December 17, 2012

Contributor’s Marginalia: Hastings Hensel on “After the War” by Matthew Thorburn

I’m a sucker for good fishing poems—mainly because I like to fish, but also because fishing is a rich and natural, if obvious, metaphor. I won’t be the first to point out that angling in the watery depths is like angling in the psychological depths—both hinge on that moment of discovery, when something hidden breaks the surface after a period of struggle.

Matthew Thorburn’s “After the War” is, at first glance, a narrative fishing poem. It takes as its subject a scene from Gunter Grass’ novel The Tin Drum, though Thorburn converts and translates the scene admirably—I like his line control, his syntax, the way the poem naturally unfolds and ends with a subtle yet haunting image.

But I want to consider two things in particular—the title and the speaker—and how these two things work together to give us both a fishing poem and a poem of profound psychological experience.

Breton Fishermen, Paul Gauguin

Thorburn only mentions war in the title, and we presume it is World War II, given the acknowledgement to Grass, but it is perfectly universal enough to suggest any war. But “war,” as we know, is such a loaded word that anything after it resonates with all the pain and destruction and elegy the word implies. In this way, the title operates in a similar fashion to the opening paragraphs of Hemingway’s short story “Big Two-Hearted River,” in which the narrator only briefly mentions war so that all that follows—an otherwise mundane play-by-play of a hiking and camping trip—takes on even more significance.

Here too we have something simple and significant: a man fishing for eels “After the War,” when survivors must be innovative with the decimated world around them—hence the fisherman’s extemporaneous use of a “rotting horse head” for bait.

But who are these survivors? Who is watching this fisherman? Who is this observer, sensitive enough and close enough to notice “the coarse gray rope” and the “dented gray bucket”? Who is relating this scene to us?

It is, we learn in the eighth line, “we starving children”—a nice, surprising use of the first-person plural point-of-view.

And now this poem has me, for I admit that I’m also a sucker for the first-person plural point-of-view—I think of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” or an early Conrad novel—because it suggests gossip, a kind of collective experience. But here the first-person plural is even more affecting because it is from the generation that grew up in war’s aftermath, and whose childhood memories must be steeped in horror. Of course they have “wished” for a “mighty fish”—not just because children are always mesmerized by fish, or because it is a nice internal rhyme, but because war has made them, presumably, really damn hungry.

And the simplicity of this longing recalls for me even more fiction: the opening to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World,” in which the children of a primitive beach village see something strange floating towards them. At first they think it is an empty ship, then a whale, but then they finally realize it is a drowned man.

Indeed, the children of Thorburn’s poem witness something like the children of Marquez’s short story—a memento mori that, at first glance, they “couldn’t understand,” but in the end is likely to stay with them forever. (And, in fact, has stayed with them ever since the event, as evidenced by the use of the past tense.)

So in this way Thorburn’s poem enacts that which it describes. The poem itself is memorable and haunting, and is likely to stay with a reader like me, especially since I live in a small inlet town on the Atlantic coast, where pulling things out of the water—crabs, oysters, clams, fish—is a way of life.

The other day, in fact, I went out to toss my crab traps and, because I was thinking about Thorburn’s poem, found myself following this terrifying but necessary line of self-interrogation: What if war came here? What if war came here and tried to destroy all that is before us, the people and the place, all that we love, our happy leisure?

It was a chilling thought, to be sure, but when the world around me returned, simple and clear, I found myself seeing anew the dead fish heads crammed in the bait holder—the stillness of their black eyes, the way the small droplets of salt water had splashed over their frozen, wide-mouthed, significant expressions.

Hastings Hensel

Hastings Hensel is the author of a chapbook, Control Burn. He lives in Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina. His poem, “Winter Inlet Arrangement,” appears with Matthew Thorburn’s “After the War” in 32 Poems 10.2.

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