Making Waves

for Maurice Wilkins


Light diffracted on a bedroom wall
at 30 Kelburn Parade, making waves
through a cloth blind, circa 1920;
outside, pongas and cabbage trees
lie just within memory’s range,
a pattern and a shadow.
The silence here is qualified
but it draws you out, four years old,
or five. The world’s a single room
where fronds and wind tap a code
against the window pane.

Next up you’re wild, sprinting down
a helix of concrete steps
from the hills to the harbour.
Or you’re leaning into a gale
commensurate to your incline
and weight; the elements support you,
and the blustery horizon
is fresh with new information.


And now the landscape changes
from island to continent to island again,
and there’s a sea-change as we fire off
certain rays to form a transverse
across your history.
you wintered over in laboratories
and made a virtue of basements
and arcane knowledge; you found
a scientific silence or a calm
in which things are worked out
at a snail’s pace, a slime
stretched and scrutinized between
forefinger and thumb to yield
a feast of the truth, or a field
ploughed with frustration, if that
is where our guesses land us.
For Science is a railway carriage
rocking with big ideas, sometimes
stalled on the sidings or slowed
on branch lines near rural stations.
And still the whole is too huge for us
to comprehend, one metre long,
wrapped around each cell,
unread until it’s unwound,
the scarf and valence of our complexity,
from which we derive our unique timbre
to say: Well done! Well done!


To an amateur an x-ray plate
looks like an old fashioned
gramophone disk: yet it plays
scratchy music of the spheres,
jazz of an original order.
Or perhaps it’s the ground-section
of a Byzantine cathedral, or a basilica
of double colonnades and semi-circular apse
— and who builds upwards from that
to discover the grand design? Who
constructs with only a floor plan
to find the elevations?
who are neither architects nor masons
but quiet archaeologists of the unseen
hand and mind of God, digging upwards
to the exquisite airy construction
of the double helix. Gifted clumsiness?
Genius? You are there at the start of it,
a chiropractor of the biophysical,
clicking the backbone of DNA into place.

Chris Orsman was born in Lower Hutt in 1955 and now lives and writes full time in Wellington. He has two main collections of poetry published, Ornamental Gorse (Victoria University Press 1994) and South (Victoria University Press 1996 & Faber & Faber 1999) as well as four chapbooks published by his own poetry label, Pemmican Press. In 1998, along with Bill Manhire and Nigel Brown, he was one of the inaugural Artists to Antarctica, and is currently completing a new Antarctic sequence of poems based on their visit to the continent in January 1998. His poems have been published in SportLandfallTakahe, and Printout, and have been represented in a number of anthologies, the latest being Flora Poetica (Chatto & Windus, London, 2002). He was the 2002 Writer in Residence at Victoria University, Wellington, attached to the International Institute of Modern Letters.

Orsman comments: ‘The poem was commissioned by the Royal Society of New Zealand to commemorate the achievement of Maurice Wilkins, New Zealand-born pioneer of DNA discovery and 1962 Nobel Laureate. It was read at King’s College, London, in December 2002, at a ceremony to mark the unveiling of an official portrait of Wilkins. Emily Perkins, expatriate novelist and short-story writer, read the poem on behalf of the author.

The poem itself is an amalgam of biographical and scientific detail, beginning with a contemplation of a vanished birthplace and moving out into specific detail of Maurice Wilkins’ scientific field (x-ray crystallography) and the extraordinary blue-print of the DNA molecule that he discovered. The poem finishes with a play of imagery around the original x-ray plate itself.’

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