The Ghosts of Fleas

Ecopoet Helen Moore shares a poem inspired by Blake’s visionary painting The Ghost of a Flea — and her own close encounter with the insect. The poem features in her ECOZOA collection, which makes creative use of Blake’s mythology of the Four Zoas to address our contemporary experience of destructive industrial civilisation.


This poem was inspired by William Blake’s poem The Ghost of a Flea and my experience of moving (with the late poet Niall McDevitt) into a flea-infested flat, which the letting agents had to have fumigated.

Showing William Blake's painting, The Ghost of a Flea (1819-20)
The Ghost of a Flea c.1819-20 William Blake 1757-1827 Bequeathed by W. Graham Robertson 1949 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N05889

I found their exorcism to be both desirable and morally uncomfortable, and the painting seems to hold that tension. In personifying the Flea, depicting a large, muscled, naked human figure, who seems like kin, Blake also makes him menacing, repulsive. I also saw links between the destruction of these creatures and the ongoing mass extinction occurring in our planet-home, as well as with our individual mortality.   

The Ghosts of Fleas

After the painting by William Blake

Ah, the hooked tongues, the bristly thighs,
those simple popping eyes that stare into their bowls,

empty now – no longer will these barber-surgeons
let our blood; instead, rising in their hundreds

from above the house, a flicking, swelling extinction
rite on August’s Blue Moon. And still our nerve-ends

jittered, maggot dreams creeping through the curtains –
the unconscious mind knows the prisoner’s lice,

the cadaver’s wavy flesh. Be gone you
carpet-dwelling fiends; be gone you leaping suckers!

This exorcism by a lethal gas that fogged
the rooms, twisted mouth-parts & innards…

ah, these boards from which they flee;
ah, the stars to which we’ll follow.

From ECOZOA by Helen Moore, Permanent Publications (2015)


Notes

Helen Moore is a British ecopoet, socially engaged artist, writer, Nature educator and facilitator of outdoor wellbeing programmes. She has published three ecopoetry collections, Hedge Fund, And Other Living Margins (Shearsman Books, 2012), ECOZOA (Permanent Publications, 2015), acclaimed by the Australian poet John Kinsella as ‘a milestone in the journey of ecopoetics’, and The Mother Country (Awen Publications, 2019) exploring aspects of British colonial history. She offers an online mentoring programme, Wild Ways to Writing, and works with students internationally. In 2021 Helen gave a keynote lecture on ecopoetry and landscape at PoesiaEuropa in Italy; and she collaborated with Cape Farewell in Dorset on RiverRun, an ecopoetry project drawing on fieldwork and research from scientists and farmers in Dorset to examine pollution in Poole Bay and its river-systems.

Helen’s collection ECOZOA is her response to the destruction caused by industrial civilisation. The foreword explains that theologian Thomas Berry named the approaching era — now commonly labelled along with the present under the human-centred name of ‘The Anthropocene’ — as the more life-centred ‘Ecozoic Era’. “The word ‘ecozoic’ has its roots in the Greek ‘zoe’, meaning ‘life’. In the complex mythology of William Blake’s epic poems Jerusalem and The Four Zoas, Moore sees the power of the imagination to address the ecological crisis we face. She contemporises Blake’s visions, showing how a rebalancing of the ‘four zoas’ enables us to heal ourselves and our planet, and to establish relationships with self and others that are embodied, heart-connected and able to get to the root of our problems. In this way, fear and limited thinking can fall away, opening up liminal spaces where our love of freedom can flourish and collectively we can sense the evolving futures we most desire.”

ECOZOA is available from Permanent Publications, and you can find more of Helen’s work via her website, Helen Moore: ecopoet / writer /community artist / Nature educator. Helen’s eulogy to the late Niall McDevitt is included in our own tribute to him, Niall McDevitt, 1967 – 2022.

The Tate’s entry on Blake’s The Ghost of a Flea explains that artist and astrologer John Varley was a close friend of Blake and reported that “Blake once had a spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea. ‘This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect.’ While drawing the spirit it told the artist that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were ‘by nature bloodthirsty to excess’. In the painting it holds a cup for blood-drinking and stares eagerly towards it. Blake’s amalgamation of man and beast suggests a human character marred by animalistic traits.”

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