The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 477

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.

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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 up and voices its objection in three cries: “Awaark! Awaark! Awaark!” It lunges toward the narrator, who has now become an antagonist. As the narrator leaps back, the seal “starts flopping toward the sea” but does not have the strength to make it. The seal looks up at the sky, resembling “an old lady who has lost her hair.” Settling into the sand, it waits for the narrator to go. Bly writes merely, “I go.”

The next day, the narrator returns to say his goodbye to the now-dead seal but does not find it where he left it. Rather, the seal is a quarter of a mile up the beach, “thinner, squatting on his stomach, head out.” It is, much to the narrator’s dismay, still breathing, still waiting to die. The seal looks at the narrator as a wave comes to shore and touches his muzzle. Bly now compares the crown of the seal’s head to “a boy’s leather jacket bending over some bicycle bars.” The narrator comments matter-of-factly, “He is taking a long time to die.” Then he says his goodbye, asking forgiveness “if we have killed you,” wishing the dying animal comfort in death “when the sand will be out of your nostrils, and you can swim in long loops through the pure death, ducking under as assassinations break above you.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

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 of alliteration, particularly in “lightly glazed,” where the l sounds in “lightly” alliterate with the internal l in “glazed,” and even more notably in “sharp mussel shells,” in which the s sounds alliterate in four instances while the l sound in “mussel” also alliterates with a similar sound in “shells.” Assonance plays less of a role in this poem than alliteration.

Bly’s use of metaphors is striking. He compares the dying seal to a brown log, the seal’s cry to cries from Christmas toys, the seal’s skin to an old overcoat, the seal itself to “an old lady who has lost her hair,” and, most strikingly toward the end of the poem and the end of the seal’s life, the crown of the seal’s head to “a boy’s leather jacket bending over some bicycle bars.” These metaphors serve Bly well poetically because they are both visual and commonplace.

The major literary device Bly employs in “The Dead Seal near McClure’s Beach” is imagery, most of which is visual. Bly makes his readers feel the textures of the seal’s skin, the grittiness of the sand, the sting of grains of sand as they blow across the beach toward the sea. He describes the dying seal in considerable detail despite the brevity of the poem. Bly’s readers know where the seal’s flippers are and what they look like. They can visualize the seal’s small eyes, first closed, then slanted. They observe its ribs, the vertebrae of its back, the whiskers “as white as porcupine quills,” the sloping forehead.

All of this is overt observation. Bly does not presume to penetrate the seal’s mind, which poetically would constitute an invasion of the subject’s privacy and dignity. This would result in a maudlin, sickeningly sentimental poem, which this is not. The author depends upon the narrator to state the facts objectively, allowing readers to draw their own conclusions.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 183

Altieri, Charles F. “Varieties of Immanentist Experience: Robert Bly, Charles Olson, and Frank O’Hara.” In Enlarging the Temple: New Directions in American Poetry During the 1960’s. Lewisburg, Pa.: Bucknell University Press, 1979.

Davis, William Virgil. Understanding Robert Bly. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

Friberg, Ingegard. Moving Inward: A Study of Robert Bly’s Poetry. Goteborg, Sweden: Acta University Gothoburgensis, 1977.

Harris, Victoria. The Incorporative Consciousness of Robert Bly. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1992.

Lensing, George S., and Ronald Moran, eds. Four Poets and the Emotive Imagination: Robert Bly, James Wright, Louis Simpson, and William Stafford. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976.

Malkoff, Karl. Escape from the Self: A Study in Contemporary American Poetry and Poetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 1977.

Nelson, Howard. Robert Bly: An Introduction to the Poetry. New York: Columbia University Press, 1984.

Peseroff, Joyce, ed. Robert Bly: When Sleepers Awake. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1985.

Robert Bly Web site.

Smith, Thomas R. Walking Swiftly: Writings and Images on the Occasion of Robert Bly’s 65th Birthday. New York: Perennial, 1991.

Sugg, Richard P. Robert Bly. Boston: Twayne, 1986.

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