Wake: Up to Poetry
Remarks on Carson’s “The Fetch,” from For All We Know, Part Two
I woke. You were lying beside me in the double bed,
prone, your long dark hair fanned out over the downy pillow.
I’d been dreaming we stood on a beach an ocean away
watching the waves purl into their troughs and tumble over.
Knit one, purl two, you said. Something in your voice made me think
of women knitting by the guillotine. Your eyes met mine.
The fetch of a wave is the distance it travels, you said,
from where it is born at sea to where it founders to shore.
I must go back to where it all began. You waded in
thigh-deep, waist-deep, breast-deep, head-deep, until you disappeared.
I lay there and thought how glad I was to find you again.
You stirred in the bed and moaned something. I heard a footfall
on the landing, the rasp of a man’s cough. He put his head
around the door. He had my face. I woke. You were not there.
This instantiation of “The Fetch”—itself the transfigured double of the first part’s poem of the same title—further complicates the already dubious relationship between image and reality, and it does so via maybe the oldest and most little-kid archetypal symbol of this fuzzy distinction: the dream. Here, though, it’s more like the dream raised to the second or possibly third power, a ‘dream’ preceded by multiple degrees of ‘meta.’
The poem seems to begin with the speaker’s relieved awakening from and immediate recollection of his first dream-within-a-dream. In this surreal scene, he sees himself standing with the nameless dark-haired woman “on a beach an ocean away,” looking back out at the waves that emanate from the direction of his meta-dreaming self. The cryptic intent she voices just before wading out into this sea implies that it is in this meta-dreamer’s imagination that “it all began,” while her definition of the wave’s fetch as “the distance it travels…from where it is born at sea to where it founders on shore” and the association, in the speaker’s mind, of the woman’s vocal timbre with “women knitting by the guillotine” align this self-effacing search for origins with both birth and death. It is precisely at the moment of this implication that the dreaming speaker awakens into the reassurance of the dark-haired woman’s unmediated presence.
But this reassurance is, of course, itself a dream, a deceptive fiction invented by and for the speaker’s meaning-craving mind. The fact that this dream-layer is torn away only at the obtrusion of the speaker’s own undeniable mirror-image reveals the closest thing to truth this poem ‘s willing to give us: that in populating the indistinguishable worlds of reality and dream with the unnamed woman and the desire she embodies, the speaker is actually searching for himself, for the third-person self-image whose presence might render him complete, subjectively closed—in other words, what we usually think we want to mean by ‘Self.’
With a work so radically skeptical of the average everyday distinctions between subject and object, seer and seen, inside and out, etc., it would be a show of bad faith if we were to close the book without formulating certain questions about our relationship with the poem itself (the poem if we want to get jargony). Briefly recall the layers of subjective mediation here: we have a speaker whose own shadow startles him out of a reassuring dream in which he’d been startled out of a slightly less reassuring dream, all dreamed up by Ciaran Carson and communicated to us in a type of highly refined artistic.
This last part becomes especially poignant when we consider that the enigmatic brunette both lacks a name and seems able only to communicate either a.) in the most indirect, obscure, dare we say poetic manner or b.) via a series of semantically incoherent moans. The exchange between us the reader and Carson the poet thus repeats, on yet another level of metaoneirism, the tension between the speaker’s own conflicting desires for pre-linguistic actualization and interpersonal communication, the latter of which remains, at least for us postlapsarians, both the exclusive province and provenance of language.