Embryos & Idiots
by Larissa Szporluk
Tupelo Press 2007
Reviewed by Melinda Wilson
Many people take myths and fables too literally and spend their lives in fear of sin, purgatory and hell; we need a fresh set of myths to appeal to our sense of imagination rather than our sense of fear. Leave it to Larissa Szporluk, then, to awaken us with a modern story of the fall, one so refreshingly odd and bright that it is nearly impossible to overlook.
Embryos & Idiots, Szporluk’s fourth book, begins with an outline of her peculiar mythology: a boy named Anoton is alienated from his people by his own lust and greed. Anoton, however robotic his name may sound, lives in a world entirely made of stone; Szporluk explains it best with this preface:
Od is a mineral kingdom. Anoton
suspects his mother of breaking the law
against harboring plants and animals.
He reports her; she is demolished.
Anoton’s father takes revenge. The boy’s
head falls to Earth and becomes a small
mountain island. Millenia later, a girl
washes up on it. With the aid of a dog,
Anoton devours her.
Most people cannot help but covet the prohibited; thus, when Anoton suspects that his mother is harboring a bee in her gut, he finds himself overcome with envy and spite. Instead of fearing for his mother’s safety—if she is caught with the insect she will be executed—Anoton, driven by greed, turns his mother in to the authorities hoping that he will be allowed to keep the bee as a reward for his “honesty” and “courage.” Strange, yes, but refreshingly imaginative.
The metaphors in these poems are innumerable and apt. Though the first section is fairly straightforward in telling the story of Anoton’s “fall,” Szporluk doesn’t avoid the more overtly philosophical:
is nonsense. We who are old and full of words
consent to disappear. Anoton did not.
Interestingly, it seems we die because, consciously or not, we will it, accept it, even welcome it. After Anoton gives his mother away, his father cuts off his son’s head in a rage. Somehow Anoton’s consciousness is not content to die, to flame out, so he becomes an island once his head falls to earth. The island, abstractedly alive with Anoton’s spirit and mental capacity, is eventually inhabited by seagulls. One of the gulls, Mara, becomes Anoton’s lonely conspirator in his next cruel and gruesome act. Such wild mythology provides readers with a satisfying escape; as is the case with all good myths, it justifies the near-predictability of some of the story’s lessons: abandoned by god, given no indication of fate or destiny, can people really be expected to behave ethically? Shouldn’t they be?
Condemned to Earth as an island, Anoton begins to feel remorse and asks of himself: “what’s so important that it makes / you forget, like ammonia, everything?” But because of his new physicality, nothing good can come of Anoton’s repentance, at least not when it comes to patching up his relationship with his father; thus the feelings of regret merely mutate into further evil. His desire for companionship ultimately finds relief in the act of murdering a girl that washes up on his shores. The seagull, Mara, helps fuel Anoton’s increasingly sick needs. Mara removes a cube of flesh from the girl with her beak and feeds it to Anoton a la Little Shop of Horrors. Eventually, with the help of a dog, Anoton (as mountain island) devours the girl whole. But, in anticipation of her readers’ questions, Szporluk comments on Mara’s actions:
Why did Mara do it,
appoint her home her master?
We are orphans. We have never
had a father in the sky.
The earth and the water will leave us …
Though the answer remains encoded, it is clear that Mara’s acceptance of her new duties is partially spawned from her fear of being alone. It seems immeasurably important to connect with one’s home, to feel as though its actions are a reflection of one’s own and vice versa; her home sustains her, and she pays tribute. This is the very same captivating power that makes it, at times, impossible for anyone to leave home. At a certain point, to abandon one’s home is to lose one’s self. However fantastic or absurd the story itself, Szporluk’s poems are mythological in a very conventional way: they have lessons, morals even, that indicate truths about human beings; in this case, we are abandoned, homeless, willing to sacrifice certain things in order to establish new homes.
Such dramatic themes spur Szporluk into dramatics from time to time, but what saves Embryos & Idiots is the consistency of plot and oddness of the story. Her message seems clear: “Just to exist is criminal.” We live in a chaotic world filled with wrongdoing and incessant bloodshed. We have partaken in so many evils that it seems hopeless, impossible to turn back, to make good of it all. Left with a feeling of utter regret and frustration, self-hatred and disgust, we continue on, our feelings breeding further violence. Eventually, “It cannot / be tallied, this theatre / of war.” Of course it can’t; as Szporluk suggests, it exists beyond our little planet. Humans on earth, it seems, are playing out a universal code.
Though no tangible resolution is offered—one simply doesn’t exist to our knowledge—the temporary solution seems to be to recede into one’s imagination as the poet herself has done. Often, when our reality is too painful, or simply dissatisfactory, we wander into the dark alleys of our minds where we can’t be reached by anything external (see: Pan’s Labyrinth). It is a form of self-preservation. There is a rather large miscue at the end of the book, where the poet regards “a happily-ever-after, / or a belch of trust.” A slow, kind of obviously “clever and edgy, look I’m a poetry book” pair of closing lines. But the poet has gone deep into her own imagination with the story of Anoton, and in doing so has done something which many of us fail to do: she has concretized the imagination for others to connect with. It is the start to regaining hope and reconnecting with the world around us. Myths cannot be ignored; they are our own struggles embedded in fantasy, so their apparent distance from “reality” enables us to understand a great many things, however abstract or moralistic.