Some friends of friends curate a poetry newsletter called Pomegranate to share timely works by contemporary poets. Last week I received a poem called “Things to Do in the Belly of a Whale” by Dan Albergotti, from The Boatloads (2008).
Being swallowed by a whale is what writing my thesis essay felt like at times: captured by a big mystery that would digest me or let me go on its own time. Yet the whale poem initially troubled me. It goes like this…
Things to Do in the Belly of a Whale
Measure the walls. Count the ribs. Notch the long days.
Look up for blue sky through the spout. Make small fires
with the broken hulls of fishing boats. Practice smoke signals.
Call old friends, and listen for echoes of distant voices.
Organize your calendar. Dream of the beach. Look each way
for the dim glow of light. Work on your reports. Review
each of your life’s ten million choices. Endure moments
of self-loathing. Find the evidence of those before you.
Destroy it. Try to be very quiet, and listen for the sound
of gears and moving water. Listen for the sound of your heart.
Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope,
where you can rest and wait. Be nostalgic. Think of all
the things you did and could have done. Remember
treading water in the center of the still night sea, your toes
pointing again and again down, down into the black depths.
The protagonist above fumbles through different strategies of coping with his new reality of swallowedness. Yet he seems to so fully resist any transformation, any wonder at what the supreme otherness the belly of the whale has to teach him. He tries to keep a sense of normalcy and control in a situation far from his choosing: “Measure…” “count…” “notch…” “Work on your reports.”
I feel there’s something largely missing in this poem about swallowedness. Almost as an accident, in the middle of the poem the protagonist briefly cherishes the new bounds of his reality:
“Be thankful that you are here, swallowed with all hope, where you can rest and wait.”
Gaining awe for the mystery that swallowed him, the great thing that extended an offer to do work on his soul, is a needed counterbalance to his impulse to maintain his independence and sense of self. Yet neither of these impulses—to do or to non-do—should be assumed on its own.
Since mid-January I was swallowed yet again by a research question and a project. I am one more prone than others, I think, to being swallowed by my creative work—but with each project, I am learning better personal process. I need the opposite counterbalance than the protagonist in the poem: my task is to remember measuring, counting, notching, and working on my reports, alongside my task-less wonder and surrender.
I can’t exactly say that I accomplished a balanced response to being swallowed, but I at least learned to see my strengths and weaknesses better. For instance, I learned to be confident in my ability to come up with compelling and deep research questions and interpretations. This would be the equivalent of having the curiosity to learn quickly about the belly of the whale, and tour its ins and outs, rather than retain an increasingly irrelevant sense of self and world.
I learned from this capstone process that a growth point of my creative work will be following through to outcomes. Going forward, I will see it as a necessary counterbalance to my other strengths. Getting things done will not minimize the depths of my research questions and findings, but rather present the opportunity to share my reflections.
If I do not follow through in tasks and sharing outcomes—if I do not “practice smoke signals,” “call old friends,” “look each way for the dim glow of light”—I might never emerge from the belly of the whale, and no one would know what swallowed me!