Poem Friday: Frankie McMillan’s ‘My father, the oceanographer’ — its poetic co-ordinates set for some form of truth

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My father, the oceanographer


knew the language of whales

yet tripped over the sound

of his own name


They say the cure for death

is drowning and for a lisp

a bucket of salt water



In white gumboots he entered

the stomach of a whale

sat brooding under the great arched bones

of a church


invoking the mantra of LFA sonar

whale fall

and echolation


stripped to his underwear,

so great was the heat, and

blubber he said


now there was a word to make you weep


Author’s note: I’m never sure how a poem is ‘made’ but once I have a good opening line it gives me the courage to explore the possibilities. It’s a hit and miss method and out of the many poems I attempt only a few survive. I think this poem may have echoes of the biblical story, Jonah and the whale. The fact my father hardly talked to me as a child may also have informed the poem. Or then again, I’d seen the film, ‘The King’s Speech’ which might have worked its way in with whales. I imagine a lot of poets work in this subconscious fashion.

Author’s bio:Frankie McMillan is the author of The Bag Lady’s Picnic and other stories, and a poetry collection, Dressing for the Cannibals. In 2005 she was awarded the Creative NZ Todd Bursary. In 2008 and 2009 her work was selected for the Best NZ Fiction anthologies. Other awards include winner of the New Zealand Poetry Society International Competition (2009) and the NZ National Flash Fiction award (2013). This year she is a co – recipient of the Ursula Bethell writing residency at Canterbury University. Her next book of poetry, There Are No Horses in Heaven is to be published by CUP in early 2015.

Paula’s note: I loved the way the words looped and slipped over each other in this poem as though embarking on little ventures into echolocation. Each shifting phrase becomes a way of locating yourself in the poem — in its mysterious seams and lyrical folds. In the first verse, we get a magnificent yet miniature portrait of a father, of a man who is adept on one level, yet not on another. That delicious irony sets off the first ripple through the poem. The second ripple extends from the width of water to drown in to the single word that induces tears. This poem is like an ode, a sweet tribute to a father, but it is also like a tribute to the power of language to skid and skate, to conceal and spotlight. I loved it for its tenderness, its humbleness and its poetic co-ordinates set for some form of truth.

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