'Voyager, chief of the pelagic world,/you brought with you the myth/of another country, dimly remembered...'
Yesterday, nature brought a tragedy to our shores - a pod of pilot whales, thirteen in total, beached themselves here in Donegal and unfortunately, at the time I write this, five have died and others beached again, despite rescuers' best attempts to refloat them. It's such a cruel and mysterious aspect of nature and such a waste. What is it about beached whales that evokes such tragedy and lament in us? Maybe this poem can explain it; it chronicles the life of one similarly fated whale, capturing the grace and appeal of these beautiful creatures therein.
The Wellfleet Whale - Stanley Kunitz
You have your language too,
an eerie medley of clicks
and hoots and trills,
location-notes and love calls,
whistles and grunts. Occasionally,
it’s like furniture being smashed,
or the creaking of a mossy door,
sounds that all melt into a liquid
song with endless variations,
as if to compensate
for the vast loneliness of the sea.
Sometimes a disembodied voice
breaks in, as if from distant reefs,
and it’s as much as one can bear
to listen to its long mournful cry,
a sorrow without name, both more
and less than human. It drags
across the ear like a record
No wind. No waves. No clouds.
Only the whisper of the tide,
as it withdrew, stroking the shore,
a lazy drift of gulls overhead,
and tiny points of light
bubbling in the channel.
It was the tag-end of summer.
From the harbor’s mouth
you coasted into sight,
flashing news of your advent,
the crescent of your dorsal fin
clipping the diamonded surface.
We cheered at the sign of your greatness
when the black barrel of your head
erupted, ramming the water,
and you flowered for us
in the jet of your spouting.
All the afternoon you swam
tirelessly round the bay,
with such an easy motion,
the slightest downbeat of your tail,
an almost imperceptible
undulation of your flippers,
you seemed like something poured,
not driven; you seemed
to marry grace with power.
And when you bounded into air,
slapping your flukes,
we thrilled to look upon
pure energy incarnate
as nobility of form.
You seemed to ask of us
not sympathy, or love,
but awe and wonder.
That night we watched you
swimming in the moon.
Your back was molten silver.
We guessed your silent passage
by the phosphorescence in your wake.
At dawn we found you stranded on the rocks.
There came a boy and a man
and yet other men running, and two
schoolgirls in yellow halters
and a housewife bedecked
with curlers, and whole families in beach
buggies with assorted yelping dogs.
The tide was almost out.
We could walk around you,
as you heaved deeper into the shoal,
crushed by your own weight,
collapsing into yourself,
your flippers and your flukes
quivering, your blowhole
spasmodically bubbling, roaring.
In the pit of your gaping mouth
You bared your fringe work of baleen,
a thicket of horned bristles.
When the Curator of Mammals
arrived from Boston
to take samples of your blood
you were already oozing from below.
Somebody had carved his initials
in your flank. Hunters of souvenirs
had peeled off strips of your skin,
a membrane thin as paper.
You were blistered and cracked by the sun.
The gulls had been picking at you.
The sound you made was a hoarse and fitful bleating.
What drew us to the magnet of your dying?
You made a bond between us,
the keepers of the nightfall watch,
who gathered in a ring around you,
boozing in the bonfire light.
Toward dawn we shared with you
your hour of desolation,
the huge lingering passion
of your unearthly outcry,
as you swung your blind head
toward us and laboriously opened
a bloodshot, glistening eye,
in which we swam with terror and recognition.
Voyager, chief of the pelagic world,
you brought with you the myth
of another country, dimly remembered,
where flying reptiles
lumbered over the steaming marshes
and trumpeting thunder lizards
wallowed in the reeds.
While empires rose and fell on land,
your nation breasted the open main,
rocked in the consoling rhythm
of the tides. Which ancestor first plunged
head-down through zones of colored twilight
to scour the bottom of the dark?
You ranged the North Atlantic track
from Port-of-Spain to Baffin Bay,
edging between the ice-floes
through the fat of summer,
lob-tailing, breaching, sounding,
grazing in the pastures of the sea
on krill-rich orange plankton
crackling with life.
You prowled down the continental shelf,
guided by the sun and stars
and the taste of alluvial silt
on your way southward
to the warm lagoons,
the tropic of desire,
where the lovers lie belly to belly
in the rub and nuzzle of their sporting;
and you turned, like a god in exile,
out of your wide primeval element,
delivered to the mercy of time.
Master of the whale-roads,
let the white wings of the gulls
spread out their cover.
You have become like us,
disgraced and mortal.