Reading time: Approximately 3 minutes
"Five Seals," by Bethany W. Pope, begins with the close description of a "clump" of seals, a word choice that immediately caught my attention, but the surprise didn't end there. Offering a familiar vision of watching seals swim in a closed tank, the poet further explores the nuances of what captivity means, both public and personal. In my opinion, this poem is a wonderful composite of both present and remembered events for the poetic narrator, of pattern and change, of the watchers and those who are watched, by asking us to recognize which side of the glass is most familiar.
by Bethany W. Pope
Swimming in a plaited clump, they send water
surging up and down the narrow walls,
like waves made by a kid in a bathtub.
One is ancient with glaucous eyes (the iris
clouded over like the blue bloom on a grape),
the others too young to perform, they whip
together in a perpetual loop,
occasionally surfacing to bark
into the joyful faces of the children
who watch (also close-clustered, but free
to leave) from behind the thick pane of forehead-oily
glass. This can, and does, go on for hours.
I note patched fur, toenails on the hind flippers—
the forepaws tipped with impossibly long
claws which curve backwards towards the body
like the hollow teeth of serpents. I feel
familiar, muscular bands tightening
around my heart. I've been stared at like this,
I've been exactly as trapped. But I left.
I could leave the narrow closet with
the window set in the top half of the door,
after a while, and return only
in my very worst dreams. I watch these seals,
enmeshed in their own perpetual motion,
I lock eyes with the blind matron who has
grown old leading her pack between one wall
and the other. I want nothing more
than a fist-sized rock and the strength to force
an overdue caesarean, spilling
these wet, streamlined bodies out to set their teeth
into the vicious, tender flesh of the world.
Reprinted with the permission of the poet
Bethany W. Pope had this to say about the poem:
I wrote “Five Seals” after a visit to an aquarium in Fuzhou. I went with one of my good friends and we had an interesting discussion about the differences in care between Chinese and North American zoos and aquariums. The seal enclosure was pretty much exactly as I described it in the poem, and the resigned desperation of the animals really resonated with me because I’ve existed in similar states of existential confinement. My friend (who is absolutely lovely, but operating from a vastly different cultural perspective) was very insistent that the animals are being compensated for their lives by being assured of food and shelter. These are arguments which Western people use to justify the abuse of actual human beings. Ultimately, I could not shake the image of those eyes, and so the poem emerged.
Bethany is an award-winning poet and novelist, currently living and working in China.