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It Only Takes a Few Months for a Poet to Position Its Jaws

Mitchell Shanklin lives in Seattle and enjoys writing stories with either magic or made-up science or both. He also writes code for companies (and sometimes for himself). In his free time he plays video, board, and mind games, reads, runs, and has rambling philosophical arguments. (No, not all at the same time. Yet.) His fiction has been published in Strange Horizons and Unidentified Funny Objects. He is a proud member of Team Arsenic, The Dreamcrashers, and Write of Passage. He is visibly bisexual.
Once upon every time, in the thin spaces wedged between possible realities, a species of poets swims behind the stars. Naturally, they spend most of their time gathering inspiration.
Even with five nostrils, each the size of a small galaxy, it can take thousands of years for a poet to catch the scent of a ripened world. It is not a simple thing.
The byproducts of fission or fractured ethereal crystallization are a leading indicator, of course. There's that bitter twang of cultural decadence, the rosy red inflammation of post-tribal ethics.... Perhaps most important is that subtle hint of minty-fresh swagger. (The cockiness of sentience that gets it, the universe, you know, except for those gaps, but they'll fill those in soon).
It only takes a few months for a poet to position its jaws.
Know that poets are not all exactly alike. Some are mostly flesh, others mostly hydrogen or helium. Some have fifteen distinct religious orientations they hold simultaneously and others sixteen (but never any other number). The jaws are always the same. Made of diamond and titanium, with teeth one hundred miles or so long, sharp as atoms.
Some poets craft beauty, others mediocrity. A very few craft complete garbage that should not even be considered poetry and I hate them!
Ahem. Apologies.
This is a story about the foolish young poet who tried to digest three worlds into a single poem and how he tainted the sacred art of poetry forever after.
The best English translation of our villain's name would consist of a trilogy of absurdist novels whose main characters are non-Euclidean geometric figures. So we'll just use Byron.
Byron was made of helium and had fifteen religious orientations. In Byron's short life, he had consumed 1532 worlds and produced 1502 poems.
The singular correct poetic form is known to be a sequence of fifty-four multi-sensory, multi-dimensional pictograms that perfectly capture the essences of worlds: their past, present, and unrealized possible futures. The digestive system of a poet, its "mind," is well-suited to the transformation of a single world into poetry. The process of excreting such a poem is invariably smooth and satisfying.
Combining two distinct worlds into a single poem is a more trying feat, rarely performed. The poet's "mind" clenches and shudders while expelling such a gem. Afterwards, a poet's mind-orifice needs time to recover, for it is often left sore and smarting. Many poets forego the entire endeavor and spend their entire careers on single-world poetry. But brave Byron had done it thirty times.
To combine three... it had not been done. Until now.
Byron's "mind" rumbled as he approached the third world. It combined and recombined the remnants of the two he'd consumed already, spitting out symbol chains and multi-tonal rhymes. Every time it began to solidify, Byron interrupted himself. Byron kept his mind-orifice squeezed tightly closed, but he was becoming weary.
It took four months to place his jaws around the green ocean moon, a race of nine-limbed squid people swimming through it. His teeth trembled, tilting in and out of alignment. Byron growled and tsunamis wiped out half the population. Byron clenched his orifice and his teeth grew still. Byron bit down.
You must understand, the actual "transformation" of inspiration into the finished work is generally uneventful and near instantaneous. Byron could digest a single world in six nano-seconds. Two worlds took him around twenty-one.
For fifteen long, drawn-out minutes, Byron experienced the greatest pain of his short and brilliant life. Imagine the deepest possible depression combined with the most troubling existential dilemma. Imagine every scrap of skin is flayed from your body, only for you to discover that you were actually just your skin all along, not your brain or your innards and you will exist eternally as a bloody pile of mangled scraps.
It was nothing like any of these things, it was worse, and you have no hope of understanding.
So, he puked it all up.
Imagine a massive planet that looks like three spheres collapsing in on themselves. Imagine it is covered with monstrosities made of every possible combination of millions of species and that each and every one of them is screaming.
It was exactly like that, actually.
Dozens of poets swam towards Byron's catastrophe. Some jeered, gamboling around Byron's shuddering, desiccated form. Others tried to help, comforting Byron by reciting some of their own poetry, thus reminding him that the great art of poetry would live on, even if he never managed to contribute to it again.
A few tried to separate the mess, partition it into three planet sized pieces at least. With some effort they reduced it to a cloud of debris. None were brave enough to taste what remained.
Some advocated abandoning it. But half-heartedly. Despite the apparent impossibility of digestion, none could ignore that scent. Juicy and minty and succulent. This disaster was riper than any world any of them had ever tasted. Poets have astonishing self-control, but they couldn't turn away.
Finally, Byron's lover, Oscar, turned towards the cloud and opened his jaws. Oscar was made of hydrogen and had sixteen religious orientations. Oscar had digested two worlds into a single poem before--twice in fact. He could take this challenge. He would. For Byron.
"No!" Byron shouted. In a flash (which lasted three and a half months), he pushed Oscar's jaws aside and positioned his own.
"I can do this. I promise." A hush fell over the other poets as they watched Byron's second attempt.
He bit down.
For three hours he writhed in agony. Then, in one explosive instant, he expelled a poem which trumpeted the cohesive story of three worlds to the stars and his colleagues.
But it was fifty-eight multi-dimensional, multi-sensory pictograms long.
The four superfluous characters stood out like a seventeenth religious orientation, or a poet made of copper. (I apologize for the simile. A more noble soul would refrain from even imagining such abominations).
The cloud of watching poets reeled in shock. Most immediately fled, seeking out inspiration for the debate that would ensue.
While poets may speak to each other telepathically, debate about poetry must, of course, be conducted using poetry. Thus, millions of worlds have been transformed into glorious arguments, each a perfectly formed sequence of fifty-four pictograms.
The small sect of "poets" that Byron has gathered reply with nonsensical tracts of fifty-six, fifty-eight, sometimes even fifty-two pictograms. True poets refuse to read or respond to such offensive absurdities. It is my dearest hope that the renegades will reform their ways so that a dialogue may begin.
So, to those who cower beneath the titanium and diamond blades which currently hover above the Earth, be not afraid. The poet who surrounds your planet adheres to the most proper form of the art. Your quaint, lovely history will be preserved for posterity, not tainted by heretics! And there is the slimmest possibility that yours will be the poem to open the conversation, eventually bringing grace and conformity back to the sacred craft of poetry.
Tremble, but with joy, not fear, for you have the privilege of living within your world's final glorious stanza. Do not clutch greedily at those scant, shallow decades you might have had.
Remember: life is but crude fuel for the immortality of art.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 5th, 2020


I wrote this story for the 2017 Thanksgiving edition of Two Hour Transport (a monthly spec fic open mic event in Seattle) to one of their provided prompts: "Gobble, Gobble, Tweet." The prompt made me think about how the process of making art--of translating mountains of inspiration into these tiny, concentrated bullets of telepathy--is often spoken of as some kind of beautiful, magical transformation, but structurally is very similar to digestion, which most don't think of as very beautiful or magical. Especially if you are the one being digested.

At the time I wrote it, Twitter had recently changed their character limit from 140 to 280 characters and a lot of folks were shouting that it was a horrible decision that would ruin the site. So that seemed like a good basis for a conflict.

How those ideas were transformed into this particular story, I cannot be entirely sure. They certainly got mixed up with other bits of inspiration I've consumed, and I can't always see the inside of my own "mind" very well. Luckily, I can confirm that no planets were harmed in the making of this story.

- Mitchell Shanklin
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