A Journey Translated to Metaphor

Earlier, my publisher Ron Starbuck asked me to explain the inspiration for the poem “Saint Brendan and the Whale” in the book Variations. For the last few hours I have been thinking how to simplify my explanation of this poem without sounding like a formal dissertation—it is difficult to keep my reply brief in this case due to the complexity of the source of inspiration.

Chronologically, I have to begin with the moment my partner and I named our adopted son, Brendan. This was a gesture of protection, a charm of security, or in a sense, a parental blessing against the unpredictable future. In Gaelic,the name means “brave.”

Looking further in the history we found that the Irish monk who is credited with plausible early discovery of North America, a century before the Columbus trips, this monk is named Breandán the Navigator. A Latin text exists from the Tenth Century outlining his story: Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis. One particular part of the long work details how while travelling along the northern territories off Canada, Brendan and his followers landed on a small island, only to discover later that it was actually an ancient whale sleeping on the surface of the ocean.

In the opening section of my book exists a cycle of poems celebrating Saint Brendan’s initial quest to find the Garden of Eden. The inspiration for these works stems from wanting to recapture my own sense of faith, my connection with the divine element—as a means of passing a strong morality and self-worth to my own child.

   the whale is the saint;
the saint is the whale

Brendan, the monk, must have had moments when he questioned his motivations and intuitions to sail westward, blindly, from southern Ireland. Such a journey is easily translated to metaphor — an individual’s want to understand his or her own diverse quest for gaining happiness and fulfillment.

However, within “Saint Brendan and the Whale” I specifically modeled the passages after two Twentieth Century writings: Galway Kinnell’s “Saint Francis and the Sow”—a modern interpretation of events surrounding a recording of Christian mysticism and Anne Sexton’s irreligious book The Death Notebooks. Whereas Sexton abstracts the notions of Christ and spirit into fragmented frustrations, Kinnell explores a more positive examination of human connections with the natural world.

In my case, I wanted to explore the identity of the monk before he became the saint and how as a culture we translate his form to a holy object, a symbol of sea and mystic ambition. Likewise, elements of the monks’ aspirations and desires are shown; the poem encases the moments before the trip when he envisions the possibilities of building a small boat and testing the Atlantic waters— the moments where he prepares himself for his personal epiphany moment. In alternating passages, I insert images of the whale as a divine, marine animal of the natural world, as a functioning creation of reproduction and instinct. The natural element connecting the two is desire, the desire of simply being: the whale is the saint; the saint is the whale.


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