Featured Poem "Mermaid and Drowing Sailor" from:
Bird's Horn & Other Poems
By Kevin Rabas
Coal City Review Press
Mermaid and Drowning Sailor
Tonight, under the full moon, she has gone
underwater, her red hair thick and flowing
just above some underwater jet stream, billowing
up, her fingers touch, naked, she looks into the drowned
sailor's eyes, waiting. Will he awaken? Behind her,
the glass, placid face of the water.
Above, shining through, the cosmos,
and some galaxy she feels tonight, forming, nascent,
behind her, lit also by the lights of his boat, overturned,
spectral highlights warming her kelp hair. She descends,
tracking the drowning man, watching, praying.
Clown fish gather, sea horses,
anemone move their porcupine quills.
No luck. More bubbles escape
the side of the sailor's mouth, a pearl necklace
of air, escaping; one half of the lung going.
This does not faze her, his body softening,
the body giving now to the underwater jet stream,
gaining speed, drifting quick. She follows quickening,
tracking, her eyes darkening, sensing he may awaken;
he may awaken, before his corpse settles at the edge of the abyss.
There is a sense of strangeness and wonder in this poem: the telescoping view of the ocean, sky, cosmos, all acting as concerned but unhelpful witnesses; the artful details of the sailor's death; the uncrossable abyss, the otherness, that divides the inhabitants of the ocean and the drowning man. I'm intrigued by this mermaid, another of those mythical sirens who draws men down to where they cannot survive, with her (almost) innocent, prayerful curiosity, her desire to see him awaken in her realm, her universe.
I can't comprehend all this poem offers on the first read; there's more to see, there's more to think about than the gloss of "mermaid watches man drown." The poem holds a myriad of possibilities, explanations, avenues of approach. Perhaps the easiest way to understand the poem is as a tale of lovers who cannot bridge their differences despite their best attempts. She is beautiful, he is swept away, he cannot thrive in her natural environment, though he's tried. His boat attests to his attempt.
But it's that idea of otherness, that prayer, that repeated "he may awaken;/he may awaken" as invocation, those hints that there is even more to grasp in this poem that makes me want to read the poem again. I feel the pressure of that sky, that galaxy over her shoulder, the man on the cusp between the vastness of the cosmos and the abyss of the sea. What is a human body? We are minutia, comparably.
We soften, we change, we age, we die. What more could the mermaid do? She knows no other way than this way of the sea, gill and fin. She cannot understand why the sailor (so alike her, yet so different) will not awaken. Aren't we as humans as strange to one another as the clown fish and anemone, and often as prickly? And when it comes down to another person's death(no matter how much they are cherished or loved) or even just in moments of crisis in another's life--what more could any of us think to do, besides watch and pray and hope and follow? And so often, we fail to comprehend what the small thing is that we could do to make things right. We miss the signs that would show us and allow us to reach out in help, one to another.
Q & A with Poet Kevin Rabas
Q: This poem is one of a few poems about the sea in your book. I'm reminded of the old joke about the sailor who takes his anchor and walks, finally settling where someone asks him "what is it that you're carrying?" How does a poet from Kansas end up writing poems about the sea?
Kevin: As you know, Kansas was once underwater. Almost everything we see in terms of the land is made out of oceanic sediment, and so perhaps the sea is still with us here, although the water has left. We can’t help thinking about it. My parents are from around Lake Wilson, and during their childhoods they could walk out into a field and find shark teeth. It reminded them of what the land they were standing on once was.
For this particular poem, I found inspiration in the foreign film Sex & Lucia. If I remember correctly the film opens with a male novelist naked and underwater in the ocean. It is night, and he is committing suicide. They surface together and make love. So, my poem, unintentionally, is a version of that opening. On the special features of the film, there is a still photo slide show, and from one of those slides I found the image I was looking for in the poem. There is the woman who “saves” the novelist, her hair spread out around her, underwater, and the lights behind and above her looks like stars and a glimpse at the universe. I thought she looked a bit like I imagine a mermaid might, and drawing upon the classic tales of sailors and mermaids, I started my poem. Also, of course, as a young person I was very taken with the Daryl Hannah/Tom Hanks movie Splash, about a mermaid who follows a man onto the land. So, I guess all of these things came together, much of it subconsciously, in the poem
Q: I know that many of your poems are jazz inspired, and maybe I'm just not enough of a jazz aficionado to see it, but is this poem linked to a particular jazz song?
Kevin: You know “All Blues” comes to mind as a jazz standard (“The sea; the sky; you and I”); however, I don’t know if I was thinking of it. I do try to get at jazz phrasing, when I can. I often write runs that are long and spur-of-the moment, as a bop player might, but there is a difference. I can go back and change them. I can revise.
Q: "Mermaid and Drowning Sailor" is in a section of your book that is titled "A Thousand Ways of Holding." I'm reminded of Derrida's idea of the supplement, that in a way we create objects (especially writing) to help us substitute for something that has gone missing in our lives, even though the created object also acts as a (sometimes unhealthy) reminder of that missing piece and prevents us from moving forward. How do you see the "Mermaid" poem and "Ways of Holding" interacting with each other?
Kevin: I was focused a lot on breath in this poem, thinking what would it be like to lose your breath gradually as you sunk? I swam competitively in high school and was a lifeguard for three summers, and so I remember that feeling, of losing your air and sinking, during extreme exercises and while wrestling underwater. Also, I was diligently practicing yoga in Lawrence when I wrote this poem, and part of my practice was to do exercises where I controlled and watched my breath. My yoga teacher was a good friend, and when I learned I would soon leave Lawrence, I knew I would miss her and the practice of yoga. So, breathing intentionally became attached to thoughts of separation and loss. I did focus on the ways of the breath, and yoga, when I wrote this poem. The bit about the lungs in the poem came right from what I was learning from that practice of intentional breathing.
Of course, the loss of anyone is a bit like a drowning. They sink into memory, and all I often remember are memories that are locked as images and words, as scenes—as sequences that mimic the episodes we see when we think we might lose everything, those snap shots or videos of our last moments that the brain triggers with its intense chemicals.
Three Poems More Poems to Note:
Kevin Rabas co-directs the creative writing program at Emporia State University and is co-editor of Flint Hills Review. He has two books of poetry, Bird’s Horn and Other Poems (Coal City Review Press) and Lisa’s Flying Electric Piano (Woodley Press). He is the winner of the Langston Hughes Award for Poetry.
Purchase Information: Amazon.com and elsewhere on the web.