Review by Michael Collins
Whale Fall David Baker
W. W. Norton and Co.
July 19, 2022
“moved as they are moved // and to whom to what –”: David Baker’s Whale Fall
David Baker’s eleventh collection, Whale Fall, intertwines ecological, existential, and aesthetic insight into a work that confronts multiple forms of catastrophe, drawing on strength from these different offerings of community as well as his own stabilizing writing practice. The title poem gathers these principle themes, held together by image and metaphor that resonate across the spaces between them, and they ripple out in various forms from its centering interconnections.
The title, “Whale Fall,” and opening line, “One dies,” point to the centrality of the whale’s post-mortem process of sinking through the fathoms:
and falls, as
it falls, as through blue breeze;
and swirls, light
as a tissue, drifting down –
the cool layers, the sifted light
warmed currents, loose galaxy
of whirling flecks, slow-
motion, in a haze (43-4)
The repetition in “falls, as / it falls” foregrounds the speaker’s interdependent visions, literal and metaphorical descriptions as shifting figure and ground. Only because the whale and ocean are of intrinsic interest in themselves may “blue breeze” and “sea wind” begin to establish the ocean’s second role in the poem as an imaginal expression of the “loose galaxy” of the psychic world. This world, evoked in the poem’s own making, primarily in imagery and metaphor, functions as its connective tissue. In the passage above, we see this from the marine side, below on land:
Cottonwood seeds. Gnats wings in sunlight.
Whirl of dust motes in the haze of still light.
If it were so simple as to drift down.
If it were so easy as getting up again. (47)
If we blink once we see the ocean scene; blink again and we see the same “galaxy” composed of different literal objects. The imaginal overlays of landscape – which we will explore shortly – and seascape form a subtle window through which the speaker can see into both worlds through one another, and in both worlds find psychological reflection.
This passage also invokes the poet’s own, sometimes debilitating illness, another thread running through the poem and collection. The perspective informed by these experiences has a different metaphorical conception of the ocean, “the viral fire, the toxic sea” (46). These threads of the poem also engage a different aspect of water, the surface:
You don’t know this. I floated there in stillness,
in white sheets. White boughs breaking. The pines
in ice and wind like a hammering pulse.
When I woke I couldn’t speak or make sense.
And when I slept again I didn’t sleep.
And more fires spreading though the body’s depths. (50)
The stormy landscape imagery that corresponds with the speaker’s half-waking state provides another lens into the ocean. From the perspective of the one afflicted with an illness that deprives sleep and waking of their cyclic interdependence both the ocean and land are a nightmare of pathologically cylcling mental and physical distress. These images have associative connections with the human-made pathologies of the ocean like the “Plastic Garbage Patch Bigger Than Mexico” (51) and the human products whales take in, “200 feet of fishnet, crab lines, channel buoys” (45-6). It is important here that neither circumstance is appropriated as a metaphorical expression belonging to the other. After all, if humans had considered the ocean all along as a life of lives interdependent with the rest of our world, we probably wouldn’t have filled it with garbage in the first place. Placing them in proximity and implicit connection with one another allows the reader’s empathy space to find each through the other. One way of understanding how imagery functions throughout this poem is as an evocation of the feelings that connect the different worlds and perspectives, feeling-connections that are strengthened as they are perceived from more than one point of view.
The landscape elements of the passage come from notes written during the illness (46) and later revisited, “A drawer full of notes. Years trying to –“ (47). Other fragments that capture impressions of illness from the perspectives of his own bodily experiences, his interactions with his young daughter, and impersonal medical communication are stitched throughout the poem. In them, we sense that this poem – and the devotion to and need for poetry in which it is rooted – began as an act of survival, long before it found its unique form, into which these beginnings could be integrated.
The final section braids various forms of loss over time, many reincorporated from earlier in the poem with gaps inserted. However, this sense of time as an agent of loss is contextualized and complicated elsewhere in the collection by several references to time on earth that confound human understanding. Pondering a fossil, the speaker in “Middle Devonian,” marvels, “One minute // and it’s four hundred million years” (26). “Thirty-six Silos” provides a more ominous and human authored sense of proportion: “Pick your poison. Plutonium-239 half-life 24,000 years. Uranium 235, 700,000,000. Uranium-238, 4.5 billion –” (88). This comparison – just one example of how the themes established in “Whale Fall” extend outward through the collection – juxtaposes the expanse of natural time science allows us to perceive in artifacts left on earth, making human life seem authentically small by comparison, with our cultivated ability to wreak unimaginable ages of blight.
The overwhelming sense of humility before such expanses of time evokes an almost religious sense of our microscopic place in its expanse. And yet, our own creations are responsible for our ability to both date the fossil and threaten millions of years of future life. In this sense, we stand in awe and terror, not only of time’s implications for our own mortality, but even more of our own cultivated power to cause even more catastrophic and lasting annihilation. It is to human consciousness that we owe the lenses of these visions – and to which we must turn for salvation
It is within consciousness that the speaker’s ongoing grounding and exploring through writing also has its own interplay with the imaginal witnessing of the whale’s descent and its implications for other deaths. As the illness presents the disintegrating deprivation of both consciousness and rest, the poem represents a paradoxical form of rest from these detriments in meaningful interconnective activity across disciplines and human capacities, embodied in the integrative formal properties of the poem itself. The witnessing of the journey of the whale’s life, which we know has already ended, has a psychological cognate to being present in witnessing one’s own life – known in various ways to be equally subject to death – in self-reflective observation and the meditative aspects of making poems.
We must, therefore, read the poem’s ending, “It takes your life” (58), in two ways. Beyond, the obvious invocation of mortality, we can hear a call for completion, meaning these modes of awareness, reflection, compassion, and creation must be practiced for our entire lives and with our whole being. The awareness of death takes one’s endless life and gives one a second to live most present.
“Turner’s Clouds for Plumly,” offers several examples of such lives, interestingly also spread across an expanse of time, here pieced together as a sort of esoteric aesthetic lineage. Particularly, we are invited into a community whose engagement with death is called forth and mediated through thought, artistic response, and contemplation of the resulting creations. The poem is grounded in poet Stanley Plumly’s thoughts and writings on Keats and Turner, yet there is an emotional overlap between Plumly’s erudition and the speaker’s intuitions into Plumly’s feelings:
It was companionship he wanted, like
confirming the coal service of the cellar,
and to hear himself mumble, just there, look,
the tree – his finger brushing air – and one
diminished figure in red, lost almost
in the landscape of the place. There he is.
Turner seemed to him like Keats must have felt (12).
As opposed to the idea of the artist surviving in the work, there is a sense that this part of Turner that gave life to the work was never himself unless contextualized in the landscape of the work, perceived through the work – never more himself than when glimpsed by eyes, imperceptible to him, of those who know the work’s enduring value: “We live in one time but think in another” (13)
In the world of human interaction, Plumly spotting Turner’s ghostly presence in the painting parallels the speaker’s gentle response to his friend’s need to feel alive in being perceived in community. The overlapping of all four psyches in the final quoted line can also be viewed as the perception of objective psyche presenting in all of them, similar to a reference to Plumly’s work: “In books he calls the paintings landscapes of / water, wild beyond human artifice. / They are what our feelings are without us” (11). In both strands of the poem, aesthetic creations evoke similarities in the interiority of their makers that overlap and resonate on levels prior to personality and circumstance.
In a line that recalls the discussion of “Whale Fall,” the speaker equates this deeper communication with our dying itself, or perhaps with the source of our creativity already having thought and mourned our death: “In love we open our mouth. In dying / we open it wider” (13). There is also a parallel between mortal thoughts and landscapes: “Turner paints the clouds as though they are thoughts, / he said, of what’s to come. We see the end. / No one could see it brewing there but him” (14). The paradox of this, the final line underlines both the deep affection and pathos of the poem: Long after Turner’s death and facing his own, Plumly’s recognition reaches out simultaneously to the aspect of Turner’s interiority at the heart of the painting and to his friend who can share his understanding of it. We feel the depth of his love and empathy; we think on its futility for Turner himself, perhaps, though this aspect itself may resonate with Plumly’s own constellation of existential thoughts and feelings. The work speaks across – or straight through – the time its makers know will come and therefore interiorize. Like “Whale Fall” this poem responds to fear and grief with redoubled attention to life-contextualizing values and practices – here with a redoubled emphasis on friendships and forebears who affirm them.
“Storm Psalm” speaks from the individual sense of devotion and conviction of members of this community dispersed in space and time. It models a negative faith in which macrocosmic darkness and internal disbelief are addressed as aspects of one another:
Dear darkness. Dear where we bow our heads in disbelief.
Dear disbelief, hardly bow our heads and
hardly speak, so we sing, such words as darkness
shows us how on days on end.
So I sing it is
not hopeless. Hurry hurry. Nor faithless – to stand
without faith, keeping open –. (15)
Borrowing the compound addresses from the children’s story Goodnight Moon, which is referenced in other poems, the speaker makes use of the playful language to improvise a flexible prayer arising from his own “disbelief.” Both negations are addressed as “Dear” because they are the paradoxical tutors of his “keeping open.” The invocation of the storm itself recalls those of the illness in “Whale Fall”:
Clap now a great wing
over the barn, the cedars, pelt now, rain now,
or is that the last time coming wild,
every pane breaking, is it the last, hail now whose
particles breaking through as little toads, silver
fishes, everywhere. (16)
The ending sounds as if addressing the very inner vision and urgency captured and discussed in the Turner paintings: “dear hurry // keeping open vigil at the site out of stillness out of / darkness now the sudden breaking down Dear wind –“ (16). This final prayerful omission addresses the very wind that again recalls the speaker’s terrified notes in “Whale Fall,” that fear and trembling known here as consciousness itself, fluid center of the ongoing practice to “stand / without faith, keeping open” through the work that will be offered to lives beyond the years of one’s own.
Amazingly, most of the poem affirms directly through its own negation. The attendant feelings are both heightened and disbursed by being shared; just as in “Whale Fall,” connections to the actual ocean, the actual whales, are deepened, not trivialized, by being read beside imaginal connections, in which feeling connects with thought, image with psyche, ego with Earth – and whales. All of these modes of awareness work to strengthen one another, to support present consciousness of one’s interconnected life in the world, which unites the aesthetic, compassionate, intellectual, and psychological chambers of the heart of the poem itself.
Michael Collins’ poems and book reviews have received Pushcart Prize nominations and appeared in more than 70 journals and magazines. He is also the author of the chapbooks How to Sing when People Cut off your Head and Leave it Floating in the Water and Harbor Mandala and the full-length collections Psalmandala and Appearances, which was named one of the best indie poetry collections of 2017 by Kirkus Reviews. He teaches creative and expository writing at New York University and has taught at the Hudson Valley Writers Center, The Bowery Poetry Club, and several community outreach and children’s centers in Westchester. He is the Poet Laureate of Mamaroneck, New York. Visit notthatmichaelcollins.com.
David Baker’s many honors include fellowships and awards from the Poetry Society of America, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. The recipient of the Theodore Roethke Memorial Poetry Prize, Baker teaches at Denison University and lives in Granville, Ohio. davidbaker.website
W. W. Norton and Co.