The argument against organised religion
Anatomy of a mannequin
All images copyright James Knight. All rights reserved.
My contribution to book 14 of the wonderful Transformations project (a reworking of Ovid’s Metamorphoses) is a response to the myth of Scylla, a beautiful nymph transformed into a monster.
The trope of the sexually desirable female who becomes an object of horror is well-worn, and I’m fascinated by it. Medusa exemplifies it perfectly. A good example in sci-fi is the Species film series, in which an entity that is a splice of a horrifying alien and a human adopts the form of a sexy young woman, whose sole purpose is speedy reproduction with a suitably healthy (human) mate.
My Scylla poem is an old-fashioned cut-up text. I chose source texts that leant themselves to Freudian interpretations of the monstrous feminine (to borrow Barbara Creed’s phrase): two excerpts from Bram Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm, part of a public domain prose translation of book 14 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the stunningly grotesque description of Sin (daughter and lover of Satan, mother of Death) in Paradise Lost. Assembly of my poem was easy; anyone could have done it. I simply pasted the source texts into an online cut-up machine, then copied the resultant text into a Pages document on my iPad. Finally, I inserted line breaks where they seemed appropriate (making free verse out of prose), eliminated punctuation and began each stanza with a capital letter, but didn’t in any other way tamper with what the cut-up machine produced. The process generated some striking phrases and a serendipitous juxtaposition of the words “fair” and “foul”, which sums up the concept behind the poem, as well as bringing to mind Shakespeare’s monstrous females, the witches in Macbeth.
Like Scylla herself, my poem is a tormented mess. Broken grammar and semantic ambiguity mirror Scylla’s horrified amazement at her own transmogrification. I’m usually a slave to grammar; in this instance it was refreshing to watch it being wrecked.
was as waist some forced clad of deep mountainous up in waving into mass to some gently of the kind to pool flesh top and only surged amid soft up a white
Before find through mass stuff
of which gates
water narrow blood
clung there around
orifice and close sat
On her as slime to either groin though
and her side erupt forced what form
with yelping shape monsters
The at power
the infinite entrails
the part smaller of sinuous waste
of a figure and
foul shreds close-fitting in retreats fragments
fur and fears
white enormous skin bulk dazzling
as were white serpent pushes of forced coiled arm’d
With seeking into colour wide
her gigantic larger dazzled Cerberian thighs
when mouths her
or disclosed the full legs
serpent sections sun
her hideous voice
peal lull Adam
when jaws pause
Sir Cerberus’s seething had and would
She contents seen sweet creep stands of looking
If the raging hole
the soft disturb’d dogs
rose trees dominant
note her by eyes
And below bubbling emerald-green sibilation kennel
the spring flickering her surface and like hands yet from Adam great too
there which saw lamps were still her part
long bark’d truncated
of a flexible and thighs the gale white howl’d
Within and thin with unseen belly form a
Scylla emerge of strange comes
If you’re interested in the myth of Scylla and its modern relevance, I can’t recommend highly enough Mina Polen’s book, Scylla & Charybdis.
The Muse of Amnesia
The Muse of Silence
The Muse of Unreality
The Muse of Glossolalia
The Muse of Paranoia
The Muse of Anarchy
All of these images are Photoshopped photos I took at Stourhead in Wiltshire. The statues were covered with protective sheets while restoration work was being carried out on the pantheon building. They had inspired a previous series of images, my Mechanical Muses. Copyright James Knight. All rights reserved.
Mon wakes up surrounded by trees. The light is grey, the trunks black.
How long have I slept? he wonders.
He doesn’t know which way to walk. In every direction, the same prospect of trees. He looks up at a blank sky. No sign even of the sun.
He starts walking. Slowly, leisurely. If there is a right way to go, it isn’t evident. So the going can have no consequences.
It occurs to him that the dense arrangement of trees constitutes a forest.
So I’m lost in a dark forest, he muses.
As he treads on twigs, leaves, roots, he listens for the music of the woods.
And no birds sing.
Where’s that from?
Memories of a brown classroom, words on a page. A poem about a pale knight.
The forest deepens.
He keeps walking. He’s been here before. Not here, geographically (as far as he’s aware), but here, in this situation. Walking.
Between black trees: a momentary red, stark as blood. Mon’s interest is aroused. The promise of adventure, or at least an encounter.
He’s nearer the place where he thinks he saw the red. He pauses and looks around.
A few yards away, to his left: a little girl.
He’s never seen her before, but she’s familiar. She carries a basket and wears a red coat with a hood.
Am I the wolf? he thinks.
The idea that he might be the wolf in the story makes Mon anxious. He doesn’t feel qualified. He has neither the teeth nor the energy.
The girl doesn’t move. Her smile appears arch, but he can’t be sure.
He can’t be the wolf; she’s not scared.
Mon decides to ignore the girl and keep walking.
After a time he looks back, but can’t see her.
The forest, like the plot, thickens.
The more he thinks about it, the more he’s irritated at the thought that he’s in a hackneyed mythical forest.
Mon whiles away the time by thinking up metaphors.
The trees are the bars of a prison.
The trees are the wolf’s teeth.
The trees are words.
If the trees are words, the forest is the story.
What does that make Mon? Punctuation? He has an affinity for the question mark.
If Mon is a question mark, where should he place himself? He can’t read the language of the trees.
The uniformity of the forest is unpromising. Which way is out? Which way deeper in?
Every story needs a path.
He sits on a stump.
It becomes fractionally darker, or so it seems.
Mon thinks about the knight, palely loitering in the poem.
Memories of books and pencils and words scratched into wood drag him into sleep.
Mon dreams of the forest.
Mon finds himself awake. He looks around. The forest is still there. But it is different. The trees look flat. Or maybe it isn’t the forest that is different. Maybe it’s the light. He remembers yesterday’s grey. This is yellowish. Like piss, he thinks.
The changed trees or pissy light make everything strange. No longer deep, dark woods, but something like a stage set.
He knocks against a tree. It wobbles. None of this is real, Mon reflects.
He decides to walk. It doesn’t matter where to. A walk is a walk.
The light is above and behind him. He reasons that he must therefore be heading upstage.
Some of the trees are broken. Splintered branches, scratched paintwork.
Still walking, as before, as yesterday, as usual.
The stage, if it is a stage, is unusually deep. Mon pauses and looks back. Planks of wood silhouetted against amber light.
To his right and left, beyond the trees, darkness like a black curtain.
The heat from the lights is enervating.
Yellow light at his back, heat all over him, scenery around him. No option but to keep walking.
To occupy his mind, he thinks again about the knight in the poem.
This was originally written as a series of tweets last autumn. If you’d like to read another piece about Mon, click here. Copyright James Knight. All rights reserved.
The looking glass. Funny name for it, implying you can look through it and see something new. But there’s nothing there, only yourself and the things around you. And why would anyone need to look at himself?
Max’s eyes are dark blue. He can see thin flecks of red in the whites, like veins in marble. Eyes roll, marbles roll. A boy made of porcelain with white skin and marbles for eyes. He looks down, trying to catch his reflection doing the same. But when he looks back the eyes are still on him.
The room on the other side of the glass is different. The light is greenish, everything is paler. It looks cold through there. Quiet. Max whispers, “Hello,” but the mirror boy just mouths the word. If Max were to smash a window, its counterpart through the looking glass would shatter without a sound. Cold, quiet, still. Land of the dead.
The mirror door opens and the spectre of his mother appears. From behind him, a voice: What are you doing in here? Admiring yourself? The ghost regards him archly. He turns. His mother has pink cheeks and a kind smile. He reddens and shrugs.
As he leaves the room he does not look back at the mirror.
This is an excerpt from my work-in-progress novel. Another can be found here. Copyright James Knight. All rights reserved.
The Bird King suffers from phantom head syndrome. Ever since his decapitation by a critic, he has felt pain where his head used to be. Sometimes it wakes him in the night. It’s so excruciating, he fumbles for a saw. But alas! there’s nothing to chop off.
He’s seen every specialist imaginable. The worst was the phantom head shrink, who proposed a one-size-fits-all Oedipal diagnosis. “The imaginary pain in your no-longer-existent head is an expression of castration anxiety. Your head symbolises your penis,” was his theory. The Bird King was about to explain that he didn’t have a penis either (having lost it in a bet), but thought better of it.
In his desperation, the Bird King even tried a homeopathic remedy, which involved listening to a bald man talking very slowly and sipping lots of water. The sipping proved tricky, of course. He was obliged to pour the medicinally useless liquid down his gaping stump.
Even the mystic couldn’t help him. It soon became apparent that the combination of powerful narcotics and human sacrifice lacked the efficacy the Bird King had been lead to expect.
So his agony continues. Like a headless chicken, he staggers in circles, inconsolable. Passing children laugh at the spectacle, but secretly they pity him.
Originally published as a series of tweets. Copyright James Knight. All rights reserved.