22 June 2015

Poem of the Week 2015/25

Crustacean Island

There could be an island paradise
where crustaceans prevail.
Click, click, go the lobsters
with their china mitts and
articulated tails.
It would not be sad like whales
with their immense and patient sieving
and the sobering modesty
of their general way of living.
It would be an island blessed
with only cold-blooded residents
and no human angle.
It would echo with a thousand castanets
and no flamencos.

Kay Ryan

From the first line you can see the speaker's mind heading towards what fancifully could be rather than what is: not just the usual island paradise of our humdrum daydreams, but one dominated by crustaceans, a category that includes crab, shrimp, and even barnacles, but here seems to be mostly that decorative and delightful creature, the lobster. Part of the poem's playfulness is Ryan's expert use of rhymes, slant rhymes (that is, words that almost rhyme), and other sound-echoes; for example, the way echo in the penultimate line comes partly back in the -encos of flamencos. We also have prevail / tails / whales and sieving / living.

The speaker swiftly gives us both a vivid picture of lobsters and a reminder that she has put them in a fantastical situation. The lobster lives generally on the ocean floor, a fact which puts this island in the land of make-believe. The island air is filled with the sound they make: click click, a sound that would be muted underwater.  The lobster as a specific, actual creature is brought to vivid life with a few incisive details. She cleverly highlights the details that make the lobster appealing and picturesque (over-sized claws, curling tail) while eliding their potentially creepier aspects (the tiny bulging eyes, the waving spider-like legs). She evokes their large front claws, those coupled thick and thin pincers that do look like mitts, and the hard exoskeleton that makes those mitts like china, and the articulated tails. In this context the main meaning of articulated is having sections connected by a flexible joint but the word can also mean clearly spelled out in words and when it modifies tails it's impossible not to sense a pun on tales: whatever their story (and it remains unspoken; we are given no reason why these creatures have emerged from the sea, and little indication of how they subsist), it is likely to be as crisp, as clear, as unambiguous as their clicks and their china mitts.

The speaker further defines her island paradise: it would not be sad. She has switched from the potential could to the more definite would as her island takes shape. She defines sadness: it is like whales. (It's interesting to reflect on the cultural shift in the image of whales, from the ominous ambiguity of Melville's Leviathan to the dullness of these monotonous beasts.) She makes them sound like the beaten-down bourgeoisie of the oceans: they live by immense and patient sieving, they live lives of sobering modesty. The sieving would refer to the species of whale who survive by straining the plankton from seawater through their baleen. Immense here refers to the patience required for these huge animals to get enough of the tiny swarming plankton to survive, but it also helps us visualize the whales themselves. The patience of the whales is indicated even in the line breaks: after their immense and patient sieving comes the break, and the conjunction and starts the next line in an orderly way. Contrast this with the impatient rush forward of the line ending with and in the first lobster section: with their china mitts and / articulated tails, as if the line couldn't wait to jump on to the next item.

Then the speaker returns to her crustacean island, again using the would be construction, only this time it is positive: it would be an island blessed. What does this blessing consist of? It is that the residents are cold-blooded. Not only does this imply no humans, we are even explicitly told that there is no "human angle" here – the cold-blooded calculations of the warm-blooded are banished. That is how far removed this island paradise is from us and our concerns; indeed, that very removal is what makes it an island paradise. We are left with the sound evoked earlier, the click click of the claws, sounding and re-sounding like castanets. But there is no accompanying flamenco dancing, with its passionate erotic fire, to go with the echoing sound.

In its fantasy and inventiveness and humor (as well as its keen sense of play with the natural world), this poem reminds me of Victorian "nonsense" verse by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll (perhaps what specifically evokes this for me is memories of Carroll's Lobster Quadrille). And as with Lear and Carroll, the playfulness has a strong undercurrent of sadness, fear, and loss. Why does the speaker feel that paradise must specifically exclude warm-blooded creatures, their dances, their interests? The sad whales are also warm-blooded, and therefore excluded; the speaker turns away from the gray drudgery of their subsistence living as well as from the multiple angles (of self-interest, of ignorance, of insistence and ambiguity, of so many things, including of friendship and of love) that make up the human angle. The lobsters come as a relief from all that, they are clear and sharply defined: and yet there is something brittle, even fragile about them; the "articulated tails (tales)," so unambiguous in their separate sections; the staccato clicking, echoing endlessly over and over,without development or answering sound; the china (that is, easily chipped or broken) mitts of their claws; the static tableau of their island lives. Despite the speaker's attempt to ward off sadness in the shape of whales, sadness surrounds this island. What unmentioned event has led her to imagine this world, and to imagine that this fantastical cold and click-click-clicking world is what paradise must be?

I took this from The Best of It: New and Selected Poems by Kay Ryan. I see she has a new collection, Erratic Facts, coming out in October, so that is good news for her fans. Several years ago I heard her speak at City Arts & Lectures; my account of that can be found here.


Unknown said...

It is impossible for me to hear the sadness in this poem because "Under the Sea," from The Little Mermaid plays in my head every time I try to read it.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

. . . and thanks for putting that in my head now too!