Friday, October 12, 2012

On feeling buried alive

Have you ever felt like you were buried alive inside of something and it was like as if the thing outside was telling you who you are or who you were ever going to get to be? Life sometimes makes us feel like we are all hemmed in. I know you probably have a pretty clear picture of what I’m talking about as that is unfortunately an all too common sensation. So naturally I wrote a poem about it called Sometimes a Pearl and dedicated it to a poet friend of mine named Pris Campbell who has a currently incurable and very limiting illness known as ME/CFS. You can find the poem in Book of Aliases: ( and I’ll put a copy here so, in case you don’t have the book yet, you can follow along as we take a look at it.

Sometimes a pearl (For Pris Campbell)

The whitest flower grows in a sea of mud,
Never seen, never knowing the lips of the sun.
I grew up in a culture of lost relatives,
Finding the ones I didn’t want,
Searching for mystery and what I don’t know;
Looking for John Merrick in all this deformity,
Trying to make my own light,
Trying to glow in the dark,
Trying to get past the hate and anger,
Finding gentle humor, licking a wound -
Sometimes not hurting so much,
Sometimes breath taken in the deep beautiful,
Sometimes a pearl trying to invent
An oyster I like.

(Originally published in the Banks of the Little Miami)

Also, If you would like to hear me read it, this is the You Tube link:

This poem is an experimental sonnet in terms of form, by the way (fourteen lines is a good clue). Knowing that will help to understand what the poem is doing in the various places. So let’s start with the “whitest flower” found in the first line.

What could that be? There are some clues in the second line which says it is “never seen.” Where would that flower be? The second line continues by telling that it never knows “the lips of the sun.” So it would have to be literally underground, something that grows under that “sea of mud” and how is it that anything which grows literally inside all that muck could be the “whitest flower?” The answer is: it is pure white inside because it is a potato. This is the first of the “buried alive” images and is my attempt to set the tone for this poem. It also shows that something buried in the muck can be beautiful inside, in spite of what surrounds it, which is the message of the poem and is somewhat mysteriously hidden in the first two lines.

That message will be repeated again when we get to the part about John Merrick but first we have to talk a bit about family and why the “I” of the poem (not necessarily the same person as its author) feels buried alive in that environment.

Who could those “lost relatives” of the third line be and what is meant by “culture of?” Perhaps you have known of families that have crests on their wall or a family tree or maybe even some oil portraits of some long dead, well known family member. The “I” of the poem seems to be implying he/she has grown up being told of the lives of the great family members from the past (“culture of”) who are no longer there and therefore “lost.” The “I” of the poem perhaps identifies with some of those long dead relatives but perhaps looks at her/his mom and pop and wonders, “how come you aren’t as special as those old relatives were?” Those famous ones were pretty interesting but the ones he/she has to live with now “the ones I didn’t want” are pretty ordinary by comparison.

Now we finally get to John Merrick and the stuff about “searching for mystery.” The mystery is how do ordinary people come from famous parents? We tend to assume that famous people are different than us regular folk so how can these really ordinary folks who happen to be our parents have come from somebody who was famous and therefore different. It’s like some kind of genetic deformity or an illness that makes the formerly perfect into something much more flawed. We look at somebody like Merrick, the “elephant man” of Victorian times and we see something like the potato; we see a beautiful spirit buried in hideously deformed flesh.

This is the core mystery of the poem because we have to ask ourselves if there isn’t something special buried inside the ordinary seeming shell of our parents. This is the place where the sonnet, as often happens in the middle of sonnets, begins to question itself. This is when the speaker in the poem is faced with “what I don’t know” and cannot give an answer. Instead of trying to solve this larger question, the voice in the poem goes back to trying to solve the discomfort felt by doing personal things. That “I” is like an injured animal: “Trying to make my own light,/ Trying to glow in the dark,/ Trying to get past the hate and anger,/ Finding gentle humor, licking a wound –“ and like all injured things it tends to be primarily self-concerned.

Now starts the repeating litany of “sometimes.” The first one (“Sometimes not hurting so much”) is kind of saying that things are getting a little better. The second one makes a great improvement (“Sometimes breath taken in the deep beautiful”) and also takes us to the bottom of the ocean to set up for the final image contained in the couplet.

This is the part of the sonnet where everything has to get resolved somehow. It finishes the series of the three “sometimes” by focusing on the startling beauty you experience when you find a pearl buried in all that muck inside the oyster shell. It feels and sounds almost proud when it says: “Sometimes a pearl trying to invent/ An oyster I like” as if the voice in the poem has found the way to sort of overcome the obstacle of being buried. It’s as if this rather proactive style of looking at this problem lets the poem’s voice and the reader as well, celebrate some kind of victory.

I hope you enjoyed doing that close reading of this poem with me. I really like that little sonnet and I hope you enjoyed it too!

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