Grey Matter

by Michael Murphy

My mind leads me to speak now of forms changed
into new bodies
Ovid, Metamorphoses

I don't want the exigency of writing a contribution to this website to overstress my conversion to science. I'm aware that essentially I use scientific terms as a barbarian, an outsider, a non-practitioner. They have provided me, though, with metaphors. And as poetry is rooted in metaphor, they are an invaluable store.

Any use of science, its language and ideas have been relatively few and far between in my writing. My first collection, After Attila (1998), consisting of a sequence of translations from the Hungarian poet Attila József (1905-1937) and an original sequence called "Postcards from Budapest", can be seen as being essentially lyric. Attila may have spoken for us both when he says:

In my garden 
tobacco ripens. 
The lyric, logic, 
but not science.
(from "Kertemben érik a")

In the last of my translations, József appears as the quintessential artist-creator struggling with recalcitrant matter:

My heart labours to create a god 
who’ll raise from stubborn clay and blood 
a garden, wild as angels.
(from 'Édesanyám, egyyetlen, drága’)

What strikes me as interesting (of fairly localised interest, I admit), is that at the beginning of my second collection, Elsewhere (2003), there is more of a tension between the possibilities of the imaginative spaces – gardens – created by science and art. The opening poem, "Elsewhere", describes a child's experiment in the organic matter of life and death. Having found a dead thrush, he buries it 'among broken pots, split canes and bulbs / sprouting in the loamy darkness / under your dad's shed'. He then spends a sleepless night in anticipation of digging up the bird next day 'to see if – if – feathers, beak and all the / intricately coiled stuff / / had, with morning, ascended.' The science, however, is signified here not by language but by silence, a blank line that expresses either ignorance or wonder.

The poem that immediately follows, "The Garden", in part a homage to the C17th poet Andrew Marvell, begins in a not dissimilar locus of childhood memory: 'Slicing the ground open, / I turn the soil over. Inside / is dark and moist as Christmas cake.' What happens then is an attempt to explore a lived experience through an engagement with science. 'Quizzical of light', the poet realises that 'Arrangements are being made / that I can’t reach. / As cells split / and open'. As in 'Elsewhere', the mystery of what is happening in the soil can only be approached through a hybrid of empiricism and imagination.


the light by which mind gathers 
to green thoughts in a shuttered room; 
our urge to trade the vegetable 
or mineral for animal, 
and write ourselves into the exchange.

Iona Heath has said how anthropomorphism allows us to begin to understand how the human genius 'generates God at the interstices of infinity and eternity, within the totality and intensity of human experience, at the limits of both memory and imagination. … The key seems to be a combination of coherence, connection and hope'[1]. My Catholic upbringing spoke to me in metaphors and instilled me with ways of understanding that, in Maurice Rioirdan's words on astronomy and poetry, takes us to the 'threshold of what is sayable [.] Poets perhaps are drawn towards utterances simply by looking up' [2]. Or down, of course, into the earth. Later some understanding of scientific methods and at least a basic knowledge of the various fields of science was important to my atheism. It wasn't enough to simply deny the existence of God and the supernatural in favour of absence. What the G.P. and former member of the Human Genetics Commission Iona Heath says about the subject is particularly illuminating in the context of Ted Hughes and George Steiner: the former, according to Seamus Heaney, who 'believed in the gene and its laws as the reality we inhabit' but who also 'recognised that myths and fairy tales were the poetic code, that the body was a spirit beacon as well as a chemical formula'; and the latter who sees language as a negation of negation, as a 'refusal of the brute inevitability, of the despotism of the fact' [3].

Which isn't to say that atheism need be a 'brute inevitability' as it is clumsily and despotically often equated with scientists. We may take the Gospels as metaphor and symbol, which isn't to say that the evangelical or fundamentalist will allow us to be free to do so. Similarly with science if language is reduced and removed by number, metrics by mathematics then we are in danger at being at some loss. It may also rob us of compassion and the attempt to speak with and to understand each other. Such an approach, however, what Richard Dawkins calls the 'purging of saccharine', would appear to be proposed by the chemist Peter Atkins:

We are the children of chaos, and the deep structure of change is decay. At root, there is only corruption, and the unstemmable tide of chaos. … This is the bleakness we have to accept as we peer deeply and dispassionately into the heart of the Universe.[4]

But while Atkins is bleakly dispassionate, nevertheless he relies on the poetic. He uses metaphors: we are 'children'; we go searching for 'root' causes; chaos is an 'unstemmable tide'; and the universe has a 'heart'. In other words, his convictions might be unconvincing without marrying them to images. Is there then much difference between Atkins and Marvell’s "The Garden":

The mind, that ocean where each kind 
Does straight its own resemblance find; 
Yet it creates, transcending these, 
Far other worlds, and other seas; 
Annihilating all that's made 
To a green thought in a green shade.

Both imaginations fly hither and thither. The subjective and the objective spark off each other. They fuse and make something individual. And what Atkins says is important to Richard Dawkins, though perhaps not for entirely the right reason. Seemingly not recognising that his reliance on metaphor makes his writing perfectly approachable – humane – Dawkins despairs that Atkins' 'tough-mindedness in the debunking of cosmic sentimentality' brings us close to Keats' scathing critique of science as a 'cold philosophy' and 'dull catalogue of common things'. Atkins is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't.

Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow (as with almost all his book titles, a metaphor) is a passionate and at times very beautiful defence of science's ability to reveal that most Keatsian of equations, 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty', and borrows its title from Keats' "Lamia":

Philosophy will clip an Angel's wings,

Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,

Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine –

Unweave a rainbow [.]

According to Dawkins Keats was wholly against science, believing 'that Newton had destroyed all the poetry of the rainbow by reducing it to the prismatic colours. Keats could hardly have been more wrong' [5]. I wonder, however, how mistaken Dawkins is in coming to this conclusion. Keats was no orthodox Christian. The reference in "Lamia" to an 'awful rainbow once in heaven' with its implicit Divine punishment of the human race by Flood is hardly unambivalent given Keats' awful experience of watching his mother and brother die of what was known as consumption (consumption and tuberculosis only being synonymous in the 1840s) subjecting them to the fatal illness of drowning in their own body fluids. Keats also made other references to weaving, including "The Fall of Hyperion" where 'Fanatics have their dreams wherewith they weave / A Paradise for a Sect'. And – admittedly my metaphor – as a medical student and wound-dresser he was all too familiar with the 'unweaving' of the human body. It is also interesting to see Keats' portrayal by Haydon in his painting Christ's Entry into Jerusalem in which he appears in a constellation of figures including Wordsworth, Voltaire and Newton. 'In the fierce profile,' Stanley Plumley writes, 'with eyes and mouth wide open, he looks to be interested in something else. The look is wild eyed, if not agnostic.' [6]

It is interesting that for all his many references to Keats inUnweaving the Rainbow Dawkins never actually quotes in full the passage from "Lamia". He therefore repeatedly takes it out of context. Had he not done so, Dawkins might recognise what would appear to be an example of defamaliarisation, or what in the context of his definition of 'Negative Capability' Keats described in a letter to Shelley as being 'when man is capable of being in uncertainties'. Or we might transpose Keats' aim to countering, in Dawkins' phrase, the 'Anaesthetic of Familiarity'. This is the aim of metaphor and simile: the establishing of creative tensions between what we think we know – say, a rainbow – and what we might know of all it could uncertainly and imaginatively mean. Or as Dawkins says at the conclusion of his book when defining 'poetic science': 'unconstrained virtual reality, in which the brain simulates things that are not actually there at the time' [7]. Keats, then, was drawing more on science than Dawkins assumes: that a rainbow doesn't actually exist outside the prism of our own eye. There is no absolute accounting for the eye of the beholder.

As I began by saying, I don't want to overstress my conversion to science. It has provided me with metaphors. Looking through Elsewhere, I can see that what has been described as an unresolved tension provides a springboard for a number of poems. "Antimony" takes its cue from a newspaper article about the ancient Egyptian discovery of 'dry chemistry'; the genetic modification of food gets a look in "One for the Road"; and in "Common Ground" a Polish exile's sense of home and identity is likened to 'streams / of gypsum, calcium, quartz / ... so many unsettled atoms'. I also didn't want to dismiss the science of cooking and so there's a perfectly serviceable recipe – French, admittedly – for serving trout in 'Ovid in an English Kitchen Garden'.

In spring 2005 I was made Writer-in-Residence at the National Wildflower Centre in Knowsley in 2005. A glorious garden, if you like. My residency coincided with two anniversaries: the 30th birthday of Landlife, a charity based at NWC that is committed to creating wildlife areas which have sustainable links to their communities [8]; and the 60th anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in Europe in 1945. What I became interested in were the ways in which culture (e.g. the existence of a place like the Centre) articulates the space between Self and World, or how the wild is grafted onto civilisation. Wildflowers became a focus for this. In particular in "Essays", a sequence of thirty aphorisms linked by the refrain 'les fleurs advises', a French term for wildflowers that expresses the fear that the wild exists beyond censure or control and makes us want to turn them into scapegoats for all manner of human ills [9]. Interestingly, as John Berger writes in his collection of five stories set in rural France, Once in Europa, the middle panel of his Into Their Labours triptych, wildflowers are known as 'the souls of poets'.

With "Essays" I tried to look hard and to become obsessed. The extremely limited pallet of rhymes I limited myself to in the sequence was intended as an aid to obsession. Nevertheless, what is seen is more often than not non-scientific: 'Bittercress. Its compact pinnate / Leaves a famine ship under sail'; 'A watering can of Glysophate / Predicts the ruin of the state'; or 'A sweet disorder? Herbicide / Puts wanton Herrick in the shade'. Even when the poem springs directly from science (e.g. that each single kind of wildflower seed has its own specific atomic weight in order to aid pollination), the fact invariably leads me elsewhere: 'In a time of dearth, calculate / Love like a seed's atomic weight'. And natural phenomena invariably return to human history: 'Spring like the H-bomb detonates / Angels pirouetting on mass graves'. As in earlier poems, we are left between the imponderables of wilderness / culture and science becomes a way of entering the irrational.

Whether I am teaching creative writing at a university or leading a workshop for children, if I am faced with offering an explanation for what happens when we write, I turn to a simile drawn from the laws of refraction. Refraction is the change in direction of a wave due to a change in speed, and the most commonly seen example is the refraction of light. The example I give is how, if you dip your finger into a glass of water, the finger will appear to be dislocated. It will, entering the new medium (from air to water), appear to jink off at a painful angle. This is analogous to what happens when we write.

The great poet of this is Ovid, whose Metamorphoses in effect is a De Rerum Natura, a natural history of anthropomorphosis: how matter was wrestled from Chaos and how gods and humans struggled over millennia for control of human self-determination. Ovid takes to the subject like a forensic scientist, stripping away the body and its vicissitudes and revealing the operation of a fundamental principle: nothing can remain unchanged. To attempt to stay still is to risk falling.

I may now have found another simile for explaining the affect of taking lived experience and immersing it in language. An alternative title for Ovid's poem might be taken from the opening chapter of Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos, "Roads to Reality: Space, Time, and Why Things Are As They Are". I happened to be reading Greene's book while waiting to have an MRI scan at the Walton Centre for Neurology and Neurosurgery in October 2007. I read this:

When you have an MRI, how is it that a device that remains outside your body can take a detailed picture of your insides?

Just what I was wondering. And the answer?

An MRI's magnetic field seeps into your body, causing particular atoms to gyrate in just the right way to generate their own magnetic fields – fields that the machine can detect and decode into a picture of internal tissues [10].

The MRI did its work and the causes of some aphasic disturbances I was having with speech, reading and writing were diagnosed. Essentially, cellular change. My grey matter was being colonised and destroyed by the most rapacious, single-minded, amoral force in the universe: life itself. Les fleurs mauvaises. Under the aegis of neurosurgery and oncology, science now had to find a way of counter-balancing this cellular change. It can't wholly stop it. It can only affect a temporary halt, striking a bargain of the kind we try to broker when we mutter 'Rain, rain go away / Come again another day'. Poetry's role is less definite. We might argue that it is irrelevant to the survival of the organism. What its role is essential to, however, is the survival of a sense of someone who was in the world at a particular time. The person who was offered the chance to follow Blake and clamber into eternity through the aperture of the present moment, or the person who simply had hopes that a rain shower might be delayed. This sets up an interesting dialectic. On the one hand life; on the other, the human. Without the beneficences of science the organism will perish; without the operation of language, it will be as though the human had never existed. The utterly wild will win out over a culture of feeling. Or as Ovid says about the primal chaos when earth and water remained undistinguishable:

a shapeless, unwrought mass of inert bulk 
and nothing more, with the discordant seeds 
of disconnected elements all heaped 
together in anarchic disarray.

And it's this, as far as I can tell, that the man in the first poem posted here, 'The Man Who Walked On Water', resists. That in doing so he creates a fair degree of chaos in the world around him, however, may well be simply another example of refraction. It's certainly a violent and painful dislocation, his entering a new element.


November 2008

What I earlier wrote for this contribution to the Centre came during the time when I was being treated with six weeks of five daily doses of radiotherapy and seven daily doses of oral chemotherapy. This lasted for six weeks, after which I received a further six monthly doses of chemotherapy. At the end of the period, I – or my organism – was declared a responder. My tumour appeared to have shrunk by about 45-50 %. Remission, however, was brief. After six weeks or so of no further treatment, I began to sense the return of relatively minor versions of the neurological symptoms from which I first suffered. This led to my being sent for a succession of MRI scans, the aim being less to determine whether or not the tumour had started re-growing (my symptoms all but confirmed that) but if it was possible to remove the tumour surgically without leaving my speech and ability to understand language – orally and written – severely limited. Two scans remained inconclusive. It was hoped that a third scan – a functional scan – would prove more definitive.

Let me revisit how an MRI scanner works. Lying inside the cigar-shaped magnet, radio waves 10-30,000 times stronger than the magnetic field of the earth are sent through the body. This affects the body's atoms, forcing the nuclei into a different position. As they move back into place they send out radio waves of their own and the scanner picks up the signals. The signals are then turned into a picture. As our body consists mainly of water, and water contains hydrogen atoms, the nucleus of the hydrogen atom is most often used to create an image. The tissue that has the least hydrogen atoms (such as bones) turns out dark, while the tissue that has many hydrogen atoms (such as the brain) appears much brighter.

As I say, the aim of my third scan in a month was to see how close the tumour was to that hydrogen-soaked part of my brain that controls language. To do so, I was asked to carry out a series of language-based tests. Silently. To speak would have meant the scan picking up the functionality of my tongue and lips rather than language. Silently, then, I was to list words beginning with "A", "D" or "F"; or to answer, silently, what I might do with a "chair", a "plate", a "glass". The final exercise proved more problematical – perhaps because it involved a reversal – or spin – of verbal atoms not anticipated by the MRI team.

I was delayed going into the scanner. While the computer was re-booted Dr Trevor Smith kindly talked me through the programme. The final section was to do with rhyme. Two words would appear on the computer screen that I could see through the scanner's "periscope". If they rhymed I was to squeeze a hand-held black rubber bulb which would beep. If they didn't rhyme, I was to remain still. No beep. This seemed simply enough until Dr Smith started running me through the programme. Because while a fair number of coupled words clearly either did or did not rhyme, there were a number that were half-rhymes, assonance or eye-rhymes. When I asked about this, the doctor was confused. There were no other kinds of rhyme. "Cat" will rhyme with "mat" but not "Not". I disappeared into the scanner, then, having to concentrate on full rhymes. This seemed more than ironic given the enormous power of the radio waves subjecting every atom in my cranium to, in cricketing terms, reverse swing. Or if ping-pong is more your thing, top- or backspin.

'Simple, sober clarity will do nicely,' Richard Dawkins writes, 'letting the facts and the ideas speak for themselves. The poetry is in the science' [11]. Yes and no. What does it mean to speak soberly when words – vowels and consonants – spin and move off-beam? How does a poem let an idea speak for itself when it subjects every idea to the metaphorical? Reverse swing. Topspin. Backspin. Before we can construct or unweave a rainbow, the brain needs to be able to refract, focus and reverse the image on the cornea, retina and in the brain. Not only this, the right half of the visual field in each eye is processed by the left half of the brain. Something similar happens with language. If we are right-handed we process language with the left side of the brain. And vice versa. Yet immediately after I emerged from the scanner, Dr Smith told me that although I am right-handed the images nevertheless showed that I use both sides of my brain to process language. This was something he had read about but not seen. What did I do in my daily life, he wondered, that might contribute to this?

While I can't scientifically prove that writing and reading poetry contribute to my continued relative well-being, how language affects me was lit up there on the screen for my surgeon and oncologist to see. What did it look like? Like a landscape peered at from the air at night: from a window on one side of the fuselage, a large conurbation of light; from the other, scattered homesteads, hamlets, car headlamps, motorways, harbours, airports. Such images, of course, exist only in my imagination. But poetry, to quote Dawkins – who was referring to Wilfred Owen's "The poetry is in the Pity", who in turn was influenced by Keats' use of assonance – is in the science. In the case of the MRI scanner, however, the science was in the poetry. Or at least my responses to language laid down some marks that were both objective – the location of the tumour – and subjective – whatever it is in my brain that has led language astray from the hemisphere where it is expected to be found.

The MRI functions by "reading" water, the element on which we cannot leave any but the briefest and most transitory of marks. As Marianne Moore says in "A Grave":

it is human nature to stand in the middle of a thing,

but you cannot stand in the middle of this;

the sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.

The epigraph that Keats asked for on his grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome concludes with 'Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water'. As Robert Pogue Harrison points out, it was 'not written in water but on a headstone that continues to hold the place of its reference. Just as we build on the earth, so too we write in its elements, regardless of the medium'[12]. And this returns me again to metamorphosis. Keats originally dictated his epigraph to his companion in Rome Tom Severn, who wrote it on paper with ink. Only later was the headstone carved with steel on stone. So Keats' "dying" breath metamorphosed to stylus and then to stele. Similarly the epigraph itself may have originated in a number of other places, primarily Beaumont and Fletcher's play Philaster ('All your better deeds / Shall be in water writ'), Shakespeare's Henry VIII('Men’s evil manners, live in Brasse, their Virtues / We write in Water') or Donne's "Elegy XVI" ('Are vows so cheap with women, or the matter / Whereof they're made, that they are writ in water [?]'). Unconsciously or not, Keats revives dead writers. Perhaps they were spinning in their graves. It is also notable that his actual name is entirely absent from the gravestone. Identified only as 'a / YOUNG ENGLISH POET' he enacts his own disappearance, as nothing writ in water lasts. Just like a rainbow which "signs" the sky in water but lasts only so long before the changing weather conditions "unweave" it.

I quote these variants to show how arguably the most famous thing Keats wrote, his epigraph, refers to both meanings of the Greek word sema: "sign" and "grave". To return to Harrison:

In its pointing to itself, or to its own mark in the ground, the sema effectively opens up the place of the 'here,' giving it that human foundation without which there would be no places in nature. For the sema points to something present only in and through its sign. Prior to gaining an outward reference, its 'here' refers to the place of a disappearance. [13]

So Keats has value as both at once. As does the rainbow or any number of natural phenomena observed through the lenses of science and poetry. The difference between the two is that poetry and not science relies utterly on language, on our mark-making. Science, or rather what it studies, neither needs nor knows us. It keeps stum. While a poet transforms language into a poem – it does not exist until it is written – a natural phenomenon is impervious to anything we might say. And so if poetry can be found in science, science must equally be located in poetry: to put a spin on things, to make them echo and reverberate like an MRI scanner that sounds us out. Or as Calvino says quoting the novelist Carlo Emilio Gadda: 'to know is to insert something into what is real, and hence to distort reality'. The tumour is something real and has "distorted" my reality. But so too did the letters and words I was given in the scanner. The second poem included here, then, is my small contribution to the relationship between 'everything and everything else' that Calvino describes as being found in two different books [14].


[1] Atkins, P.W. Atkins, The Second Law (1984) quoted in Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, ix.

[2] Heath, Matters of Life and Death, 52.

[3] Riordan, Dark Matter, 12.

[4] Heath, Matters of Life and Death, 51-52.

[5] Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, x.

[6] Plumley, Posthumous Keats, 30.

[7] Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 312.

[8] Accessed 16 November, 2007.

[9] "Essays" and a short introduction, Wild Analysis, are published inThe Reader No. 20, Winter 2005.

[10] Greene, The Fabric of the Cosmos, 40, 41.

[11] Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, 18.

[12] Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead, 14.

[13] Harrison, The Dominion of the Dead, 20.

[14] Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 107 ,112.



Berger, John, Once in Europa (London: Granta, 1989).

Blake, William, Blake’s Poetry and Designs, ed. Mary Lynn Johnson and John E. Grant (New York: Norton, 1979).

Calvino, Italo, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (London: Vintage, 1996).

Dawkins, Richard, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (London: Allen Lane, 1998).

Greene, Brian, The Fabric of the Cosmos: Space, Time, and the Texture of Reality (London: Allen Lane, 2004).

Harrison, Robert Pogue, The Dominion of the Dead (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2003).

Heath, Iona, Matters of Life and Death (Oxford and New York: Radcliffe Publishing, 2008).

Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Charles Martin (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2005).

Plumley, Stanley, Posthumous Keats (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008).

Riordan, Maurice and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Dark Matter: Poems of Space (UK: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, 2008).

Biographical Note

Michael Murphy's most recent collection of poems is Allotments(2008) and his poems are included in The New Irish Poets (ed. Selina Guinness, Bloodaxe, 2004). He is the author of a series of critical studies, including Poetry in Exile (Greenwich Exchange, 2004) andProust and America (Liverpool University Press, 2007). He is editor ofThe Collected George Garrett (Trent Editions, 1999) and the Collected Poems of Kenneth Allott (Salt, 2008), and he co-edited Writing Liverpool: Essays and Interviews (Liverpool UP, 2007) with Deryn Rees-Jones. He is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Nottingham Trent University.

The Man Who Walked on Water

Let’s not say, love, never again. We’ve reason 
to have faith, to believe in bodies changing 
form, casting off the old life for an unimagined 
new. Take (for example) your man who walked 
on water and astounded his friends. Word 
got round the local hacks, then Gay Byrne 
screened footage live on The Late Late Show. 

Proud at first, his family soon went ex- 
directory. The begging letters, obscene 
calls, a red-faced papal nuncio 
bullying Latin at the door. The phenomenon, 
they asked, was it congenital? That sleight 
redistribution of weight as he rose 
to his feet; the way his eyes looked past them

without warmth or recognition. 
He became (or so some said) an amalgam 
of early-hours hail and rain, then something 
else again. His voice, so unlike him,  
like a jay ratcheting song from out its throat; 
his smile, a bare bulb in an empty room, 
vouchsafing a soul left to burn all night.


‘To exist is a habit I do not despair of acquiring. I shall 
imitate the others, the cunning ones who have managed 
it, the turncoats of lucidity’

E.M. Cioran, The Temptation to Exist



We sealed our exiled fathers underground
like sleeping grain or the song of a thrush
wavering in the valley’s throat. Dindschenchas:
blackberries spent in the hedges, rotting-down
in ditches, guttering leaves, the tidal spill
of light that drowns the river then is lost
as it hurries into shadow, a ghost
piercing the side of a burial mound.

We catch at things that are at once familiar
yet transfigured by the flickering light of December;
a cold coming which illuminates
recumbent stones, funaries that concentrate
remembrance like the band of eternity  
I slip, now, on your finger. Wear me lightly. 


There are other remnants and ruins,
relics of further efforts or lives
abandoned now, unexplained like empty hives;
other mysteries, other carefully built
rooms become windbreaks, scorched grass, bleached bone,
wildflowers run to seed, seeds running wild
while swifts weave a heaven out of the blue.                                    

We can only guess what accident or need
brought them to this crooked arm of the Boyne
and had them raise the stations of the moon;
a skull housing the swan-song of the whooper
as Crow and Eagle sink among the bone-
cold hills, constellating light as black roots
stir underground, insinuating leaves.