2020-2021 Wonderland

The Chasing of the Lark: A Poem in Five Fits

K. Avvirin Gray

Artist Statement

Lewis Carroll loomed large over my childhood in the form of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I first read Alice as an eight-year-old, and then again at ages nine and ten. My mother would screen the children’s movie “Alice in Wonderland” each year in April, to the extent that I came to associate Alice herself with Springtime. With Spring, after all, came Easter for my family, and with Easter, white chocolate candy rabbits and “Alice in Wonderland.” This confluence of a change of weather and whimsy may have pleased Carroll, whose letter “An Easter Greeting to Every Child Who Loves ‘Alice’” I read, tucked away in a quiet corner of Doheny Library’s Lewis Carroll archives. In “An Easter Greeting” Carroll wrote that the sunrise imparts “a pleasure very near to sadness, bringing tears to one’s eyes like a beautiful picture or poem.” This quote, from the author who lived more vividly in pictures and poems than he did in the classrooms of Christ Church, Oxford where he taught math, inspired my submission, which takes the form of an artist’s book.

As a young reader foraying for the first time into the wonderland of the page I felt like a voyager under uncertain skies, not unlike the characters in Carroll’s lesser known long-form poem The Hunting of the Snark. When I first read The Hunting of the Snark two years ago in the USC Special Collections reading room, it beguiled me, but something in it begged for a second reading. Infuriating in terms of story arch (there is no clear ending, only an ambiguous final line that came to Carroll’s capacious and careening mind one day in Spring), it nevertheless feels like a familiar folk tale. The character who forgets his possessions as he boards a ship bound for waters that he hopes will reveal the whereabouts of the poem’s ever elusive “Snark” speaks to a very human impulse. Like Carrol’s cast of characters, members of the human family let go of the trappings of identity to find friendship in the unlikeliest of places. (Butcher, who was originally charged with the task of making a meal out of Beaver, finds such a friendship with his erstwhile prey at the poem’s end.)

In my fanciful interpretation of Carroll’s “The Hunting of the Snark,” my mother’s childhood self figures in the form of the character Lexi, as does the child version of my late grandmother, Anne. My artistic choice to render them children again would certainly have pleased Carroll, who spent so much of his time in the company of children. The ship in my poem is captained by Alice of wonderland, and features a Cat, a Catcher and a Caterpillar alongside Alexis and Anne. My poem is accompanied by my original illustrations and keeps close to Carroll’s in cadence and premise. Entitled “The Chasing of the Lark: A Poem in Five Fits,” it follows shipmates who, together, hope to capture the lark’s beautiful birdsong. However, while Carroll’s characters are disinterested in their pasts (as is the case with the Bellman, who is told to “skip all” memories of his “father and mother” in Fit the Third), my poem embraces the familial.

Two years ago, when I first considered entering the Wonderland Awards, I read several of Carroll’s Letters to His Child Friends in an eponymous book housed in the Cassidy collection. In these letters, Carroll crafted text and image into seamless wholes. Similarly, I conceived of my words and pictures as units. I followed the syllabic rhythms of Carroll’s poem, letting his phrases steer me onto a path of un-reason and joyousness, straight into the sometimes overcast skies that we, shipmates of simile, unmoored by metaphor, navigate together.

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