Students Respond: Imagery and Music in Nolan Natasha Pike’s “Sailor”
Poetry students at Douglas College were asked to respond to poems in EVENT, discussing observations on technique as well as what they learned as writers. Over the summer we’ll be posting a selection of these responses with the accompanying poem. The poem below, by Nolan Natasha Pike, first appeared in EVENT 45/2.
I doubt very seriously there could be anything
as delightful as drinking whisky from your dimples,
but I haven’t done it yet.
I looked down at the planes tattooed on your forearm
and wanted to know what kind of sheets were on your bed.
Turns out they were white.
Over eggs, you rolled up your blue sleeves and told me
about a boat back in Nova Scotia. So you are basically a sailor?
Yes, you lied.
A week or two later, you tapped the bend in my shoulder and said,
It’s time to get up, porkchop.
The word porkchop got caught
on something in my stomach—
an impulse stalled and stayed there spinning,
spinning for years, in tighter and tighter circles,
holding my breath, leaning away,
until there was nothing left to do but let go
and yell Marry Me! Marry Me!
across the water.
-Nolan Natasha Pike
One of my favourite things about poetry is its capacity for completeness in meaning even when many blanks have been purposefully left. All forms of language can do this, but poetry in particular allows writers to convey meaning without spelling everything out. Using consistent imagery and musical language, Nolan Natasha Pike tells a clear story. And although it took me a few readings to fully understand the poem figuratively, I was immediately drawn to it because of its sincerity. It is vulnerable while remaining lighthearted; it’s idyllic. The poem spans years of time and discusses the vast love and emotion the speaker feels towards their significant other, but it isn’t heavy in its bigness. At times I found myself laughing simply from happiness, because, without being overly explicit or sentimental, it describes an immense joy.
Pike’s most effective and present technique used in this poem is imagery, and the clearest image is of airplanes: “I looked down at the planes tattooed on your forearm/and wanted to know what kind of sheets were on your bed./Turns out they were white.” In the first line of this stanza, I see airplanes lift off into a white sky. The next two lines tell us that the two have slept together, while the white sheets also evoke clouds. And as the speaker falls more and more in love, the plane falls too. In the fifth and sixth stanzas, Pike compares the sensation of falling in love to an airplane which has “stalled and stayed there spinning.” Finally, as these feelings spin the speaker around, there comes a point where the speaker has “nothing left to do but let go.” Here, we know what the speaker wants and what they have decided, a decision based on their feelings towards the other person, which are explored with the second main image of the piece.
This image of water and a sailor is not a cohesive scene, but it does come up three times in the poem. First, with, “whisky,” there’s a hint. Then, the image solidifies with “you rolled up your blue sleeves and told me/about a boat back in Nova Scotia. So you are basically a sailor?/Yes, you lied.” The line is playful. Blue suggests the sky, but also water, and I get a sense of what this other person is like, but also of the fondness the speaker has for them. I see that the speaker holds this memory of them talking close, and get a glimpse of how the two fell in love. The poem ends with the last image of water in the last stanza: “and yell Marry me! Marry me!/across the water.”
These two images are spread out through the poem to weave and hold it together, but imagery is not the only tool Pike has used here. There is also effective use of musical language. In the first half of the poem, there is alliteration evenly spaced throughout the poem, with a different letter for each stanza, almost as if Pike were painting each part of the poem with a different colour. In the second line, “as delightful as drinking whisky from your dimples” the alliterated Ds are subtle, but present, and “doubt” and “done” in the first and third lines give the sense of this gentle alliteration seeping into the rest of the stanza. In fifth line this happens with Ws, and in the eighth, with Bs. In the thirteenth and fourteenth lines we get alliteration with S. And at the end of this stanza, Pike brings in the other prevalent form of musical language to end the poem: repetition. “spinning,/spinning,” then, “in tighter and tighter circles”—it’s a small use of repetition, but it makes the final “Marry me! Marry me!” much more natural and compelling.
This subtlety is something that I had never consciously considered. Usually melodic language is loud, but I admire the quietness of this piece. It’s soft, and language should be able to be soft. Seeing it work so well makes me want to let myself be more subdued with this kind of language. Pike has taught me that these tools we use as poets can be used with a soft hand as well as a strong one, and has demonstrated how imagery and extended metaphor can make a poem stronger by stitching it together without necessarily being the focus. Through the use of cohesive and understated but clear imagery and quieter music in language, Nolan Natasha Pike’s Sailor paints a beautiful picture.
Read more of Nolan Natasha Pike’s poetry in EVENT 45/2.