Moby-Dick In those days priests preached of whales—devils
they called them—their tiny eyes and pitchfork fins.
Ahab talked to the whale’s severed head, sphinx-
like and dumb as sand, said, “Tell me the secrets
of underwater breathing and small-boned fish.”
Moby-Dick’s ear was a mere pinprick, his heart
unreachable under all that flesh. Shark-
riddled waters and mermaid-lush islands
dotted Ahab’s maps, inspiring lust
and lunar dreaming. The crew liked to sing rounds
that sounded lovely when the whales joined.
Even the harpooners swooned, teary-eyed,
their hands trembling like fish before they died.
When they hit the high notes—chords of angels.
MS: I read recently that when Hermann Melville’s writing began to lineate into poetry, his wife Elizabeth feared they would all starve. Since I myself have had this fear from time to time, both rationally and irrationally, I can understand how Hermann might have had insomnia over his ambiguous reputation. I love that one of us started this sonnet with devils and ended with angels. It seems very Melvillian to me (actually, I just wanted to use the word Melvillian). And even though I myself am not a Melvillian, and I don’t believe you are either, Denise), I thought if anyone would appreciate a sonnet about a novel, it would be Melville. (If not his wife.)
DD: Agreed! Poor Melville. Moby-Dick sold poorly during his lifetime. One reviewer accused the book of “degenerating….too often into rhapsody and purposeless extravagance." Maybe that’s when Melville realized he was a poet at heart, ready to embrace that “purposeless extravagance." To support himself and his wife, he became a customs inspector in New York City. But I guess we can take some comfort in that fact that at least he, like us, got to live in New York. Maybe he goofed off during work hours like his character in “Bartleby the Scrivener.” Surely his whaling days and the sea still haunted him, and in his poem “The ribs and terrors in the whale” he was still counting on God to come to the rescue. Remember when the man in the Q&A asked why we didn’t write about mermaids? I forgot that we already had in our “Moby-Dick”—“mermaid-lush islands.”