In death it has become a testament to the folly of man, more deserving of derision than the Dodo.
With ‘Whale Nation’ Heathcote Williams almost single-handed invented the epic polemic poem. His collection ‘The Last Dodo and Dreams of Flying’ shows him on dazzling form in similar vein, a collection of epic and long poems which take the Dodo as a metaphor for the British Empire; the bee as a symbol of ecology; and wasp honey and sleep flight as experiences of sacred transcendence. A deeply moral book which both delights and offers solace. ‘The Last Dodo and Dreams of Flying’ is published by New River Press
This montage and narration of ‘The Last Dodo’ is by Alan Cox, who collaborated with Heathcote Williams on close to 150 videos for their YouTube channel Babylonroyal
The Last Dodo
By Heathcote Williams
“Why,” said the Dodo, “the best way to explain it is to do it.”
– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll was nicknamed the Dodo
Because of his inveterate stutter.
Asked his name, he’d reply ‘Do-Do-Dodgson’.
He found ‘Carroll’ easier to utter.
So Charles Lutwidge Dodgson , the clergyman,
Became Lewis Carroll, author of distinction,
Who’d revive the Dodo in his ‘Alice in Wonderland’ –
The real Dodo having suffered from extinction.
For Lewis Carroll had been very intrigued
By something he’d seen in a Museum:
A large-cropped bulbous bird that was stuffed
And could be seen in the old Ashmolean.
Two hundred years before a Dodo had been captured
By sailors stopping off in Mauritius.
They’d thought it part goose, part vulture and were fearful –
Sailors being naturally superstitious.
But the bird was fearless and easily lured aboard
By an offer of unlimited ship’s biscuits.
By a miracle the bird survived the crew’s curiosity
And their wondering if it tasted delicious.
After it had lived out its life in England
A taxidermist was called when it died.
He stuffed it and, to retain its luxuriant plumage,
Cunning preservatives were applied.
The first owner in its afterlife was John Tradescant,
Who passed it onto Elias Ashmole,
Since when this comical but salutary creature
Has become a curator of the earth’s soul.
For through it man’s begun to learn that extinction
Can last for the rest of time;
And he can wistfully cherish a creature whose life
Was ended by a carnivorous crime.
A Dutch sailor, Volkert Evertsz, described the bird
As showing concern for its fellow creature:
“When I held one, he cried and others ran forward
To help the bird that was held prisoner.”
In ‘Wonderland’ the Dodo’s portrayed as benign
Given its invention of a ‘caucus race’
In which everyone entering ends up winning
And accordingly is then given a prize.
People say that something’s “as dead as a Dodo”
As if relishing the gentle giant’s demise,
Yet it lives on as an innocent victim of that progress
Which prefers sunset to a hopeful sunrise.
The Dodo may have died out from being too nice;
Large and flightless with an excess of trust.
Those who last saw it alive in the seventeenth century
Said the Dodo was friendly. And now it’s dust.
When it was alive it was briefly displayed in London
As part of an urban freak show.
In death it has become a testament to the folly of man,
More deserving of derision than the Dodo.
For years the Ashmolean was an uncategorised jumble:
The Museum was nicknamed the ‘knicknackatory’.
It was crammed with curios such as Guy Fawkes’ lantern
But the Dodo was the star with its poignant story.