The Poem

When Robert Bly wrote “The Dead Seal near McClure’s Beach” and other poems in the Point Reyes series, he was, in his own words, attempting to “describe an object or a creature without claiming it, without immersing it like a negative in his developing tank of disappointment and desire.” These poems, set in the exquisitely beautiful but often violent part of the Northern California coastline around Point Reyes, focus on an unforgiving natural setting, whose very beauty is the siren’s call that can lead ultimately to destruction.

The narrator in this prose poem is walking north toward Point Reyes near McClure’s Beach when he spies ahead of him what appears to be a beached brown log. In line 1, even before he introduces the log metaphor, he tells his readers, “I come on a dead seal,” lying on its back. Just as he speculates that the seal has been dead for only a few hours, he notices that it quivers, sending out a momentary sign of life, and is dismayed.

He moves into a physical description of the seal, back arched, small eyes closed. Its back is covered with oil, the “oil that heats our houses so efficiently.” One flipper is folded over the stomach, “looking like an unfinished arm,” while the other “lies half underneath.” Bly compares the seal’s skin to an old overcoat, noticing that it has scratches possibly made by sharp mussel shells.

When the narrator reaches out to touch the dying seal, it rears...

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Forms and Devices

Bly chose the form of the prose poem because of its urgency and directness. He said, “The difference between lulling prose and the good prose poem is that the urgent, alert rhythm of the prose poem prepares us to journey, to cross the border, either to the other world, or to that place where the animal lives.”

In “The Dead Seal near McClure’s Beach,” later titled simply “The Dead Seal,” the poet writes in short, clipped sentences, many of the most crucial lines less than half a dozen words long: “My God, he’s still alive,” “He is dying,” “I go,” “He’s dead now,” “But he’s not.” The simplicity and economy of Bly’s words and sentences help to make this prose poem vivid and effective. Bly’s masterful control and restraint strip the poem of any mawkish sentimentality that a subject like this might engender.

Prose poems do not have any set rhyme scheme, although at times they may have incidental internal rhyme. Rather than depending on conventional rhyme patterns, they often employ such devices as alliteration, the repetition of consonant sounds, and assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds.

Although this poem involves both alliteration and assonance—“The body is on its back,” “looking like an unfinished arm, lightly glazed,” or “sharp mussel shells,”—Bly does not overly depend upon these devices to achieve his artistic ends. In the examples above, there is some intricate use...

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