A word monster

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.



She movement

wading moments

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
thinking opening
the infinite entrails
the part smaller of sinuous waste
of a figure and
itself monster

She fair
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
lizard space
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
womb beasts

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.

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