Two Whelks

April 24, 2017

Contributor’s Marginalia: Adam Giannelli on “Whelk” by Lisa Russ Spaar

Lisa Russ Spaar’s “Whelk” wavers between presence and absence, and this tension begins in the title, which refers both to the sea snail and its empty, turbinate shell. The poem begins in ode-like fashion, meditating upon and endowing with metaphor the bereft shell, a “windowsill cornucopia” and “petrified morning glory.” The poem’s outward gaze, concision, reliance on metaphor, and surprising turn remind me of Rilke’s New Poems. “Archaic Torso of Apollo,” the most well-known, begins with an absence, the statue’s lost head, and Spaar’s speaker is also captivated by what’s missing. A “fallow volution,” her shell is hollow, deserted as an “alleyway,” an “ocean relic” that can only point to the organism it once protected. Sonically, even the open vowels of “fallow volution” mirror the scene, creating a hollowness in one’s mouth.

The most famous line of Rilke’s poem is the last one: “You must change your life.” In this moment, subject and object blur, and the statue looks back at the gazing speaker. A similar turn occurs in the fourth stanza of “Whelk”:

The spiraling room our bodies make, numinous,
when we—what will become of that? When one of us—?

The thought of the shell and sea snail force the speaker back upon herself, but what distinguishes the poem from Rilke’s is that the duality of the object reveals a duality in the subject. The speaker is not solitary, but a member of an entwined couple, and it is the couple’s fate and their eventual parting that is made manifest in the shell, as the poem shifts from a public ode to a private love lyric. In terms of syntax, this stanza varies significantly from Rilke’s short, bold ending. Confronting her own mortality, Spaar’s speaker falls into hesitation, broken syntax, and a flight of questions.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker quickly recovers with a clear declarative: “I bring this bony shell-piece to my lips.” I love the coinage “shell-piece.” The shell is a piece, since it is akin to a work of art, but the compound makes it sound like an item of clothing (as in headpiece), a removed ornament, a part severed from its whole. The gesture of the bringing the shell to the speaker’s lips stands out, not only as an expression of devotion, but as the only instance of narrative in the poem. After a moment of hesitation, the speaker takes action. Instead of declaring the need for change, as Rilke does, Spaar’s speaker makes a change. The motion of bringing the shell to the lips feels like a kiss, a carpe-diem embrace of the moments that remain.

The poem, however, still has one last surprise in store—the final image of the mirror. In a poem obsessed with spirals, why end with a flat mirror?

facing down every lonesome mirror
in which we’ll never see ourselves again.

The mirror is not altogether separate from the previous imagery. It implies a domestic space, anticipated by the windowsill, “rented house,” “spiraling room,” and the intimacy of the lovers earlier in the poem, and serves as a reminder that even a stable house and its relationships are shot through with holes. I also think the mirror can be interpreted as one last metaphor for the whelk itself. A mirror, like a shell, fuses absence and presence. Although it contains an image when one stands before it, this image quickly disappears when one walks away, so that whenever one looks into a mirror one is always already gone. Even sonically, the vowels in “lonesome mirror” perform similar work to the hollow sound of “fallow volution.” Finally, the whelk is a mirror in the way Rilke’s torso is a mirror. The speaker has seen herself reflected back in the shell. The genius of the poem is that through its journey the shell becomes a mirror. We see what will become of us in its empty alleyways—and stand more fiercely.

Adam Giannelli is the author of Tremulous Hinge (University of Iowa Press, 2017), winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, and the translator of a selection of prose poems by Marosa di Giorgio, Diadem (BOA Editions, 2012). His poems have appeared in the Kenyon Review, New England Review, Ploughshares, Yale Review, FIELD, and elsewhere.

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