Sunday, August 30, 2015

Allison Funk, Maria Sibylla Merian, and poetic discoveries

Poets often lead me to fascinating historical figures. Tyehimba Jess's volume Leadbelly led me to Blind Lemon Jefferson. Marilyn Nelson's volume The Freedom Business (2008) took me to Venture Smith. And in her volume Wonder Rooms (2015), my colleague Allison Funk introduced me to naturalist and scientific illustrator Maria Sibylla Merian.

Funk's "Maria Sibylla Merian's Metamorphoses" is a series of 8 interconnected poems that chart moments in Merian's life between 1647 and 1717. Referencing Merian's most popular work Metamorphosis of the Insects of Surinam also known as  Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium (1705), Funk points out in the notes to her volume that the book includes Merian's "drawings of South American insects unknown to European naturalists in her time." Funk also observes that "using her skills as an artist, [Merian] "painted watercolors that beautifully documented caterpillars in their habitats and their development into butterflies and moths."

The design of  Funk's poem (or series of poems) absorbs and reflects Merian's interest in metamorphoses. The entirety of the first poem in the series is embedded within the second poem in the series; the second poem is embedded within the third, and so forth. To read through the poem is to read through a series of evolving or transformative processes.

Funk's poem led me to Merian's illustrations.

From Metamorphosis insectorum Surinamensium, Plates LX and XLV by Maria Sibylla Merian
I've been intrigued by Merian's drawings of plants and insects. At the same time, I've been interested in the implications of Funk sketching this multi-part poem about Merian. There's a long history of poets writing about painters, but I'm less familiar with poets writing about painters who are naturalists and scientific illustrators.

Merian's travels in South America led her to groundbreaking and remarkable discoveries. And here, in Wonder Rooms, Funk made it possible for me to become aware of or discover Merian and her scientific, artistic works.

Allison Funk & Wonder Rooms
Poetry and the Wonder Room
A Notebook on Escape Artists

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