“The Jaws of Death Are An Easy Chair”

The always-meants:

Fed an octopus; ridden a hot air balloon; gotten married; seen A Silver Mt. Zion play live; learned how my bike works; read every enormous canonical novel of the English language that, when you face it, is not canonical but fleet-footed, wide-open, familiar, engrossing and uncomfortable; visited outer space; worked at a garden store; learned to ID Northwest birds. I’ve scratched two things off the list this week. Earlier, my girlfriend was instrumental in helping me rebuild my bike, FedExed back from St. Louis,

and today I’m down with the flu: washing Tylenol Extra Strength down with orange juice, napping, groaning every so often, and reading Moby-Dick.

After two years snowed into my own study of poetry, the art of fiction seems more omnipotent and more mysterious to me, not less. Studying one craft makes the other stranger. Hearing my fiction MFA classmates’ final readings, I was struck by the quality of sympathy and fear, at one remove in poetry, but key to fiction: in hundreds or thousands of words, an author of fiction summons a character we feel for, then places them in conflict or danger. Both arts work by recognition– we’re moved by what we know–, but it seems poetry’s recognition is internal, what Keats would call a remembrance. In a poem’s story, we sympathize with, delight in, fear for ourselves, as shown us anew in (say) “Iris,” “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning,” or “Sunset Debris.” We aren’t thrilled by characters moving through a hazardous or sublime world; we just are (in the best poems) them. Fiction’s recognition, on the other hand, is necessarily both internal and external. As a poet, this is intimidating.

For instance: in Moby-Dick, we meet an editor (who mourns, in persona, the very maniacal mind who would muse so widely about whales), then the funny, capacious Ishmael, then an impersonal consciousness–just as expansive–privy to officer-talk and drama Ishmael couldn’t have witnessed. And what language! American (pretty and mighty proliferate as adverbs), chatty, widening, sometimes lyrical. After a sermon, Ishmael thinks, “faith, like a jackal, feeds among the tombs.” On deck, Ishmael is warned, “he’s a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab.” For a sailor a short chapter tells us is doomed: “Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.” Or Ishmael, facing the Atlantic:

How I snuffed that Tartar air!–how I spurned that turnpike earth!–that common highway all over dented with the marks of slavish heels and hoofs; and turned me to admire the magnanimity of the sea which will permit no records.

Of Melville, all I really knew was that (like Emerson), he was a nifty now-and then poet, that Morrissey’d read him, and that O’Hara preferred him to Henry James. He seems, at 400 pages, to be legion. Is anyone sure I’m wrong, sure that poetry can move us by character and scenery? How many of you folks have read Moby-Dick? But please please please, don’t tell me how it ends–I’m less than halfway through–

And, hey, have you heard of Theo Ellsworth?