Imprecision greets the reader of this poem at the outset, and never, afterwards, does the piece seem to resolve the miscommunications to which such imprecision leads. Examining the work the lines do, or fail to do, and the ideas the lines express—or, indeed, fail to express—reveals major structural problems that end up distracting even a fervent reader who is trying, in good faith, to gain from her attention to the poem.
My discomfort with the piece begins at the title, with that not-quite-right preposition choice: why aren’t these instructions for or even about being a sea creature? Or, if we don’t receive instruction (we don’t) why isn’t the piece simply “On Being a Sea Creature”?
Imperative is the language of instruction, yet in these instructions, imperative is delayed. The first direct command doesn’t occur until line fourteen: ‘Say goodbye to opposable thumbs.’ The line sticks out for its syntactical difference from the conditional statements that precede it, and for being one of only two lines where the syntax and the line share their terminus. Lines with these sorts of coincidence often bear extra weight, like a little Atlas: squat, muscular, there to do some heavy lifting.
Here, though, the line sets up a cheap jest: ‘On the other hand (so to speak) / you get to spawn thousands.’ The lines trouble in two ways: first is the dad-joke conceit of reminding the reader that his hand is now a fin or paddle, foregrounded in the ‘get it? get it?’ parenthetical. Second, and more frustrating, is the conceptual incoherence a reader feels trying to embrace the imperfect images (a blowhole ‘gasping exclamations nearby,’ gills ‘folded like taffy and oxygenated,’ ‘crushing ship hulls like cellophane’)—none of which are particularly descriptive or revelatory.
To say nothing of the music the speaker abandons for a plain-voiced prosody that, in my estimation, a piece with so little to offer can’t afford court:
Besotted, Pliny the Elder
declared a dolphin’s tongue
better than those of most humans
of his acquaintance. You should be
so lucky. Your eyes may migrate
fleeing the symmetry of your face [. . .]
Read this: ‘Pliny the Elder declared a dolphin’s tongue better than those of most humans of his acquaintance.’ What do we lose with the line breaks? Not musicality. I don’t feel a change in pace, or emphasis or insistence. So what guided the lineation? The syllabic count is regular enough that one might suspect tetrameter was intended, but a steady beat doesn’t reveal melody, and this sentence suffers more for lack of the latter than the former.
Insistence is the key quality the poem lacks. The compilation of so many conditional phrases—‘If’, ‘should,’ ‘if not,’ ‘may,’ ‘you should,’ ‘may migrate,’ and ‘may never’—is confusing instead of intriguing, and underwhelming more than anything. It is probably fair, in our incessantly buzzing, beeping, clicking and dinging age, for a poet to attempt to dazzle and perplex and fascinate a reader with vibrant images—to bait the reader, even—but that strategy means it is incumbent on a poet to think hard about what those images are, what they do, and how said images will work together to ‘draw in’ a reader.
Here, my instructions which aren’t instructions exhibit something more like a dispersing of ideas rather than the coalescence that the unity of scene and theme suggests we ought expect. We might have gills, then we might be lucky to be a dolphin, our eyes might ‘flee the symmetry of [our] face,’ (which suggests something like a transformation, a becoming, rather than a being, or of having been a sea creature), and damningly, we might be a whale, but then, in the last line—apt, in a meta-contextual way, for being interrogative—it seems we have been a whale, and that being one is a worthwhile aspiration.
When an entire poem is conditional, clarity—at least in the conditions that might realize the possibilities the poem suggests—should be absolute.
What elevates the poem as a literary or verbalized artifact is its contrivance. In these linguistic statuary, precious for being crafted rather than merely off-the-cuff, rhythm, sense, intellect, and lineation all play a role in structuring language that is meant to convey something—no matter if that something is truth or falsehood—to a reader. The conveyance need not be efficient, as long as it is complete. The failures of the speaker, here, accrete and gather, but build nothing. If our speaker has intended instruction, he has not delivered, and if he has intended sense, he has delivered its opposite.
If he has intended nothing, perhaps there he is accomplished. But Nothing can’t make a poem, despite the damnedest postmodernist effort.