ON BOOKS/OPINION

Spitzer’s “Cryptozarkia” examines legendary Ozarks creatures via ‘investigative poetry’


We always lie to strangers

but we never used

to play such fools

the butt of our own pranks

dishonoring our inherited

hills.

-- Rufus Grey, "Hainted," as quoted by Mark Spitzer in "Cryptozarkia"

Whoever wrote the entry on "cryptozoology" for Wikipedia seems to have it in for the "pseudoscience and subculture that searches for and studies unknown, legendary, or extinct animals whose present existence is disputed or unsubstantiated."

They want to make it clear that "the subculture rejected mainstream approaches from an early date, and that adherents often express hostility to mainstream science. Scholars have ... noted parallels in cryptozoology and other pseudosciences such as ghost hunting and ufology, and highlighted uncritical media propagation of cryptozoologist claims."

Later on in the surprisingly lengthy article, they remind us "there is no academic course of study in cryptozoology or no university degree program that will bestow the title 'cryptozoologist'" and chastise the media for "uncritically" disseminating "information from cryptozoologist sources, including newspapers that repeat false claims made by cryptozoologists or television shows that feature cryptozoologists as monster hunters (such as the popular and purportedly nonfiction American television show 'MonsterQuest,' which aired from 2007 to 2010). Media coverage of purported 'cryptids' often fails to provide more likely explanations, further propagating claims made by cryptozoologists."

OK, we get it. As Sgt. Hulka said to Psycho, "Lighten up, Francis."

At least half of us know the Fouke Monster isn't real and that hoop snakes -- as described in the mythology -- don't exist. Some of us can even accept that the ivory-billed woodpecker might be extinct.

Mark Spitzer isn't here to answer for himself, but I would imagine he approached the cryptids that loomed so large in his literary life with a sense of playfulness, a wistful bemusement. These creatures exist in the same way novels and poems exist, as products of the human imagination, as legends we tell ourselves in an effort to understand an infinitely confounding universe.

"Cryptozarkia" is the first, but certainly not last, posthumous book from Spitzer, a University of Central Arkansas professor, extreme angler and author of at least 30 books on subjects as wide-ranging as appreciations of ugly fish and pedagogy textbooks. (Spitzer wrote poetry and translated Genet and Rimbaud. He was a world traveler, nature's knight-errant, kind of like Anthony Bourdain minus the doom and darkness. Cancer did Mark in, not the weight of his suffering.)

It is a book of free verse and scholarship, that examines the legendary cryptozological creatures of the Ozark Mountains from a certain remove.

"I look for the stories behind the stories," Spitzer writes in his preface, "then report my findings via the Postmodern technique of 'investigative poetry,' an obscure American literary practice sometimes referred to as 'documentary poetry' or 'docupoetry,' which finds its roots in the poetics of Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams, and Ed Sanders.

"Through a semi-scholarly but not unbiased collaging of folklore, history, biology, journalism, politics, imagery, and literary truncations from myriad texts, these nonfiction exposés on hoop snakes, wampus cats, the Ozark Howler, the enigmatic blue humans of Blowing Cave, the intangible Blue Man of Spring Creek, and more are now documented ... with direct citations and commentary gained from first-person fieldwork."

Spitzer goes on to say the book is a companion volume to "Crypto-Arkansas," which came out in 2013. I haven't read that one (I guess Mark didn't send me everything he published) but it seems to be of a piece with the good-natured critique of monster-mongering carried forth in "Cryptozarkia."

There is genuine investigative journalism in the pages, as when in the poem "Howladdendum," Spitzer seemingly outs Missouri poet Rufus Grey, author of a print-on-demand volume of verse about the Ozark Howler -- a bear-like creature with a deep, guttural howl (which skeptics dismiss as a cougar or possibly a black panther) -- as very likely the same person behind "Tales of the Ozark Howler," a book published in 2019 and attributed to one Saul Ashton, who was said to have written it in 1936.

But the original book "was quickly pulled from distribution by family members who were scandalized by Ashton's interracial love affairs, atheism, and affiliation with the Communist Party" -- according to the book's promotional material.

"With the death of the last remaining members of this generation of the Ashton clan, Hawthorne Cornus was given permission to finally republish the short book, which remains unchanged from the original, except for a new foreword explaining the long struggle over its publication. With the distance of a few decades, the political, religious, racial, and cultural subtexts of this neglected work of American folklore have become clear. Is the monster the Howler itself, or the people who have pushed it to lurk in the margins?"

In "Howladdendum," Spitzer succinctly makes the case that Grey, Ashton, Cornus and the website OzarkHowlers.com are all the product of the same mind.


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