Friday, September 07, 2018

On the need for monsters

Because my honors students are reading about Odysseus's encounters with various mythical beasts, I introduced them this morning in Dave Lucas's poem "Lake Erie Monster," which addresses a variety of modern monsters reputed to live in "lacustrine / fresh depths / ... a family to obsess / so many would-be Ahabs / in crytozoology labs."

The poem, from Lucas's excellent collection Weather, plays with words in delightful ways, rhyming "amaranth" with "coelacanth" and "behemoth" with "mammoth."  I mean, just finding a coelacanth in a poem is exciting enough, but when was the last time you observed a successful attempt to rhyme anything with "Latin nomenclature"? 

But despite the playfulness, the poem asks a serious question: If all attempts to scientifically verify the existence of such monsters result in failure, "Why, then, / would-be leviathan, / do we insist on you?" In other words, why do we need monsters?

It's easy to see why Homer needed monsters: to dramatize the heroics of Odysseus. But I like to imagine Odysseus as some random guy who came back from war ten years later than all his friends and immediately encountered an angry wife saying "Okay, buster, where've you been for the past ten years? And you'd better make it good!" How many monsters arise out of the need to provide an alibi or point a finger of blame away from oneself?

My students talked about the lure of mystery and the need to know that there are things we don't know, a need also echoed in Lucas's poem. Monsters retain that sense of mystery, though, only as long as they remain elusive, so Lucas urges the Lake Erie Monster to "Swim, loom aloof / from any hint of proof." Doubters may skim the surface of the waters scoffing at mystery, but the poem gives the final word to the unknown monsters that linger in the dark depths where they can continue to "Hulk, reign, lurk."

Personally, I prefer my monsters to lurk in poems--which is a great reason to read Dave Lucas's poetry. I'd like to be in the room when all the literary monsters get together to talk about their encounters. with human beings: Do Scylla and Charybdis fight over the comfy chair while Grendel's Mother passes around a tray of severed arms? Somebody needs to write that poem.

No comments: