Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Coelacanth Speaks...December 1938: An Original Animal Mask Poem

A few years ago, Grace Lin and Janet Wong critiqued my manuscript of animal mask poems. When they read Pterodactyl’s Wish, they got the idea that I should write a collection of poems about extinct animals.

Pterodactyl’s Wish
I’m pterodactyl. I’m extinct.
I’m just a fossil now…
A relic of Earth’s ancient past.
I wish that I knew how
To break these rocky bonds
Which keep me trapped in days of yore
So I could flap my stony wings
And fly again once more.

I got to work right away on the collection. I read nonfiction books about dinosaurs and other extinct animals. I also did research on the Internet. I soon began writing poems about different kinds of dinosaurs, fossils, the woolly mammoth, the dodo bird, Beelzebufo (a giant frog), the megalodon, the La Brea Tar Pits. I also wrote a poem about the coelacanth—a fish that was thought to have gone extinct over sixty million years ago.
Here’s some information about the coelacanth from National Geographic:

The primitive-looking coelacanth (pronounced SEEL-uh-kanth) was thought to have gone extinct with the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. But its discovery in 1938 by a South African museum curator on a local fishing trawler fascinated the world and ignited a debate about how this bizarre lobe-finned fish fits into the evolution of land animals.

There are only two known species of coelacanths: one that lives near the Comoros Islands off the east coast of Africa, and one found in the waters off Sulawesi, Indonesia. Many scientists believe that the unique characteristics of the coelacanth represent an early step in the evolution of fish to terrestrial four-legged animals like amphibians.

The most striking feature of this "living fossil" is its paired lobe fins that extend away from its body like legs and move in an alternating pattern, like a trotting horse. Other unique characteristics include a hinged joint in the skull which allows the fish to widen its mouth for large prey; an oil-filled tube, called a notochord, which serves as a backbone; thick scales common only to extinct fish, and 
an electrosensory rostral organ in its snout likely used to detect prey.

Coelacanths are elusive, deep-sea creatures, living in depths up to 2,300 feet (700 meters) below the surface. They can be huge, reaching 6.5 feet (2 meters) or more and weighing 198 pounds (90 kilograms). Scientists estimate they can live up to 60 years or more.

Click here to read more about the coelacanth—a “living fossil.”

My poem about the coelacanth is told in the voice of the "living fossil" fish:

Coelacanth Speaks…December 1938
I’m NOT a docile fossil.
I NEVER turned to stone.
You shouldn’t think
That I’m extinct.
I’m still flesh and bone!

Don’t listen to those folks who say
All coelacanths have passed away.
They’re wrong…dead wrong! It isn’t true.
Don’t I LOOK alive to you?

Coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae) swimming in a deep submarine canyon


Linda B said...

Elaine, you have done such beautiful work here with the background of these creatures. Like the other mask poems, they are good examples of telling about the creature so creatively. I loved the video too. It's amazing that we have actual pictures of animals like these. Thanks!

Elaine Magliaro said...


I minored in science when I was getting my degree in education. I have a passion for both science and poetry--and loved integrating them in my elementary classroom.

Liz Steinglass said...

I admire your use of simple yet beautiful language to communicate a sense of the animals in a fun and playful way that I'm sure kids must like.