Contributor’s Marginalia: Carrie Shipers on “Winter Inlet Arrangement” by Hastings Hensel
This morning, in gray central Wisconsin, we have subzero temperatures and a howling wind, but nothing outside my door seems to me as chilling—or as lovely—as Hastings Hensel’s poem, “Winter Inlet Arrangement.”
The sonnet’s opening line, “Everything in pain,” initially may seem like melodrama or exaggeration, but the lines that follow are all the more striking for their matter-of-fact tone as Hensel leads us through a landscape that includes “a bloated ribcage of marsh grass” and “rock jetties . . . / assaulted by sea-spray, without objection.” While the typical Petrarchan sonnet teaches us to expect that the question raised in the first eight lines will be resolved in the final six, Hensel’s poem resists such tidy closure. To the octave’s initial “Everything in pain,” the first line of the sestet replies, “But nothing heals. Everything in more pain,” a bleak statement followed by further inventory of a world in which the water is “starved” and even the tide is screaming.
Among the many things I admire about this poem is that although the scene being described is undeniably bleak, it is also quite active—it’s just that all of the activity is either harmful or a reaction to being harmed. Even the poem’s brief—but necessary—moment of humor, in which we see “the stone crab / waving its heavy claw for help,” underscores the poem’s sense of desolation, while the assurance with which these lines are constructed insists that Nature and those who seek to profit from it, “the bullish oystermen kneeling in the low tide,” are being depicted exactly as they are.
But are they, really? As I reread, I find myself as drawn to what the poem withholds as to what it reveals. Surely we can assume a human speaker, a human consciousness, responsible for the observations in the poem, and surely there’s a reason that human speaker sees only pain in what otherwise might be an ordinary, even uplifting, view of harbor and sea. Part of the poem’s power comes from its sense of restraint (not to be confused with secrecy): we see the result of the speaker’s emotional state but not its cause, and the poem is all the more powerful because this is so.
Nor does Hensel’s poem put much emphasis on solace, although I’d argue that the poem does hint at the consolation of seeing clearly, a quality that reminds me very much of Elizabeth Bishop’s work. But unlike the speakers in Bishop’s poems, who so often are compelled to re-see, to re-phrase and re-describe in order to be as accurate as possible, Hensel’s speaker has no need to re-consider or re-word: everything already has been said as concisely and clearly as possible.
The world Hensel depicts in this poem is not one I much want to inhabit. And yet—what pleasure is to be had from Hensel’s tense, densely packed lines, the sensual pleasure of forming syllables, spitting out the shards of consonants that embody the poem’s stern and lovely chill. If you haven’t already, you must say out loud, as often as possible, the catalogue that opens the poem: “scar lines and scrapes / of gray cloud, gull-scream, crushed shells / slicing the tin sheen of the pluff mud bank.” Everything may be in pain, but rarely does the world suffer as beautifully as in this poem.
Carrie Shipers’s poems have appeared in Connecticut Review, Crab Orchard Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Laurel Review, New England Review, North American Review, and other journals. She is the author of two chapbooks, Ghost-Writing (Pudding House, 2007) and Rescue Conditions (Slipstream, 2008), and a full-length collection, Ordinary Mourning (ABZ, 2010). She currently teaches English at UW-Marshfield/Wood County in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Her poem, “John Wayne,” appeared with Hastings Hensel’s “Winter Inlet Arrangement” in 32 Poems 10.2.