This entry is part 9 of 20 in the series Highgate Cemetery Poems


be still

How many miles into the earth
would we have to dig to find true stillness,
free from all taint of life?
Some bacteria can thrive solely
on the energy from radioactive decay,
know nothing of oxygen, & persist
as a single-species ecosystem,
alone in their subterranean cosmos.
We’ve come to learn a full half
of the total mass of life on earth
dwells underground or beneath
the ocean floor. So thoroughly have
we infected the planet, it might
never be rid of us, the poor thing,
burdened as it is with a barren mate
that remains untainted by its contagion,
circling at a safe distance
& summoning with a regular tug
that we like to think is somehow
meant for us.


It’s always a fun challenge to try to work such utterly geeky material into a poem. The bacteria mentioned is Desulforudis audaxviator — see “Real Life Journey To The Center Of The Earth Finds First Ecosystem With A Single Species” in Science 2.0. (Be sure to click on the photo if you can’t read the inscription on the gravestone.)

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19 Replies to “Extremophile”

  1. Well done, I really like it – “Be still” – wow…
    And I continue to enjoy your fabulous Highgate cemetery photos – you are certainly getting lots of inspiration and mileage out of them.

  2. What a lovely, deep poem. Both literally and figuratively. That the ‘bold traveler’ Audax viator could elicit this multilayer beauty is why you are a poet, and I am an uh..very average person who likes to read your poetry. Sort of like the difference between the lightening and the lightening bug as Twain would opine. For example, I looked at the tombstone and thought, well, that’s either a very funny riff on the fact that the woman would never shut up, or it’s perhaps the biblical quote “Be still and know that I am God.” That’s as deep as I excavated. Thank you for the greater enlightenment about the depth of darkness and stillness, Dave.

    1. Thanks, Joan, but don’t sell yourself short. Neither one of your ideas had occurred to me (I fear I don’t know the Bible as well as I should) and either or both would make a great poem. Also, lightning bugs are to my mind much more interesting than lightning.

  3. I think this is the sort of theme that can easily come off preachy, but there’s such lovely imagery here without getting too heavy with the message. I always have a hard time with subjects I care about too much; I’m impressed by how you manage to communicate something so important while still keeping the focus on the poetic. If that makes sense.

    1. Thanks. I’m glad you think so, because I do worry about sounding too sententious or whatnot. Writing this one was an interesting mental exercise for me because I am very accustomed to thinking of people as a plague on the planet, and life itself as an unquestioned good. This more Baudelairian view is thus a bit of a tonic.

  4. Remarkable juxtaposition of images—grave/death, life/man/bacteria, ecosystem/imbalances, the assailed Earth, and its distant star inflicting deserts and disasters to boot, but whose “tug we like to think is meant for us.” The irony is palpable. Either way, homo viator at the periphery of it all travels his distances, strong or dying. Reminds me of Manley Hopkins.

    1. Thanks, Albert — I’m glad this resonated with you. But oh dear, I’d hoped it was clear that the “shining mate” was the moon, not the sun. Maybe I need to rewrite those lines.

      1. I thought it was the moon because the tugging reference seemed tidal, but was not quite sure. Not quite sure, being my natural state of being, I just decided to wait until someone else would clarify. :)

        1. How about if I swap in “barren” for “shining”? “Shining” is overused in poetry anyway, and “barren” might be more resonant in this context.

          1. I thought it was the moon because of the partnership element. I like “shining” because of the sense of reflected rather than self-generated light. “Barren” would change the balance particularly because of the pejorative connotations, but not in a bad way. Interesting.

          2. O.K., I’ve made the switch, at least until I think of something better. “Barren” does have the advantage of some pleasing b-alliteration with “burdened.”

          3. I liked the moon circling and tugging and how we read that as our own. It’s so associated with the female via cycles of fertility and Selene and so on that “barren” seems interesting as a choice.

          4. Marly, that’s an excellent example of why I prefer to invent my own myths. Most of the ready-made ones are hopelessly anthropocentric.

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