Whale Poem

All of the bones of five toes are in each of his paddles
and under the blubber the bones of unused hind legs.

The tail (unlike a fish’s, horizontal)
is rudder and propeller both, and drives him
with strength of seventy horses abruptly down
hundreds of feet to depths at which his body
must bear many tons of pressure per square inch.

Rising, he may release the used-up breath
just before reaching the surface: at such times
a mixture of water and breath blows up from the sea.

I read about him first in Kipling’s story—how
the sailor he swallowed foxed him by blocking his throat—
but the truth about the baleen whale was more surprising.
His mouth is a maze. He has no teeth.
Enormous plates of horn in the upper jaw,
frayed at the edges as though rough-combed for use,
lie flat, toward the throat, when the mouth is closed—
when it opens, they are raised and hang down like fringed curtains.
As he swims through the sea open-mouthed, a living cavern,
thousands of little life-forms are trapped in the fringes;
when the mouth closes, the water strains out at the sides
but these remain and fall down on the tongue to be swallowed.
(They have to be small—his throat couldn’t take in a herring!)

A sperm whale, on the other hand, can swallow a Jonah
or something still larger. His mouth takes up one third
the length of a body that may extend sixty feet.
The sperm oil lies in a cavity alongside his head
and ambergris—used as fixative in making perfumes—
may, when he’s in poor health, form in his guts.
It used to be found in great masses, floating on southern seas.

The whale I saw in ‘49 or ‘50
was a smaller kind, maybe a grampus—I’d say
about twenty-five feet. He surfaced off our boat
(Eddie Sherman’s lobster-boat, which Dr. Moorhead
had chartered for his annual fishing trip:
we had our lines out, anchored in the mouth of Blue Hill Bay)
one hundred yards out to sea, and blew and spouted—
a hollow whistling more vibration than sound—
then sank, and surfaced once more about ten minutes later
on our other side, a little bit closer—and we laughed.
We got the message: greatness, freedom, and ease.

They’re mammals; the mothers nurse their young.
We hunt them, sink our barbs into their flesh—
using explosives now in our harpoons—
hoist the vast bleeding bodies to the decks
of “factory ships,” where the live flesh is rent from the bone.
They may have thoughts in their heads: we do not know.

Sometimes I think of the great sum of pain
endured by inoffensive giant bodies
torn, ripped, chopped, dismembered in their millions
by the sharp tricks of a smart race of maggots.
Is there justice in the universe? We’d better hope not.

I had a dream once, in which I was swallowed by a whale
and thought it was the end and something horrible—
but it all opened up, like the Mammoth Cave,
in long strange hallways—stalactites, stalagmites gleaming—
and light in the distance where someone was waiting for me.

They may have thoughts—we do not know. But far
beneath the surface, where a few still live and play,
they summon each other in high-pitched signalings
qoand sing deep day-long songs we’ll never learn.