Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Zach Wells' "Heron, False Creek"


There, Heron, you stand
in my shadow, stick pegs
and twigged feet steeped
in the freezing Creek’s

shallows, scissor-beaked
slink neck stapled
to a feathered bundle.
There, Heron, you stand,

avatar of angler’s
waiting, waiting, calm
as monks praying, steeped
in the shitty Creek’s

tide-drained stink—
then tensile—blink—
like a Singer’s
stainless needle,

that scissor beak
stabs the reeking
Creek, springs back
with silver, flipping,

flashing in the seawall
lamp standard’s
glare. With a slurp
and a shake, like

a puffy glutton
at Monk’s Oyster Bar
(stilted in False Creek’s
salted shallows)

sucking a shucked mollusk
from its crusted
shell, you swallow,
Heron, stand there

in my shadow, stare
up at the seawall,
skronk, and awkwardly
flop up into the air.


On a first read, I was put off by the direct address of speaker to heron; it seemed stilted, to use a key word from Wells' poem. But as the poem unfolds, and stabs its musical epiphany through stark circumstance, the relationship of speaker to environment is bridged by the procedure of the heron.

What of that speaker? I'm always curious when a poem -- and "Heron, False Creek" fits, to this point, perfectly -- uses the speaker sparingly, but suggestively. The first person singular comes up just twice (many poems are either saturated with "I", "me", "my", or avoid those pronouns entirely, by purposeful diffusion or programmed and hostile anti-Romanticism), in the first stanza's "my shadow", and in the illuminated and rounded identical phrase in the final quatrain. The speaker is implicated in the first "shadow", but, after the intervening text, is actually identified -- both in acceptance and (perhaps) horror -- with the actions of the predator.

The creek is "false" not only in name, but in vigour, marine and spiritual. The cross is that it spears, ala the heron, a busy residential inlet. The creek is "shitty" not just in a high-fecal coliform count, but in aesthetic and "shallow[s]" transmission. So the speaker realizes a flight (nicely and accurately drawn as "awkward") after a hard patience, a "waiting, waiting". "Monks praying" is an effective simile, here, though not in an easy, stereotypical sense. Monks are just as confused as the rest of us; it's only their persistence and ardour for truth that may set them apart from those who blithely go on their way, both happy but (troublingly) untransformed. We have a reverse rounding (from "my shadow") with the praying monks and the later (only teasingly sketched) denizens of the upscale "Monk's Oyster Bar". The parallels should be obvious: the heron's job is one in which its life depends for a successful completion; the "puffy glutton[s]" have performed their sleepwalking gulp hundreds of times with compromised pleasure, a pleasure of diminishing returns. The first aggression is from necessity (primal, in the heron's case; spiritual and artistic, in the speaker's evolution); the restaurant patrons' aggression is from clouded repetition. Only the speaker and the heron can take flight, though they still have to return to the mundane and polluted creek.

A few words on the rhythm and sound of this poem. Wells' aural and phrasal compression is memorable and mimetic of the action, here. Though the anecdote takes place outside, the tenor of the action is microscopic (with -- contrasting --brief suggestive similes and the Monk metaphor) in nature, even claustrophobic. The tight call-and-echo lines are effective, the assonantal repetitions mesmeric in the way both speaker and heron proceed (the first on the latter; the latter on the speared fish).

In other poems, this particular Wells' strength can be his limitation. It's impressive to stickhandle successfully in a phone booth, but line freedom, in a creative narrative nonlinearity, and in contrasting mood and tone and syntactic surprise/variance, could vault him above the highly accomplished, yet procedurally similar, poems of his greatest standard. And he has the intelligence and wit to bring it off at some point. One roadblock for a lot of poets, perhaps, is the (rightful) shrinking from Ginsberg's overblown mantra of "first thought, best thought". That bumper sticker -- which results from, and is influential to, Zen dabblers who misunderstand spiritual truths -- has resulted in more sloppy, self-indulgent verses than I'd care to count. But, like any influential creed, it holds a kernel of truth: all thoughts are first thoughts, including the reworked and laboured-over ones.

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