Coffin Rock

The ochre of the island on his charts
mingles with his wife's yellow hair;
neither deserts him, rounding Coffin Rock,
guiding the Nobska out of Wood's Hole.
Lacking either, how could he set out?
Shoals are a hazard,
but only the safest lie upon sea-bed.
More treacherous the routine that intrudes
until only the literal sea is sailed:
the world beyond runs aground.

These are the days we least understand:
the days dominated by the literal table.
There is only the smooth, dark mahogany,
and who dares disturb the opacity of wood,
inflicting images no eye imagines?
So every surface deceives us, deflects
our sight and deceives us, unless we enter.
Nor will soil accept the seed, nor embracing
lovers perfect themselves, without entrance.
A strange resistance, detectable everywhere,
but wide everywhere and hinged.

Why should the tides deter navigation?
They sprout both whirlpool and dolphin:
they are made to be gone through,
and that is the mystery no word endangers,
though the dream it engenders sets the mouth talking.
I have seen the dream that precedes the table,
seen bread there possessing certain powers
of transformation, as though the table
grew out of it, into a dependent world.

But then the eye too evades us: look how
it wanders, from the loaf on the dining room table
to the bus going by or the elm trees,
unless we enter--until the wheat's black home
is real as the city swimming round our meal.
Though the wine, lying still in the glass,
conceals the vine's convolutions,
the slenderness of stalk and grapes' roundness,
we can drink through them, finding green in its redness.

Otherwise glare and glance conspire
to make their communion brief;
only at night they seek each other's depths
and drown in each other's heat,
the mind melting the face of the watch,
the wilted watch-face fathering horrors--
the half of the fruit we eat around all day
unless we enter what we have eaten,
watching the earth swim waist-deep in darkness,
half of her mountains submerged in light,
light that catches on no one peak, nor pair of eyes gathers.

The brilliance beyond light source or eye
is what burns through the wood's opacity.
Let only the sunlight fall on the wood,
and all but the dark-brown rays are devoured.
Light breaks the world up into its objects.
Sunlight fractures, the poet makes amends.
Shakespeare went wading in the River Thames.
He swims a few strokes and stands up in waist-high water,
the shade deep along the riverbanks,
the sun on the water blinding.

His fingers run through his hair.
The hours have not worn her face off the air.
He repeats the new line silently to himself:
"By this light, where by I see thy beauty."
Her face flows through him,
but also the afternoon,
"whereby I see thy beauty".
Time stopped and time passing meet in the line.
The light wraps around the elm trunks,
and shade spills over from the banks onto the river.

Neither Locke nor Blake,
nor the ideas waiting for them to be born:
the eye is not empty, nor the landscape blank.
Whenever she walks by him,
more than the sun shines, and the sky swims higher:
"Her beauty makes this vault
a feasting presence of light."
Her hair is of sun's hue, the sun is blonde;
they are full of each other's echoes.

With sun in her hair and on the River Thames,
who knows where hair starts and the sunlight ends?
Instruments show only the sun shining
and the flinch of the eye to avoid it.
They cannot register the thirst for light.
There are ways in which the sun is a circle
and the light does not spill over;
there are ways in which what I say is not the truth,
but it is the only way we understand.
By lies and metaphors the truth endures,
and the minister makes it to the end of the parable.

How strange it is to know things
neither the heart nor head can locate
and navigate by them as though they were West Chop Light,
as though they cast a beam or a shadow.
For the time comes when there is only
the hand gripping the spar.
No longer the shore arching water has occluded,
nor calluses a numbness has displaced.
The only emotion is a passion for clinging,
whose only reason is that spars must be clung to.

With the sea's jaws as wide as the sea,
a moment's inattention pries spar from hand,
the hand that holds more than all of the body.
These are the days you survive
only by wording them carefully,
and you say them past saying's explanations.
I know you call this escape.
You call it escape in a room whose floors
are rigid around an unrippling table,
and your pipe-smoke blows out the door.

It is escape to a spar
when the rest of the world is water.
All other needs and desires have a time,
whenever the storm may finish,
in a place that is only what the spar may point to.
The ferry slips in at Vineyard Haven,
and, in the stained-glass of Edgartown,
Christ lends the motion
of his robes to the wind,
and sailors take courage.

Coffin Rock is a formation of submerged rock just beyond the mouth of Wood's Hole harbor in Massachusetts; it's a navigational hazard for the pilots of the ferry service to the offshore islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket.

I wrote "Coffin Rock" in the summer of 1973, with the help of a part-time job at the Rutgers French Department that gave me whole afternoons to work on the poem. It's still one of my favorites. 
I was looking for a way to transcend the opposing viewpoints of Rationalism and Romanticism. But I was also pining for Martha's Vineyard, where I had spent much of 1971 and 1972, and I still feel a sea breeze when I read this.

Published in the inaugural issue of The Manhattan Review, 1980.


  1. great to see this wonderful poem again; I published it in The Manhattan Review in 1980.--Philip Fried

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