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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Number 251; Ruth L. Schwartz "Important Thing"

Important Thing

I've always loved the way pelicans dive,
as if each silver fish they see
were the goddamned most important
thing they've ever wanted on this earth --
and just tonight I learned sometimes
they go blind doing it,
that straight-down dive like someone jumping
from a rooftop, only happier,
plummeting like Icarus, but more triumphant --
there is the undulating fish,
the gleaming sea,
there is the chance to taste again
the kind of joy which can be eaten whole,
and this is how they know to reach it,
head-first, high-speed, risking everything,

and some of the time they come back up
as if it were nothing, they bob on the water,
silver fish like stogies angled
rakishly in their wide beaks,
-- then the enormous
stretching of the throat,
then the slow unfolding
of the great wings,
as if it were nothing, sometimes they do this
a hundred times or more a day,
as long as they can see, they rise
back into the sky
to begin again --

and when they can't?

We know, of course, what happens,
they starve to death, not a metaphor, not a poem in it;
this goes on every day of our lives,

and the man whose melting wings

spatter like a hundred dripping candles

over everything,

and the suicide who glimpses, in the final

seconds of her fall,

all the other lives she might have lived.

The ending doesn't have to be happy.

The hunger itself is the thing.

-- Ruth L. Schwartz

Hap Notes: While the pelican does not go blind from just diving, they can go blind from polluted water and avian botulism (caused by eating diseased fish in water that lacks oxygen due to pollution etc.) The botulism also causes paralysis so severe that the bird cannot hold its head up and he will drown. These facts do not particularly impact the poem as the pelicans are still blinded by their need, their fervor, their hunger. (And as this poem is from Schwartz's book, Edgewater, it deals with the water of Lake Erie in Cleveland at Edgewater Park, which, at one time, had a pollution problem.)

I love the image of the fish in the mouth of a pelican looking like a cigar. It's funny and rings true, too, doesn't it? But what Schwartz is actually dealing with in this poem is the will to life, to live, to feel, to hunger, to want and how that will keeps us going, no matter what.

We have talked about Icarus before (and his wings made of wax and feathers and how he flew too close to the sun) with the Auden poem here:

There is some jumping going on in this poem with both the pelicans and the suicide attempt. One jump seems alert and joyful, the other a bit rueful. But the motives for both jumps are that hunger, that desire. The pelicans need the food to live, the suicidal woman hungers for something that she needs to live, too, doesn't she? And how many of us consider the alternate paths we could have taken to sate our hungers?

According to the poet, what is the "Important Thing" in this poem? What is it for you?

Here is where we have talked about Schwartz before:

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