Guest Post, Christina Olson: Reconstruction Errors

In the 1820s-era illustrations, Megalosaurus is a lumpy, stumpy creature. It looks like it has recently gorged, like it might fall over any second. Even in the best depictions from the time, Megalosaurus has a ridge of bone for shoulders, and crouches on four squat legs that look like they’ve been borrowed from a Komodo dragon. Before Megalosaurus was labeled with the word “dinosaur,” its femur was thought to be the leftover bone of a Roman elephant, or maybe a giant’s fossilized scrotum. The early paleontologists—another new word—tried their best, but with only a handful of bones, their imaginations substituted for science.

Still,How Megalosaurus has been reconstructed over the years early Megalosaurus looks downright normal compared to Peale’s mastodon—a reconstruction of Mammut in which the tusks are mounted upside-down, carving back to the body. Imagine the tusks as sabre teeth, larger than any Smilodon. And since at the time it was still thought that these enormous, possibly carnivorous, mammals might roam the American frontier, Mammut was downright terrifying.

I’m fascinated by these early reconstructions. By the process of the men—almost always men, of course—who pried open crates of bone. This was a time when the acquisition of fossils emphasized not meticulous collection but speed and quantity. I think often of prying open a wooden box and gazing at the jumble within, trying to make sense of what the dark holds.

I imagine that it felt, a little bit, like writing a poem.

This past August, I was invited by my friend and Georgia Southern University colleague Dr. Katy Smith to the Western Science Center in California. The Center has mastodons and ground sloths: its prize specimen is Max the Mastodon. I wandered in the collections—which, because I am more accustomed to libraries, I kept accidentally referring to as the stacks—opening drawers and gazing at fragments of bones and teeth. The idea of assembling the splinters into something meaningful seemed both monumental and magical, impossible yet necessary.

Fragments, construction, collections: even the language of paleontology mirrors poetry at times. The labor of the paleontologist and the poet can be lonely, even tedious. The first draft of any poem is a construction, and like an early depiction of an Mammut or a Stegosaurus (who debuted in the 1880s with a second brain in its ass), it’s really just a collection of best guesses.

Paleontologists call these reconstruction errors. Museums have to update displays, paint over old murals. If you are Edward Drinker Cope, you build the Elasmosaurus with its head on its tail, not its neck. If you are Charles Willson Peale, you don’t get around to correcting the mastodon’s tusks until decades later. Whoops. We writers might call it revision. If you are a poet, you write the first draft and let it sit a bit. Then you come back later, and you see all the things you got wrong the first time. You sit back down and you break the poem apart and you try again. This time, maybe, you get a little bit closer.Peale's Mastodon

Recently, my writing group challenged each other to create a new poetic form. I call mine the Mastodon, in honor of Max and the Western Science Center: it’s an update, a do-over. But you don’t hide or erase your first construction; instead, you use it as the material for your second version, and that first meaning informs the second. I set the limit at just 11-13 sentences to start. That feels fair, since most fossil discoveries are equally limited: rarely are complete skeletons found. Rather, it’s a jaw here, a tooth over that ridge.

When you have your lines, you write the first poem, the Construction. This establishes the first narrative or the first meaning. Then you assemble the Reconstruction—basically, you make a found poem from your first poem. The lines are the same, but the Reconstruction should update or change the meaning in some way. Channel the Elasmosaurus here: make the first and last lines of the Construction the last and first lines of the Reconstruction. Swap the neck and the tail.

You can make small edits to language or line breaks or sentence structure as you see fit; after all, the fossil record is always being updated. But when you have your two poems, don’t hide the first Construction in the back room of the museum; the power of the form comes in the side-by-side comparison of the two versions. This lets the reader see what you changed or edited, and how the narrative or meaning might have shifted.

Comparing the 19th century images of Megalosaurus to our current version is a little like looking at a AMC Gremlin parked next to a Lamborghini. One looks like a sleek machine and one looks like, well, a boulder. Yet I still have a soft spot for that first Megalosaurus. (Not Peale’s mastodon, however. It’s terrifying, even just on Google Images.) I think it’s the same affection I hold for early drafts, even the clumsy ones.

First drafts of anything, whether they are mastodons or poems, are a tentative stab, a leap. Even if they are later revised—even entirely disproved—they are what get us rolling in the first place. Those early reconstructions of extinct beasts were clumsy, to be sure. But they represent someone’s best guess at finding a shape, a form. Of making sense of shards lifted from crate and straw, and brought into the light.

 

Guest Post, Jeffrey Oaks: November: Nests

Nest in tree. Photo by Jeffrey OaksHere in Pittsburgh where I’ve lived for 30 years this autumn, the maples are burning up again, in their yearly process of leafloss. Abscission is the scientific word. There was a week or two of brilliant October yellow, orange, and red canopies. Then the other day, walking the dog, I looked up and realized their brilliance was about half gone, those glorious balloons of color were now ragged cups filled with bare branches and bright blue sky. It was startling, as it often is, those half-forms. Underneath our feet were the old leaves, their colors turned brown, gray, muddied.

Occasionally now there’s the messy bundle of a squirrel nest visible, a construction I keep swearing I’m going to investigate as an architecture but never have. Squirrel nests never seem like they’re made of anything that would survive in a strong wind, and yet they do. They look like a handful of leaves caught in some branches, things formed accidentally, lost things caught up in the random tantrums of wind, part-leaf, part-plastic strips, debris, detritus.

Officially, they’re called dreys, and the architecture is sciurine (pronounced sahy-yoo-rahyn), the term for things having to do with squirrels and their relatives. And their architecture is surprisingly resilient, made up of twigs, damp leaves, and compressed moss, then built up from there, supported with more twigs and leaves. Inside, they’re lined with soft material—stripped bark, moss, fur, even cotton batting. They’re waterproof.

When I was a child, I used to dream of an underground burrow where I might escape, sleep, read my books. I read about underground houses, homes carved into mountains. They seemed secure, quiet, safe. Maybe I read too many stories about small animals, who escape predators by diving into the earth. Mr. Badger, Mr. Fox. Earth is protective for small lives.

Although I loved climbing trees as a kid, I never dreamed about living in one, in a squirrel nest, sleeping in a kind of hammock, wrapped in fur, surrounded by moss, protected by leaves, rocked by the wind. I wouldn’t have trusted that kind of architecture as a kid; I wanted safety. But these days, as November begins to happen around me, orangeing and yellowing and browning all that was green around me, it’s clear how many lives depend on and flourish in such architecture.

All this makes me wonder about the kinds of architecture my poems have depended on, whether my sonnets—the form I feel most drawn to—are some echo of the cave-houses I craved as a child. Are the structural requirements of those 14 lines like a mountain pressing down upon the voice that must carve out a space for itself in which it can speak? Maybe that’s what I mean when I sometimes talk about the poems I love as producing a feeling “like being underwater.” I feel both contained and in danger in them.

What would a sciurine theory of poetic form produce? My immediate thought is of Ted Berrigan’s sonnets. There seems to be a lot of faith in those poems, faith that they will make sense or that the reader will find something meaningful in them. I almost said air instead of faith in the sentence above. The older I’ve gotten, the more appealing those poems have become to me as a writer, full of gusts and surprises. So maybe it’s not the form but the syntax, or maybe I mean a set of supports I surround my voice with. Meaning. Image. Metaphor. Coherence. Seriousness. You can probably imagine your own set of preferred elements.

It is an interesting time in American letters. So many things seem possible that we’re impossible earlier. Or maybe I mean unthinkable. Hybrids. Mash-ups. Mutations. Strange bedfellows. Maybe they’re not so strange; they’ve just gone unnoticed all this time.

What other forms have I been staring at all my life and not noticing?

Contributor Update: Rebecca Hazelton

Rebecca HazeltonToday we are pleased to announce that future contributor Rebecca Hazelton has been recently featured in The New Yorker. Rebecca’s poem “Generic Husband” can be read on their website and will appear in the November 13, 2017 Issue.

We are glad to feature Rebecca in our upcoming Issue 20 of Superstition Review.

Contributor Update: Christine Brandel

Cover for A Wife Is A Hope ChestToday we are excited to announce that past contributor Christine Brandel has recently released a book. A Wife Is A Hope Chest was published by Brain Mill Press on Halloween 2017. Kiki Petrosino, author of Hymn for the Black Terrific and Witch Wife, says: “Brandel’s language – rich with visual and tactile imagery – delivers us into a world where domestic objects transform into amorous talismans.” A Wife Is A Hope Chest is available now for purchase from Amazon.

Christine’s poems such as: “If We Were Three,” “Thoughts on New Year’s Day,” and “Sixteen Pieces” can be read in Issue 14 of Superstition Review.

Congratulations, Christine!

Contributor Update: Bojan Louis & Mark Haunschild

Bojan Lpuis & Mark HaunschildToday we are excited to announce that future contributor Bojan Louis and Superstition Review’s own poetry advisor Mark Haunschild will be featured in the Caffeine Corridor Poetry Series. The event is an open mic starting at 7 pm this Friday, November 10, 2017 at {9} The Gallery.

Bojan Louis is a Diné—Naakai Dine’é; Ashiihí; Ta’neezahnii; Bilgáana—poet, fiction writer, and essayist. Mark Haunschild teaches writing at Arizona State University, where he coordinates the f2f Writers’ Studio on the downtown Phoenix campus, and serves as the faculty advisor of poetry for Superstition Review.

 

 

Contributor Update: Erin Adair-Hodges

Book Cover Let's All Die HappyToday we are excited to share news about past contributor Erin Adair-Hodges. Erin’s first book Let’s All Die Happy, winner of the 2016 Agnes Lynch Starrett Prize, is now out from the Pitt Poetry series. Let’s All Die Happy is available for purchase on Amazon.

The book includes poems such as: “The Trap,” “Neighborhood Watch,” and “Regeneration,” which appeared first in Issue 14 of Superstition Review.

Congratulations, Erin!