Stanley Kunitz

                                     The Wellfleet Whale

A few summers ago, on Cape Cod, a whale foundered on the beach, a sixty-three foot finback whale. When the tide went out, I approached him. He was lying there, in monstrous desolation, making the most terrifying noises—rumbling—groaning. I put my hands on his flanks and I could feel the life inside him. And while I was standing there, suddenly he opened his eye. It was a big, red, cold eye, and it was staring directly at me. A shudder of recognition passed between us. Then the eye closed forever. I've been thinking about whales ever since. —Journal entry


You have your language too,
            an eerie medley of clicks
                        and hoots and trills,
location-notes and love calls,
            whistles and grunts. Occasionally,
                        it's like furniture being smashed,
or the creaking of a mossy door,
            sounds that all melt into a liquid
                        song with endless variations,
as if to compensate
            for the vast loneliness of the sea.
                        Sometimes a disembodied voice
breaks in as if from distant reefs,
            and it's as much as one can bear
                        to listen to its long mournful cry,
a sorrow without name, both more
            and less than human. It drags
                        across the ear like a record
running down.


No wind. No waves. No clouds.
            Only the whisper of the tide,
                        as it withdrew, stroking the shore,
a lazy drift of gulls overhead,
            and tiny points of light
                        bubbling in the channel.
It was the tag-end of summer.
            From the harbor's mouth
                        you coasted into sight,
flashing news of your advent,
            the crescent of your dorsal fin
                        clipping the diamond surface.
We cheered at the sign of your greatness
            when the black barrel of your head
                        erupted, ramming the water,
and you flowered for us
            in the jet of your spouting.


All afternoon you swam
            tirelessly round the bay,
                        with such an easy motion,
the slightest downbeat of your tail,
            an almost imperceptible
                        undulation of your flippers,
you seemed like something poured,
            not driven; you seemed
                        to marry grace with power.
And when you bounded into air,
            slapping your flukes,
                        we thrilled to look upon
pure energy incarnate
            as nobility of form.
                        You seemed to ask of us
no sympathy, or love,
            or understanding,
                        but awe and wonder.

That night we watched you
            swimming in the moon.
                        Your back was molten silver.
We guessed your silent passage
            by the phosphorescence in your wake.
                        At dawn we found you stranded on the rocks.


There came a boy and a man
            and yet other men running, and two
                        schoolgirls in yellow halters
and a housewife bedecked
            with curlers, and whole families in beach
                        buggies with assorted yelping dogs.
The tide was almost out.
            We could walk around you,
                        as you heaved deeper into the shoal,
crushed by your own weight,
            collapsing into yourself,
                        your flippers and your flukes
quivering, your blowhole
            spasmodically bubbling, roaring.
                        In the pit of your gaping mouth
you bared your fringework of baleen,
            a thicket of horned bristles.
                        When the Curator of Mammals
arrived from Boston
            to take samples of your blood
                        you were already oozing from below.
Somebody had carved his initials
            in your flank. Hunters of souvenirs
                        had peeled off strips of your skin,
a membrane thin as paper.
            You were blistered and cracked by the sun.
                        The gulls had been pecking at you.
The sound you made was a hoarse and fitful bleating.

What drew us, like a magnet, to your dying?
            You made a bond between us,
                        the keepers of the nightfall watch,
who gathered in a ring around you,
            boozing in the bonfire light.
                        Toward dawn we shared with you
your hour of desolation,
            the huge lingering passion
                        of your unearthly outcry,
as you swung your blind head
            toward us and laboriously opened
                        a bloodshot, glistening eye,
in which we swam with terror and recognition.


Voyager, chief of the pelagic world,
            you brought with you the myth
                        of another country, dimly remembered,
where flying reptiles
            lumbered over the steaming marshes
                        and trumpeting thunder lizards
wallowed in the reeds.
            While empires rose and fell on land,
                        your nation breasted the open main,
rocked in the consoling rhythm
            of the tides. Which ancestor first plunged
                        head-down through zones of colored twilight
to scour the bottom of the dark?
            You ranged the North Atlantic track
                        from Port-of-Spain to Baffin Bay,
edging between the ice-floes
            through the fat of summer,
                        lob-tailing, breaching, sounding,
grazing the pastures of the sea
            on krill-rich orange plankton
                        crackling with life.
You prowled down the continental shelf,
            guided by the sun and stars
                        and the taste of alluvial silt
on your way southward
            to the warm lagoons,
                        the tropic of desire,
where the lovers lie belly to belly
            in the rub and nuzzle of their sporting;
                        and you turned, like a god in exile,
out of your wide primeval element,
            delivered to the mercy of time.

                        Master of the whale-roads,
let the white wings of the gulls
            spread out their cover.
                        You have become like us,
disgraced and mortal.

Stanley Kunitz, The Collected Poems, W.W. Norton, 2002.