Pequod Poems: Gamming with Moby-Dick
by Wilda Morris
70 poems, 123 pages
Publisher: Kelsay Books Aldrich Press
To Order: Amazon.com or www.kelsaybooks.com
Reviewed by Michael Escoubas
“It is the artist’s privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart.” So spoke William Faulkner in his acceptance speech as literature’s Nobel laureate, in Stockholm in 1950. While Wilda Morris would feel unworthy of having her name mentioned in the same paragraph as Faulkner, Faulkner’s sentiment applies. Pequod Poems: Gamming with Moby-Dick, touched my mind and heart making me appreciate anew Melville’s timeless novel. She does this by setting the novel within its historical context as well as making memorable applications to daily life.
A Word about the Title
“Gamming” is a nautical term describing communicative interaction between whaling ships under sail. Part IV, of the five-part collection makes use of the concept in the section titled: Backtalk—Gamming with Moby-Dick. The poet “gams” with several Melville quotations from a 21st century perspective.
Pequod Poems could well be used as a textbook on how to apply a variety of forms to enhance a single theme. Morris describes in detail, in the notes section, each of the forms she employs, giving interesting factoids about why she uses them. This section enables the reader to cross-reference forms, double-back for a second read dwelling on the features of that particular form. Morris employs approximately 18 specialty forms including, Pleiades, Spiraling Abecedarian, Erasure, Trimeric, Rondeau, and Pantoum.
Structure and Thematic Development
As noted above, the work is comprised of five sections. Part I: Pequod Poems, portrays life on the ill-fated whaler. The titles themselves weave a mystery that entices curiosity: “Ahab Speaks of the Wind,” “Pip’s Secret Thoughts,” “Letter to Capt. Ahab from His Wife,” to name but of few. Here’s a sample poem depicting one aspect of life at sea,
Sailors’ Dreams on the Pequod
The sailors sigh for Polynesian girls
or for the wives or fiancées they’ve left
back home decked out in lacy gowns and pearls,
hair spilling from their bonnets in soft curls,
but when they reach for them they are bereft.
Long months at sea these curvy specters haunt
with beauty daytime eyes can never see,
and all the loveliness those women flaunt
seems to the mariners a cruel taunt,
and every kiss an unreality.
The tangled blankets they are twisting in
when called to watch for whales another day
are damp with sweat, but there is no soft skin
for all delights of night just fade away.
Morris probes the minds, lives and motives of Melville’s characters. Whaling voyages typically lasted up to five years. How did such lengthy durations affect wives and children? What did crew members say in letters to loved ones back home? What did the Pequod’s crew really think of their revenge-saturated captain? What worries did Ahab’s wife harbor for her husband? Through meticulous research, seminars, classes, and on-location field trips, Morris equipped herself to make informed responses to such questions. I felt the loneliness of loved ones waiting at home; overheard whispered conversations among crewmembers, became aware of Captain Ahab’s menacing presence, stood watch in the crow’s nest when whales breached the surface.
After laying a solid foundation of 34 poems in Section I, subsequent sections add nuanced layers of meaning that interlock forming a coherent whole. Part II: Aftermath, develops the crew’s emotions having experienced life on the doomed Pequod. Excerpted from Sonnet 80 Suite, Movement 1: Ishmael Remembers,
I used to weep when I sat down to write
of my adventures, knowing I must name
the captain of the ship, that man of might
whose hubris doomed his crew and brought him fame
or rather infamy, for Ahab is
reviled by those whose wives and children bear
the burdens grief lay down, results of his
obsession, Moby Dick. It would appear
the captain thought we could remain afloat
although that great white whale gave us a ride.
He knew the whale would fight, would pull our boat,
but didn’t fathom in his haughty pride
leviathan would turn to drive the ship away
crush it, bring on disaster and decay.
From the darkness of the “Aftermath” section, Morris transitions the reader into Part III: Memos to Herman Melville. This section reveals the poet’s thorough research into the life and character of a 19th century literary genius. “Boundaries” opens the door to at least a partial understanding of a writer who,
". . . returned, made a proper marriage
to a judge’s daughter. Though you sometimes
remembered those days in the south seas
with a sigh, quoting to yourself the lines by the Pope:
A very heathen in the carnal part
Yet still a sad good Christian at the heart,
you sheltered your austere and disapproving mother
in your household for years. The boundaries set
for good sons, husbands, and fathers
hung like a noose around your neck.”
Many poems are inspired from specific lines spoken by Pequod’s crewmembers.
“Meditation by the Water,” (Part IV), is prefaced by a line from the lips of Ishmael, Yes, as everyone knows, meditation and water are wedded for ever.
I come to the deserted beach where dolomite cliffs
wall me off from human sounds.
Seagulls patrol the shore, squawk and scold.
Spiders skitter under rocks when I move.
This afternoon the water is gentle
as a mother’s hand on the forehead
of a sick child. Reflections of hazy sun
glide tinsel-like across quiet waves—
unresolved questions, unabandoned hopes.
Morris is skillful in applying her poems to contemporary life. All 16 poems in Part IV moved me to think about current events. I especially liked “Noah’s Flood.”
In Part V: Melville, five poems showcase Morris’ extensive insight into Melville the man. There is an intimacy to be found in such poems as “Herman Melville Explains Himself,” “Melville in Love,” and “Herman Melville: Your Self-Portraits.”
I return to William Faulkner’s insight into the role of the artist: “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.” Wilda Morris’ Pequod Poems will stand the test of time because the traits so highly prized by Faulkner run like a golden thread throughout her poetry.