In 2012, at the invitation of Laura Orem, twelve poets across the country joined to create a series of handmade books of poetry and art, each based on one word, in a multitude of poetic styles and art mediums. My poem and collage here were created for C. J. Sage’s book dedicated to the word “Breach.” The word brought whales to mind, so I used Gustave Doré’s “Leviathan,” from his Job illustrations, as background for the art, which inspired, in turn, my poem about this particularly recalcitrant Muse, based on an old ballad called “Kemp Owyne” (Child 34; you can read the verses here), in which a lady, Dove Isabel, is turned by an evil stepmother into a Laidly Wurm—an ugly dragon. The story is related to many fairy tales such as “The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh,” seen in this gorgeous illustration, by John D. Batten, from 1890.
"Her breath was strang, her hair was lang,
And twisted ance about the tree,
And with a swing she came about:
‘Come to Craigy’s sea, and kiss with me.’”
As the poem and collage composed themselves, Marianne Moore showed up, and Emily Dickinson, and Moby Dick (duh!); some Odyssey, a little I Can Haz Cheezburger?, and a very kawaii pic of a cat-Beluga romance; along with all the rest of the usual suspects.
It’s like holding the seas apart with art until
uprises wet with grievous size
precisely that Laidly Wyrm you’ve loved
with a cow or two stuck in her teeth, look-
ing at you for all the world as though you were the one who
had put her down underneath. “Oh, hai.” Uh-huh.
Well, watch out. She’s probably fixing to break your Melmac
bowl, breach mirrors, blurb Melmoth, breed
Man-Moths, clone mammoths, mess around with mermen,
murder bores. She’s bound mainly to bring you more
trouble: See colorblind Chaos informing her enormous
frontal lobe, beyond that blowhole? See her kiss the cat?
See how she’s breathing? It’s in through her mouth
and out straight through the top of her head: It’s like
when you’re singing some earworm as glorious as symphonic
choruses stuck in your spinal cord, then the phone rings
and you answer its rhythm, unable to say a word.
You’d better check your hands again. Convince yourself
they’re there. If they are, it’s time to keep
them open. But the sea’s to write on, with its cavalcade of rain:
Better that than biting at your fingers. Here’s what swims in,
then, between the vista and the viewer; here’s what silhouettes
outside the window. Hold it, hold on to it, water and fire,
panther and pythoness: changes start
where other changes wander. Be braver. So journ-
eying, eyeing Leviathan, keep her inside you, as well, as
she gulps the rigging. I know, I know: You tried
to let her go: Ain’t gonna happen. She only expanded
enormously in that well; it’s what she does. Whenever
she surfaces, slow as a mobé pearl, though, that’s your cue.
Rosanne Wasserman’s poems have appeared widely in anthologies and journals; both John Ashbery and A. R. Ammons have chosen her work for the Best American Poetry annual series. Her poetry books include The Lacemakers, No Archive on Earth, and Other Selves, as well as Place du Carousel and Psyche and Amor, collaborations with Eugene Richie. She’s been teaching sailors at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy for the last twenty-five years.