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Essay

Twice-Told Tales

Laurie Sheck and Dan Beachy-Quick re-write the classics.
Introduction

Two recent poets build such new rooms as they create large-scale works around two canonic 19th-century tales. In A Monster’s Notes, a sprawling, fragmented 500-page tome, poet Laurie Sheck reimagines Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary expands and enlarges Moby-Dick.

—Tess Taylor on Laurie Sheck and Dan Beachy-Quick.

Original illustration by Paul Killebrew

Several centuries ago, in his “Preface to Ovid’s Epistles,” John Dryden laid down his plan for the rhetorical form imitatio, in which a translator “assumes the liberty not only to vary from words and sence [sic], but to forsake them both as he sees occasion . . . taking only . . . general hints from the Original.” Dryden’s notion of the translator (much abbreviated here) suggests that translation—and imitation—are creative acts among a spectrum of types of literary echo: works that enlarge, remake, rewrite, and retell their predecessors—rendering old things newly.

In that particular preface, Dryden was really talking only about literal translation of one poem to another, but his advice to forsake and vary forms also suggests a wider tent. In a sense, literature is made up of degrees of imitatio: mirrors, homages, wholesale retellings. The experience of noticing retellings—and mis-retellings—is but one part of readerly pleasure. And mistelling—both forsaking and remaking sense—is a way of writing into a work one has loved. We enjoy Wide Sargasso Sea partly because it re-enters the world of Jane Eyre and partly because it surrounds it with new meaning, as if finding hidden rooms in the house of the book.

Two recent poets build such new rooms as they create large-scale works around two canonic 19th-century tales. In A Monster’s Notes, a sprawling, fragmented 500-page tome, poet Laurie Sheck reimagines Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, while Dan Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary expands and enlarges Moby-Dick.

According to her publisher, Sheck, who’s published five previous books of poetry, is making a first run at something like a novel. But to anyone familiar with Sheck’s work—and even those who aren’t—A Monster’s Notes, a compilation of letters, lists, and notes, feels less like a novel and more like an extended prose poem.

Sheck’s premise is that the monster is a real creature who first hides out at the North Pole, hovering in glacial regions, and later occupies the similarly alienating terrain of New York City. He is both eternally alive and imbued with the power to see distant hands at work writing—he literally watches the disembodied hands of Claire (Mary Shelley’s real-life step-sister), of Shelley’s Frankenstein character Clerval, and of Mary Shelley herself. The hands he watches write letters, lists, and journals, and the monster relates these notes outward, becoming, in effect, a super-omniscient narrator. He muses on topics as big as the coldness of our separation from others, the way that language both joins and divides us, and what it means to read or to pursue knowledge at all.

Reading A Monster’s Notes, it’s hard not to notice its similarities to Beachy-Quick’s A Whaler’s Dictionary. Beachy-Quick, who’s also written four books of poetry, has crafted a fascinating proto-criticism, a “dictionary” that acts as a compendious topical accompaniment to Moby-Dick. The book, a series of alphabetically arranged meditations, reflects and enlarges the imaginary world around our famed great white whale.

Both secondary works hover on the very far edge of “translation”—of the content of their original. Each also “translates” its form. While neither book purports to contain “poems,” each can be read, at least partly, as poetry. Sheck’s lists and fragments feel like fractured Sheckian poems, and while Beachy-Quick’s “Dictionary” doffs its hat at academicism, his entries recall prose poetry in their sonic density. On the back of his book—classified “Essay/Criticism”—Lyn Hejinian writes: “Cast in the guise of an affect-free dictionary, it is in fact a love poem—a poem written not about love but as love, for a book.”

A bit of a sample entry, entitled “Nothing/Ness,” shows off this prose-love-poemy quality:

The knife, the lance, the harpoon, the pen’s nib, the sperm whale’s and the shark’s scythe-sharp tooth, do not create the wound they inflict. The wound is created by the space the cutting implement opens. The nature of the wound, and the suffering it causes, comes from the breach created within physical matter. The wound opens a space on the body through which life leaks.

And so, delightfully, on.

These are imitations that also retell, retellings that delight in bending genre. Both A Monster’s Notes and A Whaler’s Dictionary steer themselves into liminal zones around their original texts. In their undecided forms, in their repurposing of a former tale, each sequel poses as a kind of illegitimate literary monster. They are in effect literary monstrosities. Like their mysterious, miscreant predecessors, they defy definition.

Of course, this is part of the fun. The monstrous imitation actually springs out of regard for the original book, from a particular aliveness to its possibilities. It is actually striking how many similarities the original novels share. Moby-Dick echoes many of the anxieties in Frankenstein. Both are, of course, about science and monsters, and equally about humans whose ambitions render them monstrous. Both examine the limits of exploration, dismemberment, and the relationship between hunter and hunted. Each book reflects suspicion of where, exactly, the human desire to know may lead us. 

As if to dramatize this, both books feature deliberately unreliable narrators. Shelley has a sequence of speakers who nest in one another’s tales, while Melville gives his tale over to someone who is merely “called” Ishmael. Both books play with storytelling: each is formally multiple and fractured. Frankenstein nests story within story, creating an assemblage as tattered as the monster it describes. And as Beachy-Quick notes in his introduction, “submerged within Moby-Dick lurks an unfinished dictionary, specific to the science and art of whaling”—presumably Ishmael’s, but possibly not. In a very real sense, the deliberate fissures in the original forms—as well as the subject matter itself—create crevicular space for later re-entries. In Beachy-Quick’s book, and in Sheck’s, genre-games extend and enhance the formal play within each original novel, setting up something like installation art around each 19th-century classic.

Most importantly: in both form and content, both original books are about the monstrous qualities of human ambition. In them, the ambitions of literate or literary people aren’t spared. As each book tries to describe the faultiness of knowledge arrived at by human stories, they implicate not only mythologies of science and discovery, but also the deeply unreliable structures of literature and of language itself. No wonder poets want to jump right in, or to write in, as it were. In both Moby-Dick and Frankenstein the problems many poets most care about—flaws inherent in using and being used by language—are central.

Of the two original novels, Frankenstein engages poetry more directly. By sewing letters together with poems together with as-told-to narratives, Shelley’s own book, sewn up from disparate parts, mirrors her botched creation. Shelley sews at least three poems into her book. Recasting the Prometheus myth from Ovid and Aeschylus, Mary was in deep dialogue with her husband, Percy Bysshe. Mary borrowed her book’s nesting structure from Ovid as well. Frankenstein opens with a letter from Walton, a sea-faring captain on the way to the North Pole. Walton meets Victor Frankenstein, the mad scientist, on the ice. The book segues into Frankenstein’s account of chasing (and being chased by) the monster, his botched creation. And later the book delves into the monster's own account (as told back to Frankenstein) of learning about his own condition as an outcast by reading that most famous of poems: Paradise Lost. 

Paradise Lost is “nested” at the very center of Frankenstein. The problem of reading it is one of the monster’s central dilemmas. In learning to read this poem in particular, the monster realizes that he’s been botched and abandoned by his “father,” Victor. The problem isn’t that Victor has created an ugly-looking creature out of dead body parts, but that the monster, having learned by reading to believe in a world of ideal forms, figures out that he is the opposite of ideal: he’s nightmarish. By reading, he has come to explain his existence as miserable and deformed.

Sheck jumps in where Mary Shelley leaves off. Her opening begins with a letter from the monster’s old New York landlord, who has discovered his writings, though the monster has fled north again. He still misses his friend Shelley, with whom he used to read in a graveyard. In Sheck’s telling, the monster, the botched fictional creation, is now the “speaker” or “authorial voice.” He is, in fact, actually “creating” the lives of Claire, Mary, and Clerval as he “reads” them passing over the page. It’s as if Frankenstein the reader is actually, in his way, an author.

If the monster is a reader, and as a reader is an author, who is the monster? Was the monster “Frankenstein’s” creation, or “Mary’s”? Is it now “Sheck’s”? In a novel about invention inside invention, and text inside text, who is the author? Sheck’s retelling circles after problems that always haunted Frankenstein, even as Sheck adds on to Frankenstein’s assemblage. Meanwhile, A Monster’s Notes also extends Sheck’s own poetic dilemmas. Even before reworking Victor Frankenstein’s botched creation, Sheck was interested in fragments—as fissures; as ice-crack lapses in knowledge; as attempts to show the breach between what we mean and what we say. Sheck, who wrote a 12-poem sequence to Persephone in The Willow Grove, has long been preoccupied with monsters, with the disenfranchised wanderers stuck between life and death, and with outcasts as figures for poetry. As she says in The Willow Grove, “If this is the world, we must find some way to belong to it.”

Sheck’s approach occasionally lends itself to overwriting—in both senses of the word. In A Monster’s Notes, she overrides Frankenstein’s existing narrative with fictionalizations, and at times also overwrites, creating a stew rife with hand-wringing. The voice stays quite similar between Sheck’s earlier works and this one: It is recognizable, even in this collage of forms, as Sheck’s. Herein lies another lapse between author and reader, hunter and hunted: To reread earlier poems by Sheck is to discover that the voice all through A Monster’s Notes, collaged from real-life letters from Claire and Mary, is also indelibly Sheck’s. If the notes are Sheck’s, Sheck herself is the monster.

Oddly enough, Dan Beachy-Quick wants us to know that he, Dan Beachy-Quick—(or that whom we call Beachy-Quick, though of course call me Beachy-Quick doesn’t run off the tongue as well as call me Ishmael)—is a whaler. Just as Sheck uses the monster to enlarge her poetic terrain, Beachy-Quick is actually on a second voyage, retracing poem-scapes he has visited in his 2004 Spell, published by Ahsahta Press. One of its many sequences begins: “Scholar-on-waves, a water gazer, / Call me // Ishmael.” A book with poem titles such as “The Head of the Whale (An Epistemology, A Psychology, An Economy, A Flame, Tooth, Bone, A Theology of the Blind, A Murder, A Deaf Ear),” Spell circles the Leviathan, Ahab, and Ishmael. So Beachy-Quick’s Dictionary presents a new problem: Is it another poem? An enlargement of Melville? An expansion of Beachy-Quick?

Perhaps all of the above. Essayistic, inventive, and frequently brilliant, it certainly tells us a lot about how Beachy-Quick reads. As well as enlarging and surrounding Moby-Dick, it also surrounds some of the poems in Spell. While Sheck adds fictions to Shelley’s narrative, Beachy-Quick extends an undeveloped part of Melville’s book—a dictionary, supposedly Ishmael’s, about whales and whaling. He appropriates the space of the dictionary to his own readerly concerns—reading as Beachy-Quick posing as Ishmael.

In fact, in several places The Whaler’s Dictionary offers us ways not only of reading Moby-Dick but also of reading Beachy-Quick. (As I’m sure Beachy-Quick has long noted, the syllabics and use of hyphen there are more than a little similar.) For instance, in Spell, the poems to Moby-Dick, he writes

                                                         A board
On water is buoyant, I know: I cling to wood—
A dictionary buckles and drowns. I know

I do not drown: I’m abridged, afloat, call me—

In this poem, Beachy-Quick both predicts his own dictionary and retells the part of Moby-Dick where Ishmael hangs onto the remains of Queequeg’s coffin, which Queequeg had engraved with hieroglyphics. In Beachy-Quick’s later (abridged) dictionary, under an entry called “Coffin,” he writes: “Ishmael survives death by embracing a coffin. Inside the coffin is no body, but all knowledge,—‘a complete theory of the heavens and the earth, and a mystical treatise on the art of attaining truth.’ Ishmael doesn’t read what he embraces. He does not come to truth . . . .He puts his arms around that which he too does not understand.” As if needing something to buoy him up, Beachy-Quick wraps his own words around Melville’s.

Given Beachy-Quick’s own fascination with the slippery nature of truth, one can’t help but think that this kind of double reference is part of the point. Beachy-Quick figures language as voyage, and poem as craft. He likes to see the line of text bobbing on deep realms of nonunderstanding, and to point out that even as we see the figure, we can’t fully fathom the depths. We’re never certain who Ishmael is, and so too, Beachy-Quick is perplexed by what it means to talk in “his own” voice or to be a self that speaks in a poem or story. Beachy-Quick figures himself as scholar gone to sea, poet lost on seas of text. Alive to literary possibility, he takes on Ishmael’s preoccupations with definition, explanation, and classification. He then exploits and explodes them. Beachy-Quick has a remarkable knack for finding little infinities within the great white novel—for illuminating its smallest elements, just as a small piece of dried whale-skin “laid upon the printed page” (Melville’s words) exerts “a magnifying influence.”

The feeling of navigating between Melville’s book and the books that Beachy-Quick has written about him (one purporting to be poetry, the other purporting not to be) is exactly this. It feels like playing with magnifiers, cross-currents, cross-referents. Beachy-Quick has always been fond of forming and de-forming words, of soundplay earned through tightening the screws of sound. He’s less into the stresses of proper iambics than into placing language under stress. One chapter in Spell called “The Anvil, a” is followed in short suit by: “Then, Avail.” Ahem: Avast, ahoy.

As Beachy-Quick repuzzles Melville’s own hunt for order—fathoming its scales of valuable and valueless, its extracting and extracted bodies—he too pursues the whale into the globe’s outer reaches. Interestingly, both Frankenstein’s monster and Ahab’s great white whale pass the liminal space of the then-unmapped Arctic. (Even now, in 2009, we are celebrating only the centennial of any explorer ever reaching the North Pole.) While the monster ends at the Pole, the whaler ends in the equator. The whale emerges at the dateline, and the narrative of hunting and hunted hovers quite literally in a no-man’s-land where rules of landed time, and perhaps of landed literature, don’t seem any longer to apply.

As Daniel Tiffany notes on the jacket for A Whaler's Dictionary, Beachy-Quick is wounded by a book, harpooned by it, as if as well as being the whaler, he is also the whale. But his books also serve to anchor the book, in both word and world. He accounts, with his dictionary-esque philosophical sequel, for the unhinging, dramatically liberating experience of reading—one that pressed him to hunt in his mind’s farthest reaches.

Through her monster, Sheck also offers a dramatic account of literary pursuit. Perhaps the biggest pleasure in either book is the referral and reference, the fact of being sent hungrily off into Shelley’s or Melville’s thick linguistic universe. I think the height of my summer was reading Moby-Dick again, deeply entering that readerly place, which, despite Sheck’s or Beachy-Quick’s (or anyone’s) companionable commentaries, still felt deliciously solitary, and rewarded me with thinking that felt entirely my own.

One wants, in a way, to push Dryden’s notion of imitatio further, to explore the crevices in it, as well. It’s not merely, as Harold Bloom famously argued, that our bookish predecessors cause us literary anxiety. Good writing is also generative. It makes other writing possible; in its presence, our minds are more alert and alive to the possibilities of making and figures of thought. Good writing is enabling—its very shapes create new territories of desire for those who trace after it.

And this is a spatial blessing that literature alone bestows. Both companion books respond to something we feel instinctively as keepers of books—that unlike the globe, writing can be newly conquered. As for the questions about the dangers of conquest that each 19th-century novel poses, they are as alive and fresh to us now as they ever were, perhaps more so. My dictionary or account of Moby-Dick might have to do with its shifting internal exoticisms, its plays about race and racialism; my poem about Frankenstein might also take place in a hovel, not unlike the cottage where I am writing this essay about being a reader. As for the sequels, I loved the premise of each, the passionate intimacy that both books afforded their predecessors. They made me want to make my own.

  • Tess Taylor, the 2010-2011 Amy Clampitt Resident, has received writing fellowships from Amherst College, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was published by the Poetry Society of America, and her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly,...

Essay

Twice-Told Tales

Laurie Sheck and Dan Beachy-Quick re-write the classics.
  • Tess Taylor, the 2010-2011 Amy Clampitt Resident, has received writing fellowships from Amherst College, the American Antiquarian Society, the Headlands Center for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her chapbook, The Misremembered World, was published by the Poetry Society of America, and her work has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly,...

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