Thoughts leading to Grendel and the Little Mermaid

by on Feb.19, 2012

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I preface this post with the admission of my shyness and neurotic embarrassment over my own work. I promised to write something personal as a follow up to the thing about Butcher’s Tree, so I shall do my best. Recently, thinking about BT, I wrote this:

I must think too much. Silence worth more than a pretty tinkling urine charm
made of petroleum
and more than what I can say about any one of my brilliant mothers
under whom I writhe and cry out my written memories given to me by boys.

In some way, I think it describes how I have felt as a writer since the beginning, in college, when I wrote the poems in Butcher’s Tree. Heritage was and is still something I have a strange, or estranged, relationship with. Should it matter that the figures that kept appearing were figures of classical “western” mythology, and why did it grate on me to see names like Sun Wukong in my poetry? And my writing name, Feng Sun Chen, which continues to have an odd ring and foreign-ness which brings back adolescent feelings of body-phobia, angst, and alienation from all parental figures. And even more tangentially, desire and lust, which have always, for me, been elements alloyed with shame, and shame is the most potent remainder of my “heritage” and childhood spent in Singapore. It does not feel wrong of me to say that I am (paradoxically) proud of my humility, but as a woman, I know that I may be committing a verbal disservice to feminist causes. However, what I am talking about is not the aerosol vestiges of deference to patriarchal authorities and/or phalluses. It is toward a banal and abstract aspect of the way I approach the work of my life. It feels religious(ritualistic) and domestic, the dirty part of piety that opens the perforations of abasement so that the body may be suffused with light, which travels through emptiness. Too much feeling becomes too little perspective, and the stretchiness in between is shame and poetry.

Johannes posted a picture of my new book (which comes out at AWP) along with other “framing mechanisms” including a short description and commentary in which the poems are described as having the orienting abilities of bats and also as “numinous laundry” and “foody.” (Thank you, Lara Glenum and Ariana Reines, brilliant mothers under whom I writhe.)

I like that a lot of blurbs written for poetry books sound like poetry exercises in themselves, aware of the circumlocution and asymtotic nature of describing the experience of reading poetry.  The comments also seek interpretation in themselves… like: The poet is a laundry line and someone or something is hanging out their sheets which have been stained by numen or the excrescence of divinity.

I’ve learned a new word. According to wikipedia:

Numen (“an influence perceptible by mind but not by senses”, pl. numina) is a Latin term for a potential, guiding the course of events in a particular place or in the whole world, used in Roman philosophical and religious thought. The many names for Italic gods may obscure this sense of a numinous presence in all the seemingly mundane actions of the natural world.[1]

The word was also used in the imperial cult of ancient Rome, to refer to the guardian-spirit, [citation needed] ‘godhead’ or divine power of a living emperor—in other words, a means of worshiping a living emperor without literally calling him a god.

The word numen is also used by sociologists to refer to the idea of magical power residing in an object, particularly when writing about ideas in the western tradition. When used in this sense, numen is nearly synonymous with mana. However, some authors reserve use of mana for ideas about magic from Polynesia and southeast Asia.

When I wrote the poems in Butcher’s Tree, formerly called Hunger Transit, I thought a lot about the weird “cleanliness” of gruesome children’s fables and the way ancient texts, when read by modern readers, seem to have a sort of sacred sterility. Reading Beowulf in English class had the cool feeling of looking through a telescope or at a tide pool, all of which give me the sensation of looking back in time. The numinousness happens when there is a lot of space or distance around words. That’s probably why I’m obsessed with enjambment and the cragginess of poetic form.
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In BT, the ancestor I chose to butcher from Beowulf was Grendel. I also chose Sun Wukong for similar reasons. They were both ridiculous figures, both creatures bound in some way to human beings, powerful, touched or cursed by the divine. Grendel was my favorite because his defeat was so pathetic and shameful, as was his ambiguous birth, which links him to Cain, the first mark of shame on earth. Grendel’s arm was ripped off and his mother killed. The environment surrounding the murder was womb-like, swampy, aquatic, set in caverns or caves. In my mind the two, Grendel and his mother, were the same unit. I also imagined that they were amphibious, having attributes of old sea monsters or fish, and so Grendel was my transgendered Little Mermaid. (When I was a child, I couldn’t speak and continued to have problems with social interactions into adulthood, and so the Little Mermaid who lost her tongue in the Hans C Andersen piece has resonance with me.)

This is getting too long, so I shall end with an excerpt. Perhaps I’ll write more about Grendel the mermaid and monkey gods in the future.

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GRENDEL’S FUR FELL OUT AND AGAIN HE WAS PALE AND NUDE

Before the fixation with land and the one hero which populated it,
Grendel’s life was a continual waterboard of discovery. Maybe it was puberty.
Hair and blood
and rubbery bones. Nothing fitting anywhere.

When the blood came leaking spirit, the people quarantined him.
(The sharks will sniff you out.) they said, rolling the huge stone door.
His nipples darkened to a black like newborn eyes. The newborn eyes looked out.

Grendel decided to forgive them. After all,
they had no concept of injury. What could they have done?

In the wet jet black he groped his way around the cave,
followed the gristly rustle of shadow through long tunnels.

There was someone else in there with him. She sat in a nest of human bone
and had a mouth with no lips,
and this liplessness opened further into the labyrinth.

(I know what you want.) said the sea witch.

1 comment for this entry:
  1. Jared

    From what I can tell, shame is a writer’s dangerous demon (one among many). The danger being that it is unkillable, ontologically. In the project of writing, well, whatever, but especially in poetry, there’s often (or even ideally) an encounter with the shame-center, the shame at the center, but its successful exorcism leads to sterile exercise, rather than a poem. The shame is relegated to a place outside the text that reigns over the text, & like the black hole it is it sucks the light out of the work. A dead star, too boring to be repulsive, too small too pull in with a relevant gravity.

    Far as I can tell in your poems I see evidence of a curious & enviable mastery of shame. That’s impossible, & that’s the point. Instead of a word or word-chain asymptotically tiptoeing around the shame-signified – ineffable because traumatic/taboo & thereby only allusive – the whole sign seems born from the shame point, Grendel’ed from it, the shame speaks its name you named it. That’s great. Instead of treating shame as a hot little metal to throw fearful little verbal glances toward now & again, you’ve used it as a tool, a wrench that only opens. That’s great.

    I’m eager to receive my copy of the book.