April 26: Laurie Sheck’s A Monster’s Notes
The poet Laurie Sheck recently published a work that is perhaps not exactly poetry, but is not a straight novel either—A Monster’s Notes is a genre-defying book reimagining the life of Mary Shelley’s monster. In Sheck’s version, the monster is a figure Mary met as a young girl while visiting her mother’s grave, a strange being both mesmerizing and terrifying to her, whom she later wrote into her novel as Victor Frankenstein’s creation. Sheck gives us the monster in his own words, still alive in the twenty-first century, reflecting on the bizarre race of humans that made him and shuns him; he ponders the tragic tale of the Shelleys, including Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous drowning and the devastating story of Mary’s stepsister Claire Clairmont, who had a child as a result of her affair with Lord Byron and was made to give her up. Throughout the book, the monster (and the reader) can clairvoyantly “see” letters penned by the Shelleys, including those excerpted below, from Mary to Claire, when she finally shares with her sister the story of the monster and how he first came to her. Mary also refers in these letters to her half-sister Fanny, and to their mother Mary Wollstonecraft, who is considered a founder of modern feminism.
I sat there in St. Pancras graveyard. The end of summer. The River Fleet moving sluggishly nearby.
I don’t understand stillness, I was thinking—I remember this clearly— thinking, what could be odder than stillness though it’s everywhere? Rock. Bone. Knife. Death. Table. My brain ached as I thought this . . . I was 8 . . .
He moved very slowly, his chin pressed down and inward where it met his left shoulder.
This is the cemetery of St. Pancras, I said to myself, and St. Pancras is the Patron Saint of Children, but he couldn’t be St. Pancras, his head’s still attached, and he’s too old. Yet he didn’t seem like other humans.
Black lips and yellow eyes. Long black hair.
For weeks he came to me. Mostly he stayed hidden in the bushes, would speak almost nothing of himself. Not even when I asked. Read to me from books. Seemed to know who I was.
It’s the ordinary that frightens—water, rock, stillness, absence, faces. Thriving gardens. Anchors. Skin.
For weeks I listened as he read.
Remember when we kept our journals?—
“Tuesday 8th Letter from Fanny—drawing lesson—walk out with Shelley to the south parade. Read Clarendon and draw—in the evening work & S reads Don Quixote aloud.”
That was October, 1816. Fanny died the next day. What was I doing when she died?—reading the memoirs of Princesse de Barreith? Drawing? Walking alone or with Shelley? Such ordinary things—
“Wednesday 23rd Walk before breakfast. Afterwards write and read Clarendon. Shelley writes & reads Montaigne—In the evening read Curt. & work—Shelley reads Don Quixote aloud.” Days like that. Remember? But not a scrap of writing survives from the years I was a child. So much I didn’t tell you. Yet I criticized you for being melodramatic, for your “Clairmont Style”— your conviction that some unworldly being was moving through your room disarranging things. And all the time I kept from you what I’d seen when I was 8. . .
He stepped out of the bushes, partly shielding his face with his hand. He seemed a hurt presence. A presence somehow ashamed.
It’s the ordinary that frightens: a plain white envelope, a sunny day in the mountains, reading, thinking, looking at a newborn’s skin. The words: “infant,” “Monday,” “Leghorn,” “July,” frighten me.
When I was 8: stillness, trust, my own bed, thinking, frightened me.
I felt no need to turn from him.
I asked his name. “I don’t have one,” he said.
That seemed to me an extraordinary thing. I couldn’t decide if it was wonderful or horrible, to have no name like that, yet to be a creature of language, a creature using words.
Why had no one named him? And un- named like that, did he know an aloneness much worse than my own?
He held a book in his hands. I could tell he didn’t want me to look into his face. How does one calm another’s shame? Then he stepped back into the bushes, head still deeply bowed, and started in a gravelly, hushed voice, to read.
One day he read to me from my mother’s letters. But how could he have seen her letters? They were to the American, Imlay, Fanny’s father. From before we were born.
She wrote of his “barrier- face,” and called the child “our barrier- child.” “You are mistaken if you think me cold,” she said. “I am determined to earn money for myself—the little girl and I will live without your assistance—.” Wrote, “You don’t love me, I know.”
I turned the pebbles over in my hands as he read. Years later, at Lerici, I’d hear in the sound of the sea his gravelly voice, though I tried not to hear it. How many years since Fanny died? No one ever claimed the body. That day I bought mourning clothes, standing in that awful shop I felt her beside me one last time.
Then a pained silence came into me.
I kept imagining that he and I were the only ones left alive. His gravelly voice a spider’s web which instead of viciously entrapping created against the air a refuge of intersecting lines, a kind of dwelling. I lived within that voice, its stories. And still I couldn’t stand the thought of being left with him. Sometimes I imagined hurting him, seeing him cry. Imagined telling him I hated his voice, his yellow eyes, that he was a disgusting aberration of nature, nothing anyone could ever love. I’d picture his shoulders heaving as he sobbed. Imagined throwing a stick at him or stones. For a while this comforted me. But why would the thought of hurting him comfort me? I waited each day for him to come—
Beneath the threatening thoughts a calm so pure nothing could rip it.
* * *
Learn more about A Monster’s Notes
Sample some poems from Laurie Sheck’s poetry collection, Captivity