Three Sea Monsters, poetry by Tod Thilleman
Spuyten Duyvil, 2011
Monsters are anomalies of ferocity and size, beings whose grotesque appetites and malformations run wild and contrary to the harmonies of nature. Their scales, claws, fangs and wings terrify and fascinate. We flee them, but are drawn to them. We chase them with pitchforks and torches, but revere and worship them. Sometimes we create them. Give them being and life with our own perversions and resources. We defy gods. Government. The natural order. We put them in museums. Feel them lurk in our emotions, seeking egress and expression. Turn them over in our minds, absorbed in their terrible beauty, their exhilarating ability to exist outside the bounds of intelligibility.
“One aspect of the monster concept,” observes Stephen T. Asma in his book On Monsters: An Unnatural History Of Our Worst Fears, “seems to be the breakdown of intelligibility. An action or a thing is monstrous when it can’t be processed by our rationality, and also when we cannot readily relate to the emotional range involved.”
Sea monsters are particularly alluring. This is due, in large measure, to the magnitude and mystery of their medium. There is something monstrous about oceans; the recent tsunami that devastated a major chunk of Japan’s geography is testament to its ruthless force.
“Off a Bermudan island in 1930,” writes Asma, “William Beebe and Otis Barton witnessed swarms of bioluminescent creatures -- transparent eels, shrimp, and nightmarish fish -- and giant shadowy figures looming just outside the range of their spotlight. They could descend only a fraction of the actual sea depth, but when asked to describe the receding waters below them, Beebe said that the abyss ‘looked like the black pit-mouth of hell itself.’”
Tod Thilleman’s Three Sea Monsters plies the waters of the eccentric and grotesque, the aberrant and unnatural. Prodigies of jelly. Miracles of breath. The flora and fauna of tropical imagination.
It is not strictly a matter of theme. It is also a matter of style. Thilleman’s hybrid creations of poetry and prose combine exposition with a welter of epistemological mania; his ardent exploration of human consciousness and its representation in sign and design revels in verbal extravagance. His sentences unravel in long, energetic yaws of deviating play. Words crackle with Van de Graaff simulations of the human sensorium. One can feel the energy of struggle and investigation in his words: “Image can contain the or any meaning,” he observes in “Notes On The Matter Within Three Sea Monsters,”
knowledge, understanding, ideation. What has happened since experimental ‘inductive’ art movement(s) in American letters gained momentum is the attendant reality of the impossibility of any idea. If idea is only and always its coming forth with and into Being, in Being’s shining forth (that elevation) then it has done so without poetry simply because the growing centrality of image as a kind of automatic application of ideation has become the mainstay of ‘meaning.’ What does a word SYMBOLIZE? In the round of one day it symbolizes at the level of one day.
Thilleman alludes, throughout, to names associated with vision, mythology, linguistics, and dream: Carl Jung, Ludwig Wittgenstein, William Butler Yeats, Saul Kripke, Ezra Pound, and - especially - Ernest Fenollosa.
I had to look Saul Kripke up. I had never heard of this guy. Here is what Wikipedia had to say:
Saul Aaron Kripke (born November 13, 1940) is an American philosopher and logician. He is a professor emeritus at Princeton and teaches as a Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center. Since the 1960’s Kripke has been a central figure in a number of fields related to mathematical logic, philosophy of language, philosophy of mathematics, metaphysics, epistemology, and set theory. Much of his work remains unpublished or exists only as tape-recordings and privately circulated manuscripts. Kripke was the recipient of the 2001 Schock Prize in Logic and Philosphy. A recent poll conducted among philosophers ranked Kripke among the top ten most important philosophers of the past 200 years.
Kripke has made influential and original contributions to logic, especially modal logic, since he was a teenager. Unusually for a professional philosopher, his only degree is an undergraduate degree from Harvard. His work has profoundly influenced analytic philosophy, with his principal contribution being a metaphysical description of modality, involving possible worlds as described in a system now called Kripke semantics. Another of his most important contributions is his argument that there are necessary a posteriori truths, such as “Water is H2O." He has also contributed an original reading of Wittgenstein, referrred to as “Kripkenstein.” His most famous work is Naming and Necessity (1980).
Most readers of contemporary poetry will be familiar with Ernest Fenollosa. Fenollosa’s seminal essay, “From The Chinese Written Character As A Medium for Poetry,” is the second essay in Donald Allen’s and Warren Tallman’s The Poetics of The New American Poetry, following Walt Whitman’s letter to Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ezra Pound, who provided many of the footnotes for Fenollosa’s essay, was hugely influenced by Fenollosa’s emphasis on image and metaphor. “You will ask,” writes Fenollosa,
how could the Chinese have built up a great intellectual fabric from mere picture writing? To the ordinary Western mind, which believes that thought is concerned with logical categories and which rather condemns the faculty of direct imagination, this feat seems quite impossible. Yet the Chinese language with its peculiar materials has passed over from the seen to the unseen by exactly the same process which all ancient races employed. This process is metaphor, the use of material images to suggest immaterial relations.*
The asterisk refers to a footnote by Ezra Pound at the bottom of the page: “Compare Aristotle’s Poetics: ‘Swift perception of relations, hallmark of genius.’”
The universe is alive with myth, Fenollosa observes elsewhere. Thilleman’s concern with mythology is acute. “I have set these poems around an appropriation of myth,” he writes, “working in a similar pattern attained by earlier ‘interpreters.’” He argues that mythology provides humanity with a “mode of seeing” “inherent in the creation of time itself,” and provides an excerpt from Anne Birrell’s Chinese Mythology: An Introduction, alluding to it as the “core translated source” for Three Sea Monsters:
Ancient China had no Hesiod, Homer or Ovid to retell the mythic oral tales at length. Instead, Chinese writers introduced fragmentary passages of mythic stories into their works of philosophy and history to illustrate their arguments and give authority to their statements. Chinese myth thus exists as an amorphous, diffuse variety of anonymous archaic expression that is preserved in the contexts of philosophical, literary and historical writings. They are brief, disjointed and enigmatic. These mythic fragments incorporated into miscellaneous classical texts vary in their narration, and authors often adapted myth according to their own point of view. The result is that Chinese Myth survives in numerous versions, the content of which is broadly consistent, but which shows significant variation in the details. Whereas the reshaping of archaic oral Greek and Roman myths into an artistic form of narrative literature implies the loss of the authentic oral voice, the Chinese method of recording mythic fragments in a wealth of untidy, variable stories is a rare survival of primitive authenticity.
Thilleman reads into “primitive authenticity” an antidote to groupthink and tepid, stale MFA writing, i.e. accredited, indoctrinated, institutionalized creativity. “One needs a certain bravery mixed with foolishness in order to tackle the totemic and seemingly omnipotent assumptions of this or any cultural landscape,” he remarks. He attests that his poetics is driven by five key impulses: “Temper, Hubris, Love (Fondness), Will and its direct co-conspirator, Joy.”
I find these discussions not a little curious since we live in a time bereft of mythology and poetic imagination. The movies have preserved some of that imagination, but there it has been cheapened to look like video games. Balls, whistles, programmed monsters whose digitalized forms, however impossibly muscled and sinewed, are fake, manufactured, electronic vomit disgorged from the corporate juggernauts devouring the world. They, the corporate giants, are the real monsters: Goya’s Saturn Eating His Children.
The United States has never really had its own mythology. It has borrowed from the Greek and Romans, or the stories of the Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian bible, but has never produced a mythology that is uniquely American. Our tall tales and myths tend to revere public figures, quite generally rich and powerful men like Warren Buffet or Bill Gates. Ours is a highly materialistic culture. Rather than a Zeus hurling lightning bolts at a trireme on the choppy Aegean sea, angry over some mortal’s éclat of hubris, we have the young, geeky inventor Bill Gates amassing unthinkable amounts of wealth by obsessively tinkering with gadgetry, `a la Ben Franklin or Thomas Edison, unleashing his indispensible product to the world and manipulating the market with savage, sociopathic savvy. I would not be surprised to see a marble statue of Bill Gates scattering Monsanto seeds to the hungry mouths of sub-Sahara Africa like some modern-day Augustus Caesar.
Our messiahs do not self-sacrifice, lead the way to spiritual transcendence, or shield us from apocalyptic forces. They get rich and buy mansions in the Hamptons with 32 toilets and a fleet of sports cars in the warehouse sized garage. They do not protect us from the apocalypse. They are the apocalypse.
Thilleman’s Three Sea Monsters begins with four long poems: Jellfyfish, Catfish, Hugefish, and Soma. Each poem functions as a theater of oceanic space, enactments of incarnate moment, trembling articulations embodying a primordial energy in language. Thilleman uses sound and image -- image particularly -- to recreate the principles of creation itself, a palpable realization of life forms in pullulating interaction. Phrases appear to float, disconnect, then congeal in ventricle and shell. Soma, stoma, and stomach.
The jellyfish referenced in the first poem evoke images of those giant jellyfish inundating the waters off of Japan’s coast, a phenomenon freakish in number and size. These things are huge. Their stingers dangle in thick, translucent clusters, sickening to look at. Thilleman alludes to Medusa, “snakes in the hair / whorls of water-braid,” calls them “multitudinous gelatinous / Jejune ballooning portions of Earth disanimated.” He puns, says they are “Flambouyant,” sees comedy and tragedy aligned, tangled, as they generally are.
Catfish references Xibalba, the “place of fear,” or underworld, in Mayan mythology. He recounts the story of the twin brothers, Hunahpu and Xblanque, who were ballplayers, who go to play ball in Xibalba, but must survive a number of tests along the way. The gods of the Mayan underworld are treacherous, and mean to trick the brothers with one fatal ploy after another.
Hugefish employs what appear to be primordial Chinese ideograms. Thilleman weaves his text in and out through these symbols, retelling the tale of Kun Hugefish, a giant fish that becomes a bird, whose wings are so big they “are like clouds all over the sky.” The story of Kun Hugefish comes from the Daoist classic Zhuangzi, whose first chapter is called “Free and Easy Wandering.” One can easily see the appeal of such a creature to the poetic imagination. A being that begins in water, grows wings, and flies to the Lake of Heaven.
Soma references Vishnu, the Hindu god described as the “All-Pervading essence of all begins, the master of -- and beyond -- the past, present, and future… who supports, sustains and governs the Universe and originates and develops all elements within.”
Thilleman tells a story of Vishnu in fragments, abrupt, telegraphic shards of clay and claw and “soft blue-veined milchy udders.” My knowledge of Hindu mythology is shamefully limited, so I’m not entirely sure what is transpiring in this section. Thilleman talks about Vishnu assuming the form of a boar in order to have sex with the earth, sleeping “on the long Serpent Night,” a poet named Hiranyagarbha watching “swimmers in the river’s shining,” “Blue lotus blooming in all directions,” “demonic glory seekers,” “false shelters, righteous wounds,” “Chthonic Serpent-Demon dripping flat-liner, Gautama / Ananta the eternal the only one the matter the mind conceives.”
Quite fittingly for a book of poetry premised on monstrosity, Three Sea Monsters is large, disparate, and vigorously aberrant. Thilliman explores everything from semiotics to Eternal Will, Chinese characters to Jungian vision. What holds the book together is a faith in the primary forces of universal stories to twist objective assumptions about the knowable into deviant agons of slippery, mythopoetic being. The knowable is set adrift on a sea of shifting presuppostions, all tantalizingly buoyant, but equally unstable. The fullness of the mystery that is existence lurks many fathoms down in the sludge and steep abysses of the ocean floor.