the poems i love — ‘the whaler’s wife’ by cindy hunter morgan

The Whaler’s Wife — Cindy Hunter Morgan
New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1871

She married the captain of a whale ship
though others warned her not to,
and when he left for the Western Arctic
on a bark with a reinforced bow, a brick hearth,
and five whale boats,
she laced her corset,
felt the baleen stays tighten and press against her,
the bones of another creature
contain what she could not:
flesh, fear, and sadness.
She vowed to wear the stiff undergarment
until her husband came home,
told other wives
the carcass of what her husband sought
was hidden next to her bosom.
Four years passed, snow fell and melted,
news of shipwrecks and squalls came
and came again,
and still she wore the corset,
wore it to market, to tea, to church,
and did not notice the stains,
the weakened fabric, the stench,
the slow fusion of bones.
She stopped eating squash and beans,
bought only cod, herring, and salmon,
and spent afternoons soaking in tidal pools.
When her husband returned,
he found her gutting a seal,
singing something he could not name.
He wrapped his arms around her and felt only bones,
rib bones, whale bones, clavicle and scapula.
That night, he unlaced the corset,
watched linen disintegrate in his fingers,
saw how whale bone had fused with rib bone,
and searched for something that was purely hers.
She shook her head and said,
I am not what I once was.
He cursed his absence,
told her he would make amends,
spent four years pulling baleen splinters
out of her ribcage, scraping barnacles
off the soles of her shoes,
waiting for her to return to him.
Justin Hamm: I’ve said before that your The Sultan, The Skater, The Bicycle Maker is my favorite chapbook of all time. It’s forty-four pages, but it feels enormous because the poems make giant leaps in time and place. I think maybe another reason it feels heftier than its physical size is that poems like “The Whaler’s Wife” carry the strange, hypnotic, timeless aura of authentic folk tales. It feels rooted in a deep tradition, though I couldn’t say which one.

What are the antecedents to this poem? What were you reading or thinking about at the time it was written?

Cindy Hunter Morgan:  Thank you, Justin.  Your question is interesting to think about. Imagination and empathy are important in all of these poems. They are antecedents, in their own very general ways. Any specific antecedents to “The Whaler’s Wife” are probably things I soaked up and stored somewhere. Maybe Moby Dick was at work inside of me. There is that chapter early in the book when Ishmael enters a chapel and finds a congregation of sailors’ wives and widows. He reads the marble tablets, engraved in memory of dead whalers, and observes women who seem to wear unceasing grief. He watches the worshippers and notices how they sit apart from each other, “as if each silent grief were insular and incommunicable.” I think the insular quality of grief is important in this poem. Grief separates the whaler’s wife from ordinary life. She starts soaking in tidal pools and gutting seals. Things get pretty weird. I think, now, of a line from Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil: “madness protects, as fever does.” It’s interesting to consider…

JH: Obviously the motives of the characters in this poem are rooted in reality. But the language, as in many of the poems in the collection, flirts with or hints at magical realism. “The Whaler’s Wife” is one of the poems in the book where I feel the distinction between magic and reality is least clear. I always wonder if we are meant to see the fusing of the corset and the ribs as a purely physical result of overwear or if something more mystical has occurred. Is this intentional? Is something magical at work or no?

CHM: It’s quite intentional, and I think in this case what is happening on a physical level is certainly happening on a mystical one as well. In fact, I think we have to believe in something magical to accept the physical fusion. One of the things I admire about magic realism is the way it straddles two worlds. It’s rooted in the world we recognize, but there is something of the fantastic, something of the fabular, at work. That taut balance between the real and the unreal fascinates me. I think it requires more from a writer — and more from the imagination — than pure fantasy or science fiction. Almost anything goes in those genres, but I like the constraint of keeping something reeled in. I also believe magic — subtle magic — can reveal a deep truth about what is real.

JH: I want to ask a couple of practical questions. Tell me a little about the physical act of composing this poem, or, failing that, a little about your process in general. Longhand in an armchair? Tapped out image by image on a laptop? And how many revisions do you figure “The Whaler’s Wife” went through? Were there challenges you can recall?

CHM: All of my poems start out longhand, in a journal. I’m a little particular about my notebooks. I don’t like spiral bindings and I do like to admire the cover (plain is fine). I generally don’t finish a poem in the journal. At some point I move to the computer, but I only bring a poem there if I sense the poem is going to work. The longhand process is where/when/how I figure that out. I don’t know just how many revisions I had for this poem. I did fiddle, some, with the husband’s response. In one version I had him running to the wharf and taking an ax to the bark, but that seemed a little ridiculous. In another version he bought his wife a new dress, but that seemed dull and predictable and insufficiently complex. There also was a version that involved rats. I can’t remember what the rats did. I think they ate the bones. The challenge I felt was mostly in the rendering of the wife’s crazed longing, and in the rendering of the husband’s response. What kind of patience would he have for her? She is unraveled by his long absence. To what extent are we sympathetic with that, and to what extent is her madness a kind of betrayal, a kind of impatience? Should he meet her impatience with patience?

JH: When you send a poem like this out into the world, what do you hope it does for people? What does writing it do for you?

CHM: I hope this poem helps people travel outside of themselves and deeper into themselves. Of course, I hope that for all poems. This poem, clearly, has a strong narrative quality. There is a story to enter. I’d like to believe the poem delivers a reader somewhere …that a reader begins the poem in one place and finishes the poem feeling elsewhere…maybe in some new emotional territory, though that place is not for me to define. 

What did writing this poem do for me? I think it was fascinating to examine loyalty, and to think about what loyalty can mean for two people sharing one relationship. If it’s one relationship, is it the same, shared loyalty? I don’t think so. The poem is a partial exploration of a strange fidelity, but the relationship remains, mostly, a mystery…as all relationships are to those outside of them. I imagined these people into being, but even in my role as conjurer I do not understand them.

JH: You’ve had another chapbook, Apple Season, in the time since The Sultan . . . was published. What are you conjuring up for us right now?
CHM: I’m working on a full-length poetry manuscript about Great Lakes shipwrecks. Actually, the final poem in The Sultan, The Skater, The Bicycle Maker (the chapbook in which “The Whaler’s Wife” appears) mentions a shipwreck in Lake Superior. The wreck is quite significant to the poem. I knew I wanted to write about more shipwrecks, but it took me a couple of years to commit. Some projects are like that, I suppose. They just need to steep for a while.
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Cindy Hunter Morgan teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and is the author of two chapbooks. The Sultan, The Skater, The Bicycle Maker won The Ledge Press 2011 Poetry Chapbook Competition. Apple Season won the Midwest Writing Center’s 2012 Chapbook Contest, judged by Shane McCrae. Her poems have appeared in a variety of journals, including West BranchBateau, and Sugar House Review. She is working on a full-length poetry manuscript about Great Lakes shipwrecks. Poems from this project appear or are forthcoming in several journals, including the museum of americanaMidwestern Gothic, Fogged Clarity, and Salamander.