By Laura Potts

A real literary personality runs through the poems Anna Cathenka has cleverly curated and carefully linked in her new book they are really molluscs, recently published by Salò Press. In producing this collection, Cathenka notes that she drew on three Observer’s Pocket Books, and as a result each poem stands as if it could belong to a passage from a textbook, with references to strange organisms and a scientific rigidity of structure. We are offered an insight into the world of the Anna Cathenka, and a number of other strange worlds, through the unfamiliar and occasionally confusing lens of biological ocean life.

Although I had no prior knowledge of Cathenka’s work before reading they are really molluscs, her passion for her work was made immediately clear in her commitment to this device. The works have a grasp of oceanology that situates them somewhere between exercises in nostalgic memory and biological research. In the first few poems, the use of the word ‘you’ radiates both a comforting familiarity and a worrying alienation, as the reader understands the connection being made by the author but also feels little sense of emotive relation to the ‘pea crab’ or the ‘drifting icebergs’. We may be able to connect to these natural and biological entities on a metaphorical level, but on the personal level which the use of ‘you’ suggests, it is more challenging to relate to Cathenka’s cold imagery. This challenge, of course, creates meaning within itself, leaving a void of knowledge to be filled by the reader, a journey on which they might see themselves anew through these perplexing metaphors. The book is perhaps a work of Paleoceanography, the study of the history of the oceans, more than an exercise of timeless biological examination. Each poem, each tale of reminiscence and nostalgia, carves its story onto the rocks of the ocean.

can we be the between
thing that barely touches
land except on very dark days
when we’re nearly rain?

One of the most interesting features of this collection of poems is its fluid nature. There is a great skill in the ability to harmoniously link two areas of study which often live in separate spheres and separate research fields, as Cathenka does here. In 1959, C.P. Snow gave an influential lecture discussing the drawbacks of the sciences and humanities being kept separate, theorising that this separation was a key failing for a progressive society. 60 years later, this divide is just as present, making it all the more refreshing to see works such as these poems combining a creative practice with content which typically exists as factual scientific knowledge.

The Food Of Moth Larva is an ideal example of Cathenka’s simultaneous experimentation in imagery, structure and theme. Unconventional and chaotic in its structure, it reads like a code, or like someone else’s shopping list, though the reader knows not of any recipe which might allow the successful combination of the ingredients. The absence of anything even approaching structured sentences suggests that the list is unfinished or ongoing, a snapshot of something ever changing. The Food Of Moth Larva uses its formation and presence as a tool, more than its literal meaning.

Captivated by its continuous questioning of the reader and the magic of its weather imagery, I was compelled to read Seamist over and again; for me it was the most emotive poem in the collection. “can we be the between / thing that barely touches / land except on very dark days / when we’re nearly rain?” – the fluctuating, hopeful emotion of these questions, accentuated by natural imagery, are reminiscent of love and of heartbreak. For many readers, myself included, Seamist will be more relatable than many other poems in the book due to its more traditional nature, structure and themes. But it does not undermine the surrounding works – rather, it offers balance to the factual discourse used elsewhere.

The mollusc is a soft fleshy creature within a hard, safe shell. they are really molluscs is bolder than the creatures themselves, proposing that their (and our) vulnerabilities be displayed on the outside. This boldness is communicated through unconventional imagery, conveyed through a variety of structural devices. When read from cover to cover, the depth of research involved in this collection is profoundly evident. Cathenka delves into fields positioned outside the usual literary context, creatively engaging with obscure topics and themes in a fascinating and moving book.

they are really molluscs is published by and available through Salò Press

Featured image credit: Asilomar 3

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