Melvilliana—a dramatic monologue
by Angela Alaimo O’Donnell
[Angela seated at desk. General lighting.]
*OBSESSION: the Latin, OBSESSUS
From OBSIDERE, meaning “to besiege or beset”
Meaning “to trouble the mind”
It goes back a long time—my obsession with Moby Dick—to when I was a college student in an American Literature seminar. My professor, himself obsessed as Ahab, quoted a character from Dickens: ‘I wants to make your flesh creep’ with all things Melvillian.
And it worked. From him I learned how to recognize great writing:
It was strong & strange & dangerous to know.
It was the kind of thing, that once it HAD you, would not let you go.
And so I did the only thing I could—made my obsession my profession. I became a Professor of Literature, with Melville as the central polestar in a swirling constellation of shimmering planets and luminous moons, each of them bearing practical Yankee names: Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, Dickinson, Whitman, Poe.
There was never any doubt that Melville ruled, that Moby Dick was the Ur-Text upon which all the others were founded—Yes, even the ones that had been written before THE WHALE breeched the waters and leapt from Melville’s imagination into America’s, in November of 1851.
For 20-odd years, I taught it in every course—Summer, Fall, & Spring. I read it 60 times, lectured on it hundreds. I frightened thousands of students, even as I had once been frightened, by the Magnitude of Melville’s Work & World.
*OBSESSION: to dominate, after the manner of an alien or evil spirit.To be possessed.
Three years ago, I moved to the Bronx, only to discover that my house was two miles from Woodlawn Cemetery and Melville’s grave. He had followed me—stationary as he seemed to be, in his current state—or, rather I had followed him, quite unconsciously. I tracked him down on a pleasant Spring day and stood in proximity of the hand that had penned the Mighty Book that made us friends, beyond time, circumstance, and all reasonable expectation.
*OBSESSION: An idea or dominating feeling from which one cannot escape.
The headstone on Melville’s grave surprised me. I expected something monumental, mythic, of Leviathan proportions. What I found was a modest slab of granite whose chief feature was a blank stone scroll upon which not one word was carved.
This artistic oddity lodged itself in my mind, like a grain of sand in an oyster shell, and bothered me until I salved it with words of my own. The result was this poem, entitled “St. Melville,” and the poems that follow. A series of conversations, celebrations and interrogations—part tribute, part paean, part homage. Some focus on Melville and his writings; others are inspired by and obliquely related to his art—a sort of repayment in kind. A suite of songs meant to please and to trouble—a sequence of pearls on a string—words born of obsession and meant to obsess.
*OBSESSION: A fixed idea around which the world seems to be arranged. A kind of mania.
1. “St. Melville”
Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx
“Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable;
deep memories yield no epitaphs.”
“The Lee Shore,” Moby Dick
Is this what you were called to, still pilgrim,
to sleep beneath six small feet of earth?
A scroll unrolled across your headstone
unengraved: the whiteness of the whale?
Is this the dumb blankness full of meaning
Ishmael fought and found at the end?
Or is it pure chance, Queequeg’s oaken sword
struck blunt across the warped Loom of Time?
A paradox and pleasure to find you here,
grounded, for now, on the leeward shore,
your own bones unmarked by any writing,
not one hieroglyph of what you’d hoped to be,
no tattoo grafted from the savage thigh,
no etching from the dead leg of Ahab.
That you should leave us silent at the last
like the mad captain taken by the sea
echoes and keeps your bitter promise,
your life but a draught, unfinished and undone.
I place on your stone among the offerings—
rocks and blossoms, mute things of this earth—
a shell cleft clean by the constant tide,
the song without words she sings and sings.
[Go left. End at Lower RIGHT.]
2. “St. Ishmael”
It may seem odd that I call Melville “a saint.” But he is a saint, truly. For what is a saint if not a person who has lived an exemplary life?
A person who has devoted him- or herself wholly to speaking the truth to the face of falsehood?
A person who is so gifted at his art that, surely, he has been touched by the hand of God?
These are the qualifications for sainthood, according to my Catechism. I have built my own Cathedral and filled the empty niches with saints of all kinds, as you’ll soon see. They may not be canonized, but they are blessed beings, each in his own right, and worthy of our attention and admiration.
Chief among the saints in Melville’s world is “Ishmael.” He is, after all, the hero of Moby Dick. He alone escapes the wreck and ruin of the Pequod, even after he seems to have been lost with the rest of the crew. Buoyed up by Queequeg’s coffin-turned-lifeboat & preserved by Divine Providence from the sharks and birds of prey, he is spared in order to tell the tale. His survival is, practically, a miracle.
This poem, “St. Ishmael,” celebrates his resurrection—not the one that happens at the end of the novel, but one that happens close to the beginning. Ishmael gets a lesson in the dangers of his new profession in Chapter 48, wherein he goes out in one of the whaleboats in the midst of a storm with the first-mate, Mr. Starbuck. The men barely make it back to the ship alive, reminding poor Ishmael of his mortality and compelling him to rewrite and update his will. The epigraph to the poem is from Chapter 49.
[Lower Right Stage. Seated on stool.]
“It may seem strange that of all men sailors should be tinkering with their last wills and testaments, but there are no people in the world more fond of that diversion. This was the fourth time in my nautical life that I had done the same thing. After the ceremony was concluded . . . I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection . . . .” –Ishmael, after surviving a storm at sea & upon rewriting his will. “The Hyena,” Chapter 49, Moby Dick
We know what those days are like:
Girl-drinks in coconut shells
shaded by those little umbrellas,
Mai Tais at the Tiki Bar of Eternity.
We see you sipping slowly—
after all, what’s the rush?—
your hairy legs crossed at the knee,
meditating on—what else?—the sea,
your crazy days with Queequeg and the boys,
Ahab passing the flagon,
the savages cheering him on,
Starbuck—as ever—in a sour mood.
Squeezing sperm and burning blubber,
you’d all become so close,
as if you’d grown into one another,
Kokovoko near as Rockaway.
Who’d have guessed your joy
ride would end so badly?—
all lost in the Whalewreck,
the whirlpool of His wide white wake.
Orphan that you are, you’re not
alone here in heaven,
where there’s no last call,
and every round is free.
They’re with you in the tale
you tell to every traveler
who finds himself—surprised!—
on the barstool next to Jesus,
you on his left, easing his passage
from one life to another.
A few drinks & many chapters later
(plus Epi-logue, Ex-tracts, Et-y-mo-lo-gy)
he jumps ship, bequeathing his berth
to the next soul bound-and-gagged for glory:
his will fresh-penned,
stowed safe in his sea chest
amid sharks’ teeth, hemp
knots and close-carved bone—
one more Lazarus
fresh from the tomb.
[Move towards Lower Left.]
3. “St. Lazarus”
Ishmael is a kind of Lazarus—a biblical figure who shows up in Melville’s writings over and over again. And why not? Here is the only man we know of—besides Christ himself—who died—stayed dead for days—and then came back to tell the tale. Along with the rest of us, Melville wondered what it may have been like to enter the world of the dead and then return to the land of the living. Surely, Lazarus, then, is one of our “saints,” an intercessory figure, who can teach us something about how to live and how to die.
This poem, “St. Lazarus,” imagines what those first moments of resurrection must have been like.
“After the ceremony was concluded . . . I felt all the easier; a stone was rolled away from my heart. Besides, all the days I should live would be as good as the days that Lazarus lived after his resurrection . . . .” –Ishmael, after surviving a storm at sea & upon rewriting his will. “The Hyena,” Chapter 49, Moby Dick
He knit him self up, a cable-stitch of skin.
Pushed his left eye in its socket, then his right.
Cracked the knuckles in his fingers (now so thin!).
Raised him self from the dirt and stood up right.
Lazarus, Lazarus, don’t get dizzy.
Lazarus, Lazarus, now get busy.
Mary’s weeping, Martha’s made a cake,
Jesus is calling at the graveyard gate.
Your closest cousin, happy you are dead,
Eyes Martha’s sheep and Mary’s empty bed.
The chorus of voices sings him awake.
Once a body’s broken, it cannot break.
He licks his lips and wags his muscled tongue.
Flexes each foot till the warm blood comes.
Turns from the darkness and moves toward the sun.
A step. A shamble. A dead-out run.
6. “St. Ahab”
If the Pequod is freighted with Saints, it is also freighted with Sinners. Chief among these is Ahab, whose wickedness is made all the more evident in its contrast against Ishmael’s & Queequeg’s goodness. Yet, evil as he is, Ahab believes himself to be a Seeker of Truth & a Justicer. His capacity for self-delusion is as big as he is, making him larger-than-life, a tragic figure who keeps even the most virtuous reader absolutely enthralled.
Ahab has a martyr-complex and believes himself to be a Suffering Saint—though one that has set his flint face against the God of the Universe. And so, in my Cathedral, Ahab occupies a special niche—that of Ironic- or Anti-Saint—a figure, like his brother Lucifer, who attracts followers because of his personal magnetism and his willingness to sacrifice everything to achieve his dark end. There is no compromise in Ahab—his obsession is absolute, pure as goodness itself. In this, he is not unlike other religious and political extremists who call themselves “martyrs.”
In the famous Quarter-Deck scene, Ahab claims his supernatural status. He announces to his crew his intention to seek revenge on Moby-Dick for having deprived him of his leg. Most of the men are seduced by the thrilling prospect of chasing and catching this almost mythic monster. One man alone, Mr. Starbuck, opposes Ahab, accusing him of “blasphemy” for attempting to avenge himself on a “dumb brute.” Ahab’s response is unequivocal, as he warns Starbuck, before the entire crew: “Talk not to me of blasphemy, man: I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.”
Old fire-lover, Jehovah-hater,
thief of men’s minds, how you prosper.
These the pages of your holy book
proclaim you a devil and a god.
Baptized in savage blood,
you yearn towards murder
a poetry of dread.
We fear and love you in your madness,
your five wounds each our own,
finding our selves full of anger,
black bile of loving what we love.
You are us, you heartless martyr,
we are you through and through,
the cock of the hammer (squeeze and fire),
lips pressed to the steel of the sword,
gunning the engine in red-eyed rage,
the bomb exploding in the marketplace.
How we bless our horrors with abstraction.
Vengeance. Justice. In Ahab’s Holy Name.
“St. Melville” appeared previously in Christianity & Literature and in Moving House; “St. Lazarus” in Christian Century and Saint Sinatra; “St. Ahab” in Saint Sinatra.