Whale Nation

Heathcote Williams’ poem celebrating whales was one of the sources of text in John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (2015) but I didn’t hold that against the poem. (Most of the texts referenced in Akomfrah’s video installation—e.g. Moby-Dick, To The Lighthouse—seemed a sort of lip service that was supposed to grant the work intellectual rigor by association.)

This 1988 poem is presented swimming in a pod of photos of whales and dolphins, then jammed up against a dusty compendium of notes and amendments about whales—of course from Moby-Dick, from which it gets this idea of Extracts, but also from Fichtelius and Sjolander’s 1973 Intelligence in Whales, Dolphins, and Humans (most often referenced it seems), Montaigne, Pliny the Elder, etc. Aristotle’s quote: “The voice of the dolphin in air is like that of the human in that they can pronounce vowels and combinations of vowels, but have difficulties with the consonants.” (trans D’Arcy Thomson 1910).

The poem was informed by the facts presented in the end section, which by themselves are impressive. Apparently whales can call to each other over the entire breadth of the Pacific Ocean by emitting sound at a depth where two sound-reflecting layers are close to each other. The photos are not terrific, and fair warning there are several beastly ones of captured and flayed bodies.