I enjoyed speaking with John Herbert Cunningham this past Sunday on his program, Speaking of Poets, on Winnipeg’s CKUW 95.9 FM. You can hear the program, which includes readings from both Zeppelin and Crown and Ribs, through this post but I also encourage you to subscribe to John’s podcast to hear Canadian poets sharing their work with him every week.
Monthly Archives: August 2013
The second edition of the Compact English Dictionary (2,386 pages each comprised of 9 “regular” pages in miniature, magnifying glass included) devotes 3 pages to “it”.
B. Sense and constructions.
I. As nominative.
1. a. As the proper neuter pronoun of the third person sing. Used orig. instead of any neuter sb.; now only of things without life, and of animals when sex is not particularized; hence usually of all the lower animals, and sometimes of infants.
1. b. Used in childish language, and hence contemptuously or humorously of a person.
1588 SHAKS. L.L.L. v. ii. 337 See where it comes.
1654 WHITLOCK Zootomia 91 Slip but from any Profession some little while and say it hath travelled, and it may passe for an able Physitian.
1.f. In children’s games, the player who has the task of catching or touching the others.
I’ve selected the three sense above of the many definitions offered—many of which are primarily specifications of the different roles the little word plays, the “it” of “let’s get to it” versus the “it” of “it is well known”, etc.—because taken together I think they account for the familiar but unremarked usage of “It” in the second poem in Zeppelin: the use of the impersonal pronoun to suggest something mysteriously and grotesquely outside of easy identification, abhorrent or alien because it seems alive but without the familiarity that comes with immediate recognition of gender or species.
With no necessary death point
it struggled to ongo, rather than lapse
into a final, inescapable torpor.
Theodore Sturgeon’s story “It” can stand as one exemplar of this usage. This story was first published in the pulp magazine Unknown in 1940, but was influential on horror comics of the 1970s, spawning a direct adaptation but also inspiring the prominent Swamp Thing character. The use of “thing” in Swamp Thing (and the very similar comic book character Man-Thing) reminds us of of the similar usage of “it” and “thing”: the titles of two well-known fifties horror-science fiction movies, It Came from Outer Space and The Thing from Another World are essentially the same. (Interestingly, the “Thing” is found to be a plant monster and so probably another descendent of Sturgeon’s vegetable “It”.)
When I was little, I loved comic books. It was relatively early days for comic book stores and back then one of their main draws was back issues. I was interested in older comics, often ones I had only missed by a few critical years, interested also in minor and eccentric characters who were often featured in anthology titles which were memories or extensions of pulp magazines. I think that somewhere in my mind in writing the poem “It” was my memory of flipping past issues of Marvel’s Astonishing Tales that featured a revival of It, the Living Colossus. I always passed these issues with ennui, hoping for something more in the superhero vein. But the giant “IT!” logo made an impression and the character’s grey body made me think of it as a golem. Perhaps this was because the character was virtually identical to the comic book Golem that I would’ve also come across during the same browsing sessions. (For related information and the humor of its prose, I recommend an article on another IT who battled Namor, the Submariner.) Returning to the definitions above, I think it’s interesting to see the repeated association of this forboding use of “it” in material that is at least in part for children: comic books, monster stories, fables. The first definition seems to provide enough of a source: “of things without life”. And perhaps also “the lower animals” which could be stretched to mean insects and bacteria, organisms that provide much of the inspiration for contemporary aliens. But the other two definitions add interesting dimensions. The disdainful but also humorous, and in either case potentially defensive, use attributed to childish language is suggestive of the sense that the child is interested and close to such mysteries, meeting them with a particular confidence and wit alongside fear. (Consider the undercurrent of play and humor that is a common ingredient in science fiction and horror, especially in film.) And the final meaning is evocative and charming in this regard, too: the association of being “it” as an element of play, which features often mock disdain toward the pursuer and mock fear of being caught.
For the record, Cousin Itt of the Addams Family was so named only in the TV show. Itt appeared in Addams’ cartoons, but unnamed.
In false memory now
I’m eye to eye with you, astonishing fellow creature.
The phrase “astonishing fellow creature” was one of the finishing touches to this poem, made when Zeppelin was close to being finished. The image of the Zeppelin as a living thing echoes the comparison of the aba aba, an African electric eel, to a Zeppelin in “On Your First Visit to the Zoo”, near the end of the book. But personification is present throughout the book— Telstar in “AM Nocturne”, the sparrow in “Eclogue”—and also things animated but with an inhuman quality, alive, but uncanny—the title “characters” of “It” and “Shawarma”. One of the organizing principles of Zeppelin was to bring together poems that interact with contemporary mythology, often as exemplified through pop culture. I say “interact” because the poems are explorations of how to use such material.
I’ve come to expect that ideas and images that occur to me in this vein will turn out to have precedents—whether or not I was aware of them. In size and shape, a zeppelin associates easily with a whale or a massive eel so it’s not surprising to find other instances of zeppelin-creatures. John Varley’s novel Titan, for example, includes creatures called Blimps, giant, sentient airship-like creatures. Varley’s novel is from 1979, when I was eight. In looking for other examples, I came across TV Tropes, which has in some ways—some fruity ways—filled the vacancy for an Edith Hamilton of the types and arcs of modern fantasy. An article on Space Whales attributes the establishment of such creatures as a stock image to the seventies and interest in whale song to 1971, the year I was born. There are many instances in the book of references to childhood and to my childhood experiences specifically—the second section of “AM Nocturne”, for example. But in many other cases, it was only later that I found connections between something I had written and the time when I was little. In a recent interview in The Toronto Quarterly, I talk about the traditions that inspire the way I use personal material in my work, including Surrealism, from which I also get the idea of automatic writing, a frequent part of my process. More than any specific effect or surface quality, the combination of conscious and unconscious associations in the opening poem, of intimate personal detail and realities remote and esoteric enough to seem mysterious or magical is satisfyingly surreal.
And here is the first key to the concern I mentioned above with how to use pop cultural imagery: the book opposes various easy and familiar treatments—the supposed shock value or instant innovation of using “unpoetic” material, playing it for laughs, playing it as an index of our decay—with an open and sincerely high cultural exploration of how we are truly penetrated by such things as zeppelins, comic book characters, Las Vegas. For so many of us, these things are part of what has quickly become not one reality among several that can be chosen, but our given mental and spiritual landscape, much as the city has become the dominant physical landscape.
The opening poem is invitation to travel through times past, through fantasies, in search of understanding.
Vain zeppelin, I want to understand your transmutation:
monumental and advanced, you vanished,
only to reappear as a thing available to utopian visions.