“Secret Written From Inside a Shark’s Mouth” by Jeanann Verlee

September 28th, 2017

Originally published in Foundry, you can read Jeanann Verlee’s poem here.

This poem grabbed me starting with the title. The poet Marge Piercy once gave a great piece of advice to a workshop group I participated in several years ago: the title needs to serve the poem and stand out in a table of contents with maybe fifty other poems listed so that readers want to turn to your poem. Verlee’s title does that right – it was in fact the first poem I clicked on in this issue of Foundry. The title promises to reveal a secret – that right there is inducement to keep reading. And the shark – is the poet/speaker the shark or has she been swallowed by the shark?

Verlee introduces tension with the first line: “It wasn’t all booze and inching toward death.” We’re taken to a place of danger “booze and inching toward death” but also defensiveness or self-protectiveness of the speaker – “it wasn’t all” bad (italics mine). The speaker is directly acknowledging a bad situation but immediately complicates it, and makes it explicit in the next line: “Love lived there too.” I’m interested right away by the push and pull of a complicated relationship, the push and pull of the speaker’s own complicity in this “inching toward death.” Isn’t it often like that? Very rarely is anything ever wholly good for us or wholly bad for us, and the immediate introduction of this tension makes me believe the poem and want to keep reading. I want to see what wins out in the tug-of-war between “inching toward death” and “love.”

The poem then swiftly describes the speaker’s boyfriend or lover or husband – the relationship remains undefined and the man is never named in the poem although the speaker is – re-roofing the house (suggesting husband) and calling to the speaker to “admire his handiwork.” His handiwork is not only the roofing job but, on the felt upon which the shingles will eventually be laid,

“scrawled in bright white chalk
across the entire width of the roof:

A grand romantic gesture, but the opening lines of the poem have warned us that not everything in this relationship will be grand and romantic. Then comes what for me is the tipping point of the poem, him, “balancing on the high pitch, a beer in his fist.” I love the rhyme and meter in this line and how the rhyme and meter contribute to the pivoting: the image of the boyfriend/husband/lover balancing on the roof, the line itself rhythmically in balance and balanced by the rhyme of pitch and fist on either side of the comma, and the poem moving at this point from recollection of the past to imagining a moment in the future. The moment in the future the poem imagines is some future owner of the house re-roofing the house and finding the message  – a reminder, the speaker says, not of their love but of “exactly to whom I belong.”

I love how this poem keeps the tension largely under the surface – like a shark, like the message beneath the shingles, like the way troubles often linger beneath the surface in a relationship before we fully recognize and name them, like the shark in this poem that is introduced in a series of footnotes emerging slowly the way threat usually does.

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