Elegy for a Dead Seal with Surfers
Wounded, he must have crawled out of the surf
to lie between two boulders, blond and smooth
and his lost brothers. Below the bite,
a stain has soaked his flank’s embroidered gold.
I can’t help noticing the seabird-emptied sockets,
the frayed, black eyelids tasseled like anemones,
and his face built for underwater speed
and for that child-like play among his kind, which serves
two purposes: grace, and hunting practice.
After his war with sharks or killer whales had ended
in his suffering, he turned back to face the sea,
that other, older brother he left reluctantly.
Trudging back up the footpath, lost in dazzle,
I pass men and women clad all in neoprene
with boogie-boards tucked beneath their arms
like candy-coated tribal shields. They descend
the last few steps from that airy world above
and emerge into this brilliant afternoon
they’ve set aside for battle.
by Eric Bliman
I found this poem in the TLS quite a while back and clipped it out and kept returning to it and rereading it. At first, I was astonished by the visual effects: I, too, have seen dead seals on the beach and paused, feeling sad, feeling the admonition of nature, and feeling lacrymose. Yes, I wept for those unnamed, unknown dead seals. They provided a sort of Wordsworthian natural object which brings us to feel our own still sad music of humanity.
Bliman’s poem very adroitly and beautifully clarifies my response. I love his use of sound, alliteration, and images. Of course the smooth boulders are the dead seal’s brothers–but I could not think of that for myself. Later on we learn that the the sea is that “other, older brother”.
I love the artistic images–the embroidered gold of the dead seal’s shank, the tasseled eyelids. When Bliman turns to the surfers, we see what I would call “man-made” langauge–neoprene and boogie-boards and candy-coated. These humans add to all of the natural imagery earlier in the poem with their presence and their battle. For me, the elderly woman and curmudgeon, the human battles with the surf are meretricious compared with the seal’s battle and the seal’s brotherhood with nature. I like the speaker’s phrase “lost in dazzle” about his encounter with the dead seal. The “dazzle” of mortality and nature is to me much stonger than the candy-colored surfers.
Finally, I think that this poem is quite original at the same time that it has earned its right to greatness by participating in the great line of poems that I love. It gives me a new way of looking at things–art should do that, I believe. Browning’s wonderfully energetic Fra Lippo Lippi says that:
…..we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
And so they are better, painted — better to us,
Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.”
While I would leave God out of the equation, Bliman’s seal crystallizes and clarifies my own murky tears on seeing a dead seal. Bliman’s seal makes me think of the brilliant animal poems by Keats, Shelley, Hopkins, Hardy, Yeats and of course Wordsworth’s “rocks, and stones, and trees”.
While the “bird” might be the standard bearer of the “memento mori” poem, the seal from the sea with its brothers, the boulders, is a stunning addition to the group of poetic images which console me.
I want to thank Eric Bliman for permitting me to reprint his poem–for “lending his mind out” to us.