Mary Shelley Makes a Monster is a collection of poems by New Zealand poet Octavia Cade about what it means to create and care for a monster—and what happens when the monster must leave its first mother to find other caretakers, lovers, and companions.
The book is divided into several sections, each named after a woman author. The first tells the origin story of the monster and features its original creator, Mary Shelley. The rest of the sections pay homage to other writers—Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf, Janet Frame, Sylvia Plath, Grace Mera Molisa, Octavia Butler, Angela Carter, and Murasaki Shikibu—who in various ways take the orphaned monster in and have some kind of impact on its life.
In the first section, the monster is created and cared for by Shelley—not, as it is in the novel she wrote, by Victor Frankenstein. In this way, the book focuses on the person behind the text, the creator behind the creator. The first poem begins with these literary origins:
The monster has no heart.
Mary has two.
There is one she keeps in her bureau—
wrapped up in silk and parchment,
burnt about the edges and stinking of salt
It is the heart of the man who was her lover
and it is less damaged than the heart inside her chest.
That is a mangled and un-pretty thing,
but she takes it out of her chest
sits it beside the other:
two hearts on a writing desk.
The image of the heart recurs throughout the collection, and it carries meanings of love and care as well as damage and even violence. The heart is both of the body and not of it, something almost alien that can be taken from the chest cavity and replaced at will.
In these opening lines, as well, the theme of writing is made clear. Writing is how creation takes place, and also how it’s sustained over time. This is a story about how a writer creates a monster and then must consider how to shape and bring life to its body. That life she gives is derived from her own, and from her relationships, and comes in the form of a heart.
Shelley decides to give the monster not her own heart, but the heart of her lover, reasoning “with that leaking scrap / sitting in a silver box inside the monster’s chest / she will be able to love it.” That “leaking scrap” from her lover—Percy Bysshe Shelley, perhaps—becomes the monster’s heart, and it gives her something to love.
The remaining poems in this section examine all the things the monster does not have—foresight, history, will, children—and the way that Shelley tries, to the best of her ability, to give it what it needs. It’s a messy process, however, that ends up draining her, much as raising regular human children can drain mothers. The monster needs so much. This process involves, ultimately, writing, and the textual body of the monster gains heft and meaning as Shelley gives it words:
She writes a face upon the monster instead,
substitutes words for flesh.
She puts Arctic in the eye-sockets
and Alps along the cheekbones.
She writes Geneva on its forehead,
and the lips are made from electricity and the death of young women.
Shelley’s writing gives the monster life and strength, and ink instead of blood runs through his veins. At the beginning of the next section, in which the monster travels to stay a while with Katherine Mansfield, we hear of Shelley’s death, and we also hear of the monster’s grief and sense of loss: “When Mary Shelley dies the monster feels the loss / echoing all the way up to the Arctic.”
After this origin story and the loss of his first mother, the orphaned monster travels from writer to writer, looking for various forms of love and care and inspiration. As we hear in that second section, “The monster goes looking for a substitute.”
A substitute is not easy to find, however, and the monster’s quest is every bit as difficult and harrowing as it is in Shelley’s original novel. Nevertheless, with each encounter, the monster absorbs some of that writer’s story and perspective, and these leavings become a part of its existence and spirit, shaping how it experiences the world—and creating its evolving sense of self and meaning.
Not all of the authors are particularly nurturing. The monster’s relationship with Virginia Woolf takes the form of one between lovers, but Woolf often lashes out at the monster, berating it for all the ways it fails her:
Your tongue tastes different from the rest of you
Virginia complains, and though the monster
has become used to the taste it misses the old face,
informed by a foster mother but not of her,
The monster tries to be what Woolf wants, tries to make a connection with her, even as it struggles with the fragmented and unknowable nature of its own body and history.
Its relationship with Woolf remains, though, a rocky one, not least because of her depression and pending suicide:
Would you miss me, monster, if I drowned? says Virginia.
Would you burn me up on beaches, would you keep my heart?
The monster has a heart already
One is difficult enough to manage.
Don’t I know it, says Virginia.
After this final exchange, the monster moves on to other places, other writers, as it tries to find its way in the world. Much like the original monster in Shelley’s novel, it is made of bits and pieces of this and that; but this collection’s monster has an even longer history, with more time to collect fragments of itself and try to make them into a coherent whole. In the final section, it arrives at a kind of peaceable existence with Murasaki Shikubu:
The monster feels it is becoming.
There is a seed in its belly, a wolf on its back.
There is transformation in the creation that was once a glacier creature—
isolated, and with nothing in its understanding but grief and ice.
The grief has stilled within it, written over too many times by women who have also gone.
There’s a hint here that the monster is ready to settle down, may even be pregnant, with either an actual monster-child or at least a literary one to be born of its textual body. The monster also senses a kind of new identity, a transformation from the wild glacier creature it had been into something new and as-yet-undefined. There’s also a coming-to-terms with the sense of grief and loss that pervades the rest of the book, as the monster begins to recover from the death of its original creator and feel at home with others and with itself.
In the final poem of the collection, the monster finds itself walking on a beach with Shikubu, as they discuss the meaning and purpose of life, and how to move forward into the future. Shikubu mentions that there are others who walk a similar path, and the monster’s astounded:
There are more of us? says the monster,
and the bare and bitten heart within remembers what it was to love.
(Katherine, beats the heart. Virginia. Janet. Sylvia. Grace. Octavia. Angela.)
The monster goes through this litany of names of its literary loves, understanding at last that all of them have made it what it is today. And at last it has found some kind of true and lasting love on this beach, in this moment:
Murasaki smiles, and the monster can see the ink
rising in her cheeks, the dark pleasure-color of a body
built from scraps and blooming.
Monster, says Murasaki, there are many more.
What we as readers understand in this final poem is that we are, ourselves, one of this literary legion, created and sustained by the authors we love. We are all also, perhaps, monsters, created by our first interactions with those first words we read, and then shaped and deepened by our lifetime of encounters with writing. It’s an ink-filled existence we live, as readers, as monsters. We’re always searching for someone who reminds us of our mothers, those first texts we loved, and all of these other writers shape us in indelible and unexpected ways. And then, one day, we find our monstrous bodies filled with the seeds of the future, and we can only settle into that fact, walk on the beach with the one we love at this particular moment, and find some kind of peace in the ongoing and never-ending process of creation.