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(REVIEW) some notes on Anna Cathenka’s ‘they are really molluscs’


In this review, Fred Spoliar makes kin with a new favourite poetry beastie, the mollusc. Or, more specifically, the nudibranch (which btw means NAKED GILLS, just sayin, no spoiler). Even more specifically, with Anna Cathenka’s excellent pamphlet, they are really molluscs (Salò Press, 2018).

I passed Tuesday afternoon down at the Creekside Discovery Centre by Crossfields estate in Deptford, making a sea slug out of plastic rubbish fished out of the creek by big acrylic robots. Inside, kids applied glitter to milk-bottle whales, and fashioned tentacles out of straws and coloured tape. A wall display of salvaged bones, Bakelite telephones. I was startled by a stuffed fox. A framed photograph showed a kingfisher perched on a squished lager can. Nudibranch, I said, though my garish yellow assemblage had nothing on the delicate pizzazz of the real things. Nu-di-branch.

And then I had to sit by the muddy water and read Anna Cathenka’s they are really molluscs again. Is there another pamphlet anywhere that acknowledges how funny the word “nudibranchs” is?

A tiny green caterpillar landed on my arm in bed this morning and then they reared up like a cobra, swaying to get their tiny bearings. I’m thinking of it again just now, reading ‘THE FOOD OF MOTH LARVA’, chewing over ‘borage / ragwort’, roughage words. Most caterpillars have no sexual dimorphism, did you know that?

Lisa Robertson has a poem where she calls pronouns ‘gratuitous expenditure as necessity’[1]. Part of poetry is wouldn’t it be sweet to dodge that violence by just being misty,

the between

thing that barely touches            

land except on very dark days            

when we’re nearly rain?


And isn’t it? Like water off a duck’s back! Take away the necessity, and you can have a glorious profligacy!

Like Robertson, Anna Cathenka is out for something more than the restricted economy of bodies, like the “I” of ‘MOTHS’ who unfurls a moth-taxonomy of their ‘prevailing sexualities’:


like how i love men with a sort of Kentish Glory

want to be with women as a Red-Necked Footman  

it is this that makes me masculine, my Light Crimson            


There’s a sketchiness to what self/portraiture happens in they are really molluscs... Whether failure or refusal (a line the poems toy) I think this is generosity. I think generous characterisation never really wants to nail it. In my favourite Cathenka lyrics, beings are drawn with a labile sharpness - sharp blurs? - leaving space for the collaboration of becoming, the sympoietic if you’re a Donna Haraway fan. Speakers quip on their own failure to pin it down, and build cunning sand-castles out of what they are, a bit, almost, but not:


they aren’t          

sea-lilies because they only have four            

arms to wave about in the water            

so maybe a stunted star-fish?

                       (‘THEY ARE REALLY MOLLUSCS’)

“They”: the humans, the two lovers, the group, the species? I love the way play yields both a way of being more and a way of saying lack, the not-quite of language to the world. A speaker grasping for the evasive closeness of their addressee:

is there such thing            

as a sea-wolf?            

i thought there might be            

reference to some maned            

urchin or pelagic dancer            

that moves gracefully            

through the water            

that steals upon its prey

                       (‘SOLID ROCK’)

What happens when living metaphors fade into the archive? Absent reference, you find yourself swimming in simulacra, the names and eating habits of moths wash over you, pleasant maybe like a dreamy postmodern seaside B&B, pretty, vacant. And what kind of god does it make me if I invent a creature that then turns out to really exist? The virtual Nature in my laptop (today I youtubed Britain’s smallest bird, the goldcrest) is not the naturalist’s killing jar, but is it more insidious. What to do with the language of a world that fails animals – dear Sir David Attenborough purring pronouns at mating hedgehogs – Beatrix Potter, Walt Disney, Satoshi Tajiri – as if by casting them as comic us-es or deforming them into willing virtual companions we were recovering - what?

Inverse anthropomorphism in a world that’s wiped out 60% of its wild creatures since 1970[2] is tinged with social failure, disappearance; the thinning gap between beautiful reference, like Cathenka’s ‘nudibranches (misspelt)’, and beautiful invention – the ‘maned/ urchin’, the ‘pelagic dancer’. When the poem draws back with a prosaic allusion to The Observer’s Book of Sea and Seashore I can’t help but think about the politics of the observer, and John Berger’s haunting account of the phenomenology of zoos:

However you look at these animals, even if the animal is up against the bars, less than a foot from you, looking outwards in the public direction, you are looking at something that has been rendered absolutely marginal; and all the concentration you can muster will never be enough to centralise it. [3]

The Observer’s Book of Sea and Seashore, published 1962: a time of Cold War fear, nuclear proliferation, yes, but a time before any self-conscious Anthropocenes, when Nature was still thinkable. Its *m*z*n reviews are little snapshot poems in themselves (‘Good little book had when I was a child living by the sea could not resist it again’).

And - something in that, still. Residues of the real, real magic – the ecsta-sea of poetry’s commonwealth, the floating radical of language in our lives, everyone’s. Brave speech, the coolest way to pronoun. Poetry does bear a special, fluid relationship to the thinginess of names, the naminess of nouns. It attends dangerously to the intensions of words, it endangers the comfy parochial enclosures of language, the “nature reserve”, “The Great Outdoors”. It’s so improper! - anyone can go there -

(What if you stay with that nostalgic feel, before you recollect? What monsters might you find?)

The difference between the televised Wonders of Nature and Anna Cathenka’s sea-shore sights is that close attention, to language as to critters, as to : in the telling nostalgic like a rockpooling story but in the doing it breaks the fourth wall, it provokes.

Last thing. The science of past extinction events is palaeontology; why are dinosaurs for kids? In the dinosaur poem (dinosaur poem!) ‘Terrible Lizard’, rather than anthropomorphise Cathenka has dinosaur-words lumber around the poem while the droll speaker (‘clever girl, just call it/ terrible lizard’) dares us to disagree that

           the thought is enough:

           line break

           line break


A proper Nature Writer said at a Nature Writing panel last summer that they could never write about dinosaurs because, they said, ‘dinosaurs are for kids’ – so I’m specially tickled here by such “writerly” text plonked through with extinct giant lizards, like Maurice Blanchot barged in on by a toddler. It’s as if it takes something childish to hear that jurassic ‘BOOM!’ Then, closing –

Hwæt –

  this is a poem

      about dinosaurs

tiny brains

– the invocation hwæt, not quite at the end, does such sad sweet work. How can we write about extinction? With weight or wit? What even is it, the what of extinction? Slipped away unheard, a call of wait! we drive past?, we “adults” with our big brains… You have to laugh.

(do you?)

Image & text: Fred Spoliar

they are really molluscs is available for the itsy bitsy price of £5 here.


[1] Lisa Robertson, ‘The Seam’

[2] see the WWF’s Living Planet Report 2018

[3] John Berger, ‘Why look at Animals?’

Published 18/4/19


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