Today’s question--what is a monster?
There is only one villain in my personal gallery of rogues-- the (ughh!) earwig, which smirks and slithers. Only this horror would appear on a wanted poster in my Wild West post office. Its ugly mug shot sends shivers through me from ear canal to sole of foot. The roots of my phobia are, of course, in harried childhood. I was told that earwigs crawl into your ear, gnaw on your ear drum and nest in your brain--where Members of the Canadian Senate will hatch. This fear-response was reinforced by the horrific scene in the Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan, where a mind-controlling alien larvae scuttled into the ensign’s ear (the officer Chekov in the film has apparently no relation to the Russian author but consider how authoritarians are always attempting to dominate and compel the arts). And my paranoia was further bolstered by a repeated experience--biting into a ruddy apple and neatly bisecting an earwig squatting inside.
The earwig was my personal gremlin. I took some perverse pleasure in being able to find and loathe a Lokian beast in this beautiful Balderesque world of ours. Until ace poet Julia McCarthy ruined my self-satisfied and twisted delight. She discovers Homeric tragedy--a sea nymph’s son and warrior prince--in this pest:
Shy One with a fierce bite
hot as the little fire
now at my heel—
(from “Meditations on Ephemera: Earwig”)
Truly, it is unnerving to have the common earwig metamorphose into Achilles, the Gretzky of the Ancient Greeks. Originally, I had no intention of tapping out another bug blog but it is hard to block out a seismic event like the transformation of fear into awe.
And you have to admire the female of the species. An earwig super parent clicks her pincers to protect the nest and cleans gobs of fungus off her eggs—like a doting soccer mum doing maid service in a teenager’s room.
McCarthy exemplifies the poet as transformer and truth-finder. Locating the real monster is a big theme in Canadiana. No need to go off the map where “There be dragons.” From the start of Carmine Starnino’s “Grizzly Hunter, Dawson City,” it becomes clear that the human, not the bear, is the monster:
A species apart,
speech full of spitty hisses.
Irving Layton complains in “The Puma’s Tooth”:
Man’s a crazed ape
A balled-up parasite
Whose first thought’s to kill you
If his health is right.
In Layton’s “Cain,” a slayer of frogs flaunts a yellow streak of sadism. Frogs are no plague and the speaker is a defiler of living beauty. Earle Birney has his monsters inhabit ambivalence. Even his slugs are creatures of horror and wonder. In Birney’s “David,” the mercy killer is marked by flaws of cowardice and falsehood. Is the speaker a monster or an Everyman? The balance is struck by Don McKay who asserts that the thorax of a trilobite is “elegant and monstrous” (“Paradoxides”).
Yes, there is a cavernous Chamber of Horrors in Poetry’s Palace. There we embrace terror. From the serial killer Grendel to loathsome Caliban to the strangler in Browning’s “Porphyria’s Lover.” The dulcet minimizing of Browning’s maniac intensifies the horror:
I am quite sure she felt no pain.
As a shut bud that holds a bee,
I warily oped her lids: again
Laughed the blue eyes without a stain.
Macabre is Kate Cayley’s Prufrockian poem, “’I should have been a pair of ragged claws,” where the crab is “terror/ and beauty,” a creature that kills and eats with “perfect” “indifference.” Her predator is “all/ eyes and appetite.”
Yet do not writers and readers find a kind of beauty in these distorted beings? Are we much disturbed by our attraction to the foul? Foul is fair. We are entranced by the verse-quoting monster in Frankenstein, who recites a line from the poem, “Mutability,” composed by his true creator’s husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Although the Franken-creature is a gargantuan mess of flaws—and is no lithe Greek hero sporting a single Aristotelian defect—we are moved in Chapter 15 by the monster’s citation: "'The path of my departure was free;' and there was none to lament my annihilation.” His questions haunt: “What did this mean? Who was I? What was I? Whence did I come?”
Seeing and hearing the monsters among us forces us to face these harrowing questions. Poets spill a lot of ink over beauty and terror.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Raised on Vancouver Island, Dan MacIsaac is a third-generation lawyer and served for ten years as a director on the board of the Environmental Law Centre at the University of Victoria. His poetry, verse translations, and fiction have appeared in a wide variety of literary journals and magazines. One of his stories was short-listed for the 2009 CBC Literary Awards, one of his poems received the 2014 Foley Prize from America Magazine, and another poem was short-listed for the 2015 Walrus Poetry Prize. He lives in Victoria. Cries from the Ark is his first poetry collection.