Craig Morgan Teicher creates strange worlds populated by animals fated for disaster and the people who interact with them, or simply act like them, including a very sad boy who wishes he had been raised by wolves
Craig Morgan Teicher, Cradle Book, BOA Editions, 2010.
"Timeless yet timely and hopeful with a dark underbelly, these fables revive a tradition running from Aesop to W.S. Merwin. With a poet’s mastery, Craig Morgan Teicher creates strange worlds populated by animals fated for disaster and the people who interact with them, or simply act like them, including a very sad boy who wishes he had been raised by wolves. There are also a handful of badly behaving gods, a talking tree, and a shape-shifting room."
"Thirty-three sublime, deceptively simple reflections on states of human awareness comprise this prose collection by poet Teicher (Brenda Is in the Room), who is also PW's poetry editor. In bedtime-story selections grouped under themes of Silence, Fear, Sleep, Teicher gives voice to our suppressed terrors of the dark, animism, unclean urges, and supernatural convergences: a man is granted the wish of invisibility in The Reward, using the power to observe everything he can until he becomes a repository... of moments that threaten to repeat themselves for all eternity, in short, a poet; dust collecting in clumps in corners takes on life as it is simply waiting for us to join it (The Dust); a tree stump finds a remedy for its acute loneliness by engulfing a monk in its gnarled roots so that they can die together (The Monk and the Stump). The immutable condition of the stone becomes the metaphor for life in The Story of the Stone. Teicher's subtly composed fables are effortless and enduring, celebrate the virtue of story above all, and render philosophers of his readers." - Publishers Weekly
“Populated with account-keeping birds, wolves whose ‘bite is like a breeze,’ an invisible man, a nameless man, and children who find dust balls and ‘care for particular clumps as pets,’ Teicher’s stories are full of mystery and doubt and despair. These are fables with the hearts of haiku. Their conclusions, if they may even be termed as such, are full of question marks and quicksand and rabbit holes. A writer imagines writing a line that goes through the paper and into the horizon and writes, ‘I will follow that line until there is no next thing’; a story can’t settle on its subject; men die and become crows. With the lightest touch, Teicher prods at our human mysteries, cloaking a very real and complex view of the world we live in through the language and staging of fairytale, diorama, and dream.” —Matthea Harvey
“Wrapped lightly in philosophy and whimsy and wisdom, here's a book to be savored, and revisited, and read aloud. Teicher is brewing some elegant magic here.” —Aimee Bender
"Cradle Book is incredibly rich and incredibly slim, incongruously small considering all it contains. To quote Teicher's story, 'The Red Cipher,' it is '[l]ike those unusual houses that are much bigger on the inside than their exteriors suggest,' as if each tale opens up a kind of hall of mirrors, something flickering into the distance in such a way as to suggest a path… This is a book to read aloud, to spend time under the spell of. Like the older fables Teicher must have had in his mind and ears when these were written, the stories in Cradle Book slip easily into the region of a reader's imagination where a good story is capable of waylaying danger, and where impenetrable mystery is realer and more relevant than what we see, by day, through our actual eyes."— The Best American Poetry
"I've been reading Craig Morgan Teicher's Cradle Book, and so far it's really enjoyable. The author is married to the superb poet, Brenda Shaughnessy, so I learned just recently. I know Shaughnessy's work better than Morgan Teicher's in truth, but I was curious about this little book of fables that are part poems, part little stories and now am interested to go back and read his other book, Brenda is in the Room, now that I know who he is referring to in the title.
I had no idea what to expect when I opened the book, and gradually discovered, I really like this little book. I have a problem with fiction--I simply have no patience to read it and have no patience to write it. If I do read it, I read it in one sitting at a rapid fire pace literally reading entire pages at one glance. But the Cradle Book is perfect for me. I can read these 1 to 2 page stories in a few minutes and then move onto another box of suprises. These actually read like little prose poems. The language isn't necessarily poetic, though. Neither is the rhythm of the language. I guess the frame of thinking, the philosophical mindset is clearly the mind of a poet, however. Occasionally, especially toward the end of these pieces, some of the poet in Morgan Teicher did come out, though as in "The Virtue of Birds" which ends: "The clamor closed in like a gloved hand slowly tightening its fingers." And the "The Line" which ends: "I will follow that line until there is no next thing."
The cover of the book says: "Stories & Fables" and fables are meant to make a moral point through animals, nature, etc. Morgan Teicher has sort of modernized the fables and these have become more poetic and more sophisticated, as well as more modern and philosophical. The lessons themselves are even more sophisticated. In the end, I liked this book because it's a little different from the other work that I've been reading lately. I also admired the author's desire and conviction to write what comes to him, versus creating some sort of packaged product that some publisher might like or some product that he knows the readers might be interested in. Here are two poems I found online, but there are much more involved and interesting ones in the book. Definitely worth picking up and reading." - Victoria Chang
"In a culture glutted on narrative realism, Craig Morgan Teicher's Cradle Book reminds us of why we tell stories in the first place. If the title doesn't tip the hat, then the opening sentence confirms it: "This story is older than the words with which it was written." The gods of Teicher's universe aren't concerned with the careful piling up of details designed to push a character through a narrative arc. They hurl stories at the reader from the abyss of the unconscious. Characters are drawn in a flash of the pen, as in "The Groaning Cows": "She was the weaver's daughter, a quiet girl who kept rabbits and loved to make up songs." Plots move by a different causality than our objective reality: "Stop! She cried. "You must not kill these cows, or else terrible luck will befall us all!"
The strength of these fictions, however, lies not in their difference from mainstream literature but in how Teicher manipulates his craft in ways unavailable to the realist: take the leap into the weaver girl's point of view in the last paragraph: "She knew then, when she heard the groaning, that her life would never be her own." That sudden shift forces the reader into a double epiphany regarding not only the forces that limit a life, but also the manner in which our good deeds become our punishment. "The Prisoner" creates tension by shifting perspective, but rather than going for the punch line, as lesser micro-fiction does, Teicher takes on big themes with biting wit: "First, I will make them abandon all dignity, pride and restraint as they torture me." In less than 250 words, Teicher hits on the truth of torture as well as Coetzee does in a 200-page novel: "Once they prove I am right, I will tell them the lie they want to hear: that there are some things we will not do."
Instead of the artificial clarity of the carefully orchestrated life evident in so much narrative realism, these pieces seek to explore what we don't understand, to open up questions that lead to more questions. The first half of "The Burning House" details a husband's predicament: his house is on fire with his wife inside. Rather than resolving the problem, the reader is treated to a series of possibilities for the husband's actions: "These are all very pressing questions, and there are many more that could be asked. Perhaps, someday, we will find answers among the rubble." Fables in the truest sense, these exquisite stories offer a sense of wonder even as they lead us deeper and deeper into the darkness of the unconscious. "We do all know, or at least we believe, that there are some things which must occur and which we cannot understand. Without them, the world would surely stop." - Peter Grandbois
"Cradle Book is described as a series of fairytales. But Craig Morgan Teicher’s second collection of poems is more precisely described as a series of aphorisms and parables—paeans, all, to our soul-stealing world. With grim aplomb, Teicher sets about his task, constructing single-page tales that seemingly pre-date contemporary notions of narrative.
Historical poetic relations abound: Andrew Marvell’s metaphysical poetics spring to mind, as does John Dryden’s Fables, Ancient and Modern, which Dryden partly penned and partly translated. That our own moment does not separately categorize this tradition of poetic and philosophical narrative (the tradition of Socrates, the tradition of Jesus, the classical poetic and narrative tradition world-wide), is more a fault of modern assumptions than modern interest. Our contemporary notions of what a poem or story might be is curiously truncated by moralism and entertainment: moralism, in that there must be a moral; entertainment, in that there must be a happy ending, or, at least, a just one.
Teicher is right, of course, and courageous as well, to resist contemporary valuations that are, really, valueless. And in his poem-stories, he is in good company. Kurt Vonnegut’s introductory lines to Anne Sexton’s Transformations (the 1971 title from Houghton Mifflin is based on Grimm’s fairytales), could just as neatly describe Cradle Book:
“She domesticates my terror, examines it and describes it, teaches it some tricks which will amuse me, then lets it gallop into my forest once more.”
T.S. Eliot, in his essay, “Baudelaire,” serves equally well:
“Baudelaire perceived that...damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation—of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living.”
The great challenge of literature is always changing, is as mutable as our striving and forgetful cultures—but always, it is some part of the author’s job description to strip away our truisms and describe the gaping unknown. Teicher, in Cradle Book, sits somewhere on the other side, and transmits.
From Cradle Book’s “The Wolves”:
“... the wolves are made of something less than air.
Their bite is like a breeze. When they run a few leaves shake. Perhaps a flower bends when they howl.
Pass through the woods whenever you like. What you have to fear is not the woods.” —Dan Fall
"The past year saw several American poets breaking the boundaries of contemporary form to establish new aesthetic frontiers. There was C.D. Wright’s investigative poetry-journalism in One With Others, Thomas Sayers Ellis’s Skin, Inc., a collection of sprawling “identity repair poems,” and Anne Carson (honorary American) with Nox, an elegiac book-in-a-box whose form is indivisible from the emotion it generates. Add to that list Craig Morgan Teicher and Cradle Book, a work that inhabits such a broad swath of forms that no one name can be affixed to it. The book is at once a collection of fables, of philosophy, of prose and prose poems, of aphorisms, creation myths, mystery, and parable.
What places Cradle Book among the year’s most innovative works is Teicher’s unsettling and manifold treatment of the fable’s traditional speaker. Though he is drawing from a fabular tradition that itself draws upon the rich heritage of folklore, Teicher breaks from both forms by placing his speaker in a position where the stories he tells both distort and bring him into sharper focus. Fittingly, the book’s most declarative story is also its first, its shortest, and its most sinuous, calling into question the voice behind the stories to come. Here it is in its entirety:
This story is older than the words with which it was written,
though this is the first time it has ever been told.
Teicher’s is a speaker who, like a god, likes to dictate the terms of his universe, of his story, by speaking them into existence. In fact, Teicher’s speaker is not a speaker at all—he is a storyteller. With deictic authority, he tells us to whom the story belongs (this story) and to whom the telling of the story belongs (this is the first time).
One of Cradle Book’s many triumphs is the way in which Teicher is able to enhance our understanding and pathos toward this storyteller by remaining true to the incalculability of his character. In “The Groaning Cows,” we encounter a tenderness in the storyteller that resurfaces throughout the book, whether it be amidst fires, death, or even the origin of unhappiness. Look how Teicher’s use of repetition and question in this passage creates a kind of somber pastoral, calling forth the tone a mother uses when reading her child to sleep:
One night, as if responding to some invisible signal, all the cows began groaning. They groaned and groaned all the next day and did not stop at nightfall. This went on for days and days. No one could sleep. The children were becoming more and more afraid. Nearly driven mad, everyone meeting hall.
should they do? No one could agree.
The question is a favorite tactic of Teicher’s storyteller, who, like any good god, refuses to answer the questions he puts forth. “Who will rise up,” he asks in “The Voices,” “for mustn’t someone? Who can tell the voices that call for help from those that only call to hear other voices in return? Perhaps it is you. And perhaps it is not.” Here we are witness to the spasmodic changes in tone Teicher is able to induce in his storyteller. By first asking his question in the negative—“mustn’t someone”—the storyteller leverages the responsibility of providing an answer onto the audience. But the clause that precedes this negation is a call to arms, as is the longer second question that follows it. And then: “perhaps it is you,” our storyteller says with a coquettish thread of hope, “and perhaps not,” turning his back on us just as quickly with a snarl. Still, we sense that this bitterness is a dramatic front, a stance that belies a greater panic, a greater foreboding and fear.
This looming dread is everywhere in Cradle Book. Even after the book’s second section, which we are told comes “from The Book of Fear,” we come to a story called “The First Fire,” an account of human beings confronting a succession of fires that burn for longer and longer durations every time they set themselves ablaze:
Men threw their food into the fire, and still the fire burned. They threw their cattle into the fire, and still the fire burned. They threw their wives and daughters and sons into the fire, but still the fire burned.
The fire burned the land and the sea, swallowing houses, forests, islands, even the water, which burned burned.
ow read this against W.S. Merwin’s 1967 poem “The Lice,” in which deforestation brought on by human beings causes an ever-growing shadow to emerge upon the landscape:
They took stones to the water they poured them into the shadow.
They poured them in they poured them in the stones vanished.
The shadow was not filled it went on growing.
The word that I think comes closest to the experience of each poem is blight. In Merwin’s poem, this blight is literal and there is blame to be assigned: we are destroying our own forests and creating our own decay. In Teicher, however, the blight comes out of nowhere, inexplicably, and assaults us in such a way that the motive cannot be fathomed, thus striking at the root of our fear. The poet with whom Teicher ultimately shares the greatest chunk of his sensibility is Vasko Popa, the great Serbian poet, whose “Little Box” series broke from surrealism in order to generate an imaginative response to his experience of World War II that drew from Serbian folk traditions. Here is an excerpt from “The Little Box:
The little box grows and grows
And now inside her is the cupboard
She was in before
And she grows and grows and grows
And now inside her is the room
And the house and town and land
And the world she was in before
What poet Ted Hughes said of Popa also holds true of Teicher and the work he’s assembled in Cradle Book: Teicher “is always urgently connected with the business of trying to manage practical difficulties so great that they have forced the sufferer temporarily out of the dimension of coherent reality into that depth of imagination where understanding has its roots.”
As with Popa and Merwin, the fear in Teicher, the suffering that forces us back to the imagination, is the fear that blight will consume us without ever elucidating its purpose, “until,” as Teicher writes earlier, “there is no next thing.” Here is the final paragraph of “The First Fire”:
There are many stories of fire, but all of them end in the same way: as inexplicably as it had burned, the fire cooled and smoldered and finally went out, as if anything else could happen.
Imagination is not simply a bulwark in Cradle Book; it is a means through which Teicher actively transcends the blight suffered throughout the work. How do the villagers stop the endless groaning (yet another blight) of the cows mentioned earlier? A weaver’s daughter places her hand on the “soft muzzle of the nearest cow,” an imaginative effort that likewise tells us we must demand compassion of ourselves. But just as soon in Teicher, the pigs begin to groan, and the weaver’s daughter realizes her life will “belong to the pigs and the cows, to the goats and the ducks, to the hens and the rabbits. Most of all, it would belong to the men, whom she knew would never let her be.” With this last flourish of dread, Teicher tells us that we can never truly be free from the threat of blight, but by writing it down, by telling the story, we can resist enacting the blight upon each other." - Danniel Schoonebeek
Wolves rule these woods. They have overthrown the old rulers, conquered all the creatures, and now these woods belong to them. But do not be afraid if you pass this way. There is nothing here that can harm you, because, of course, the wolves are made of something less than air. Their bite is like a breeze. When they run a few leaves shake. Perhaps a flower bends when they howl. Pass through the woods whenever you like. What you have to fear is not in the woods.
I am telling the truth, though that is of little consequence to my captors. It is not the truth that they hope to force from my lips. And they will get what they want—certainly they will, for I can only endure so much, like anyone—but not yet. For now, I still have the will to withhold it from them. First, I will make them abandon all dignity, pride and restraint as they torture me. By remaining silent, I will make them do the unthinkable, even if the price to pay is that I must suffer it. For I have already told them the truth: that we are all capable of anything, any merciless act. They did not believe me. Once they prove I am right, I will tell them the lie they want to hear: that there are some things we will not do.
The Red Cipher
It’s wrong to think of it as a bird. True, it has wings and a beak, but so do many things, in one way or another. And it does have feathers, but don’t be hoodwinked by those. There are also the usual twigs and worms and eggs, but in its nest, if you know where and how to look, you will find something else no bird possesses: the red cipher’s little book of accounts.
Only two or three of these books have ever actually been smuggled out of the deep woods, but according to those who have seen them, they are truly astounding. Either because it was commanded to do so by some force of nature, or because it found that keeping infinitesimally detailed accounts was a mysterious key to its survival, the cipher evolved the almost unfathomable capacity to write—in the comfort of its otherwise ordinary nest—the most unlikely and unique book in the world.
Like those unusual houses that are much bigger inside than their exteriors suggest, the cipher’s book of accounts has no discernable beginning or end. The lucky few who have seen one report that the book contains the most meticulous records of each and every thing that happened to every creature on the earth, written in every conceivable language.
Some who have read the books have even found entries pertaining to themselves, mostly composed of facts that should have long ago been lost to oblivion: the weight of a spoonful of soup from a bowl eaten two decades ago, or a tally of the falling leaves they’ve seen.
It is impossible to know why, let alone how, the cipher came to possess or compose its unusual book, or how it has come to know, if indeed it does “know,” the information therein. As might be expected, there are some who believe that within these mythical little books can be found the answers to man’s most fundamental questions. Others swear the answers can be found in a book kept by another creature altogether, one that closely resembles a turtle. Still others insist that the answer to the question of where the answers can be found is one more secret to be sought.
To Keep Love Blurry: Poems coming from BOA in September 2012.
"To Keep Love Blurry is about the charged and troubled spaces between intimately connected people: husbands and wives, parents and children, writers and readers. These poems include sonnets, villanelles, and long poems, as well as two poetic prose pieces, tracing how a son becomes a husband and then a father. Robert Lowell is a constant figure throughout the book, which borrows its four-part structure from that poet's seminal Life Studies."
THE NAUTICAL BLOGS
Now it’s raining, hard, and
what does that mean? The Internet
shines through the rain like a tiger’s eye
through the jungle dark.
Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow,
nor hail shall make me
fold up my paper sail.
Words enter the field as
memories taking center stage
for an encore. Someone
talked about sails today, and
tonight, perhaps, the nautical
blogs are afire with chatter
about the weather as reported on the TVs
versus the weather as experienced
on the high seas. There are over
200 bones in the human body,
and a blog for every one, I’m sure
(which means, of course, I’m not
sure. In fact, I have no idea
but the one I’m writing out right now.
Oh! Wait, here comes another.)
Rain is so much water
falling from the sky, without
malice or judgment, though
it rarely goes unremarked
upon—people on dates are
talking about the weather even now
out of sheer desperation:
the blogs attest to a rampant fear
of silence, which, after all
is the one thing we can’t hear,
just like a mirror is the one thing
one can’t see when meeting
one’s reflection face to face.
Hello, I say, interrupting myself
with the very same salutation—the door
is open; I can see it reflected
behind me, and as I walk toward it,
the self I walk away from
follows me in the opposite
direction. And if that’s not
a metaphor, then certainly this
hot rain is: it’s a way
of pulling the camera back,
of taking in a wider and wider
view, until the whole earth
is the size of my pupil,
and things are in perspective
at last. I never dreamed
of being an astronaut until
this very minute, and now
it’s already far too late.
'The Birds’ Ulterior Motives Get Them Killed: An Interview with Craig Morgan Teicher' by Tony Leuzzi
Teicher's web page