Fossil Hunting at John Lennon Airport, Liverpool

On 25 July, 2005, John Lennon Airport unveiled its new terminal building. Although technically JLA is a state-of-the art building, inside it is constructed of limestone slabs that contain fossils of creatures that lived up to 250 million years ago. The limestone is from a quarry near the small town of Solnhofen in Germany. Today, Solnhofen’s owners, with the cooperation of the German government, allow visitors to hunt for fossils and take them home without filing reports or paying duty. The slabs of the airport contain millions of fossils.

From the brochure “A Guide to the Geology of John Lennon Airport” by Joe Crossley

Liverpool

There is something reminiscent of trust,
of a living animal curled in on itself
and tightly sleeping, and because of this,
something disturbing in the way it is sliced
so cleanly open, exposing the dark
undulations of the septa, like curtains,
between each chamber. Lennon’s statue
on Level 2, the brochure informs me,
is striding over the largest ammonite
in the airport, but I like this one, here
on Level 1, on the floor of the ladies toilets,
third stall from the left; and I am thinking
about harm and vulnerability when the door
to the stall next to mine bursts open,
then closes. I hear the chrome latch rattle
into its bracket, and then, suddenly,
she is talking and weeping at the same time—
something about a brother in Geneva
who fell from a scaffold and is locked
in a coma, and I realise she’s on her mobile,
and her parents, I discover, are on holiday
in Seville. And she can’t reach them.
There’s the little storm of someone
brushing their teeth, taps blurting on,
then off, and an insect chorus
of handbags and cases zippering open.
She could have left sooner,
she says, but couldn’t find her passport,
and now, she says, she is certain
she won’t reach him in time. Between us,
where the thin partition doesn’t meet the floor,
I notice the small, dark and perfect torpedo
of a fossil I cannot name. She’s on the next flight out,
she says, which leaves in two hours and oh god,
she says, we are all so alone and I feel so afraid
and I just wish I could hold you.
I watch
the fretting shadow of her hand as she talks.
Three hours later, halfway to Berlin, I’m weeping
into my complimentary in-flight beverage,
with nothing but static on the audio,
which I listen to anyway because I read
somewhere it contains remnants and tatters
of The Big Bang, and because I am thinking
about that woman on her way to Geneva—
the place where antimatter was corralled, at last,
for several minutes, and half the universe,
said one scientist, has gone missing,
so some kind of rethink is on the agenda.

What hope is there when even the gods
we invent can be known only by their absence.
In Schönefeld my passport vanishes
beneath the bulletproof window
and is handed back. And then the frosted doors
whisper smoothly apart, like curtains,
and there he is—the man I desire
beyond all reason, lounging in a black
upholstered chair. How was your flight,
he says, and I nearly fold down onto my knees
before him and say, there’s a woman,
right now, in Geneva, beside the bed
of her comatose brother and I spent two hours
looking at fossils and have been undone
by the evidence of life’s lost argument
with time and, oh god, we are all so alone
and I feel so afraid, and the whole way here
I was tuned in to the residual radiation
of the universe, weeping into my tomato juice
and pretzels. But I wait for him to stand

and then I take him into my arms and I hold him.
I simply hold him. It was fine, I say. Just fine.

Intermission in Berlin

The sweatshop of summer and the mute ache
of noon along the limb of the river

and the table’s blue umbrella has us
in the diffused climate of its colour. On the streets

the women bare their skin and, this being Europe,
wear their nipples like jewelry. And I am tired

of how lust between people passing on the pavements
rises up with no history attached, even though

there have been men with whom I was naked
only once. My lover is heedless of everything

but his Linzertorte and latte, and I begin to talk
about the woman in Geneva, about her brother,

and her parents—who, even then perhaps, were oblivious
still and happy somewhere in Spain—and the fossils

with the secret rooms of their bodies
fixed open. After two hours, I say, of scrutiny,

what I liked best of all were all the traces, all
those clues of passage—the tail tracks and footprints,

the burrows and castings—because this, I say,
is what art is, after all: not the physical

evidence of the body, but the record
of its forays into daily living. Every metaphor,

he says, leaning back in his chair, is a lie. Yes,
I think, every metaphor is a lie, and that

is its triumph because it has us believing
in what we cannot see, because the world is always

something other than what it is. And I think about how
when I undress him, freeing small buttons, stripping

back layers, it’s because I want to believe
there is somewhere further to go. There is, I say,

leaning over to pinch the last of his torte,
somewhere I want you to take me. Behind him

the willows along the river trail their long green knives.

Solnhofen

We take a room at the Gasthof Sonne
with its window boxes of petunias
and sweet alyssum. We have a view
of the garden, its lawn striped and crisp

from the shuttle of a recent mowing. Limestone,
we read over breakfast, is not quarried,
but won, and won by hand, and it’s been won
here, by hand, since the Romans first favoured it

for their floors and walls. At the public quarry
we pay our fee; we unpack our brushes
and gloves, our chisels and mallets, and begin
on the winnings the Master of the Quarry

rejected after tapping every single plate
with his hammer, listening for the pure,
high note of unflawed stone. All morning
on our knees we work. And I think about the Romans

who dug here, who measured and displayed
their fossils, who ploughed up bones and massive teeth
from the fields and from them created
their myths of giants and heroes. For whither,

asked Lucretius, shall we make appeal? for what
more certain than our senses can there be
whereby to mark asunder error and truth?

But that empire is gone. I think of my mother

in the long fist of her coffin; I think of that man
in Geneva, who may have already abandoned
the antechamber of his coma and become
even for his sister nothing but history, and I think

of the fossils with their coils of diminishing rooms.
And then I see it, the way we always see in a work
something the artist never intended: the point
is to stand, with your head bowed, while those

around you queue at check-in with their fussy
carry-ons, flashing their passports and confirming
yes, they packed their own bags and no, not even
for a second have they left them unattended;

as they shuffle towards security and unpocket
their keys and coins and step out
of their shoes and fold their coats and jackets,
and the trays holding all their belongings

move away from them like little grey boats
while they stand there waiting, until,
waved forwards, they pass one by one, through
to the other side. And even though the body’s

nakedness is not a metaphor, I want to place
my hand on the nape of my lover’s neck;
I want to beguile him back to that hotel bed
with its sheets of Egyptian cotton

and wrapped sweets on each fat pillow.
But I can tell he’s a man who has escaped,
for now, even the necessity of his body—
that every ache and every discomfort, every lust

and hunger, has fallen away and, yes,
every metaphor is a lie, but the point
is to keep your eyes on those rafts of stone and admit
that the dead stay dead forever, and recognise,

between two oblivions, this brief, dream-slick
threshold each one of us calls our life. And so,
I simply watch him as he labours, as he adds
to the scree pile of treasures beside him, shirtless,

head bowed, on his knees, his torso flowered with dust.

Copyright Jude Nutter. First published in Sow’s Ear Poetry Review Summer (2013).

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