they are really molluscs, Anna Cathenka
Salò Press, 2018, £3.99
An honest thief
In they are really molluscs, Anna Cathenka borrows the language of vintage pocket guides to the seashore, rocks, and moths. This has its ethical and technical challenges, and Cathenka shows these with honesty and playfulness. These poems never quite wear their disguises fully. The result is a pamphlet that is self-aware, saucy, and attentive to the problems of naming.
Opening with ‘Preface’, immediately we are invited to observe ‘the Anna Cathenka’. A human name is likened to the names of marine species and moths from the source books, and becomes estranged, de-humanised. She becomes a topic of objective study, just like any other creature.
In ‘Terrible Lizard’, Cathenka questions the borrowed language used throughout the book. The poem can only imperfectly hide behind ‘the occasional / linguistic invocation’ of the names of dinosaurs, because it demands that we notice its own construction:
Poetry becomes a little like that self-conscious ‘Anna Cathenka’. The speaker undermines her own authority to speak of — and for — other creatures, and the capacity for poetry to hold them:
a poem about dinosaurs
clever girl, just call it
In ‘Moths’, Cathenka again names poetic techniques as she uses them. Here various moth species are used as a conduit for human self-expression: ‘I have decided to use moths in this poem as a metaphor for / my prevailing sexualities’. This acknowledged metaphor allows the speaker to talk her way round to the true subject of her concern: ‘o me’. Again, this speaker admits that she’s hiding behind other animals. It’s a radical way to try and convince us.
Cathenka’s poems exploit the vocabulary of the natural world to reveal thinly-veiled anxiety about human standing and understanding, while questioning hierarchy in both language and the tree of life.