Dark Matter Camera: Here Be Monsters by Colin Cheney

Here Be Monsters
BY Colin Cheney
(University of Georgia Press, 2010)

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).

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