Today’s poem is “First Encounter Beach” by Alison Hawthorne Deming. Alison lived in Portland for many years and is a longtime summer resident of Grand Manan Island. Her most recent books are the poetry collection Stairway to Heaven (Penguin 2016), the essay collection Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed 2014), and Death Valley: Painted Light, a collaboration with photographer Stephen Strom (George F. Thompson 2016). Alison is professor of Creative Writing at the University of Arizona.
She writes, “The inspiration for the poem was the beaching of pilot whales on First Encounter Beach, a place named for the initial contact between Pilgrims and Native Americans on Cape Cod. That historic event took on metaphoric dimensions. I became a pilgrim encountering devastating loss in the natural world and with my father's end-of-life passage. It interests me now that animals in the poem serve as vehicle for both grief (pilot whales) and willful hope (crows). And of course, underlying it all is the profound grief about how the relationship between Pilgrims and Natives played out.”
First Encounter Beach
By Alison Hawthorne Deming
One of the spectators is disappointed
there isn’t a guide to explain
the beaching, the scientists busy
cutting into ninety-four pilot whales
stranded on the salt grass.
No one knows why and, try as the rescue team
might, not one whale will go back to water.
So they’re injected to speed up the dying,
lined up like lumber and sawed into,
except when the black skin splits
we can’t stop staring, their meat is so red.
I don’t want to know why this happens—
what parasite or geomagnetic anomaly
finished their love of motion. Why should
anything have to leave this world
when water can cycle from atmosphere
down to land, the ocean and back
to forgiving sky.
I’m on my way to Connecticut
where my father has a little vegetation
on his heart valve—that’s how the intern
describes it, trying to minimize
the danger of him slipping
into a haze so cold, some nights,
bone-cold, his hand can’t get from
his plate to his mouth.
Rain slicks the highway
slowing me down. The same water
fattened into snow in the woods
of my childhood, the whiteness
unbroken except where my father
cut trails and taught me to ski,
laying down the herringbone behind him
as he broke up hills that left me
with legs made of slush. He wanted me strong,
no patience for pain. No choice
but to find the muscle to follow. Even now
when he boasts how I zigzagged
the breakneck hills in an icestorm,
there’s no hint of my knee-chattering fear,
slats skittering out of control,
each run a victory of luck more than will,
each ride up the lift a prayer for my bones.
I wonder how it is for him now
there in the ward where whiteness can’t hide
the cold blank that’s ahead. When the whales
beached, the spectators came like pilgrims.,
each new arrival scanning the faces
of those heading back to their cars
to see how it changed them
to survey so much death. Nothing showed.
Their eyes followed the asphalt,
heads bent in private devotion.
There in a room
where others have died, my father
keeps a record of each test and drug.
He watches medicine drip into his arm
and circle in the dark of his blood.
I believe it will heal him, as I believe
in the strength of my blood
to protect me from failures of will. Once
when my grandmother at ninety-six
lay delirious with pneumonia,
pitching on her high horsehair bed,
she saw three crows perched on the dresser.
They smell so awful, she said.
Please, open the window. Let them out.
It was my father who did what she asked.
And the crows flew out, carrying her fever
over the treeline, dissolving into sky,
and she lived. Whatever she saw,
by love, luck or dumb Yankee will
it was true. That’s what I mean by medicine.
Poem copyright © 1994 Alison Hawthorne Deming. Reprinted from Science and Other Poems, Louisiana State University Press, 1994, by permission of Alison Hawthorne Deming.