The Regular and Predictable Sounds of Whales

I just returned from a week-long poetry workshop at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown on Cape Cod. At this magical place, you study with leading-edge poets and writers, painters, or other fine artists, spending half the day in a workshop with ten or so other students, and then the other half exploring the craziness of P-town, hanging out at Long Point, or pursuing your art.

I worked with Terrence Hayes, who is an amazing poet with four published collections—he has won a National Book Award, a Pushcart Prize, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation.

Plus, he’s brilliant, and says things like, “Where’s the heat in this poem? How can you move that heat upstairs?” Or “Where are the images decorative, versus functional? You need to make sure the poem is not too pre-determined.”

Terrence is only 42—younger than me. Made me feel like a slacker.

There were cool people in my class—my BFF, another writer friend, a guy from Michigan who is getting his MFA in Texas, and about seven other women, including one named Wilderness.

How cool is that, to be a poet named Wilderness? Maybe that’s my problem—my name, Kellie, means “Warrior Woman.” That’s why I am typically out digging in the trenches of management rather than crafting poems in between glasses of white wine.

On the last night at the FAWC, they had an open mike for student writers. They read a brief bio of who you are, and then you share a page, and everyone claps politely, even if what you share is terrible. All the instructors are there, smiling. It’s very encouraging.

When it was my turn to read, I shared “Ode to Eruption,” a new poem I wrote in response to a prompt Terrence gave us, to write an Ode.

My poem is about a 30-ton female humpback whale. One of the first things I did while on the Cape was go on a whale watch. And I was pleasantly surprised with dozens of sightings—we saw seven humpbacks, including Eruption.

The cool thing about baleen whales is that they sleep by shutting down one half of their brain. While they rest one side, the other half keeps them alive, assuring they surface regularly in order to breathe. Whales are not involuntary breathers as we are—they have to remember to do it. So they can’t just sleep, or they would drown.

I would love to be able to do that—when I am stuck in my left-brain, analytical, driving, warrior woman self, I’d love to be able to turn that off in order to open up my more creative poet side. (By the way, this actually happened to Jill Bolte Taylor when she had a stroke—she wrote about it in a great book, My Stroke of Insight.)

So there I was, at a poetry workshop all week, trying not to think about my day job, trying to live in my right brain. It was an amazing, open-heart space to be.

When I was in the middle of reading “Ode to Eruption” in the Stanley Kunitz Common Room, I suddenly noticed something odd: My dad’s shirt was sitting in the front row. A gentleman about my father’s age, who happened to be a host of one of the writers, was wearing it—one of the last shirts my mother bought my father. It was a classic “grandpa” shirt, with a bold Cliff Huxtable-like pattern, and sophisticated undertones of gold, rust, and burgundy. Just the kind of shirt my father loved.

Near the end of my dad’s life, he wasn’t really able to wear button-downs anymore—they were very difficult to put on while he was in his wheelchair, so the nursing home staff resorted to long-sleeve tees and polos. So this shirt, along with some select other dressy clothes, hung quietly in his closet for the last year or so.

At the end of June, I went on a trip to Alaska. My father loved Alaska. He first went there when he was in the Air Force, and longed to go back. He loved the majesty of the glaciers, the untamed wildness of it, the moose and grizzly bears. He always threatened my mother with the idea that they might explore it by RV. She didn’t think they would both survive such a trip—and not because of the grizzly bears.

In the end, they did go to Alaska before my mother passed away—but on a cruise, the same way I went there.

While I was in Alaska, I looked desperately for whales almost every chance I got. The other thing that I love about whales is that according to Native American lore, whales are the keepers of the story. It is believed that through their song, they pass stories from one generation to the next.

I only saw one whale in Alaska—and not much of it, just a piece of its disappearing dark body as it went for a deep dive below the ship. But between that whale and my dad’s shirt at my poetry reading, I am comforted that our stories are somehow being serendipitously passed along.

P.S. Yes, that is a picture of a whale’s tail that I took on the whale watch. I have no idea if it’s Eruption or not—I couldn’t tell them apart by their tail flukes even though the naturalist on board could!