Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 433

As the title of this prose poem suggests, its prevailing theme is death, specifically the impending death of a beached seal, a victim of an oil spill. Its body, sleek with oil, rests on the beach resembling something inanimate, in Bly’s words, “a brown log.” There is still life in the seal. Despite its hopeless situation, it struggles to stay alive, clings to the small flicker of life that remains within it.

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The seal becomes a metaphor for something larger. Through implication and subtle references, Bly suggests that the industrial-technological complex that has landed the seal in its present plight may indeed be threatening human life as well. Bly uses the last lines of this stirring prose poem to suggest this possibility. He implies that the seal, in death, will have a new life, one in which it will again swim “in long loops through the pure death, ducking under as assassinations break above you.”

Bly uses two of his ten Point Reyes poems to comment on contemporary issues. “Finding a Salamander on Inverness Ridge,” in which Bly decries the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, is a political poem that does not work fully because it fails to sustain a dialectical tension. “The Dead Seal near McClure’s Beach,” however, is a more subtle poem and lends itself better to poetic prose than the earlier poem does.

In this poem, Bly sketches a vivid word picture, invoking his readers’ sympathy with the beached seal but never sentimentalizing his portrait of the dying animal. His approach is matter-of-fact: He casts the narrator as an intruder; the seal wants him to go; he goes. There is a sense here of the unity of all living things as well as the separateness of each living thing, the ying and the yang found in much of Bly’s poetry. In the end, like the seal, all living things are alone. Also, all living things face overwhelming threats from events such as the oil spill that has beached the proud seal, now dying alone and with dignity on the deserted Northern California beach.

Bly makes his point in this prose poem through restraint and understatement. He tells nothing in detail about the oil spill, although at the time the poem was written, numerous oil spills had threatened the environments of many pristine areas. The public was sufficiently aware of the possibility and danger of such catastrophes that Bly could safely leave his readers to construct their own details once he had planted in their minds the hint of the points he was trying to make.

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