Kate Sutherland, Beasts of the Sea. knife | fork | book, 2018.
The St. Paul
Topgallantsail wind, cold, cloudy
Unsteady wind and little of it. Clear
with passing clouds. Topsail wind. Light rain
Foggy. Heavy fog. Gale blowing
“” kate sutherland, Beasts of the Sea
i love it when poetry flirts with being boring. but what do i find so fascinating about boredom? proponents of slow-living may see boredom as a radical antidote to the accelerated pace of life under contemporary capitalism. since it’s inherently time-consuming and financially unproductive, reading poetry could be touted as another such antidote—and yet it’s rare to find a poet who doesn’t aim to surprise, incite, or delight in every single line. that being the case, how does kate sutherland expect me to respond—what does she want me to feel?—when she writes like this:
We called the valley after Navigator Yushin who first discovered it
We called the unusual cave among the rock ruins after Adjunct Steller
We called the creek where we threw clubbed sea otters Sea Otter Creek
We called the place we killed them Sea Otter Field
We called the place from which we dragged great logs Wood Creek
We called the cliff that blocked our way the Impassable Rock
The southernmost point we called on our map Cape Manati
that is to say Sea Cow
“” Our Blank Mercator Map
repetition is common in poetry, but usually as refrain. in other words, the repeated phrases build to something, they gather intensity, they circle back and extend beyond. in contrast, i’m tempted to call sutherland’s lines something else: redundant. each one harbours a different data point, but it’s the same theme every time, the same value, and the same numbing sense of stasis. they pile up without hope of toppling, like the innumerable landmarks of an endless, barren territory.
still, there is a kind of pathos (anxiety?) humming in the hollowness of redundancy. someone, or something, is trying to break through, and their presence presses tightly, consistently against me. like actor ben stein’s inexplicably memorable drone, it’s so predictable, so ever-present, that i’ll never get it out of my head.
The sailor Nikita Shumagin died on shore
By the will of God died of scurvy the grenadier
Andrei Tretyakov and we lowered him into the sea
Twelve, 16, 21, 24 men on the sick list. Naval
carpenter Ivan Petrov, drummer Osip Chentsov
Siberian soldier Ivan Davidov died of scurvy
Captain Commander and 32 men on the sick list
Today I became ill with the scurvy.
“” The Sick List
obviously, Beasts of the Sea borrows much of its voice from its sources: the chapbook is distilled from german botanist and zoologist georg wilhelm steller’s accounts of his mid-18th-century voyage to alaska with vitus bering, as well as some modern histories of the ensuing events. nevertheless, i find myself overwhelmed by the patience and tact with which sutherland makes this old, strange language sing. despite her narrative’s wealth of dramatic encounters and bizarre observations (especially pertaining to the large sea mammals that so fascinated steller), her poems remain dominated by their persistent repetition of line and sentence lengths, structures, and content.
on a thematic level, this pacing powerfully replicates the combination of adventure, dread, and drudgery that likely would have accompanied a years-long sea voyage into unexplored waters. more broadly, however, sutherland’s poems innovate and perfect a discursive style that feels like it shifts my perspective on everything. i keep coming back to these lines from “Meeting Americans,” pondering not only the americans they describe, but also who they have become, and who has taken their name:
The shout of human voices
Americans in sealskin kayaks
They would not accept our gifts
spat out Russian liquor
We fired two shots in the air
All these islands are uninhabited
“” Meeting Americans
what seemed simple or unremarkable (or at the very least unworthy of elaboration) to the person who might have first written these lines, is allowed to remain so. on the other hand, the idea that these descriptions might best be confined to the tedious genres of record-keeping and report—an idea always wryly present in sutherland’s style, though rarely in her content—makes their immense historical significance affect us all the more. it’s through this subtle tension that Beasts of the Sea produces a rare and special poetic mood i won’t soon tire of.