It’s almost as if, dipping our faces
beneath the surface, we could see
clear to bottom where things shimmer,
then compose themselves into steady light:
the slender shapes, say, of two shiny fish
in the cove, white bellies up.
There, where it is summer still, a man
at dusk, leaning over a gunwale,
tries to pick up starfish on the blade
of his oar. And a small boy with him,
face in the water almost, peers along
the oar’s bent image at hues eddying
down below. They nearly settle
into clear-edged shapes, always waver
back to color again. He might just as well
interrogate the echoing knock of wood
on wood or the weedy smell of the sea
for what lies on the bottom.
Everything is a fathom under, at least:
even an old boot, turned upside down
at roadside, that the boy saw on his way
to the store once that summer, has a man
in it, buried headfirst beneath gravel,
holding his breath, still waiting to be saved.
Questions and Answers
About “The Man in the Boot”:
This is another poem rooted in a childhood memory. For a long time I knew I would write the poem eventually, but many years—at least thirty—passed before I did. I published it as the first poem in my second book, almost as an epigraph, because it seemed to me to be a complex symbol of one of the things poetry attempts to do: to resurrect meaning, something buried beneath the surface appearances of the things of this world.
Originally, I thought I would write “The Man in the Boot” in blank verse, a metrical form I have employed frequently, but once I began to put words on the page, I saw opportunities for a number of satisfyingly effective enjambments. Consequently, I let them come to the forefront and shaped the poem in the resulting free verse with just the ghost of blank verse in the background.
The summer I was five, some members of my immediate family were visiting my grandparents who lived in a cottage on the Nova Scotia seacoast at a place named Melville Cove. The cottage had a back porch built on stilts, so that when the tide was in, water flowed underneath. One could look over the rail and see starfish or clams on the bottom.
My granddad had an old rowboat, and when the cove was calm, he would row us out into the middle of it. At low tide, the water was not very deep—perhaps six feet, approximately the height of a man—and you could see clearly all the way to the sandy bottom where several kinds of finny creatures were moving back and forth.
Also, farther out, closer to the other side of the cove, there was a sunken naval vessel lying on its side, probably a minesweeper of WWII vintage. At high tide, it would disappear completely, and re-emerge when the tide went out. From what I have said so far, it should be clear that the opposition between what is on the surface and what is underwater has a central bearing on the meaning of the poem.
One afternoon, I walked to a nearby store with my mother. Along the way, I saw an old, brown leather boot, half buried upside down on the shoulder of the road. I tried to make my mother stop, because I really believed, as children, yet still rich in their imaginative powers are wont to believe, that the invisible world does indeed exist. So I was convinced that there was actually a man in the half-covered boot, buried deep underground. I felt strongly my responsibility to save him, to dig him out, resurrect him. I told my mother this, but, intent on her errand, she didn’t listen. To her the boot was just a muddy piece of discarded junk. She was holding my hand, yanking me along away from the boot. On the trip home from the store, we walked on the other side of the road, and though I looked for the boot, I didn’t see it again. This experience, I think in retrospect, was probably an early expression of my lifelong concern for the underdog, those who are mostly unable to fend for themselves.
I believe I have mentioned most of the details at hand from which I shaped my poem, all of them somehow suggesting the act of bringing buried or sunken things to the surface. The shipwrecked minesweeper was a powerful image—this was three years after the conclusion of WWII—in all likelihood leading an observer to wonder about the sailors who served on her. Did they drown? Were some of them rescued? But as powerful as this image and its implications were, I didn’t use it in the poem. I feared the swamped ship would swamp the poem. So I saved it for a later work. The boot, instead, became the focal figure.
As I see it, the poem is ultimately about resurrection, primarily of memory and of meaning, and about our frequently frustrating desire to get to the bottom of things. The poem itself is an example of bringing back to life a particular memory, and in a way, of people who are no longer among us. Always, in the act of interpretation, we must strive to resurrect the living spirit from the dead letter. And certainly, if we can, we must resurrect / come to the rescue of the buried man in the boot.