Real Toads at the International Cryptozoology Museum

The International Cryptozoology Museum is smaller than my apartment. It’s a big apartment, but it’s an even smaller museum.

The museum is located in a red-brick former industrial building in Portland, Maine. It shares a wall with Big J’s Chicken Shack, and so the International Cryptozoology Museum — the only museum in the world dedicated to the study and promotion of cryptozoology — smells wonderfully, overwhelmingly, of fried chicken.

I moved to Maine in the summer of 2016, but it took me over a year to get to the museum. Portland is 70 miles south of Waterville, where I live, and those 70 miles on I-95 sometimes go very fast, other times impossibly slow. It takes the right combination of weather and sunlight and music, the right number of leaves on the trees to make the trip go by quickly. I went to the museum in the summer — when there is light in Maine, when there are leaves on the trees — with Angela, my friend and colleague at Colby College, where we were both visiting professors.

Angela was leaving Colby for a tenure-track job elsewhere; I was staying at Colby for another year. I was feeling frustrated about the precarity of my contingent position, the approach of another academic job market season, and my friend moving away. The International Cryptozoology Museum offered an escape into something very silly.

When we arrived at the museum, we were greeted by a huge outdoor statue of Bigfoot. We took a selfie.

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Officially, cryptozoology is “the study of unknown, legendary, or extinct animals whose existence or survival to the present day is disputed or unsubstantiated.”

The International Cryptozoology Museum offers a slightly different definition. For the ICM, the discipline is “an exciting field that studies hidden and unconfirmed legendary animals, as a means to discover new species.”

The definition from the Oxford English Dictionary looks backwards. The animals are disputed and unsubstantiated. Their existence has not been proven. The ICM’s definition looks forward. The animals are hiding. Their discovery is imminent. There is something new to be found. The animals, or, more exactly, the cryptids — we’re talking Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Dover Demon, the Jersey Devil — they’re out there.

The International Cryptozoology Museum is a place of hope.

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I teach English at Colby. My specialty is poetry, and I love telling my students about the history of Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry,” an ars poetica. Moore was an inveterate reviser of her works, and she wrote and rewrote “Poetry” over decades. At its longest, the poem was 38 lines. At the end of her life, as she was editing her Collected Poems, Moore ditched most the poem. Today it is published as just three lines (four, if you count the title). It was a bold move, in a poem that was already pretty bold in its opening claim:

Poetry

I, too, dislike it.
Reading it, however, with perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

Students get stuck on the “I, too, dislike it.” It is perfectly cheeky. But I push them toward the next lines. What matters to Moore is place, is space. I remind my students that the word “stanza” comes from the Italian for “room.”

We talk about what it might mean to be genuine, what it might mean to be genuine in and outside of a poem, what it might mean to have both perfect contempt and, potentially, the discovery of un-dislike, of love.

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How do you build a museum of things that don’t exist?

This is the yeti in the room. Or, rather, the yeti so very much not in the room. There are no yetis in the International Cryptozoology Museum, because, of course, there is no such thing as a yeti.

Should I say now that I am a cryptozoology skeptic? Worse, I am a cryptozoology unbeliever. It is not in my nature to have faith. I’m an academic. I like evidence.

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Angela and I walk slowly through the small museum. We laugh nervously, unsure how to read what we are seeing, unsure if the ICM warranted the 70-mile drive, unsure if this tiny museum that smells like fried chicken can possibly be for real.

There is a stuffed jackalope on the wall. When I say it is stuffed, I do not mean that it has been taxidermied; the jackalope is very definitely a stuffed animal. Beneath the jackalope is a fur-bearing trout. It looks like someone has glued my fluffy white dog’s fur onto a fish carcass, then mounted the fluffy fish onto a plaque. The fish’s mouth is open in a perpetual scream.

We continue walking, slowly, taking our time because if we are not purposeful, we will see the entire two floors of the museum in seven minutes. We find a plush purple colossal squid, a large statue of a Tatzelwurm (an orange snake with an oversized dragon-ish head and two stubby legs), and a grotesque FeeJee mermaid, labeled as a prop from a 1999 film. There is another Bigfoot statue. Nothing feels even remotely real.

I tell Angela that I want to bring my students to this museum, and explain how I might frame it for them using terms from all the critical theory I read when I was their age. I tell her about Baudrillard, about the simulacrum, about copies of things that don’t exist. Cryptids as signifiers without signifieds. Absence. Presence. The cryptid as Lacan’s objet petit a, the object of desire that is structurally unattainable, the fantasy object, the object that matters less than the desiring drive itself. Angela, who studies social psychology, looks at me a bit askance, as she always does when I start talking about psychoanalysis.

This museum is a budding critical theorist’s dream, which is to say, my dream circa 2003, when I started taking my English major very seriously, when I started wanting to be a professor. These days, my research and writing are more historical, less theoretical. It turns out I prefer things I can locate, can hold. And in some kind of attempt to hold this museum of nonexistent objects, Angela and I take more selfies with these copies of things that don’t exist.

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After my students and I read the short version of Moore’s “Poetry,” we go back and read the long version. This version features one of my favorite statements of poetics; Moore writes that she wants poems to be “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”

I ask my students: is this what a “place for the genuine” might look like? Can an imaginative space be filled with concrete things? The garden — a place of birth and flowering, a place of stories and possibilities, of fantasy — filled with real, earthly, dirty, croaking toads? Is this Moore’s discovery of the genuine, come to fruition? This is what poetry might be for Moore: imagination and reality, intertwined.

I also offer a different reading: in her epic deletions, Moore decides against these imaginary gardens and real toads. (“Omissions are not accidents,” Moore tells us, in the epigraph to her Collected Poems). She prefers the short version of her poem, the undefined “place for the genuine,” which we have to “discover” for ourselves. This place exists; we need to root it out.

Inevitably a student points out that Moore encloses the phrase about imaginary gardens in quotation marks, as if she has borrowed it from another writer. I tell them that poetry critics have yet to discover a source for it, and not for their lack of trying.

Moore can be wily, and it’s hard to feel on firm footing with her, which is why, when I teach her work, we talk a lot about uncertainty and ambivalence, about how we interpret and why, about how to hold multiple readings in our hands at the same time.

Discover, omit, place, genuine, imaginary, garden, real, toads, poetry, reading, contempt. I write these terms on the board and we turn them over in our mouths and minds. We mix and match. We play. We discover. We omit.

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I’ve lived in Maine for almost two years now, and it still doesn’t feel real to me: that this is my life, that this is my place. Central Maine is remote and cold — there was still snow on the ground last May — and all of the wonderful things about Maine in the summer — the trees, the hiking, the dog-friendly beaches, the microbreweries with picnic tables, the late sunset — exist too briefly.

But I think Maine feels unreal to me not because it is different from what I am used to, but because it is temporary. Because I am a visiting faculty member at Colby, I’m not sure if I’ll be here from one year to the next. I don’t know if there is a long-term place for me in this institution or in academia more generally. It is not a good time to be a humanities scholar. Even more so, it is not a good time to be an American poetry scholar. This year, in the entire United States, there were three tenure-track jobs in my field. Only one of them was a good fit, and I didn’t get it.

A tenure-track job feels increasingly imaginary, and it turns out that the imaginary is not the best place for me. I want some job security, the promise that I’ll have health insurance come September, maybe some funds for my research, at least enough funds to cover the cost of the professional conferences I attend. I want to not always be on the edge of upheaval. It turns out that an imaginary garden cannot sustain the real toads indefinitely, because the real toads have real needs.

Also, we have real feelings, and living for what-might-be is a recipe for contempt. Even when we don’t like to think of ourselves as contemptuous people. Even when we discover that we might already be contemptuous people.

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At the ICM, Angela and I come across southern Maine’s hometown cryptid: Wessie, an enormous sea snake, who in 2016 shed her skin alongside Presumpscot River in Westbrook and got a lot of media attention for it. Her skin was DNA tested, and she turned out to be an anaconda, not a cryptid at all. Either someone placed the snake skin by the river as a hoax, or Wessie was a pet anaconda turned loose. If she was indeed a pet, it’s unlikely Wessie survived the winter.

Maine is very cold. I feel for Wessie.

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Marianne Moore loved her real toads. Many of her poems are about animals: “An Octopus,” “The Pangolin,” “The Paper-Nautilus,” “To a Snail,” “A Jelly-Fish,” “The Buffalo,” “The Fish.” There are many more. In “The Fish,” Moore stages a long, slow battle between the ocean and a sea cliff, and describes the ways this battle affects everything in the environs, from the jellyfish to the stars. The fish, rhyming perfectly, “wade / through black jade;” and the stars,

pink
rice-grains, ink-
bespattered jelly fish, crabs like green
lilies, and submarine
toadstools, slide each on the other.

Animals, for Moore, are sometimes metaphors, but they are also animals that are part of a bigger something. When I teach the poem to my class, we read the poem aloud many times. We listen to the way that the “ink-/ bespattered jelly-fish” chime with the “pink / rice-grains” that are the stars, the way that the “crabs like green / lilies,” echo in the “submarine / toadstools.” We catalogue the ways that “ee” sound repeats again and again in these lines, while building to the final “each.”

These repetitions in Moore’s language forge relationships between animal and animal, animal and place. It is a dense and interconnected world. The animals “slide each on the other;” they make a “sea / of bodies.” When I taught the poem in the fall, one of my students said: “the sea is more than water. It’s the animals that live in it.”

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In the most evidence-based section of the ICM — which tackles the yeti, the abominable snowman, bigfoot, and sasquatch —there is a set of rusty nails in a glass case. Behind them is a signed affidavit, which certifies that in July 2013, one Marc Myrsell retrieved these nails from the site of the 1924 Ape Canyon incident at the Venderwhite Mine cabin on the East Side of Mt. St. Helen, Washington. The incident in question: a bigfoot attack.

What the museum doesn’t have: evidence of the alleged bigfoot attack.

What the museum does have: evidence of the existence of a cabin where the alleged bigfoot attack took place.

One does not need a PhD to understand that certified rusty nails are not compelling evidence of a bigfoot attack.

The International Cryptozoology Museum is the inverse of Marianne Moore: it is a real rusty garden, filled with imaginary hairy monsters.

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The ICM is supposed to be fun, but all I can see there is bad evidence and bad arguments. I reframe the museum again for myself in terms of teaching, which is something I often do when I have committed myself to a book, a film, an experience that disappoints me. I want to make even bad art purposeful, useful. We could take a field trip to this weird place, I think, we could talk about the way we use evidence in the humanities. I could use the affidavit and the rusty nails to teach my students how not to analyze, how not to construct an argument. We could talk about what does and does not constitute proof. Bad objects often inspire good pedagogy, and I could teach the hell out of this place.

Still, Angela and I have driven 70 miles visit this place where nothing is genuine, and I am feeling cranky about it. The museum smells like fried chicken and that makes me hungry. The museum is not trying hard enough; some hair glued to a white piece of paper is not convincingly the hair of a bigfoot. The white-haired fish carcass is more akin to a stuffed animal than to Marianne Moore’s fish wading through black jade. The yeti is a simulacrum. It is a copy of a thing that does not exist.

And unlike this museum of cheap and stuffed thrills, I am trying so very hard. I want to keep teaching college students. I may not be able to continue teaching college students. At some point I will not be able to renew my contract. A tenure-track job feels as good as imaginary these days.

I did not think that going to the International Cryptozoology Museum would be an opportunity for me to worry about my career, but the museum did teach me that when you are always looking for yetis, you begin to see yetis everywhere.

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Marianne Moore concludes “The Fish” by zooming outward from all of the chiming animals below the sea. She considers the cliff — the “defiant edifice” — which has been battered by the sea and marked by “grooves,” “burns,” and “hatchet strokes”:

All
external
marks of abuse are present on this
defiant edifice—
all the physical features of

ac-
cident—lack
of cornice, dynamite grooves, burns, and
hatchet strokes, these things stand
out on it; the chasm-side is

dead.
Repeated
evidence has proved that it can live
on what can not revive
its youth. The sea grows old in it.

As I was preparing to teach “The Fish” this fall, I learned that Moore was inspired to write this and several other poems about the sea by a stay on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. I went to Monhegan last summer, and can confirm that it is exactly like this poem. Craggy cliffs and huge rocks, a sense of ancientness, of old scars. The Maine coast was made for poetry, and I am never not bowled over by it.

When my students and I reach Moore’s final stanza, we slow down. It is difficult. “It”—the cliff—“can live / on what can not revive / its youth.” This has been proven, by “repeated evidence.” We see, again and again, that the cliff survives the oceanic forces that beat down on it, the forces that cannot restore its youth. It has been marked, but it survives. “The sea grows old in it.” The sea and the cliff exist together, grow old together, in their antagonism. And both survive.

At this point in the poem, it is hard not to think metaphorically. We began with visual and sonically-dense images, with fish wading through black jade; now the last stanza moves us toward abstraction. When I teach this poem, I feel a lot older than my students, and I am only 35. Repeated evidence has proven we survive, I tell them. We may be worn down, but we endure: there’s evidence. No matter that “repeated” rhymes with the heavy “dead” syllable of the line above. No matter the disappointment of not-quite rhyme of “revive” and “live.” It can live, Moore tells us.

I am speaking to myself.

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In the gift shop of the International Cryptozoology Museum there is a limited-edition print for sale. It features an image of the okapi, an animal that the museum refers to as the “darling” of the cryptozoology world.

Imagine a dark reddish-brown giraffe but with a proportionate thick neck and a black-and-white zebra striped butt. That’s an okapi.

Okapis live in the dense forests of central Africa, in the region that is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Natives of the region knew of their existence for ages, but throughout the nineteenth century, European imperialists thought that okapis were merely a legend. Then in 1901, British explorer and colonial administrator Sir Harry Johnston received samples of striped okapi hide from a group of Africans and sent the samples to England for identification. A skull from Johnston soon followed. The specimens were then publicly displayed, with fanfare, by the Zoological Society of London. The animal was christened Okapia johnstoni.

The okapi was real.

There is a longer history here, of imperialism, of “discovery,” of arrival and plunder and theft, of omission, of the imaginary becoming real, of the real continuing to be real for some who always knew it was real in the first place. This is something I could teach, too.

I buy the print, and Angela and I head to Big J’s for fried chicken.

In the fall, I frame the okapi and place her in my office.

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My job, today, is reading and writing and teaching, and the classroom is my place for the genuine. I teach my students how to read poems, how to discover things in them. Many of our discoveries have been made before, but we renew them, with care, with insight, with rigor.

We learn to build arguments based on evidence. We learn what stories have been omitted and we restore them. We analyze and we listen. We dwell among pink rice-grains of stars, among fish wading through black jade, among the sliding submarine toadstools. We are the sea of bodies and we are the defiant edifices. We grow a bit older in reading our poems. We find our real toads.

At the International Cryptozoology Museum, I have found no toads. Instead I see only faith: the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of toads not seen.

I say again and again that I rely on evidence and yet I set aside the repeated evidence that the career I so love may always be an imaginary garden. My ink-bespattered jellyfish are as real as the ICM’s fur-bearing trout, and yet I cling to them as the ICM clings to that dumb trout, to Bigfoot, to that bright orange Tatzelwurm with a fierce look in his eye. The look that, at the right angle, reads like expectation. Like the hope that someone will discover that we’ve been real all along.

I can live, I tell myself, like this, but I cannot like the International Cryptozoology Museum. I see too much evidence of myself in this place.

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