“Conch” is a poem that unfurls before the reader with some kind of manic energy, a kind of inevitable progress in its flow. There’s a hard-and-soft dynamic at play. The shell is counterbalanced by flesh, and somewhere underneath lurks the sense of permanence versus decay.
My first reaction to the fourth-last verse was that it spoiled the poem. As I read over it again, I realised I was wrong – the poem needed this sudden jerk away from its juggernaut flow with a verse that was very different in tone. This tone turned out to be wistful and rhetorical, but fundamentally thoughtful.
The poet taps into some very, very human traits here, such as guilt, pride and curiosity. That last one is often associated with childhood. The image of the conch as a giant tooth plucked from the beach could, of course, be connected with teething, a physical rite of passage for children. Similarly, the way that the speaker/poet deals with the conch is his own small, private rite of passage.
Between the rolling sheets of low-tide foam
I find it – this prize I’ve tried for
No crab claw, as first I thought, but a bone-
white tube, like paper curled,
and when I pull
it’s as though the sand pulls back. I pluck it,
a giant tooth from the mouth
of the beach,
tip it like an urn and a drab grout weeps
from the orange spout.
Now it’s a trumpet
clogged with a flat black foot, rough as fine-grit,
and gray meat which when I touch it
puckers, vaguely erotic.
I know she’ll love it, will smile when I take it
from behind my back, this living
I know I will have to kill it, too. Already
I’m imagining the clickclickclick,
the blue tongues,
the pot and the water and the silent scream
that is part of the taking
requisite to giving.
Don’t we each wrench the wild out of the other,
if only to hold up to the light
our own base origins?
When I pry out the animal it will drop in the sink
with a sloppy thud, and we’ll have
the empty shell,
the potential music. Later, we’ll soak it in a bucket
of bleach, scrub it clean for the bookcase
or the mantelpiece.
Tomorrow I’ll wade in the surf searching
for another. To make a pair.
One for each of us.
(Taken from Salmon Poetry's anthology Salmon: A Journey in Poetry)
My third collection of poems, A Glossary of Chickens, was chosen by Paul Muldoon for the Princeton Series of Contemporary Poets and published by Princeton University Press in 2013. My previous books include Measuring Cubits while the Thunder Claps (David Robert Books, 2008) and The Velocity of Dust (Salmon, 2004). I have also authored three chapbooks of poetry, two of which were winners of American competitions. Other awards for my writing include a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, the Pearl Hogrefe Fellowship in Creative Writing at Iowa State University, the Heinrich Böll Cottage Residency, and the PEN Northwest Margery Davis Boyden Wilderness Writing Residency. I have also been awarded the Princeton University Distinguished Secondary School Teaching Award. My poems have appeared widely in journals, magazines, and newspapers, most notably in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The New Criterion. I live in the Hudson Valley of New York and teach English and creative writing at Tenafly High School in New Jersey.
If there’s one subject or backdrop that appears most in poetry, I’d say it’s the sea. Why do you think poets, and yourself in particular, find so much richness in its much-explored depths?
We humans evolved from critters that crawled out of the primordial soup, so there’s something ancient in our connection to the sea. Humanity has built its civilizations along the sea for all it has to offer – its food, its salt, its facility for commerce. My own love of the ocean goes back to my childhood, spending summer days at Falmouth on Cape Cod, or at Newport or Narragansett in Rhode Island. We were never very far from the shore, and I have spent many days gazing out at the Atlantic, eating its bounty, enjoying its surf. Yet, even in the company of family or friends at the beach, there is the vast loneliness of the sea to remind me of my insignificance, the transitory nature of my life in contrast to the ocean’s permanence.
Humans have a knack for modifying the world, finding a new purpose for things. Often this involves making something natural become something that we might call “artificial”. Is there anything of this nature-versus-artificiality relationship in writing poetry, do you think?
Emerson talked about art as a mixture of man’s will with essences of nature. The emptied conch serves as one small example. With our will, we make the shell a horn, a decorative ornament, something to press our ear to in order to hear the sea. Poetry isn’t much different. The poet applies his will to language – to symbol and sound and sense – and makes something artful. A poem, too, is a decorative ornament, something one can hold to his/her ear and listen for ancient rhythms.
The conch was famously used in The Lord of the Flies as a symbol of power. Was this a consideration, or at least at the back of your mind, when you wrote about the conch here?
I’m sure The Lord of the Flies was swimming under the surface when “Conch” came into existence, though I don’t recall consciously being aware of it. The story of the poem is true. I was vacationing at the Jersey shore, in Stone Harbor, and in the low-tide ebb, I found several conches poking up out of the sandy bottom. I harvested two and took them back to the house we were renting and boiled them. For me, they were less about power than about resourcefulness and pride. I thought of them as prizes, and I gave one as a gift to my wife, the other as a gift to my sister-in-law, though in the poem I simplify that part of the story. There was power involved in preparing the shells, though, since I had to kill the living animals inside, and I felt a twinge of guilt.
The fourth-last verse (“Don’t we each wrench…”) seems to stick out, in a way (especially tone-wise), and yet it seems to me the crux of the poem. Can you tell us a little bit about why you included it, and whether you had any doubts about keeping it in?
That turn grew out of the sexual language in the poem and out of a need I felt to make the poem more than just a description of an actual experience. The regret I felt in preparing the conches seemed to me not unlike the regret that we sometimes feel in committing to a relationship and giving up our freedoms, which we want to hold onto fiercely in the way the conch clings to its own protective shell. I was just newly married when this experience occurred.
Why do you write?
I write, in part, to make sense of my life or to find meaning in it. If I didn’t apply my will to language in this way, I think my life would be dreary and mundane. I suppose I also write for a sense of validation. The youngest of four children, I often felt the need to be heard, to prove myself, to win the attention of my busy parents. Even now, at fifty years old, I feel a childish need to have my work stuck to my parent’s fridge with a magnet.
If you had one piece of advice for a writer, what would it be?
Let your writing come into existence with a thankful hand.