This is not a poem – learning by heart in a rote world

By Liam Heneghan

For Patricia Monaghan, poet and friend

“I am cold and alone on my tree root, sitting as still as stone.” I recited this forlornly, lost in E. J. Scovell’s poem. I was ten years old and competitively reciting at the Father Matthew Feis, an annual all-Ireland poetry festival. The year was 1974. “The fish come to my net,” I continued, “I scorned the Boy Fishing0001 sun, the voices on the road and they have gone.” Beneath me I could feel, not the stage boards of the Father Matthew Hall in Church Street, Dublin, but dead root-timber; the stage light was the sun. “My eyes are buried in the cold pond under the cold, spread leaves; my thoughts are silver-wet.” The scuffling schoolboys and girls, their mammies and daddies and their elocution teachers, were gone; I was staring into the peat-dark and swollen waters of the Finglas River which emptied onto an Atlantic beach in Camp, Co. Kerry, my fishing rod in hand, dressed up as the sky.

This was my father’s experiment: on an overcast afternoon, beneath the dreep of autumn hedges, dress your sons in plastic rubbish sacks, fashion hats out of blue shopping bags and set them loose on the banks. No bites that day for me; perhaps the fish were fooled or perhaps in their own piscine way they shared the bemusement of the mirthful onlookers who strolled over to examine the young boys that were disguised as the sky. I scorned them, I scorned them all and slumped humiliated beneath the hedge and gazed damply into the waters; I endured my own thoughts; I waited. Though I failed at being the sky, and failed as a fisherman, I was, however, remarkably good at memorizing poems. An achievement made more remarkable maybe, by the fact that, at the time, I remained functionally illiterate.

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And Another ‘Thing’ : Sci-Fi Truths and Nature’s Errors

by Daniel Rourke

In my last 3quarksdaily article I considered the ability of science-fiction – and the impossible objects it contains – to highlight the gap between us and ‘The Thing Itself’ (the fundamental reality underlying all phenomena). In this follow-up I ask whether the way these fictional ‘Things’ determine their continued existence – by copying, cloning or imitation – can teach us about our conception of nature.

Seth Brundle: What’s there to take? The disease has just revealed its purpose. We don’t have to worry about contagion anymore… I know what the disease wants.

Ronnie: What does the disease want?

Seth Brundle: It wants to… turn me into something else. That’s not too terrible is it? Most people would give anything to be turned into something else.

Ronnie: Turned into what?

Seth Brundle: Whaddaya think? A fly. Am I becoming a hundred-and-eighty-five-pound fly? No, I’m becoming something that never existed before. I’m becoming… Brundlefly. Don’t you think that’s worth a Nobel Prize or two?

The Fly, 1986

In David Cronenberg’s movie The Fly (1986) we watch through slotted fingers as the body of Seth Brundle is horrifically transformed. Piece by piece Seth becomes Brundlefly: a genetic monster, fused together in a teleportation experiment gone awry. In one tele-pod steps Seth, accompanied by an unwelcome house-fly; from the other pod emerges a single Thing born of their two genetic identities. The computer algorithm designed to deconstruct and reconstruct biology as pure matter cannot distinguish between one entity and another. The parable, as Cronenberg draws it, is simple: if all the world is code then ‘all the world’ is all there is.

Vincent Price in 'The Fly', 1958Science fiction is full of liminal beings. Creatures caught in the phase between animal and human, between alien and Earthly, between the material and the spirit. Flowing directly from the patterns of myth Brundlefly is a modern day Minotaur: a manifestation of our deep yearning to coalesce with natural forces we can’t understand. The searing passions of the bull, its towering stature, are fused in the figure of the Minotaur with those of man. The resultant creature is too fearsome for this world, too Earthly to exist in the other, and so is forced to wander through a labyrinth hovering impossibly between the two. Perhaps Brundlefly’s labyrinth is the computer algorithm winding its path through his genetic code. As a liminal being, Brundlefly is capable of understanding both worlds from a sacred position, between realities. His goal is reached, but at a cost too great for an Earthly being to understand. Seth the scientist sacrifices himself and there is no Ariadne’s thread to lead him back.

In her book on monsters, aliens and Others Elaine L. Graham reminds us of the thresholds these ‘Things’ linger on:

“[H]uman imagination, by giving birth to fantastic, monstrous and alien figures, has… always eschewed the fiction of fixed species. Hybrids and monsters are the vehicles through which it is possible to understand the fabricated character of all things, by virtue of the boundaries they cross and the limits they unsettle.”

Elaine L. Graham, Representations of the Post/Human

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