The Book of Sharks sounds like one of those fabulous fictional works that exist only in an author’s imagination, but in fact, Rob Carney has written an ambitious book of shark poetry that lives up to its mythological title.
His piercing shark poems have been swimming into ecological poetry journals a few at a time for a number of years: in 2013, “Seven Pages from the Book of Sharks” won the annual poetry prize from Terrain.org; in 2014, “Seven Circles in the Book of Sharks,” won the Robinson Jeffers/Tor House Foundation Poetry Prize; and in 2016, another frenzy of shark poems appeared in Uncivilised [sic] Poetics, volume 10.
The last is part of the “Dark Mountain Project,” out of the United Kingdom, which has been publishing an especially intriguing series of literary anthologies based on a premise that the current social, economic, and ecological unravelling is a consequence of false stories we tell ourselves about “progress.” In the formulation of the Dark Mountain Manifesto, storytelling is not just an amusement but a source of potent metaphors, the magical incantations that create reality. The editors of Uncivilised Poetics insist that poetry is a necessary response to the crumbling narratives of the modern world, a disheveled and unsettling alternate reality that “refuses the logical, reductionist, materialist aspects of industrial culture.”
Carney’s Book of Sharks exemplifies uncivilised poetics. His sharks are fierce Jungian archetypes, toothy shadows cruising through a turbulent collective unconscious. The poems form around invented myths and folktales that spring from an imaginary, deeply grounded culture, one that could conceivably be our own if it were radically transformed by the re-enchantment of the world.
The Book of Sharks is essentially one long poem — seven sets of seven poems collected into cycles according to the magical calculus of folktales. Each poem is punctuated either with a tiny illustration of a shark tooth or a little celestial orb that looks like the planet Jupiter (Jupiter, Florida is a famous destination for “shark diving,” where people lowered in metal cages swim among sharks). The mythmaking works the image of sharks as classic sea-monsters, coldblooded, ancient creatures that evolved more than 416 million years ago during the Devonian “Age of Fishes.” Sharks are the jump-scare in horror movies. Their essence is their bite, which is their only tangible feature. They constantly grow new teeth and shed old ones. In the fossil record, shark teeth are all that remain since shark’s bodies are built on a structure of cartilage. Carney interprets this strange combination of eternity and transience as a myth:
In a story seldom remembered, sharks were ghosts
guarding the afterlife
Since their rendered bodies had no skeletons,
These ghost-sharks pass judgement on the souls of the dead. The worst sin, according to sharks, is the extermination of large predators which is to say, stripping the world of beautiful danger,
If they killed a bear, or left a wolf’s mate howling—
and the water is cold as a shark’s eyes.
And then they see the fins.
Throughout the poem the sharks are teachers, sometimes in parables, and sometimes explicitly. As Prometheus gave fire to humanity, sharks give sharp, cutting things — bear traps, scythes, sandpaper and nails.
Some say sharks are the ocean’s blueprint for tools
a set of designs for us to imitate.
In earlier versions, Carney called these poems “circles” and they do circle, retelling a story with a new twist, or coming back to a repeated phrase, only to take off in some new direction. One recurring character is a boy who tells his own life through stories about sharks:
The best explanation I know was offered by a boy.
His father was dead, and his mother couldn’t hear.
He said, “Sharks are the ocean’s way of talking.
Like talking with your hands.”
In another circle, Carney imagines placing sharks into constellations in order to elevate them to a state of divinity.
We could draw new lines across the night
teach a son or a daughter, “those three there together,
that’s the fin.
The Book of Sharks is so whimsical that when the punches hit there is an extra force of surprise. Carney raises psychological monsters and then re-tells their story to make them part of a human story. In his telling, the essence of the crisis, the unravelling, is that we are so terrified of our metaphorical sharks we think we can’t live with them. But Carney knows that we can’t live without them, either. He wonders,
In the end, standing at the gates of heaven,
What if we are asked one question: ”How are my sharks?”
The Book of Sharks
Black Lawrence Press
Amy Brunvand is an award-winning poet and an associate librarian at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.