The Power of Constraints: “In the Body of the Sturgeon” by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Recently while at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I saw a new film by the artistic duo of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, called In the Body of the Sturgeon. Set on a doomed submarine stationed in the Pacific on the day President Harry S Truman announces the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, In the Body of the Sturgeon is by turns solemn and bizarre. Truman’s grave message and the ghosts of the sunken sailor share screen time with ecstatic odes to urination and pratfalls about drinking torpedo fuel. And yet it all fits together, thanks in no small part to the Kelleys’ visual aesthetic, which renders their human forms as disturbing, monochrome muppets.

But rather than talk about the filmmaking, I’d like to talk about the script. What drew my attention to the Kelleys’ film was not the lightbox pictures which served as previews, but rather the placard’s account of the writing process. The text of In the Body of the Sturgeon is draw entirely from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha. Every word in the script is either a word or a phrase repurposed from Longfellow’s work, and on top of that, the script maintains the original poem’s (in)famous use of trochaic tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables: By the | shores of | Gitche | Gumee).

Now, I don’t think I’d go so far as the placard does and call those rules “absurdly strict parameters.” The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem, and as such it presents the found poet with an extensive lexicon to play with. And while trochaic tetrameter is an unnatural rhythm for English poetry, writing a poem in the same meter as the source material may be easier than expected. After all, Longfellow did a lot of the grunt work, finding words that fit the meter. Mining a good poem out of The Song of Hiawatha may still be a challenge, but it’s not an inconceivable one.

No, the real “absurdly strict parameter” is the using Longfellow’s poem to write about this particular subject: a submarine crew during World War II. A lot of the vocabulary that one would think vital to such a story (“torpedo,” “bomb,” “submarine,” even “sailor”) is not present in the source material, and so cannot be used while still keeping with the form. That ninety-year gap between the Kelleys’ subject and their lexicon makes the whole script into a game of Taboo. So how do they work around those forbidden words?

Most obviously, the Kelleys have the advantage of working in film. Even if they do not permit themselves to say “tank of torpedo fuel,” for example, they can still depict the tank of torpedo fuel on-screen as itself. They just use a somewhat-related, metaphorical name in that phrase’s place, in this case, “kettle.” But that’s not quite satisfying to me as a writer; I want to see something beyond a one-to-one substitution.

Perhaps the Kelleys can simply write around the restricted vocabulary. Consider the following excerpt from Part I of the film:

Now he stirred that sluggish water,
And the food had been transfigured,
Changed into a weak, old whiteness,
Bitter so that none could drink it.

Take a moment, if you need to, to figure out what they’re describing in this excerpt.

If you guessed “powdered milk,” you’d be correct. That second line, “And the food had been transfigured,” is perhaps the most direct clue that the speaker is discussing instant food of some sort, and “that sluggish water” and “weak, old whiteness” would point towards milk in particular (“milk” being another word not found in The Song of Hiawatha). This is of course a long-winded means of describing a simple action, but that only enhances the grand sweep the Kelleys are going for here.

Yet my favorite moment of the Kelleys’ indirect description is perhaps the plainest. It comes during Truman’s speech following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Truman notes that many countries had “Chased the fearful, great achievement,” i.e., the production of nuclear weapons. That’s a wonderfully euphemistic way of framing an arms race: maybe acknowledging the dangers and the vices involved (“fearful”), but at the same time affirming the value and goodness of the mission (“great achievement”). Indeed, he later lists of the qualities of this “fearful, great achievement,” as though it were the hero in an Old English epic: “Smooth and polished, keen and costly.”

It’s no secret that I think constraints, especially self-imposed ones, are a boon for creativity. The past two semesters I’ve sent students a video series on the philosophy of creativity just to drive that point home. But what In the Body of the Sturgeon shows is that working within such constraints doesn’t require the flashiest metaphors, or the most virtuosic command of meter. Sometimes, restraints compel us toward understatement, toward plain language. And there is plenty of poetry to find therein.

If you’d like to see In the Body of the Sturgeon for yourself, you can do so at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August 19, 2018, alongside another of the Kelleys’ works, This Is Offal, as part of their exhibition We Are Ghosts. More information about the exhibition is available here.

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