Three Icelandic students recently developed an app that warns users if they are related to an attractive stranger they meet in a bar. The UK poetry scene isn’t that incestuous, but it’s a small world, and occasionally I’ll be writing about work by people I know in person. When that’s the case, as it is today, I think it’s fair to let you know. Today’s poem is by Rachel Piercey, who I’ve met a couple of times, and is published by the wonderful Emma Press, of which more later. In ‘Sea bed’ Piercey takes us down to somewhere words can’t go, and returns with something salvaged from the deep.
by Rachel Piercey
Every sound is pressed out,
every ghost of light.
My miles of skin
feel each force pack it tight.
Only the cusk eel
and the goblin shark
scuff impassively against me,
I remember one
whose arm smashed me
whose fluke raked through me
who split my heart and held it.
In its quiet, poised way, this poem achieves something remarkable: it speaks from, and of, a world where it can’t be heard. There’s a thrill as a reader in receiving dispatches from a place to which you can never physically travel, whether or not it exists, but even if we could get to the bottom of the Earth’s oceans, have you ever tried to speak underwater? ‘Every sound is pressed out’ – even the ‘ragged claws’ Prufrock dreams of becoming scuttle across the ‘floors of silent seas’. Which means that every underwater poem (and there’s a few around) is a victory of sorts: of descriptive language over an element which stifles all human speech.
‘Sound’, ‘pressed’, ‘out’, ‘ghost’, ‘light’ – Piercey’s first two lines pile on that deep-sea pressure with their end-stopped consonants, all in words on which the stresses weigh heavily. Oceanographer Gene Feldman writes that the force exerted by the water above you at the deepest point would be equivalent to ‘one person trying to support fifty jumbo jets’. I don’t think this speaker is going anywhere, and the length of the lines doesn’t leave much room for manoeuvre. Having systematically wiped out two senses by the end of the first stanza, ‘Sea-bed”s narrator becomes a creature of nothing but touch and, later, of a memory which is almost physical.
In this ‘half-suspended’ space, thoughts float between stanzas; the speaker’s ‘miles of skin’ (Is she human? Is this just amplification, or ventriloquism?) expand into the second block of verse, before a full rhyme – ‘tight’ – holds them in place. Below the alliteration of ‘feel’ and ‘force’, there’s a deeper sound-patterning – ‘s’, ‘c’ and ‘k’ slide and scrape all the way through the poem, coming to the fore here as a ‘cusk eel […] scuff[s]’ against the speaker. If you’re going to look up the goblin shark, I suggest you don’t do so too late at night. But maybe the poem takes heart from the survival of life in extreme conditions – 95% of the oceans remain unmapped, but at least there’s something down there, ‘impassively’ getting on with its days.
Either way, this fleeting submarine contact recalls another, this one so strong that it breaks the suspension of full-stops and commas, diving through the white space to the end of the poem in one unpunctuated breath. Going from ‘whose’ to ‘who’ takes us from the attributes of smashing arm and raking fluke (an anchor’s point; a harpoon’s hook; and still a stroke of luck, somehow?) directly to the person to whom both belong. It reads at first like a whaler’s attack, and it might be, but the speaker’s heart was held after it was split; or perhaps simultaneously. Tenderness, barbarism, or both? And if ‘held’ is in the past tense, what’s happened since? The sea bed, like any other kind, won’t give up all its secrets.
‘Sea bed’ appears in The Flower and the Plough, which you can buy here – the collection features beautiful, charming black-line illustrations by maverick publisher and polymath Emma Wright. Emma’s still accepting submissions for The Emma Press Anthology of Mildly Erotic Verse, none of which is so far sea-themed, so if you have something aquatic or otherwise matching the brief, dive in. My favourite underwater poem is Paul Farley’s ‘The Sea in the Seventeenth Century’, but I’d like to hear what yours are; and I don’t know how far back the topic dates, so the earlier the better.