Friday evening I was reading and enjoying the gorgeous view of Boston Harbor at the Piers Park in East Boston. Some event was going on at the end of the next pier: there was a party tent hung with lights and people inside were clapping. Mostly this pier seems to be used by pleasure boats and small yachts, but there are also water taxis and big ferries I can only guess are refueling. Friday night a Nantucket lightship (there were many) was moored at the end next to the tent. The lightships have been replaced now by buoys; I thought maybe this was a group involved with the boat’s preservation, or perhaps they just rented it for fun. The party seemed to culminate when they turned on the lights and blasted the foghorn. It was extremely loud, of course. The whole park turned as one. The low, resonant note descended at the end to a rumbling, blatting, obscene pedal tone that was funny but also disconcerting. There was an answering chorus from boats all around the harbor, but nothing came close.
Then I remembered W. S. Merwin’s poem, “The Foghorn”, from The Drunk in the Furnace. The poem asks, “Who wounded that beast/ Incurably, or from whose pasture/ Was it lost, full grown, and time closed round it/ With no way back? … What does it bespeak in us, repeating/ And repeating, insisting on something/ That we never meant?” The voice of the foghorn is our creation, yet somehow it is alive. It has escaped us and become something we cannot see and would rather not hear, but the alternative is drowning, “always nearer than we had remembered”. The poem may be about facing death, but it suggests that there is something culpable as well in our attempts to deal with it. In light (light?) of Jude, verse 13, “They are raging waves of the sea, foaming out their own shame”, the sea is the abode of the damned.
It’s one of a number of sea poems that Merwin wrote early on, poems with titles like “The Eyes of the Drowned Watch Keels Going Over”, “The “Portland” Going Out” and “The Sea Monster”. The Portland was a steamer that went down in a blizzard off of Massachusetts in 1898. No one even knows how many people were on board; there were probably more than one hundred, and none survived. The poem takes the point of view of the last people to see the doomed ship, the crew of a little fishing boat heading home safely with no warning of the storm to come. These poems are sometimes so gothic that I think critics have a hard time deciding how seriously to take them. Nicholson Baker, who I think of whenever I write something like “blatting, obscene pedal tone”, seems to think that Merwin wrote all of his good stuff later in life, after he gave up punctuation and capital letters. Or maybe only his strange alter ego, Paul Chowder, thinks that.
Photos are, top, by Elmschrat Coaching38, CC attribution/share alike via wikimedia commons, middle, author’s photo, bottom, public domain via wikimedia commons and Nantucket Historical Association.