“Snorkeling,” by Allison Funk

Commentary by Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

This week’s poem describes an activity that takes place in a warm, tropical climate, a setting that draws my interest and attention as the days grow shorter and colder here in northern California. “Snorkeling” consists of 36 lines of free verse arranged into 12 tercets, each of which indents successive lines by two and then four spaces to create the impression of a 45-degree angle along the left margin. Overall, the poem makes a distinctive shape that looks like a stack of chevrons or, turned sideways, like the silhouette of an underwater coral reef or the skyline of the great cathedral in Barcelona, Sagrada Familia, referenced in line 15. In an example of extended metaphor, the poem spends most of its lines describing the speaker’s memory of her first time snorkeling, which she likens to the experience, or imagined experience, of the return of an “old love” late in her life. Here, the metaphor’s tenor is the possibility of love’s return, and the vehicle is the snorkeling.

The poem evocatively opens with a question: “What if, late in my life, / an old love returned?” The first answer, expressing the speaker’s fear, is that she “might get carried away.” The rest of the poem is devoted to developing the vehicle of the tenor. Imagine, for a moment, what this poem would be like without its first stanza. In that case, we’d have a poem about, well, a mishap that occurred while the speaker was snorkeling. Just that one stanza dramatically deepens the range of emotional experience opened up by the poem, making it actually about something else entirely: the risks of human relationships. Readers who also write poetry might want to take note of this strategy, effective for turning a nature poem into something more emotionally resonant.

In an example of the kind of punning poets love, “getting carried away” in line 3 has at least two meanings. First is the literal sense of being bodily transported to another place, in this case from one part of the ocean to another when the speaker is taken by the tide into the coral bed. But that phrase also communicates a more abstract if familiar concept: loss of emotional control. Like most of us, the speaker is afraid of this kind of loss of control.

“[M]y first time in that otherworld” (line 4) calls to mind Persephone’s abduction and rape by Pluto, cueing readers in early to the idea of erotic chaos and the way love can overpower and take us to a dangerous place. The kind of place that, like a run-down amusement park (evoked by “coney”), our mothers want us very much to avoid. But oh, how bright the glitter and colors there, especially that “neon blue tang,” a phrase that piques taste and smell at the same time it paints a vivid picture of those bright fish. In an example of metaphor within metaphor, “otherworld” designates the place where the speaker was snorkeling at the same time that it refers to her first experience (“first time”) with great passion. For me, at least, it additionally invokes the Persephone myth.

Another metaphor within metaphor occurs when a “stoplight parrotfish” blinks a warning that the speaker does not heed; instead of stopping, she “sped up” to circle a coral formation resembling “Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia,” the architectural wonder whose asymmetrical silhouette resembles a child’s sandcastle and may actually have been inspired by the grotesque branching shapes made by coral. Begun by Antoni Gaudi in 1882, Sagrada Familia is built on a monumental scale and is still under construction today.


[Source here]

Why the mention of Sagrada Familia is important becomes clear when we recall where the poem began, with the speaker wondering about the late-life return to her of an “old love.” From the reference we gather that the “old love” was momentous to the speaker—grandiose and extravagant and elemental like that cathedral, and like it, left unfinished.

The notion of love—as opposed to snorkeling—explicitly returns in lines 8-10 where the speaker describes her underwater breathing as “a hypnotic / one-two, now then, why not // love me.” While circling the coral, the speaker is “remembering” something (line 17)—her lost love, we presume, because the poet’s note tells us that this was the speaker’s first time snorkeling and also because that memory already penetrated her consciousness along with her breath awareness in previous lines.

Foreshadowing occurs in line 21 where the speaker flashes forward to tell us that while she initially believed the coral to be “harmless,” she would nevertheless “learn” at a later point that it was not. In the next stanza, the menace becomes palpable in “the thousand mouths of the reef / that open out of hunger, / alive to the careless swimmer.” The danger, simply stated, is of getting “too close” and of being eaten alive—in relationship terms, of being consumed or subsumed. Lovers who get “too close” run the risk of “succumbing to the pull / of the beautiful” and of getting pulled too far out for safe return. Danger, loss of control, and an oxymoronic push and pull of attraction to and fear of the danger—these are the strongly felt themes in the poem.

A swimmer who goes out too far or a lover who throws herself too deeply into a relationship both run the risk of losing their agency and finding themselves wholly subject to a greater power. In the poem, it is the “surf that flings [the speaker] / against the stinging ridge” (line 30). The ridge is the reef, and in this case includes a species of coral—maybe fire coral—with stinging cells. The next line is distinctly erotic: “Cells meeting cells, tentacles, flesh,” but the meeting is one that leaves the speaker damaged and possibly scarred by “a fiery ring that burns longer / than a slap.” In fact, it persists for “weeks” and “months,” and “may never fade.” The placement of that metaphorical tattoo is important, being in a very private and vulnerable spot, the “underside” of the speaker’s arm. The suggestion is, of course, that the speaker’s “first” experience with that “old love” metaphorically marked her in the same way.

I love the idea of coral stings—and painful love affairs—leaving a “tattoo,” the kind of mark that we choose to have inflicted on us even though it hurts. Love, evidently, can leave us with a sort of heart tattoo, a spiritual or emotional stigmata that is both chosen and (usually—I know about those tattoo-zapping lasers) permanent.

We are never told whether the old love did ever return, but does the poem answer its opening question of what would happen if it did? In one sense, “Snorkeling” reads like a cautionary tale, telling of another time when the speaker allowed herself to be carried away by her heart rather than heeding her head—and suffered for it. That this memory is what comes to mind when she contemplates reviving lost love suggests prudence; someone so burned by first love might do well to avoid going there again. But, hold on a minute—the speaker ignored the warnings the first time she fell in love, and she ignores them again when she does not heed the parrotfish. Her history, such as we know it, is of disregarding warnings. Furthermore—those colors, that feeling of being buoyed up in a way that’s stronger than any resistance that could be mustered—it’s all pretty irresistible, right?

Is it always a bad thing to be marked by our life’s experiences? The very idea of a tattoo—of pain voluntarily chosen precisely because it will leave a mark—suggests that the answer may well be no. I like the way the poem leaves it open, not telling us whether the old love did in fact return or even whether the speaker finally came around to being able to allow the possibility of its return. Play it safe and stay within bounds, and you miss all those amazing fish. Take a risk and let yourself be taken away, and ultimately burned and forever marked? How wonderful that the poem lets us, the readers, decide.



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