Here Be Monsters by Colin Cheney
The concept of the collection Here Be Monsters sounds absolutely enticing. It’s a crossbreeding of natural science observations and mythology; items already related as myths were the explanations for such observations in previous times. Mix that with the epigraph to the book: “Uncharted or treacherous waters on ancient maps of the sea are believed to have been inscribed with the phrase 'Here Be Monsters.' However, no surviving map seems to bear such an inscription.” Such a statement prepares the reader for the journey that will crush prior knowledge and expectations, will overturn your thoughts on the past, and will enlighten you with newfound truths. It’s quite an undertaking that poet Colin Cheney has set out for himself in his first collection, and it’s not unsurprising that he comes shy of reaching the goal.
In the poem “Transmutation Notebook B,” the title coming from one of Darwin’s notebooks, we are introduced to the myth of Cygnus, a man who experienced so much grief at the death of his friend Phaethon he transformed into a swan. “His change seems at least half willed, half the evolution of guilt,” the narrator tells us as the poem becomes a mediation on analyzing reality. We get a taste of how closely related Cygnus the human and Cygnus the swan are -- that due to DNA there are only a couple of differing strands: “For $1,000 you can have your own genome sequenced / to find what difference exists between you & the marsh bird // you might wish to become.” Perhaps the myths of transformation weren’t far off.
The poem considers transmutation over and over again, between the concept of photography being a transference of image onto silver gelatin or the concept of trees in the Orpheus myth:
I don’t understand the radioactive mechanism
that caused the daughters of the sun to turn into trees.
But I understand why their mother tore at their branches of blood
& amber, & why they later stretched their grove to listen to Orpheus
singing before he was torn to pieces like the bird on the running path
The concepts of the poem are lucid and powerful, taking us through ancient and contemporary thoughts and times, bringing mythology into the modern world. However, there never seems to be a rhythm to these poems; they’re almost like found prose. The language doesn’t feel lifted. And one wonders whether or not it would have been better to leave them as prose as the line breaks, the choice of words, and the lack of rhythms suggest such a decision.
That’s not to say that some of the poems aren’t worthwhile. One of the standout poems, “Decline of the North American Songbird,” is the most literally musical. It begins, “Not cantata -- sonata,” and off we go knowing that this is not a song for human voices but for a chamber instrument. The narrator imagines
maddened by syphilis or lead,
transcribing from reverie’s
phrasing & lull
into the language he could no longer hear
Beethoven, the deaf composer, creates one of civilization’s greatest musical triumph -- his Symphony No. 9 in D minor, a theme that the European Union has employed for their international anthem due to its beauty and its “cantata” stating all men are brothers -- but he does this without the ability to hear. At this point in his career Beethoven had become deaf. One then is forced to wonder about the senses, about what one can “no longer hear but heard.” The narrator continues, “Ist es nicht schön”: Is it not beautiful? Even in discord we can emerge with wonder: “the song / mathematics & snowcrash / static, dissonance that can’t resolve -- /as gristle films the halcyon sea.”
This poem almost works as the flagship piece, the one that’s most in tune with the concept of “Here be monsters” that the epigraph is interested in exuding. This is a poem about using the tactile and visual senses in order to make sense of the auditory, when the auditory isn’t available. It’s about making sense of what we think we have a grip on; for the poem ends: “The sonata? No, I was wrong -- / this is scored for human / voices, my father’s naked hands / sloshing fixer in his darkroom, / the image slowly coriolised into sight.” Darkroom: we return to the world of photography and transference. Coriolised: we have motion to understand vision.
Nature has always been of interest to poets. Exploration of the natural sciences without the aid of a laboratory, just the use of the senses, has been one of the better weapons in the poet’s arsenal. Colin Cheney’s collection though is not just an interest in the bucolic; it is not observational solely via the senses. This is a different kind of nature explored; these poems don’t always feel like poems but rather feel as if the words have been ripped out of science textbooks or manuals. (As aforementioned, some of the work is found poems out of Darwin’s notebooks, a nudge perhaps to Ruth Padel’s biographic poem of her ancestor.)
But this technique doesn’t allow the poems to rise from their earthy beginnings, from their biological backgrounds, and from their muddled, almost atavistic sounds. It’s as if the poems refuse poetic forms; they trip up the tongue instead of being limber. Such scientific words and concepts do make one wonder though that if poets are starting to use them more often -- if a noted author like Ian McEwan with his latest outing Solar is also interested in explaining the world through such scientific words -- that maybe literature might be moving towards explicit meeting of the natural and social sciences, worlds that really should be united in understanding humans and their environs.
Here Be Monsters by Colin Cheney
University of Georgia Press