with critique by Jendi Reiter
Sharks close their eyes
the moment before they strike.
They sense the electrical signal
of the heart, they know where to bite,
they can find it blind. The heart
will betray you every time.
It's been a year I've chosen
to be alone. My life is full
of work and talk and the occasional fling
where no one falls for anyone—it's best
to become heartless. No one holds me
back; I don't get that attached.
I say heartless but this is a lie. It beats
red and bloody underneath it all, I am ripe
for slaughter. It keeps getting harder
to hide the signal: the heart wants
to be discovered. Or devoured,
if that's what it takes.
The sharks' own hearts must
crackle with charge as they glide
silently through the leaden water—
do they sense each other's presence
as they sense prey? Do their hearts
call out to each other
in the darkness
beneath the waves? I want someone
to draw my passion like a magnet,
a target, I long for it. So the heart
sends out its signal; I'm a beacon.
Nothing will protect me
from the danger.
I'm just waiting to feel
the teeth sink in.
Copyright 2004 by Ellia Bisker
Critique by Jendi Reiter
This month's critique poem, "Shark Bait" by Ellia Bisker, spins an arresting bit of scientific trivia into an extended metaphor for how our instinctual need for connection may prove more powerful than our "higher" functions of judgment and willpower.
The poem takes a single idea and consistently develops it with skill, using repetition of certain key concepts (heart, signal, sense, electricity) to maintain the narrative focus. Bisker is economical with language, which helps the poem avoid sentimentality for the most part. Short, sharp rhythms and the use of internal rhymes and alliteration create a relentless momentum as the speaker's illusions are stripped away.
The theme of blind fate is evident from the first line, "Sharks close their eyes". The poem suggests that humans no less than other animals are hard-wired to make connections, be it with lovers, predators or prey. While the conscious mind tries to resist a destructive coupling, something more basic and sub-rational in us prefers any interaction, even a fatal one, over solitude. I'm reminded of numerous crime stories (e.g. Ray Bradbury's classic "The Ravine") about women who are drawn to stalkers and serial killers, perversely fascinated by the possibility of a desire so strong that it obliterates its object.
Bisker gives the theme of love and death a clever twist when she imagines sharks finding their mates by the same signals that they use to find prey. It's all the same hunger: "the heart wants/to be discovered. Or devoured,/if that's what it takes." The juxtaposition of similar-sounding words (devoured/discovered) is an effective technique that emphasizes the message of the lines while also creating a pleasing pattern of sounds.
Throughout the poem, Bisker has a good ear for the rhythms of speech, wisely choosing to end many sentences on a powerful downbeat while varying the placement of these end-stops within the line. Some examples that stand out: "It's been a year I've chosen/to be alone" and "I say heartless but this is a lie. It beats/red and bloody underneath it all, I am ripe/for slaughter."
Enjambment—the continuation of a phrase beyond the end of a line of verse—is another technique that "Shark Bait" employs to good effect. In the second stanza, line breaks allow the poet to suggest multiple meanings that are in tension with one another, reflecting the speaker's inner conflict about her solitude. The second line of this stanza asserts that "My life is full", but following the thought onto the next line, we see what it is really filled with. "[W]ork and talk and the occasional fling/where no one falls for anyone"—full of emptiness, in other words. Further down, she asserts that "No one holds me/back", a positive statement of liberation concealing the lonely cry that "No one holds me".
Something about the last stanza left me a little unsatisfied. Though it logically followed from the rest of the poem, it felt slightly less interesting and original. Perhaps it was because the speaker slipped into the passive role of "victim of love" at the end, when previously the poem had been alive with the electrical charge of her passion. In the previous stanzas, she was exercising agency; even though her mind chose one thing and her heart another, they were both trying to take control of her fate, whereas at the end she is "just waiting". I would have been interested to see the speaker try on the predator's or shark's role, realizing that maybe she can take charge of satisfying her heart's craving instead of merely capitulating to it.
Where could a poem like "Shark Bait" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
William Stafford Prize for Poetry
Postmark Deadline: May 31
Biennial contest (even-numbered years) offers $1,000 and publication in the journal Rosebud
Five Fingers Review Awards
Postmark Deadline: June 1
2004 theme is "Uncanny Love"
Muriel Craft Bailey Memorial Award
Postmark Deadline: July 1
Prizes up to $1,000, publication in The Comstock Review; no simultaneous submissions
This poem and critique appeared in the March 2004 issue of Winning Writers Newsletter (subscribe free). If you'd like a chance to be critiqued, please email your poem to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your poem in the body of your email, rather than as an attachment. One poem per month only, please.
Several of our critique poets have asked me whether their poem would be considered "published", and therefore ineligible for most contests, after appearing in our newsletter. My guess would be yes, but check with the contest coordinator just in case, because some publishers may treat print and online publications differently.