White Whale by Victoria Kennefick
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Whales that stick in the mind's eye
Whales swim through these poems and carry readers deep to show us what has been lost: past relationships; a mother’s youth; a childhood; a dead father.
The title poem opens on dry land, so dry we’re ‘rattled around the back seat’ of a car with the poem’s speaker, who remembers being driven by someone we assume to be her father to Youghal, a seaside town in County Cork that stood in for New Bedford when John Huston filmed Moby Dick there in 1954. The father steers the car, foreshadowing Captain Ahab, and the ‘newly bearded’ Gregory Peck, at the helm of his ship, and we too are present within a childhood memory as if watching an old movie, the cast and director long dead but by filmic magic brought back to life.
The poem navigates through time and grief as the father navigates the ‘miniature hand’ of his daughter reading the Melville novel. We see Huston’s own disgruntled grief; Peck a substitute for Walter Huston, the director’s father, who should have played Ahab (he died shortly before filming started ). The poem is dense with absence. The model whale, floating on drums of compressed air comes loose ‘one choppy day’. Ahab / Peck hunts for it as, we imagine, John Huston hunted for the father who should have been filming in Ireland with him.
In the final stanza, we’re in Youghal again, the childhood memory has caught up with us and brought us back to the present, the shadow of the speaker’s father ‘haunts the water’.
Deep water is dangerous for humans. To go there is to risk drowning, but we must enter the painful deep if we’re to connect again with what we have lost.
At the close of the poem, the whale hunt is over:
And grief emerges,
breaching the surface.
I saw a whale once and can still see it in my mind’s eye. These poems linger in the same way.