By Rob Carney
Black Lawrence Press, 2018
It is surely an act of chutzpah or orneriness to write an entire book of poems about sharks. Especially a volume that has nothing to do with Jaws, or the Fonz “jumping the shark,” or shark-fin soup, or the ultra-capitalist reality show Shark Tank, or even West Side Story’s Sharks and Jets. And yet, Rob Carney has done just that—from his first cigarette to his last dying day (to misquote the lyrics). Of course, there are references to shark sightings, shark attacks, and dead sharks washed ashore, but they do not depend upon on or flow from American pop culture’s fascination, soft-spot, and terror of the misunderstood and much-maligned creature.
The Book of Sharks is highly organized and insistently formal. Its structure seems to resemble a curated exhibition, with sections titled “Origins,” “Reconstructing,” “Fragments,” “Lessons,” “Bones,” etc. There are seven sections (or movements), each consisting of seven poems. All poems use the first line, repeated in the body of the poem, as its title; all poems employ unrhymed couplets and range between six and twenty-two lines, mostly sixteen to eighteen. These formal constraints, along with the near-obsessive focus on sharks and their mostly ocean habitat, inform the entire collection. And yet, there is very little attention to oceanography, and when it’s there, it invariably drifts beyond the poem’s horizon. The opening poem, “Before the mountains rose from water,” quickly tugs us away from any textbook version of macro-evolution:
Before mountains rose from the water
and waves ground cliffs into sand
before rock rolled down to the shore
and became the first seals,
that long-ago morning when a cloud
gave birth to seagulls—
Of course, sharks make an early appearance in the collection, and when they do, they are clearly mythic and cosmic, as though emerging from a sort of Jungian depth:
their eyes like pieces of the night brought nearer,
their teeth indifferent as the stars,
their purpose the same as the ocean’s purpose:
to move, to arrive, to be full.
At times they seem to be coded female:
you’ll know them in town by their necklaces
and the jagged bracelets they wear.”
by the way they enter the ocean.
None of them think their measured streets are nets.
(“Some say sharks are the ocean’s anger at the sun”)
Other times they appear as adolescent males. Carney’s sharks are an expansive and malleable symbol, occasionally the sea creature of beach panic and aquariums, but also our embodied fears of them. They are, at times, our parents, our children, ourselves, the sky, the ocean, the unknown, the cosmos, the limits to what we can know. They are totemic—to kill them is both taboo and a sacred duty:
but spearing a shark means seven days of snow…
if it’s winter the heat brings avalanches
if it’s spring, the cold takes blossoms/off the trees
The poems are folkloric:
In the story once told to warn children, sharks were a curse
called shoreward as a punishment by a witch.
But they are also surprisingly tribal, impersonal. Rarely does the poet’s own experience rise to the surface—as if to take a quick gulp of air, but never more revealing than an occasional rising bubble of respiration, “disappearing under the stories/as though they were waves.” This lack of autobiography is, of course, the strategic point of these poems. But at times, it creates an aesthetic distance that undercuts the emotional intensity of the subject. I want to feel more viscerally that dorsal fin circling between waves or smell the stench of a washed-up rotting corpse.
Taken as a whole, these poems are authoritative, original, and sumptuous—a veritable feast of Leviathan. In some ways they recall Isaak Walton’s 17th century meditation on fishing, The Compleat Angler, although the nearest modern equivalent has to be A. R. Ammons’ classic, “Corson’s Inlet”:
a young mottled gull stood free on the shoals
to vomiting: another gull, squawking possession, cracked a crab,
picked out the entrails, swallowed the soft-shelled legs, a ruddy
turnstone running in to snatch leftover bits…
The connection is stark, especially towards the end of this representative poem, which is also a cogent and compelling Ars poetica.
Those long-ago scribes would have understood
the edge of the sea is a teacher.
They probably met at the shoreline
to listen to the wind
And find what bones
the tide scattered.
The bones of a humpback whale, for instance,
can never be harpoons,
only gaffe hooks
for hauling the bulk of halibut aboard.
They would have considered which uses were worthy
then made sure everyone learned…
The way gulls learn that rocks crack crabs wide open,
that hard words are good tools.
The Book of Sharks demonstrates that there are rules, some natural, others exceptional, inherent in biology, mythology, iconography, and poetry. This collection reveals and revels in their explorations and discoveries.—Leonard Kress