Poetry Sunday: ‘Going Under,’ by Cheryl Whitehead


Going Under

Splayed on the table, a tiger shark yawns wide.
The anxious sheriff and mayor peer inside
the stomach of the beast: beer cans, torn nets,
half-eaten fish, but no human legs or arms.
Folks are on edge. Blood near shore is death
for tourism, and whatever shark chomped a boy
in half remains at sea on the film set of Jaws.

My mother lies anesthetized. I pace,
while blade and camera ease around her gullet.
The surgeon quarters and reroutes her stomach—
food’s been her only comfort for so long.
Fear eats at me like it did the day I clutched
her arm in the theatre when the shark eyed
a boy’s kicking feet before jerking him under.


Cheryl Whitehead_9-8-15

Cheryl Whitehead’s poems are forthcoming or have appeared in the American Arts Quarterly, The Southern Poetry Anthology: North Carolina, The Hopkins Review, Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz and Literature, Measure, Callaloo, Calyx, Crab Orchard Review and other journals. She has twice been a finalist for the New Letters Poetry Prize, and was recently a finalist for the Morton Marr Poetry Prize. As the recipient of an Emerging Writer’s grant from the Astraea Foundation, she gave a reading with other winners at A Different Light Bookstore in New York City. She has been awarded scholarships from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Quest Writers’ Conference and The North Carolina Writers’ Network Fall Conference.


Notes on “Going Under”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

In previous columns I talked about the use of allusion and of cinematic techniques in poetry (“Turning” and “December” by Susan Spear and “Privilege” by Barbara Berman). Here is an example of a poem that does both. I think we can safely assume that Jaws is familiar enough that most readers will “get” the allusion along with a whole host of images and associations from the readers’ own experience of that movie.

Allusions used to be mostly to literary works, but in modern times, films, TV and other elements of popular culture have become an important source of iconic imagery and symbol in poems. What does an allusion to Jaws bring with it? For me it brings childhood nostalgia of summer vacations at “the shore,” cheesy special effects, and a real, primal terror I still feel anytime I swim in (even fresh) bodies of water. The terror here is of a special variety—menace—the threat is at its emotional and visceral peak just before the danger is made manifest. As the author says about her poem,

“I wrote “Going Under” during the time my mother was getting prepared to have gastric bypass surgery. My biggest fear has always been that something would happen to her, and in this poem that fear comes to the fore.”

Fear about a parent’s mortality is universal, lurking beneath the surface of most of our lives; in “Going Under,” the fear draws nigh and reveals a triangle fin.

I like the way this poem, written in free verse in a conversational tone, is actually quite structured. It consists of two seven-line stanzas, each encapsulating a scene, and then the two scenes are brought together at the end of the poem. Except for the first strongly trochaic line, the meter is iambic with five beats per line. Line lengths are regular, making each stanza (a word that comes from an Italian word meaning “room”) look like its own little shadow box or diorama. Stanza one begins with a shark opened for dissection on an examination table and closes with frightful images of “Blood near shore is death” (a terrific line break, that) and a boy “chomped in half.”

Stanza two opens with the speaker’s mother lying under sedation on an operating table, the contents of her gut probed with a blade as a surgeon resections her stomach. She’s already unconscious, so the “going under” in the title refers perhaps to her “going under” the knife or (what I think) to the speaker feeling underwater in her own fear that her mother will not wake up again. What she feels in this moment reminds her of the terror she felt as a small child seeing Jaws (with her mother, as it happens) for the first time, and the two scenes fuse in these closing lines:

Fear eats at me like it did the day I clutched
her arm in the theatre when the shark eyed
a boy’s kicking feet before jerking him under.

“Going Under” captures two intensely recalled experiences from the speaker’s life and is an example of a dramatic poem. We see the shark on the table, then the mother on the table, almost as if watching cuts of a film, and the scene that is perhaps one of the most horrific from Jaws—the boy caught and dragged underwater—is recalled to invoke the speaker’s helpless horror as she watches her mother undergoing surgery.

“Going Under” is an example of what is sometimes called plainspoken style, rendered in a straightforward conversational tone with mostly one- and two-syllable words (the exception being “anesthetized” in line 8), and as such, the poem is unabashedly accessible. As I discovered when I met her at Sewanee Writers’ Workshop this summer, Whitehead is from the South and speaks with strong regional inflections. To see how that can affect and enhance the experience of a poem, try reading this one aloud in your own voice, then listen to the author reading it, here:



Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

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