I walk the Cobb Jane Austen strolled. The old Assembly
Rooms are gone, where once chess players and marriageable
young misses each played their gambit. Sea-bathing machines
no longer trundle from the shore. I see wave-tips sparked
by sun, but no lady-bathers’ heads as the sturdy dippers
dip them and they, dripping, emerge in their modest muslin.
Looking over beach to the hanging cliffs, it’s Mary Anning’s
Lyme I picture. The wild places she clambered, knowing
each handhold, where scrubby tufts of bush clung
to dirt and rock. She was quick afoot, shifting weight nimble
as an aerialist—high-wire or trapeze—defying Blue Lias
landslides to dig out monsters and dragons-teeth, challenging
her own deep faith by what these creatures might mean.
She’d sell her curios for a bob or two, curtsey and kowtow
to the gentlemen geologists, of higher rank but none
her better in intellect, in curiosity. They sucked her brain
said Mary, the world had used her ill.
She led them through fossil beds, corrected wrong surmises, yet
“a very clever funny Creature,” some dubbed Mary Anning,
a curiosity herself. Her class divided her, plumb-line clean,
from those like Austen’s Louisa, her un-nimble stairway tumble.
And from those gentlemen and their sententious pendantry.
But her zeal was to seek, to know. She traced with relish
the anatomy of devil’s fingers, ink in chambered shells.
She fitted vertebrae to vertebrae, reconstructing fish lizard,
near lizard, sea dragon, flying dragon.
With my magpie eye and unscientific mind, I’m most drawn
to the serpent stones, their curves, their oil-slick neon nacre
sheen. Here they’re underfoot: rocaille and coquille carved
in the museum plaza floor, truest rococo. And a limestone
stretch of beach, ammonite graveyard, is studded with coiled
traces. Polished to gems, they become “dragon’s skin,” “stained
glass.” Like the windows of St. Michael’s, acts of mercy coloured
for Mary Anning, final gift of those who grudged her recognition
in life. But she’d won a name and deserved it, Dickens lauded.
Lyme’s ammonites are mud-hued. Worlds away—Madagascar,
Alberta—the jewel-toned ones are found. And Somerset bone
beds yield pearly fossil shells. St. Audries Bay and Kilve
are scarce 50 miles from Lyme but were, for Mary in her poverty,
as far as the stars would have been. Her eyes stayed fixed
instead on deepest time, her fossil record Duria Antiquior.