Whales on the Prairie

I have just returned from a week of camping in the Driftless Region, mostly in the orchard of a farm that’s been in the family since the mid-nineteeth century, on the prairie fringe of the region’s convoluted summer network of steamy, green bluffs and cool, dark ravines. While Jovana and the kids set forth on forays into the surrounding countryside, I stayed near the campsite and worked on my most demanding current project: translating Moby-Dick into a haiku sequence… one haiku per chapter, using only phrases from the original, excerpted in their original order of appearance.

The project is called simply Dick, and was conceptualized as an exploration of the homoeroticism at the heart of Moby-Dick, an artful abridgement whereby I would transform America’s “biggest” book into its smallest literary form. It seemed like a fun, naughty little project with potentially exciting results. It also seemed like something that should have already been done, but which, upon investigation, I discovered hadn’t been attempted by anyone, so I dove into the project with zeal… and almost instantly realized why it probably hadn’t been done before: it’s really hard. Making each poem a hopefully meaningful commentary on the chapter from which it emerged, while adhering to my unifying, homosocial vision, while trying to narratively or thematically link each new poem to the previous ones, while trying to make each individual poem “good” (I’m sure I’ll talk more about this in future posts) turns out to be a daunting task, especially when you’re dealing with chapters that, for example, consist of little more than measurements of the various dimensions of a sperm whale’s body. I’d read Moby-Dick carefully in the past, as well as some complementary critical texts, but I wasn’t prepared for the level of engagement this project would require. Let’s just say that by the time I’m done with it I will have ready Moby-Dick at least half a dozen times… and hung pensively over its passages for many hundreds of hours, approximately twenty of which passed on the edge of the prairie to which Melville so often alluded in Moby-Dick, often when he desired to approximate for his bourgeois, landlubber audience a sensation of perilous, primitive freedom.

I suppose you could call my predicament ironic. While my wife and children are off in the surrounding “wilderness” that remains (presided over primarily by wild turkeys these days), I sit on a farm that was being settled on the land even as Melville passingly passed judgement on it, and with my freedom I submit myself to the past.

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