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The Fish in the Percolator – on Twin Peaks and Poetry

Twin Peaks may not have introduced me to the concept of mystery, but it did reinforce in me the value of mystery without easy resolution, and the power of the imagination. I’ve been thinking about how that echoes through poetry, and what we can learn from it. 

I watched Twin Peaks unfold for the first time on BBC2 in autumn 1990, when I was twelve. Looking back now, I suspect I may have been a little too young, given that the show hinges on incest and murder. Not that you could have told me that at the time.

Pretty Woman had come out on VHS around then, telling my friends and I everything we thought we needed to know about sex, and we’d devoured Patrick Swayze’s hip grinding in Dirty Dancing all summer. We felt mature enough, or at least puberty-adjacent enough, to handle Twin Peaks. It seemed to us to be a show about teenagers losing their innocence and struggling to make sense of the world, scraping away the surface to see what darkness lay underneath. We were entering our pubescence: it felt we were doing that every day anyway.

Except, of course, that it’s not a show about teenagers, or not just about teenagers. I see so much more in the show now than I recognised then: community, morality, mortality, nostalgia, trauma, philosophy, mysticism, absurdity… But I think, ultimately, it’s Frost-Lynch’s commitment to mystery that makes it feel so different and so compelling – the setting up of mystery, the specificity of its detail and visual impact, and the deliberate choices of how much, or how little, to reveal. As Lynch says in Lynch on Lynch, “a mystery is like a magnet” – there is something fundamental in all of us that ‘wants to know more’. There’s always a line to walk though, of course – as Lynch has also said: “mystery is good, confusion is bad.”

As a poet, I think that specificity of detail is key to writing interesting poems. Everyone’s read a generic love poem about the moon. It’s boring. Where is the moon being observed from, and by who, and what texture would the night sky have if you could lick it, devour the whole thing? What linguistic specificity can be deployed to elevate the poem from the tediously generic into something interesting and imaginatively expansive?

Being specific is not the same as being literal though, and it doesn’t mean you have to show your workings. Poems also fail when they become too predictable – when the reader can tell where the poem is going to land. I have never once been able to predict where a Lynch work is going to land. I’m not even they do ‘land’ in any conventional sense. But they do have an effect; they are an experience.

Lynch’s directorial practice is a mixture of intense and focused preparation, combined with intuition, spontaneity, and opening himself to the forces of luck and accident. To give you one small Twin Peaks example: the blinking lights in the eerie first morgue scene in Twin Peaks were really broken and blinking on set, but he incorporated them into the scene to a marked atmospheric effect. Lynch uses instinct in ways that we can absolutely steal from and apply to our own work, like throwing rocks at a bottle to intuit which thought to follow next.  

Lynch is also known for drawing from his own personal experiences in order to create his characters’s stories. He told a story in Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch in which he drank, unknowingly, coffee which had come from a percolator accidentally containing a bar of soap. He said that he turned the soap into a fish and added it to Twin Peaks. All is clear.

Nothing is clear. This fish is not explained in the show at all (just as the soap is not actually explained in Lynch’s anecdote). How did it get there? Why did it get there? Why are no questions asked about it in the moment? The simple idea of it, however, is so striking, both visually and verbally, that it effectively renders most questions dull and redundant, and all that is left is our delight, echoing Jack Nance’s face as he announces excitedly, “There was a fish… in the percolator!”

There is no logical reason given for it, but the service it provides the scene is justification enough. It also chimes against the problem we hear in poetry workshops so often, when writers respond to feedback saying, “But I wrote what really happened…” Lynch doesn’t use the personal for the sake of ‘truth’; he adapts it, then uses it for the most striking creative and imaginative effect. I want more fish in the percolators of our poems. 

I probably was too young to watch Twin Peaks when I did (I’m glad I never saw Fire Walk With Me until I was much older, Fire Walk With Me in some ways being to Twin Peaks what Raging Bull is to Kung Fu Panda), but it means it’s hard-wired into my psyche in a way I can’t imagine being without it. Its unique blend of goofiness, soap opera sensibility, dark and philosophical subject matter, and the intense and memorable visual identity that binds it all together is well worth our attention.

Chrissy Williams’s course ‘The Owls Are Not What They Seem’: Writing Poems Inspired by Twin Peaks, will take place on 19 June, 10:30am – 4:30pm.

Image Credit: Manos Gkikas

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