Poetry Sunday: “The Bay,” by Gail Mazur

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

“The Bay” is from Mazur’s last book, Forbidden Cities, and this reviewer’s comments about it provide a window onto today’s poem:

Forbidden City is Gail Mazur’s seventh book of poems, and at its devastating, honest, and luminous center is the loss of her husband, the artist Michael Mazur. Freud wrote about the way we bow to grief, noting that “It is remarkable that this painful unpleasure is taken as a matter of course by us.” Mazur examines her response to desolation with unsparing meticulousness. The results are poems that expand our understanding of the consolation of nature, the miracles of art, and the power of imagination. [Source here.]

“The Bay” is unmetered and unrhymed free verse in two couplets followed by four tercets, for a total of 16 lines. The poem seems at first to be narrated in omniscient third person, but its actual point of view is first person, withheld until lines 12-13 when the words “we” and “I” telegraph that the poem is spoken from a more intimate perspective. That’s an interesting modulation, by the way, from line 12’s paired “we” to the singular pronouns “I” and “you” in the next line, something that reminds us that the poem is spoken by someone who used to inhabit the world as one-half of a couple but is now alone. “The Bay” is straightforward, with regular diction and punctuation and simple diction, and it is spare, even bleak, in its communication of the beauty of a natural landscape—Cape Cod in late summer—seen by a speaker who has lost the beloved who used to inhabit that landscape with her.

Each stanza is its own complete sentence fragment and thought and ends in either a period or ellipses. Until “I see” in line 13, there is not a single active verb in the poem. All are present or past participle verb forms and function as modifiers: “mating,” “unfettered,” “becalmed,” “adrift,” “blanched,” “overheated,” “Sand-washed, sun-warmed,” “eroded,” “yearning,” “moving,” “shifting,” and “dying.”

What is the aesthetic consequence of that choice to avoid complete sentences and to use mostly participle forms of verbs? The main effect is a kind of stop-time. Participles communicate habitual or ongoing—hence, not-yet-completed—action. In this poem they resist closure; the speaker’s mate is gone, but their paired story is still continuing. The peculiar ability of such verbs to communicate ongoing activity creates a sense of the continuing present, or presence maybe, of the beloved in the speaker’s consciousness and in the landscape she contemplates.

The first two stanzas paint a plein air view of the bay at Cape Cod, maybe my favorite thing to look at in the whole world. Like today’s poet, I have been fortunate to enjoy it for a week or two most summers, with my husband, for the past thirty years. Stanza 1 focuses on what’s close at hand: dragonflies mating in the “greeny shade” of a tamarisk (saltcedar) bush, with pure image veering into metaphor in “brief lives unfettered.” I love “greeny” for its innocence and exuberance, and for reminding me of another poem (and book) by William Carlos Williams, “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” Like “The Bay,” Williams’s poem concerns lost love in the context of the natural world that once was shared but is now contemplated by a solitary speaker. (“Today / I’m filled with the fading memory of those flowers / that we both loved”). There are other points of commonality; both poems mention the sea, and both talk about the way time bleaches beauty. Williams’ poem, by the way, is the source of these lines, well-known and often quoted since the 2016 election:


You can read an excerpt of “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” here.

Stanza 2 of “The Bay” turns the speaker’s gaze outward, across the water, to reveal a torpid tableau of windless “bleached bay” and “becalmed, white sails / adrift” under a sky that is “blanched” and “overheated”—exactly what the sky often looks like in the hot and humid late days of August on the Cape. Notice the alliterative consonance of those three hard “B’s,” one of the few instances of sound repetition in today’s poem.

Stanza 3 locates us more precisely at (rather than simply overlooking) water level, where we encounter beach detritus (“sea glass”) the speaker speculates must be from some “party ship,” along with old bottles that once held patent remedies. “Nostrums” means “medicines,” but the word, as I recall from my grammar school Latin, has etymological roots in noster, meaning “us,” relevant to this poem about returning to a beloved, shared place alone after the beloved has passed. Thus far, the scene combines fecundity (mating dragonflies) with decline, exhaustion, and eclipse (“blanched” sky, “becalmed” boats), and a life force continuing on through a period of stagnation or decline.

Stanza 4 continues to make clear that the speaker is actually “on the shore” or beach, as evidenced by her ability see something so tiny as the “mites” that live in the sand there. I love the insistence on specificity, those mites neither black nor green but some other color that uniquely combines both. Beach grasses are “calligraphic,” an image from printing and writing picked up again in “printmaker’s lines,” metaphors which liken the grasses to ink marks on a printed page. It’s not much of a stretch to imagine a poet coming up with a printmaking image, but readers might also enjoy knowing that Mazur’s deceased husband, Michael Mazur, was a well-known and much-appreciated visual artist. (You can see examples of his work here.) I first saw his work on exhibit at the Provincetown Fine Arts Works Center, the same summer I took Gail Mazur’s wonderful annual poetry class.

Stanza 5’s “Pale world, green world” exhibits parallel construction in its first two phrases, recalling stanza 3’s “[s]and-washed, sun-warmed fragments.” The dichotomy of “pale” versus “green” and of “moving” versus “still” captures the yin and yang oppositions already seen in the poem: movement versus stasis, life versus death. What is being evoked here is the totality of the world, especially the world of nature, experienced by the speaker and her mate in the life they “knew together” and still extant in the world he has left, where “in everything I see your hand.”

In the poem’s last stanza, the speaker leaves the shoreline to return home, where “wild mint” and “honeysuckle” grow by the door and a “fragrant August wind [is] shifting.” The stasis and blankness of the opening lines give way here to scent, taste, motion, and change. But again, the oppositions come in. The “shifting” wind also is “dying,” and the oxymoron that closes the poem (“nectar, salt”) reminds me of Hegel’s triads, in which two very different things combine to make a third, new thing: “all one breath.”

“The Bay” is about loss, but also about what is not lost; about death, but also new life; about stasis and stagnation, but also about the breeze picking up and new life quickening in stem, blossom, and vine. Its poignance and beauty remind me of the month of August itself: still verdant but thinning, with undertones of summer’s end and impending fall. I love this poem for taking me back, each time I read it, to a late-summer marsh on the cape, with eelgrass taller than my head, pockets of sea lavender blooming mauve clouds, and a certain tiny succulent suddenly flaming crimson and purple. Tourist crowds are at their peak then, but everywhere there is a sense of denouement—gorgeous, aching, and immensely tender, like today’s poem.

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