hand the first possible candidate for this question – ‘Where was she last night?’ – but that seemed too bald, wrong for these characters as I came to understand them.)
4 – ‘he watched it swilling…corroded chair legs’ – This whole section came very late: ‘what’s in crocodile floods onto floor, waiters trip in it’ reads the marginal scribble on my second draft. And yet it’s so crucial to the poem’s logic. As the world of the crocodile-simile spills over into the poem’s ‘real world’, I meant the effect to be cinematic, like a movie fantasy sequence, but also uncanny, as the boundary between imagination and reality becomes impossibly porous. One early inspiration for ‘Crocodile’ was reading talismanic animal poems like Jack Underwood’s ‘Horse’ or Matthew Gregory’s ‘Young Pterodactyl’, whose weird setups actually tell a fable about a human relationship. Remembering that surreal mode freed me up to make this final leap in my own poem.
Sarah Howe is a British poet, academic and editor. Born in Hong Kong in 1983 to an English father and Chinese mother, she moved to England as a child. Her pamphlet, A Certain Chinese Encyclopedia (Tall-lighthouse, 2009) won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors. Her first collection Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015) is shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection 2015