Somebody once asked me if I had ever been really lost. I had to stop and think. Often when I claimed to be lost, I knew I had just missed a turn or was going in the wrong direction. Or I knew I could trace my path backward. Or people/landmarks/tools to orient me were never far at hand. One time several years ago when hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains of South Africa, I did, however, get so completely disoriented that I wandered around in circles for some time. Night was coming; people were nowhere, mountains were everywhere, and I was afraid of the baboon troop I had seen earlier in the day. Sheer terror, nothing like the mere frustration or confusion or annoyance I felt on other occasions of being lost, overwhelmed me. This feeling was mercifully short, as I somehow got myself oriented again, but those 10 minutes are my only real reference point for feeling truly lost. I suppose, in an existential sense, I am lost a great deal of the time but am usually protected from this grim awareness by my delusions of purpose and daily busyness.
This delusion is what Pia Taavila’s poem “Lost” strips away with beautiful effect, as it gradually, but surely, unmoors us.
“Out on Lake Huron . . .” Taavila begins and, with this slim, prepositional phrase, we are set adrift. The more I reflect on this opening phrase, the more I admire it. On one level, it has the appearance of “grounding” its readers (if one can use such a verb for an aquatic poem) in a particular place: Lake Huron—it has a name and everything! Secure in our coordinates, we read on. By the end of this short, 15-line poem, however, “Out on Lake Huron,” has become more ominous: a vast, unknowable expanse that is at once interior and exterior. “Out” is the critical word here—unnecessary if the writer were simply conveying geographical location; included, however, it brings myriad associations of exile and exclusion: We are Out There.
This opening phrase creates a quiet but vibrant tension that hangs over the remaining line(s), even as the speaker attempts to anchor us, and herself: “Out on Lake Huron I raise the keel/tie down jibs, lash the spar and rudder” she continues, rattling off a string of declarative verb phrases that show impressive nautical competence but that ultimately echo against, and cannot erase, the poem’s initial seed of disquiet.
In quiet, spare, Elizabeth Bishop-like language that doles out details in a measured, precise way, Taavila leads us from the sailor’s busyness of the first stanza, to a second stanza haunted by inexplicable absences of such things as board game pieces and a first mate, and finally to the third stanza where nautical maps and charts are no longer useful. As opposed to the jaunty, can-do verbs of the first stanza (“raise,” “tie-down,” “lash), ”try” is the operative verb in this stanza, as our sailor-poet attempts to set a forward destination but realizes, “There’s nowhere to go.”
With the sailor’s surety has also gone the speaker’s glibness of phrase, as the last lines slip into darkness and elision:
As the sun slowly slides beneath
the waterline: shores of vapor, haze.
This is a breathtaking final couplet that in its first line leaves us hanging on the word “beneath,” suggesting a deeper, more terrifying sinking of the sun than merely below a shoreline, and in the next line breaks down the sentence itself with purposeful ambiguity: Does that comma stand in for a preposition? Is haze a noun? A verb? Is there even any verb? Any action at all that one can do? The possibilities multiply rather than obscure meanings, each of them potential, none of them definitive.
There is an exquisite terror here, to be lost in such masterful hands.
Suzanne Zweizig’s poetry has appeared in Beloit Poetry Journal, Subtropics, Verse Daily, Poet Lore, and other journals. She has received fellowships from The MacDowell Colony and the Washington D.C. Arts Commission. Her poem, “Wandering Albatross” appears with Pia Taavila’s “Lost” in 32 Poems 10.1.