Astonishing Fellow Creatures

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, IMG_1744to 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. JohnVarley_Titan 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. 


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