It took me four months to read Moby Dick – for the first time last summer - and I felt energised by the experience to pick up Of Whales in print, in paint, in sea, in stars, in coin, in house, in margins by Antony Caleshu.
Anthony Caleshu has recreated the tangled, obsessive and fascinating story. Or a story, at least. As well as Moby Dick, Caleshu uses Melville’s letters, sources and criticism to create this excavation of obsession, of creation, of storytelling and fantasy. As he extracts in ‘Wonderfullest Thing’ (a poem of lines from the novel), “Each chapter is another chapter…”. And in this book, each poem is another poem, the tangents, enthusiasms, and knowledge diverge, echo and ultimately stack up to make a compulsive response to the original Whale.
One of my favourite themes from the original novel, Caleshu returns to, is Melville’s preoccupation with how whales are represented elsewhere. Caleshu has several poems discussing the art of whales, unpacking their contents, imagining relationships and hamming up new stories from them:
“The dialectical struck us: portrait or landscape? fish or fishmonger? In the white and green, we could see all of our dreams.” (‘A Very-Large Oil-Painting, Thoroughly Besmoked’)
“anachronistic… the time: post-war, post-apocalyptic, post-whale” there is time travel a-plenty here, both in Caleshu’s recasting of himself as a confidente to the Melville family (there are letters between himself and Maria and Augusta Melville, from 1850), and also in the linguistical play and references (Pulp, ACE grants and The Writers’ Room photography series from The Guardian all stand out).
“It’s the first night in a week of nights that we haven’t had any
Herman between us.
Not even a letter to his mother.
But now I’m remembering his mother’s letters to him,
and to me, to whom she was always good to write.”
(‘How I Met Your Mother (with the Help of Melville’s)’)
And so, like with my reading of the novel, I became dizzy to where I stood in relation to events, fuzzy around the edges of reason and rationale. A position I like, that reminds me of being at sea, at staring too long at an empty horizon, too long without landed references and familiarity.
The contemporary letters are joined by Caleshu taking the role of Captain Caleshu, addressing his son Ishmael Caleshu on his 18th birthday. This sequence of five prose piece dances between a touching discourse between father and son, a pastiche of seaman talk, a homage to all things absurdist and a dalliance with a stream of conscious confessional that leaves us hanging onto an open end, as if the speaker has just slipped his mooring and is out of earshot.
“The passage I just read to you is not from the Oxford Book, but I think you’ll agree that it is engrossing nonetheless. There is nothing so elemental as water. Water has no past prejudices.” (“’What makes thee want to go a whaling, eh?’”)
It works, as the rest of the book works (for me, at least) – best when I don’t focus too much on meaning, but cock my head at sense and tone, letting odd sentences latch into memory, but on the whole leave it sloshing a sense of regret, aspiration, hope, love and uncertainty.
If the collection was made of such play, I might struggle to engage with its continual joking, the effect of which being masking, diffidence and remoteness. But it isn’t. Poems such as ‘The Making of Ahab’, are far more logical, or perhaps coherent in how they flow forwards from the first descriptive couplet of absence through how Melville’s novel is as much about the white space as a poem, to the revelations of the potency, fury and frustration of the captain, both in the novel and to the reader.
“None of us on board have any reason to question
the nature of the voyage, when all of a sudden
the whiteness of a blank page
rises up from beneath –
the author’s quick turn …”
The sense of inevitability in this poem is tragic, and mostly unsaid, as the lines become shorter and shorter, leaving more and more white – again the vast sea, perhaps?
This poem ends with a “we” – the reader, the crew, all of us… Elsewhere I enjoyed this communal narrator was in the farce, ‘Moby-Dick: The Film’ (there is also reference to a musical). Where the we seems to be the directors, the film crew, the actors, all struggling to make a film that attempts to be more faithful than previous but feels more like Eric Sykes or Tony Hancock are involved than Richard Attenborough.
“The director’s head is firmly in his hands when someone
accidently triggers the whirlpool.”
Perhaps it is impossible to make a film faithful to such a book, just as Caleshu could well be “await[ing] technical corrections” to this book.
Although while it has this jokey, throwaway tone that keeps resurfacing in poems, each are clearly carefully crafted in their balance of tenderness, folly, research and personal experience. It took me several sittings to be able to step back from piecing the poems together, from relating them to incidents in the novel to slip into the eddy that is obsession, spiralling round and round the Whale, whales, Melville and what it means to create – relationships, art, literature. Once there, I didn’t want to leave. The collection is a great achievement, a great honouring of an obsessive book, and offered me a new perspective on the novel, acting as first mate rather than a sequel.