whales swam in our rivers, stranded
and hours from death, or arriving
at it. They were lost, as we are, branded
with an exile’s stamp. Neither thriving
nor heartsick yet, their eyes unable
to adjust to foreign light, striving
for home in a manner their fable-
thirsty rescuers distrusted. Citizens
conversed over breakfast tables
about these lost monsters: impatience
barely concealed as to why these whales
in particular were news-worthy, friends
all of a sudden to the sea-shy, hailed
as martyrs of a sort. The fact remained:
it was in our rivers they had failed.
What is it about Leviathan? His size; his inconsolable clicking-cry; his heavy somnambulism; the flirting bold whiteness of his back and the giant slap of his tail; his being closer to a god than we can ever hope to be?
Five years ago in the post-Christmas fug and fog of a brown, wet, January, a female Bottlenose Whale found her way up the Thames Estuary, to central London. All seven tonnes of her was there to marvel at; to wonder at; and the very bottoms of the deepest oceans were startlingly surface-borne. Eight authorities, thousands of spectators, and over a hundred news cameras witnessed the attempted rescue, and subsequent violent death of The Whale. And across the newspapers on January 22nd obituaries; farewells; and eponymous, hyperbolic goodbyes. The cause of death was combination dehydration, kidney failure, muscle damage, loss of blood; and this bizarre additional fact: The Whale suffered from severe skeletal-arthritis (it seems Pinocchio’s asthmatic whale wasn’t far off the mark after all). And throughout all this she won no nicknames, remaining The Whale, until her end. What name to give these creatures of the deep, these mammoth objects from beyond the possibility of our bodies? These “lost monsters” these “martyrs” from another world?
“Ali BUMBAYE, Ali BUMBAYE, Ali BUMBAYE”. With odds on of 8-1 to win (because Forman was a sure bet; the hardest hitter in heavyweight; a monster man) Ali, already in his 30’s, took to the ring in Kinshasa’s pre-dawn (so the Americans could watch in the comfort of their afternoons), to fight to regain [HIS] the title Heavyweight Champion of The World. He was an old man, “neither thriving/ nor heartsick yet” but certainly “stranded” and “striving for home in a manner ….distrusted”. Ali took Forman’s jabs and punches for three solid rounds; barely lifting a finger in response, sleeping on the ropes; and then a wink to camera somewhere in the fifth and all Hell in the eighth, and Forman’s on the floor. And the heavens in Kinshasa opened; and God sent a second flood. This was the third time Mohammed Ali lifted the title.
Two paragraphs in and I haven’t mentioned Moby Dick or Declan Ryan. Shame on me. But here’s the thing. Ryan’s poem “When We Were Kings” is an eight-rounder, and its readers deserve this pre-amble. Ryan, to my mind, is a rope-a-dope poet; a poet who gives you a story to grab hold of on your first read, then the second time, and the third it’s the same; and then there’s this lyrical wink, and BANG, the poem fights back. This is a poem about whales, isn’t it? This is a poem about boxing isn’t it? This is a poem about the fallibility of the human-physical and the abundant stupidity of the human-spiritual, isn’t it? This is a poem that deserves to be read out loud, from a poet who champions live poetry, living poetry, poetry that fights back. But this is also a poem that aches, and tugs whilst sideswiping you with the cheeky and mythological. There are “monsters” at the “breakfast tables”, exposed to “foreign light, striving for home”. There is an exquisite stillness that Ryan captures in the “hours from death”, and a desperation concealed as petty-hatred in ”exile’s stamp”, and the strong sibilant-song of the whale that runs, sonically, throughout. Declan Ryan, like Tom Waits, straddles the boundaries between poetry and lyrics, between gritty and melodic, between our world and theirs. There is the subtle five-layer story-telling of Hugo Williams, the image-expanse and verbal economy of Cormac McCarthy, and the pedestrian whimsical guilt of Hughes. This is not poetry that will stay on the ropes for long.
The poem itself carries the title of (arguably) the greatest sports movie/documentary ever made, When We Were Kings, charting the (not arguably) greatest fight in recorded history (barring possibly David and Goliath). And its five, three-line stanzas are the linear shape of that fight: against the ropes for one, two, three, and a wink in the fifth. For me, this poem is one great wink, one nod towards the Leviathan, the unknown, The Great White Whale (let’s not get into semantics of colour here) of Captain Ahab, the obsession of Philip Hoare, the extraordinary being which ordered the silence and rapture of David Attenborough, the cetacean that Louis Armstrong (among others!) sings mistook Jonah for a fish, the “giant Dog-fish…more than a kilometre long” that swallows Pinocchio whole. But more than this, this is the man, Ali, and The Whale who could “float like a butterfly” on the surface, bringing everything up from the darkest depths for all the world to see. But these floating butterflies, as Melville says, are nothing more than “subtle deceits” :
not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; … and like wilful travellers in Lapland, who refuse to wear colored and coloring glasses upon their eyes, so the wretched infidel gazes himself blind at the monumental white shroud that wraps all the prospect around him. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?
There is something apologetic in Ryan’s work. Something that suggests he is languaged from a greater truth (not necessarily purporting to understand it), but carrying it nonetheless, and pitying us as we pity The Whale, and Ali the boxer, both creatures of seeming infinite power, who we loved to hate, and hated to love because of their extraordinary one-ness, their (understandable) seeming arrogance at being themselves.
Quite simply Declan Ryan has produced an astonishing poem. One that conceals beneath an economy of words the sheer power of its musculature; and because of that, its slyness, its wink, and its knock-out blow: its final line. “The fact remains:/ it was in our rivers they had failed.” Is this a fact of which to be proud? The craftiness of men outwitting the natural geography of the whale? Ali’s final fighting years, one punch too many, one fight too far. Or is this our failure? Our pitiful ridiculousness? Our “impatience” our “breakfast table[s]” chat? Is it our fault that Ali, with his ‘sting like a bee’ is now bent double, crippled by his own life? Or that The Whale, in search of the ocean, found her bones had seized and fused, and she could no longer swim?
But there is one great hope: the great rains after the fight, a clear air, and a forgiving god. It is the “sea-shy”. There will be other George Formans, other Captain Ahabs: but there too will be Ismaels, and Philip Hoares, and those who protect the Leviathans on earth and in the oceans, by being too frightened to touch. And there will be Declan Ryan, mapping out the ridiculousness of it all, probing the secrets of these alien “friends”, gently verbalizing the unknown, the unknowing; and the great vast rope-a-dope wink of The Boxer and The Whale.
My apologies to Declan for cutting up his poem. I like it very, very much. And a note on Katie Warner’s illustration. A beautiful rendering of the Whale’s Wink, in the soft-worn shadows of sea-pebbles washed up.