Empty Wonder Born On A Beach

I hope you’ll indulge me.  Below are three “versions” of Chapter 14 of Moby Dick.  The first is “after” Ronald Johnson’s, Paradise Lost (radi os), and so I try to excise the text to “leave” a poem behind.  The next section offers the poem in a conventional form, and the last section is the full chapter with highlighted excision so you can “see” what I cut out.  Thanks for the leeway.

 

Nantucket!

Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning; so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket.

Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it – a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don’t grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.

Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this island was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction. Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket, – the poor little Indian’s skeleton.

What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught crabs and quohogs in the sand; grown bolder, they waded out with nets for mackerel; more experienced, they pushed off in boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant belt of circumnavigations round it; peeped in at Behring’s Straits; and in all seasons and all oceans declared everlasting war with the mightiest animated mass that has survived the flood; most monstrous and most mountainous! That Himmalehan, salt-sea Mastodon, clothed with such portentousness of unconscious power, that his very panics are more to be dreaded than his most fearless and malicious assaults!

And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders; parcelling out among them the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as the three pirate powers did Poland. Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it. Merchant ships are but extension bridges; armed ones but floating forts; even pirates and privateers, though following the sea as highwaymen the road, they but plunder other ships, other fragments of the land like themselves, without seeking to draw their living from the bottomless deep itself. The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business, which a noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.

 *********

Nantucket!

Nothing after Nantucket.
Map it. A real world occupies it.
Off shore, more to
Look at without background.

Plant weeds there, import thistles
like bits of the true cross;
plant toadstools for shade
in time make an oasis,
inclose and utterly will Illinois.

Now wondrous island red-men:
an eagle swooped upon new land and
in his talons loud lament
borne out over wide waters;
empty wonder born on a beach, grown bolder,
they capture a last great watery world.

In all seasons declare:
everlasting war
and survive the flood;
portentous unconscious power panics
and thus naked the ants overrun the world.

Parcel out oceans:
America Mexico Texas Cuba Canada
overswarm India and own it as empire,
others but a right of way;
chant ships bridges forts and highways,
fragments of selves
withdrawing from bottomless deeps.

Reside and riot in language:
to flood erupt overwhelm
the sea the prairie the waves the alps.
Know the land more strange:

Sunset, fold to sleep below
(out of sight)
and lay him to rest
pillowed
of walruses and whales.

*********

Source Text.

Nantucket!

Nothing more happened on the passage worthy the mentioning; so, after a fine run, we safely arrived in Nantucket.

Nantucket! Take out your map and look at it. See what a real corner of the world it occupies; how it stands there, away off shore, more lonely than the Eddystone lighthouse. Look at it – a mere hillock, and elbow of sand; all beach, without a background. There is more sand there than you would use in twenty years as a substitute for blotting paper. Some gamesome wights will tell you that they have to plant weeds there, they don’t grow naturally; that they import Canada thistles; that they have to send beyond seas for a spile to stop a leak in an oil cask; that pieces of wood in Nantucket are carried about like bits of the true cross in Rome; that people there plant toadstools before their houses, to get under the shade in summer time; that one blade of grass makes an oasis, three blades in a day’s walk a prairie; that they wear quicksand shoes, something like Laplander snowshoes; that they are so shut up, belted about, every way inclosed, surrounded, and made an utter island of by the ocean, that to their very chairs and tables small clams will sometimes be found adhering, as to the backs of sea turtles. But these extravaganzas only show that Nantucket is no Illinois.

Look now at the wondrous traditional story of how this island was settled by the red-men. Thus goes the legend. In olden times an eagle swooped down upon the New England coast, and carried off an infant Indian in his talons. With loud lament the parents saw their child borne out of sight over the wide waters. They resolved to follow in the same direction. Setting out in their canoes, after a perilous passage they discovered the island, and there they found an empty ivory casket, – the poor little Indian’s skeleton.

What wonder, then, that these Nantucketers, born on a beach, should take to the sea for a livelihood! They first caught crabs and quohogs in the sand; grown bolder, they waded out with nets for mackerel; more experienced, they pushed off in boats and captured cod; and at last, launching a navy of great ships on the sea, explored this watery world; put an incessant belt of circumnavigations round it; peeped in at Behring’s Straits; and in all seasons and all oceans declared everlasting war with the mightiest animated mass that has survived the flood; most monstrous and most mountainous! That Himmalehan, salt-sea Mastodon, clothed with such portentousness of unconscious power, that his very panics are more to be dreaded than his most fearless and malicious assaults!

And thus have these naked Nantucketers, these sea hermits, issuing from their ant-hill in the sea, overrun and conquered the watery world like so many Alexanders; parcelling out among them the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, as the three pirate powers did Poland. Let America add Mexico to Texas, and pile Cuba upon Canada; let the English overswarm all India, and hang out their blazing banner from the sun; two thirds of this terraqueous globe are the Nantucketer’s. For the sea is his; he owns it, as Emperors own empires; other seamen having but a right of way through it. Merchant ships are but extension bridges; armed ones but floating forts; even pirates and privateers, though following the sea as highwaymen the road, they but plunder other ships, other fragments of the land like themselves, without seeking to draw their living from the bottomless deep itself. The Nantucketer, he alone resides and riots on the sea; he alone, in Bible language, goes down to it in ships; to and fro ploughing it as his own special plantation. There is his home; there lies his business, which a noah’s flood would not interrupt, though it overwhelmed all the millions in China. He lives on the sea, as prairie cocks in the prairie; he hides among the waves, he climbs them as chamois hunters climb the Alps. For years he knows not the land; so that when he comes to it at last, it smells like another world, more strangely than the moon would to an Earthsman. With the landless gull, that at sunset folds her wings and is rocked to sleep between billows; so at nightfall, the Nantucketer, out of sight of land, furls his sails, and lays him to his rest, while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales.

 

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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: The Money Virtue As American Rational Religion

  2. J. Fulford October 1, 2012 at 1:02 am

    This is a good poem. At first, when I read through it a few days ago, I didn’t believe you had done it. In my haste to click thru, I missed that detail. I wondered what inventive mind could come up with such an exercise, but having read it more closely now, i see you used a technique found elsewhere but with striking results. I especially like:

    In all seasons declare:
    everlasting war
    and survive the flood;
    portentous unconscious power panics
    and thus naked the ants overrun the world.

    The one word I would change would be the inclusion of Illinois, which doesn’t flow well. But, who am I to judge? A Melville critic in the shadows has no room to argue when a novelists words can be used to make a great poem, a weakness of mine. However, I can be critical at the bottom of your post from Sept. 28, “Clubbed Voices for the Doubtful.”

    Reply
    1. Storm October 1, 2012 at 5:59 am

      The exemplar for this, johnson’s poem out of Paradise Lost, is far more extreme and, as far as I can tell, not interested in making a poem that conveys anything out of that original text that might be understood as interpretive of it.

      My intention here was to characterize the way I think about the text but in the form of a condensation into poetry. The chapter on its own is a marvel to me and this poem took one pass to release words into this form. I won’t deny that I played around a bit here and there but the bulk came out just as it sits now.

      And, I like nearly every part of it equally as I think it does what I wanted it to do AND it sounds good!

      As for “Illinois”–an autobiographical intrusion perhaps. But here too my intention was to keep to the theme of those “naked ants” overrunning everything and in effect “willing” a new world that it steals from the old (and steals its names too). Industrial oil production via whale slaughter seems to me something akin to how the white man erased the buffalo (and Melville has a chapter on that too) and I wanted to “import” this into the prairie.

      Also, I like to think that there is the hidden fact that this is an “Ill will” or nearly “Ill in oil”…but that’s just my “will to gloss!”

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Reply

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