Thursday, September 20, 2012


A lot in the science press lately about the human microbiome, the vast population of microorganisms that inhabit the human body. Researchers are learning more and more about what lives inside us and on us and how it affects our well-being. By some estimates, there's a kilogram of bacteria in my gut. That's a lot of bugs. They depend on me and I depend on them.

I thought I might take note of this -- and I will tomorrow -- but I got sidetracked by a poem by the Nobel-prizewinning Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska, called "Microcosmos," translated by Clare Cavanagh and Stanislaw Baranczak.

It's those invisibly small bacteria she is writing about, those teeming zillions. They are inside us and out. They are ubiquitous: "To say they're many isn’t saying much./ The stronger the microscope/ the more exactly, avidly they're multiplied."
They don't even have decent innards.
They don't know gender, childhood, age.
They may not even know they are -- or aren't.
Still they decide our life and death.
I read about bacteria every week in the science journals. I know with a cool, rational knowledge how big they are and how many will fit on the head of a pin. I know how they double themselves every twenty minutes or so, and how they die in their incomprehensible numbers. But it takes a poet to make their presence real:
A windblown speck of dust is a meteor
From deepest space,
A finger print is a far-flung labyrinth,
Where they may gather
For their mute parades,
Their blind iliads and upanishads.
Mute and blind, they nevertheless live heroic lives on their own microscale, pose their own philosophical conundrums. They are ancestral to every living thing on Earth, the living matrix in which we swim, and worthy of their own Homer, their own Gaudapada, their own Wislawa Szymborska.