Friday, January 10, 2014

[DEMONSTRA] The Terror in Teak

One of my favorite short stories that I wrote for Innsmouth Free Press was "What Hides, What Returns," which appeared in their anthology, Historical Lovecraft in 2011. 

In that short story, I introduced the character of Saeng, who was a bit of a Lao rascal and raconteur, a professional guide who accompanied different groups of colonials on various expeditions while living on the outskirts of Luang Prabang. 

The central premise was that there was an unorthodox copy of a famous Lao epic that was more detailed, yet more mad, than other texts covering that famous story. If read carefully it could lead to a long-forgotten temple built by ancient beings. It was an homage to many of the classic Lovecraftian tales I'd grown up with, and an experiment in how well those themes could mesh with a Southeast Asian perspective and our traditional beliefs.

From a poet's perspective, I was also curious if a prose poem could work with a similar premise, and the primary experiment in which this was implemented in DEMONSTRA is the poem "The Terror In Teak," the eighth poem in the collection.

"The Terror in Teak" would primarily be an examination of Lovecraft's short story, "The Call of Cthulhu," and a number of his other short stories, and those of other writers who worked within Lovecraft's strange cosmology.There are certainly great questions, like "How does a landlocked nation far from the oceans address tales of such a being?"

As with many of Lovecraft's works, this necessitated using a first-person perspective. Which isn't particularly my favorite, but it made sense in this case.

Set in the modern day, "The Terror in Teak" mentions a real French fort, Fort Carnot, and several other real texts and locations. It also provided me an opportunity to address some concerns such as the environment and the role of anthropology abroad to make sense of things.

This is the first poem to make an effort to transliterate the name of the Cthulhu cult in Lao. There will doubtless be other suggestions and corrections, but one of the nice things about working with this subject is that there's really no right way to spell Cthulhu anyway, especially among those who'd worship such a horrific entity in Southeast Asia.

In many ways "The Terror in Teak" was also composed as a way of starting a conversation about some of the unusual messianic legends and rumors that were running rampant in the early 20th century, especially among those living in the mountains and hills, where people were more free to build such beliefs. I wanted to ask what happened if we took such beliefs to an extreme, where people emerged who would invite the inhuman into their lives because things had deteriorated to such a point that pacts with the inhuman made as much sense as maintaining the status quo.

From a poetry point of view, the challenge was to create the work in such a way that it can only really be best experienced as a poem, and not as a short story, a film, or a comic book, although I would not rule out an experiment in graphopoetics for this piece in another project.

In narrative, there is a significant pressure to create logic, consistency, a coherent story that can be followed. With poetry, there is the same but the rules are also somewhat fluid. I get to try and tell you a "story" in a way that's not a story. We see how far language can and can't take us. 

Much like a work by Picasso and other modern artists, any use of language, particularly in an intercultural context, is an exercise in abstraction and certain social agreements. So the interesting question for artists and thinking humans is, how far can we take things to still express ideas for which all human language is presently insufficient to express?

"The Terror in Teak" is far from the last word on this matter, but it is a foray, one I hope my readers found enjoyable.


chamath said...

What are the fourth, fifth adn sixth of the illustrations you have used here,provenance, meaning etc?

Bryan Thao Worra said...

You're looking at a French engraving of a scene on the Mekong, a protective amulet from Laos, possibly a weeping Buddha, but that's questionable, and an execution by French guillotine in Vietnam.