This week, “The Port of London” from Zeppelin is the featured poem. I made my second poetry video for the occasion. You can view the post here. The poem originally appeared in 2012 in issue 9.2, The Invisible Cityscape. Thanks to Vallum for supporting the poem back then and for the opportunity to be part of “Poem of the Week”.
Blaise took refuge in a cave, and led a hermit’s life. Birds brought his food to him, and came to him in flocks, not flying away until he had blessed them. When any of them was ailing it came to him, and was restored to health. One day the governor’s men had hunted over the countryside without finding any game; and coming to the place where Blaise had set up his dwelling, they saw a great gathering of birds and other animals crowding about the hermit to seek his protection. As it turned out, the huntsmen could not lay a hand on any of them.
A woman who was very poor, came and asked the saint to obtain the return of her only pig, which had been carried off by a wolf. And the saint, smiling, said to her: “Good woman, be not troubled! The pig will be returned to thee!” And at that very moment the wolf was seen running toward them bringing back to the widow the pig which he had stolen. From then on the woman and the wolf were friends. The woman sent the rescued pig to Blaise in prison for food. Blaise ate the rescued pig.
The seven women who followed Blaise after his first torture collecting drops of his blood, are a story on to themselves. Miraculously, when tortured, they bled milk. Whereupon their heads were severed—for they had survived the furnace; the fire would not burn with them inside—and they departed to Heaven.
The governor gave the order to cast Blaise into the pond. But Saint Blaise made the sign of the cross over the waters of the pond and at once they became as firm as dry earth. And the saint said: “If your gods are true gods, give proof of their power by walking upon this water!” And sixty-five men walked into the water and were drowned. An angel came to Blaise, to call him out of the pond.
The governor sentenced Blaise to be beheaded. And the saint, before offering his neck to the headsman, prayed that anyone suffering from ailments of the throat who should implore his aid, might be heard and healed. And a voice from Heaven said to him that his prayer was granted. Then the saint was beheaded and two children—of one of the women who bled milk—with him. This martyrdom took place about the year of the Lord 287.
Happy New Year from the Rowers team! Join us at the Central on January 5 for our first event of 2015, featuring Ava Homa, Jerry Levy, Carrianne Leung, Lee Maracle and Blaise Moritz. Doors open 6:30pm, readings start at 6:50pm sharp. Evening ends at 8:45pm.
We gratefully acknowledge financial assistance from The Canada Council for the Arts, The Ontario Arts Council, The Toronto Arts Council, The Writers’ Union of Canada, The League of Canadian Poets
Ava Homa is a writer, teacher and editor who lives in Toronto. Her collection of short stories, Echoes from the Other Land (TSAR, 2010), was nominated for the 2011 Frank O’Conner Short Story Prize and secured a place among the ten winners of the 2011 CBC Reader’s Choice Contest, running concurrently with the Giller Prize. The book has been translated into Kurdish and Farsi.
Carrianne Leung is a fiction writer, educator and business owner who…
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.
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.
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.
Then I picture myself among the airmen and mechanics,
The construction of a Zeppelin was an amazing undertaking, evocative both in terms of the scale of the thing and of its structure—the making of a complete skeleton over which a metallic skin would be stretched. In several of my poems, I bring up the interplay between our memories and our records. It’s interesting to me that photography has now existed long enough that there is often extensive documentation of times that we treat as bygone and mysterious, as they are when considered in terms of human memory and experience. For example, in “Song: City, Mirror, Moon”, the second last poem in Zeppelin: “the coffee table book, Lost Landmarks of the City“. We quickly forget vanished buildings from the greatest cities, however monumental or important, to the point where the book that collects photographs of such places is a genre unto itself. In Crown and Ribs, the narrator of the poem “I’ve Found a Real City”, challenged as to his knowledge of the city (literally Chicago), claims in the end to know “everything”:
There are photographs of everything, every state of the city,
every vanished structure, photographs of the devastation the morning
after the city’s legendary calamity.
This poem is patterned in part after Milosz’s poem, “A Legend”:
Who knows the beginning? We live in this city
Without caring about its past
But we end up caring about the past, wishing to return to it, only to find, unlike those who went before us, that a growing portion of our past is there, detailed in a form, photography, that we acknowledge as a factual record. When I wrote about picturing myself among the airmen and mechanics, it was a creative, fanciful thought, as if such an experience was inaccessible except to imagination. Since then, partly through my search for that photo that first gave rise to this poem, I’ve found that we have easy access to a tremendous record of images of Zeppelins under construction, often eerily beautiful images. The images in the slideshow below are taken from an amazing page on the USS Akron at the French site La boite verte.
Of course, there’s more than one way to make a Zeppelin.
Listen to my conversation with Nancy Bullis about Zeppelin, including readings from the book, part of the May 7th, 2013 instalment of Nancy and Nik Beat‘s long running poetry and spoken word show, Howl, on CIUT 89.5FM, University of Toronto radio.
I won’t compete here with other sources of general info about Steampunk. In brief, it is a sub-genre within science fiction, one that finds expression not only in literature, film and art, but also in a subculture and lifestyle. Its hallmark is the combination of futuristic and vintage elements: airships are a frequent reference.
You can follow the link above to learn more, which I recommend in the sense that the labyrinthine tracery of Steampunk’s many tendrils is part of what makes it a mot juste for me quite apart from the specifics of its style.
The term “steampunk” has a canonical moment of origin. Search and you’ll find it credited repeatedly to novelist K.W. Jeter, one of whose novels features H. G. Well’s Morlocks using his famous time machine to terrorize Victorian London.
Personally, I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steam-punks’, perhaps.
—K.W. Jeter in a letter published in the April 1987 issue of Locus, a science fiction magazine
Steampunk is also thought to be a riff off the more familiar “cyberpunk”, a link supported by the influence of a 1990 novel co-written by cyberpunk hero William Gibson, in which Babbage’s speculative difference engine is realized bringing early onset to the information age. (Babbage is also referenced in Hans Magnus Enzenberger’s book of poems, Mausoleum: 37 Ballads from the History of Progress.)
The word came info this poem late and not as a result of any passion for the genre. It sounds pleasant in conjunction with “surrealism” in the line, and the two terms expand on the charm of the image’s “antique tones” possibly representing “high” (surrealism) and “low” (steampunk) dimensions of such charm.
In looking into steampunk now, more closely than I ever did before, what strikes me is the “archeological” depth of the term. Gibson’s novel is from the nineties, but the term turns out to be coined in the eighties, but by an author one of whose quintessential works is from the late seventies, but it turns out that the early seventies featured works about alternative airships and chunnels. Perhaps Michael Moorcock, author of The Warlord of the Air (1971), also had seen the 1968 airship episode of Spiderman cartoon series (“Criminals in the Clouds”). But my father often told me about being fascinated in the early sixties by a movie based on the works of Jules Verne that began as an engraving that seemed to come to life (The Fabulous World of Jules Verne by Karel Zeman.)
In 1995, I flipped through a remainder bin at an art bookstore, a heap of handomely produced German pocket editions, picking out a selection of Albert Robida‘s illustrations. The picture at the beginning of this post is his. Robida meant nothing to me at the time except that I liked his work. Now it turns out he’s a touchstone for Steampunk. Affection for Robida takes right back to Jules Verne. (A more mainstream example of the same effect: Scorsese’s film Hugo, which has a Steampunk feel in the context of taking us right back to the reality of Melies’ time and of his inventions.)
When Heinrich Schliemann found the site of Troy, object of his lifelong quest, he immediately blasted to the bottom of the site through multiple layers of settlement, convinced that the earliest, deepest layer must be true. On a surface level, there’s much nostalgia in Zeppelin, in the introductory poem and throughout. And Steampunk is, in part, a nostalgic style. Going deeper, Steampunk seems to me to be one expression of a recurrent impulse, characteristic of many of my poems and characteristic of our time: the impulse to use our awareness of history to trace back to a place where we might find a lost turn toward a better, or at least more interesting, present.