by John Olson
Three Sea Monsters: Our History of Whose Image
Three Sea Monsters: Our History of Whose Image
(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.
Sea monsters are particularly alluring. This is due, in large measure, to the magnitude and mystery of their medium. “Off a Bermudan island in 1930,” observes Stephen T. Asma in his book On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears, “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. The poet 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. The book 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 “flamboyant,” 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 Xbalanque, who were ball players, 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 beings, the master of—and beyond —the past, present, and future… who supports, sustains and governs the Universe and originates and develops all elements within.” Vishnu is rendered in fragments: abrupt, telegraphic shards of clay and claw and “soft blue-veined milchy udders,” and assumes the form of a boar in order to have sex with the earth, sleeping “on the long Serpent Night.” A poet named Hiranyagarbha watches “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. 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 presuppositions, 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.