From Issue 17: "Five Seals," by Bethany W. Pope (Poetry)

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.

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Mare Heron Hake

Poetry Editor


Five Seals


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.