Sunday, October 08, 2017

Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick Hidden Treasures found poetry discovered by Stephen Durkee

Steven Durkee

Herman Melville’s
Hidden Treasures
found poetry
discovered by Stephen Durkee
Provincetown Arts Press
Provincetown, MA
ISBN: 0-094-854-65-6
119 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

Up from the bottomless buzz of swirling current and sea-foam, a whale’s fluke breaks the surface of our consciousness and reaches toward some exultant and forbidden heaven, and, dammit, it changes everything. Stephen Durkee, in his posthumous book, Moby-Dick Hidden Treasures, trawls through Melville’s metaphysical masterpiece seeking, finding, and resetting poems of high caliber and higher interest. The separation of these lines from their original prosaic context counterintuitively enriches them with new powers of artistic independence (such as slow-walking both images and lyric) and a capacity for creative, far-flung allusions. Who knew?

As one who has confidently (read smugly) denied the very existence of the “found poetry” genre, never mind its validity, Durkee’s book has been an unsettling enlightenment. Could this be the exception which proves the rule? Not bloody likely.

Early in this collection the poem November in My Soul appears. It details pent up male aggression and its antidote, at least for seamen. Adventure, after all, is a survival mechanism, built into mankind with good reason. Of course the downside must be death for some. Consider Melville’s reset words as spoken by his protagonist, Ishmael,

whenever I find my self involuntary
pausing before coffin warehouses,
and bringing up the rear
of every funeral I meet;

and especially whenever my hypos
get such an upper hand of me,
that it requires a strong moral principle
to prevent me from deliberately
stepping in to the street,
and methodically knocking
people’s hats off---

then, I account it high time
to go to sea as soon as I can.

Durkee’s discoveries, like the selection above, besides their discrete poetic offerings, often do double duty as commentaries on the densely packed novel itself. It was in this same first chapter of Moby Dick that Ishmael lamented his farcical circumstances in comparison to other worldly happenings of high tragedy including a “Bloody Battle in Afghanistan” (not much has changed since). In its totality, the reset poetry deepens this farce with an added, understated irony on the nature of free will.

Remember Philip Larkin’s lines in his poem, This Be the Verse, “Man hands on misery to man./ It deepens like a coastal shelf.” Melville expresses that same pessimism, and in much the same way. I would never have connected the two without reading Moby-Dick Hidden Treasures. Here are Melville’s pointed words, from a poem Durkee titles Able Bodied Seamen,

however they may thump
and punch me about,
I have the satisfaction
of knowing that it is alright;

That everybody else is
one way or other
served in much the same way—
either in a physical or metaphysical point of view, that is;
and so the universal thump
is passed around

No simple description of olfactory erotica suffices in Durkee’s selection entitled They Bloom Like Their Own Roses. After praising New Bedford’s beauteous women, Melville turns the heat up a notch describing the charm of Salem’s females, all the more effective because of the cultural irony embedded in the last line. The poetry speaks directly,

in Salem,
where they tell me the young girls
breathe such musk,
their sailor sweethearts
smell them miles off shore,

as though they were drawing nigh
the odorous Moluccas
instead of the Puritanic sands.

In Beneath the Green Grass, Melville seems to create a limbo for seamen whose remains, lost at sea, never can give comfort to family and friends. To many civilizations funeral rites are essential. Agamemnon’s Greeks could not enter Hades without them. Even that high king could not deprive his traitorous warrior Ajax from receiving them. Grave-less bodies beg too many questions, leaving only uncertainty. Speaking of the families left behind, Durkee concludes the selection this way,

ye know not the desolation
that broods in bosoms like these.
What bitter blanks in those
black-bordered marbles
which cover no ashes!

What despair in those
immovable inscriptions!
What deadly voids and unbidden
infidelities in the lines
that seem to gnaw upon all Faith,
and refuse resurrections
to the beings who have placelessly
perished without a grave.

Melville ditches the anthropomorphic God in favor of a Deity with the likeness of a sperm whale, the whale having but few noticeable features such as noses, ears, or facial expressions. His seagoing god is beyond our mortal comprehension. Size and generality define the divine. Durkee sets the poem entitled You Feel the Deity to convey Melville’s concept,

But in the great Sperm Whale,
this high and mighty god-like
dignity inherent in the brow
is so immensely amplified
that gazing on it, in that full front view,
you feel the Deity and the dread powers
more forcibly then in beholding
any other object in living nature.
Separated from their relentless predator, man, Melville portrays whales with sympathy and awe, even associating their actions with monotheistic Zoroastrianism. The whales, so different from man in visage and habitat, appear quite like their blasphemous adversary in many other ways. In Crimsoned Sky and Sea the poet explains,

I once saw a large herd of whales in the east,
all heading toward the sun,
and for a moment vibrating
in concert with peaked flukes.

As it seemed to me at the time,
such a grand embodiment of adoration
of the gods was never beheld,
even in Persia, the home of the fire worshippers.

As Ptolemy Philopater testified
Of the African elephant, I testified of the whale,
Pronouncing him the most devout of all beings.

Durkee, born and brought up in Salem, Massachusetts and a descendant of a famous sea captain, knew his subject well. More importantly, his muse and Melville’s seem to have got along just grandly. Durkee’s value-added settings themselves consistently inspire with verve and artistic majesty. Additionally, converting “found poetry” doubters like myself is not an easy chore. For that victory I especially congratulate him. Durkee’s manuscript was on the way to the printer when he died.

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