Burial at Sea

The dead are the life of the party.
Sharks, sure. But small fish too, puckering

at the taste of you. Then come the crabs
with their busy hands

groping their way into your heart.
The tube worms rave

until nothing remains.
Not even the naked architecture of bones.

Just a disturbance,
a footprint in the quicksand;

one last stab at posterity: A liquid name
on a discarded napkin.

You watch your friends sail off
pretending to know the way.

But death’s an empty dance floor
and the wake’s run out of whiskey.

Questions and Answers

How/where do you find inspiration today?

Inspiration can come from anywhere—an overhead scrap of conversation, Google mis-translations, strange and compelling journeys down Wikipedia wormholes… and reading other poets, of course. But I find that most of my inspiration comes from actually sitting down to write. You never know what a poem is capable of until you sit down to try to write the damned thing. I edit, forget about it for a few months, and then edit it some more, often to the point of a complete rewrite. It’s a process that feels less like creating, and more like chipping away at something until it reveals itself to you. The pleasure I get from seeing the poem begin to take shape is what inspires me to keep going, and eventually try to write another.

How did your writing process unfold around this poem? How did you write, edit, and refine it?

This poem comes from a book-length manuscript I’m working on, which narrates a scuba dive gone wrong. Each section is structured by depth, and the symptoms that the diver would feel at those depths as a result of a phenomenon called nitrogen narcosis—with the poem’s structure and subject matter reflecting those symptoms. Burial at sea comes at over ninety meters which is associated with increased intensity of vision and hearing, euphoria, manic or depressive states, a disorganized sense of time, unconsciousness, and, eventually, death.

I believe the initial images for this particular poem came from watching a time-lapse video of a whale carcass being consumed on the ocean floor. Probably a scene from Planet Earth or something. I wrote the first draft, then set the entire manuscript aside for nearly two years. Initially, none of the poems were titled, so the name “Burial at Sea” came after this hiatus and really changed the way I looked at the piece, superimposing the idea of a discarded sailor, over the initial image of a whale. The opening line, “The dead are the life of the party,” came even later in the process, but seemed to tie in nicely to the idea of life springing out of death, and funeral as debauched party.

The reference to “a liquid name” was meant to echo the line that Keat’s requested for his otherwise unmarked grave, “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

This poem “Burial at Sea” originally appeared in Meanwhile, Home. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 232 (Spring 2017): 64.

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