Emma Cairns Watson writes, coordinates Egyptology conferences, and spoils her dogs in Los Angeles. Her poetry has been or published or is forthcoming in Glass, Sugar House Review, RHINO, Pithead Chapel, and Ninth Letter. @ecairnswatson
Emma’s poem “The Cephalopod and the Wedding Dress” appears in the Fall 2019 issue of Carve. Order your copy here.
The poem is stacked with allusions to the life of Jeanne Villepreux-Power, a marine biologist who pioneered the aquarium and studied octopuses. How did you encounter her story, and what made you want to write about it?
In August 2018 I had the opportunity while on vacation to visit Oxford’s Museum of Natural History, which was running at the time a “Shout out for Women in Science” exhibit. I have a terrible memory, so I spend a lot of my time at museums irritating friends and family by (flash-off) photographing every single sign, and rarely walk out the door without at least a few ideas. I went back just now and found my picture of the museum’s plaque on Villepreux-Power, sandwiched between photographs of a display on antediluvian hyena bones (also now a poem—one which for reasons I can’t imagine no one seems to want)—and one on the Transylvanian noble Frans Baron Nopcsa von Felsö-Szvilas, who is probably worth a volume of poetry, or at any rate worth googling. Of course I didn’t have any idea of the ultimate form of the poem at the time (or, really, until I got to writing the final lines) but I was immediately fascinated I think just by the concept—for some reason this had never occurred to me before—that somebody had had to actually invent the aquarium. When I started reading about her life I was instantly captivated.
Have you written—or read—other poems about women scientists, or is there another scientist you'd like to write about?
I’ve definitely been writing science poems for a long time. In college I studied English Lit and neuroscience, and I spent a lot of my senior year on a collection of poems about neurophysiology and my work in a behavioral lab. Discounting myself and my lab partners, however, I’ve never before or since built a poem around another woman scientist (or really around any historical figure). Now that I’m realizing this… included in the same natural history exhibit that introduced me to Villepreux-Power were two women entomologists: Eleanor Anne Ormerod, the first women fellow of the British Meteorological Society, and who a dean at Edinburgh described as “the protectress of agriculture and the fruits of the earth—a beneficent Demeter of the 19th century”—and Maria Sibylla Merian, a scientific illustrator of insects. I’d like to write about them.
One of the central objects here, the wedding dress, gets less play. Villepreux-Power was originally known as a dressmaker who created the bridal gown for a royal wedding. How do you think this fits in with the rest of the poem and everything else we know about its subject?
Originally, but not (now) primarily! Maybe this is just because we just seem to know less about Villepreux-Power’s life during and up to the creation of this bridal gown, but every history I’ve been able to find of her mentions this accomplishment more as just a footnote—a brief episode in her biography, but never the point of her entry. I’m making excuses here because I started this poem in a science museum and therefore with a foot on the scientific side of things and never really shifted my weight. Still, I agree the dress is critical. Everything I’ve read about her does tempt me to interpret her scientific accomplishments as made possible by the wealth and connections she made in pursuit of this first and more traditionally feminine career. I’m totally fascinated by the apparent incongruity of these two talents, and wanted to showcase that in the poem’s title. But maybe they’re not so different? Villepreux-Power was literally the first scientist patient enough to sit for hours in observation and solve the mystery of the origins of the intricate, skirt-like nautilus egg cases. Working as a seamstress—the skill, the persistence, the attention to fine detail—has to have been good training!
Both of the characters in this poem, the argonaut octopus who builds a buoyant egg case and the scientist who builds a life studying these creatures, achieve something meaningful and "stay afloat" in the act of creation. Do you think that's similar to what writers do?
Absolutely, I love that. Albeit less literally so than for the animal and (for most) less financially successfully so than for Villepreux-Power, I do like to think artistic creation propels us generally upward—closer to where we need to be. I also hope this poem comes across as no less about creation than about credit. I approached exploring this using Villepreux-Power’s proof (contrary to beliefs at the time) that (female) A. argo create their own egg cases rather than finding and appropriating one—credit where credit is due! The names of women scientists like Villepreux-Power are so often unfamiliar to us, sometimes just forgotten but others purposefully obscured. We’re beginning to try to acknowledge the contributions of scientists like Rosalind Franklin and Dorothy Vaughn, but there’s so much further to go.