with critique by Jendi Reiter
"Let me tell you about heartache and the loss of God."
It's about sharks and how there was no warning,
No lifeguard's whistle,
No dorsal fin sailing horizontal to the beach,
No time to decide between flight or fight,
Only sink or swim.
It's about trust and finally feeling safe enough
To lay back and float on the waves,
Eyes closed under the sun's watchful gaze,
Arms extended outward like an aquatic crucifixion.
It's about pain, fear and the heart-stopping shock
Of being dragged down, pulled under,
Where no one can see you struggle or hear your screams.
Your mouth fills with water with each "why?" and "what?"
To a force you cannot yet see.
It's about sharks and what they take from you,
The loss of faith as you remember
The moment before, how sure you were
That the warmth on your face was the smile of God
And the breeze his breath on your skin.
It's about isolation and struggling to survive.
It's the blank gray face, the cold dead eyes
That leave you, bleeding out,
To fight the pain, the undertow and the shock;
To live, if you dare.
It's about sharks and what they leave you with:
A fear of a place you once loved,
Phantom pains that haunt you years later,
An artificial limb that will never feel like your own,
Prosthetic toes that cannot wiggle in the sand.
It's about sadness, madness and the loss of God.
It's about things that can never be retrieved
Even if the fishy guts were split open.
It's about my life and all that was taken from me
On these shores.
And no, it's not really about sharks at all.
Copyright 2008 by Renee Palmer
Critique by Jendi Reiter
Renee Palmer's "It's Not About Sharks" uses her literal subject, a shark attack, as a metaphor for another trauma that is never defined. This indirection gives the poem its universal resonance.
Experiences too terrible to be spoken about find expression in dream symbolism, sensory memories stripped of context, or sublimation into a work of art. This last strategy contains the emotions within a less charged set of facts so they can be viewed apart from the wounded self. Trauma overwhelms our consciousness, cutting off awareness of past and future, and with them the hope of experiencing anything other than the painful feelings of the moment. The healing process can start with the mere act of expanding one's field of vision to include a storyline other than the autobiographical.
Because indirection and metaphor are well-known ways of talking about trauma, the tension between Palmer's title "It's Not About Sharks" and her refusal to talk about anything but sharks convinces the reader that the unnamed event was real and significant. It also leaves a space open for the reader to identify the "shark attack" with an experience in her own life.
This type of opening is one of the main reasons we need poetry. The literal surface of events can distract us from their inner truth. "This is a piece about rape," we might say, or "a piece about losing a beloved parent," and be deceived that we have understood the thing described, that we have exhausted its meaning and can move on. This is especially true if the subject is familiar from other literary or news treatments.
Instead of selecting such an overdetermined narrative, Palmer bypasses explanation and submerges us in the sensations of a scene that cannot help but make our hearts race: the too-placid day, the caressing waters, the benevolent gaze of the sun. We know from the movies that someone is in for a bad shock. Somehow, that predictability doesn't deprive the set-up of its power to lure us in. If anything, it affects us all the more, because we all go around with some half-suppressed fear that any tranquility we've secured in our lives is vulnerable to disruption at a moment's notice.
Palmer's style is straightforward, without a lot of technical complexity, but always seasoned with strong images that maintain the poetic tone. Among the strongest lines were the "aquatic crucifixion" and "the blank gray face, the cold dead eyes/That leave you, bleeding out". In the latter sentence, we confront the alien ruthlessness of the shark, who has transmitted its deathly pallor to the victim "bleeding out", so that her appearance is now defined by the attack. The replacement of her real leg with a prosthetic continues this negative transformation, an alienation from the self, in the same way that the trauma retrospectively leaches the warmth from memories of the place she once loved.
If Palmer was looking to condense this poem, she might consider taking out a couple of lines that verge on over-explaining. They're not jarring, but neither are they strictly necessary. Some candidates are "It's about isolation and struggling to survive" and "An artificial limb that will never feel like your own".
"It's Not About Sharks" is a vivid poem that will resonate with many people's experience. Because of its simple narrative style and direct emotional appeal, a poem like this would probably fare better if submitted to general-audience magazines and contests run by local poetry societies, rather than the university-affiliated journals.
Where could a poem like "It's Not About Sharks" be submitted? The following contests may be of interest:
Envoi Poetry Competition
Entries must be received by June 20
Thrice-yearly contest from venerable British poetry journal offers prizes up to 150 pounds; no simultaneous submissions
Arc Poem of the Year Contest
Postmark Deadline: June 30
Arc: Canada's National Poetry Magazine offers top prize of C$1,500 for unpublished poems; online payment accepted
Kentucky State Poetry Society Contests
Postmark Deadline: June 30
KSPS offers $200 for unpublished poems up to 32 lines, any theme or style, in "Grand Prix" category; 24 other categories (various themes/styles) offer top prizes of $15-$100
Writers Bureau Poetry & Short Story Contest
Entries must be received by June 30
British online writing school offers 1,000 pounds in each genre; online entries allowed
League of Minnesota Poets Annual Contest
Postmark Deadline: July 31
Local poetry society offers $125 in Grand Prize category, 17 other themed awards with top prizes of $20-$70
Milton Dorfman Poetry Prize
Postmark Deadline: August 1
Arts center in upstate NY offers prizes up to $300 for unpublished poems by authors aged 18+
Poetry Society of Texas Annual Contests
Entries must be received by August 15
PST offers Grand Prize of $450 in open-theme category plus 99 themed awards (some members-only) with prizes of $25-$400; no simultaneous submissions
This poem and critique appeared in the June 2008 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.