Essay on Universal Monsters

On Universal Monsters

By Veronica Hollinger, Co-editor, Science Fiction Studies

Here are richly lyrical poems that appear like wraiths, like apparitions made up of the bits and pieces of popular mythologies that have seeped into the brain, "this swamp, this skull, this locked, sunk trunk."  Here are poems about B movies, about horror stories and science fiction stories, about the sasquatch and Boris Karloff, about conspiracy theories, about tragic loves and murderous revenges enacted in the fantastic geographies of pulp fictions.  Bryan Dietrich is interested in everything.  He invokes image after image from an endlessly reinvented popular repository, and his poems alchemically transform these images into the signs of our times.  And our lives become creature features, endless replays of love and obsession and anxiety and triumph.  These poems capture in sound and image the inevitable sense of dread that never fails to mark the psyche.  And they are also a record of primitive desire, " a country within / a country, too improbable to remain / undiscovered long."

As Dietrich suggests in his title, there is mythic power in even our most B-grade popular fantasies.  We play out our lives in the guise of our fictional avatars:  Frankenstein's Creature, King Kong, the Mummy, the doomed aliens of Area-51, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Amelia Earhart, the Flying Dutchman.  Even families--perhaps most especially families--play out their most intimate dramas according to the scripts outlined in popular mythology.  Mothers, fathers, sons, and lovers are implicated in dramas about monsters, madness, and loss:  "Blood and Black Lace, / The Thing that Couldn't Die....  I remember them all.  Lovers, madmen, / the thrill of possession.  All of them, one question.  Should you let her go?"  Father as the Invisible Man; Mother as the Wasp Woman.  The nuclear family supplies the cast for a drama of nostalgia and horror called "American Gothic."

Everything here is refracted through the lens of popular mythology, especially the poet's own life and memories, "taking me back to every monster / movie I'd ever seen where the hero, haunted, / hunted, climbs the scaffold, mounts some stair...the unmanacled menace / close on his heels."  These poems are monstrous demonstrations of our own complicity in the narratives of dread, desire, and destruction that we tell each other about ourselves; these monstrous poems are written in the shape of our own lives:  "Dare yourself to / distinguish there anything less than your own story."

In Dietrich's imaginative universe, humanity is "a haunted palace" and Universal Monsters is a record of this haunting.  It is Mary Shelley's own "universal monster" who is most at home in these poems, lumbering through these stories of love and death, coming to life again and again in these lyrical attempts to shape life into story.  To read Universal Monsters is to unveil poems that are newly living monsters of the imagination:  "Isn't that the irony, the power, of these odd / skulls we pack with exquisite imitations / of things--word, Word, marriage, monsters?...It arrives in your room in the black night, late. / A face framed in gauze.  It wants a mate."

Dietrich's final poem, "Ars Poetica," concludes the series with a beautiful image of the poet's task as the piecing together of these monsters of the imagination:  each poem is a monster, a construction of fragments, and each monster is a poem:  "Call your witness.  Add the current."  It's alive.