Reviewed by Erica Goss
Nature, the most powerful force on Earth, is also the most mysterious. Once in a while, a poet with a scientist's eye gives us a view into that mystery. Colin Cheney, author of the debut collection Here be Monsters, elucidates the world around us, the world we live in but treat as if it had little to do with us. Not so, these poems remind us. Not only do we inhabit the natural world, but it inhabits us. Consequences of this interdependence loom everywhere, from a trapped whale to the workings of cancer; to quote from "Phaethon," "And though we are how cancer blooms / it's not as though making it through unaltered is the point" (p. 43). Nature's most tragic and destructive acts must be part of some long-term design, for in these poems, Nature is an intelligent force, rather than an arbitrary one. Here be Monsters mixes images from the natural world with the dangers and fears facing men and women, creating its own weirdly beautiful geography.
In "Decline of the North American Songbird," Cheney pulls disparate elements together: musical forms, birds, ultrasound showing a tumor's insides, and the musings of a gone-deaf Beethoven into one of the most interesting poems in the book. Bursting with unforgettable phases ("algaed tooth," "dark matter camera," "storm of diminished singing") the poem oscillates between sound and sight, weaving the two senses together until they seem one and the same:
If a sound
casts a shadow, the suburbs
sound like an overcast sky, corpses
& the absence of corpses:
yellow-throated vireo, hooded warbler,
hepatic tanager, ovenbird.
-- p. 40
Here we have a logical question loop: the If/Then structure of a control flow, inserted into the poem's synesthesia. If a camera could capture a sound, it would look like the sound/shadow in this poem. This becomes the link to Beethoven's deafness: did he "see" sound, or hear with his teeth? The poet has "transposed his sonata into the key / of the ultrasound" (p. 40). The ultrasound machine bounces noise to make a picture; would Beethoven have used it to write the music he could no longer hear?
Cheney possesses a remarkable skill at creating poems free of sentimentality. For example, in "Our Blood Aligns Toward Something," several devastating events occur within a twenty-two line poem. Disease, broken bones, loss of sensation, and murder twine themselves in an ever-tightening grip around food, friendship and humor. But he withholds judgment, just like Nature, the architect of both disease and the pastoral scene described in the last line: "The snow settles out in the blue trees of Maine." This is the same force that causes a woman to feel malaria as "birds moving in her blood" (p. 18).
Birds, "coated with fallout," deliver poison from Africa to Finland (from the epigram at the beginning of "How We Were Spared") albeit innocently. How little we know about things -- the speaker wonders if "dusk & dust / have the same root," as well as what caused "the auger birds // we brought to the hospital" to die "calmly / & of something untraceable." "How We Were Spared" creates its own strange superstitions: "Firefighters are kept in the hospital / so that their radiance will not wither the birches // or cause children to be born without faces" (31). Finally, a remedy for "just this occasion" -- "mixing goose fat / with cinnamon in a clean bronze bowl" (p. 32). The occasion is less important than these regressive steps, and the persistent presence of birds.
Indeed, birds are a predominant theme in Here be Monsters. Cheney delights us with their names: pileated woodpecker, bourbon turkey, red-shafted northern flicker. Birds, like amphibians and insects, are also a sign of the health of planet Earth -- a decline in the bird population signals a decline in the environment's ability to sustain them, and ultimately, us. Extending this metaphor brings the subtle moral of this book to the surface: we ignore the birds at our peril, for as they go, so do we.
The environmental message in these poems never dominates them, though it's impossible to miss. We feel Nature's push, as in "Lord God Bird:"
...a father dead
of TB, an island of murdered friends, or here
how he draws the last Siberian tiger,
machine-gunned fifty years ago
-- p. 16
The tiger appears later to an American soldier mired in the DMZ, dodging mines. Here the question seems to be, how long can we exploit the environment until it turns on us, bringing disease and violence? The vision of the last tiger embodies the world we have irrevocably changed. Clearly this retaliation from Nature has already begun, but in the hands of a poet with Cheney's sensibility, it becomes less a tragedy and more an adventure, or a puzzle to solve. The poems make surprising connections -- some observational, some imaginative -- but what Cheney does with those connections summons a recognition from the reader that is not at all surprising. We have experiences like these every day -- something moves just beyond the scope of our vision, a dead animal inexplicably turns up on our doorstep, or a seemingly healthy friend is stricken with a rare disease. Here be Monsters finds where and how they link to one another, unraveling their relationships with a clear and detached eye.
Rarely does the poet allow himself full participation in his poems. Instead, he keeps a journalistic distance -- dry-eyed at the funeral, recording the reactions of the mourners. This approach allows him to record the precise and haunting details that so dazzle the reader -- Cheney is simultaneously poet, scientist and reporter, showing us that Nature, whether damaged or redeemed, exists in a realm that humans understand as well as one completely outside of our consciousness. If this lack of involvement seems cold, rest assured that these poems are not only deeply moving, but also filled with a delightful, subtle irony that catches the reader off guard. Here be Monsters is not an elegy for a passing world, but guide to the present, and future one.
Erica Goss' poems, reviews and essays have appeared in many literary journals, most recently Pearl, Ekphrasis, Café Review, Perigee, Dash Literary Journal, Blood Lotus, Caveat Lector and Zoland Poetry. Nominated for a Pushcart Prize, she received the first Edwin Markham Prize for poetry. A contributing editor for Cerise Press, she writes and teaches in Los Gatos, California.
This review was originally published in Cerise Press.
Books mentioned in this post