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Swenson, May

There is no satisfaction in poetry greater than the immaculate final line that brings a poem to its inevitable conclusion. Illustration: May Swenson’s “Ocean, Whale-Shaped”:

Ocean, whale-shaped, rocking between the dunes,
in the gateway of their great naked knees,
horizon chafing a tame sky,

your vast back purple, your shoreward side
wallowing blue, fretted with racing foam,
green, then diamond your fin flashes on sand.

Glazed monuments of the wind, the dunes,
their sprawling limbs Olympian lift and fall
to slopes and platforms seeming hard as bone,

but footsteps scar their flanks like snow;
their white bodies shift,
are shunted by you, blue-black, boisterous whale—

and whittled, are rewhittled by the wind
unsatisfied with any shape or perpetuity.
The land, the sand we tread is not the steady

element our feet believe.
Indelible ocean, humped beside the sky,
you unsubstantial we can’t grasp or walk on,

you pry at these gates and break them when you will—
overwhelming whale of water, mover and shaper,
over and over carving your cradle here.

Take a moment, first, simply to linger over the sounds of this last line. It is a masterpiece of subtle transformations. It begins with outright repetition (“over and over”), but this soon shifts to the consonance of “carving”, which picks up both the “v” and the “r” sounds. This is transformed in turn when we reach “cradle”, which rearranges the “car” of “carving”, echoing it with modification. The short “a” grows long, leading us directly into the culminating word, “here”. This brings us back to the start, to “over and over”, but, once again, the initially short “e” re-appears as long: “-er” to “-ere”. Underlying this play of sounds and holding it all in place is the falling rhythm, which alternates dactyls and trochees until it at last lands on the final stress: / – – / – / – – / – /. The line thus parcels out into three neat units:

over and over / carving your cradle / here

The line resembles a Pindaric ode in miniature: strophe, antistrophe, epode. It is a perfect whole, worth savoring entirely independently of its meaning. But let us look at it in the context of the full poem.

I read the poem as a love story, of sorts: as a polyamorous love story between ocean, wind, sky, land, and people. It shuttles between multiple scales and perspectives. There are the humans who walk on the dunes, and who instinctively (in their feet), believe them to be a “steady // element”. But they are not. They are reworked on all sides: by these very same feet (“footsteps scar their flanks like snow”), by the wind (“are whittled, are rewhittled by the wind”), and by the ocean (“overwhelming whale of water, mover and shaper”).

That brief phrase—“overwhelming whale of water”—deserves careful attention. By this point, in the penultimate line of the poem, we seem to have reached the culmination. While there are multiple agents and perspectives in the poem, people and wind and dunes and sky, the ocean dominates it. The poem opens with the “ocean, whale-shaped”, and as we near the end this is re-affirmed as the ocean is described as “overwhelming”. It overwhelms the poem just as it overwhelms the dunes.

We have, however, not reached the culmination in seeing the ocean as overwhelming. The very next word gives us yet another transformation: the ocean is an overwhelming whale. We are, very suddenly, brought back to the poem’s smallest scale, the animal. A whale is, to be sure, a very large animal, but it is an animal nonetheless. Over the course of the poem, the ocean has transformed from something merely “whale-shaped”, something like but not quite a whale, into a whale, without qualification. The simile has become a metaphor. Why?

In making the ocean an animal, Swenson gives it needs, desires. And it is here that the last line comes in: “over and over carving your cradle here.” The sea, great “mover and shaper”, is carving out its home, is making a world into which it fits. (To use the phrase du jour, it is constructing its niche.) This great, overwhelming presence, so vast and unlike us, suddenly comes to seem vulnerable—comes to seem like us.

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Over the past few days, I read May Swenson’s first book of poetry, Another Animal. Having just written about Ashbery’s use of an extended “ocean of language” metaphor, I cannot resist also writing about Swenson’s take on a similar theme, in her poem “Stony Beach”. Here is the poem:

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Stony Beach

. . . . . . . . . . . . . The sea like Demosthenes’ mouth
. . . . . . . . . . . . champs upon these stones
. . . . . . . . . . . whose many stumblings make him suave
. . . . . . . . . . The argument molded monotonously by all his lips
. . . . . . . . . in a parliament of overlappings
. . . . . . . . is vocal but incomprehensible because never finished

. . . . . . . Listen listen there is nothing to learn from the sea
. . . . . . Listen he is lucid in sound only
. . . . . convinces with broken phrases that wizardly
. . . . the waves round out a rune over riddling stones

. . . Beginning again and again with a great A
. . a garbeled alphabet he lisps and groans
. The insistent eloquence of echoes
has no omega

The sea is likened immediately to Demosthenes, the famous Greek statesmen and orator. Importantly, he is said to have overcome a speech impediment by forcing himself to speak with stones in his mouth. Thus, in the first two lines, we are presented with a sea that is attempting to say something but struggling to say it. Swenson captures the repetitiousness of these exercises with some choice alliteration (on ‘m’) and consonance (on ‘l’)—“The argument molded monotonously by all his lips”—as if the poem itself (or at least this line) were the sea speaking.

Whereas Demosthenes went on to great success, his exercises having worked to great effect, with the sea it is different. His voice is a “parliament of overlappings” (what an image!) that never quite becomes comprehensible because it is never finished. “Listen listen there is nothing to learn from the sea”, the second stanza tells us, and indeed there is nothing to learn from these exercises, whose content doesn’t matter. They are “lucid in sound only”. The last line of the stanza confirms this by exemplifying it: “the waves round out a rune over riddling stones”. Once again we get the impression that the sea is speaking, that the poem is the sea’s practice.

It is fitting, then, that the third stanza sees both the sea and the poem “Beginning again”—beginning and always beginning, never finishing. “The insistent eloquence of echoes / has no omega”. Meaning, oration, is never reached.