Conversations that go dead, that figuratively "go up on the rocks" , are those moments in life that one has to consider the bright side of the current situation, wherever it may be: at least this isn't world war three, at least this isn't a deadly car wreck, at least I haven't had a meteor smash my city to bits. These are small consolations, though,while you're in the moment trying to make your starter phrases and topic offerings a means by which to make the time go by quickly and amiably. But there are those who will not be chatted up, as they enjoy their own company too much, and there are those who perhaps rather enjoy the spectacle of seeing you wrestle with your words. It's a maddening condition, these stalled bits; a video tape of any such protracted exercises in fruitless similarity-finding could be transcribed and staged as Beckett comedies ; long silences, words that refuse to stick to any object they are intended to address and define, blank stares into far off spaces. The greatest distances are sometimes just across the table.
Fitting that Kim Van Voorhees's "Sea Level" poem, an inspection of a such a comedy of failed reciprocity. The table is an unnavigable void where words seem nothing more than casual bits of sodden detritus that drift onto a stony beach with the foam and seaweed, a washed out version of it's original intent. It has the depressing clarity of someone looking at a situation they've spent precious energy on trying to make it a fulfilling experience only to realize that there is only a deadened air for all the effort. Stillness resonates with absurdity after a frantic attempt to make something catch fire.
So this is what the ocean has been pushing across the table at usall these years—
the dry, white spot that opens like a moon at the back of the throatthe quieted tongue, the last of all words.
There is that sense that the dry spot in the back of the throat is the point where one realizes that whatever else one will say is already hollowed of meaning; the absence of response, the failure of an nearby other to allow itself to be changed, in perception, from an abstraction to be solved and a more human presence with a personality one can negotiate a good time with, has rendered the power of one's vocabulary to a series of sounds one might other wise make in their sleep during a bad dream.
Our ever-faithful dinner guest—who kept her wet fingers lined up at the edgeof the world, who politely folded and refolded her napkin—stopspassing the peas, leans back quietly into her chair to watch
what we'll do now. She's done, the sea quits, stands without comment on the shore, isjust another dumb, beautiful animal considering the cliff, the final leapback into itself.
The other, the dinner guest sitting across the table, is aware of the power she has in this moment, limited as it is--the conversation can either brighten and instill in her companion a sense of worth, that one's choices haven't been foolish or self deluding during this day, or she can with hold response, keep her participation to a minimum, give barely perceptible clues that she is done with the ritual and that both the dinner and the host no longer engage their interest.
At least say we were among those who kept the conversation up for so long—you and I handed always and never back and forth again and again
while our arms distressed the surface.Let's just say the table was too large, that we lifted the heaviest dishand got tired—
that only the ocean knows how to spoon salt over a great distanceunder any kind of light.
What Van Voorhees does with this awkward instance is her use of telling details, concrete things where her metaphors actually convey an experience where the failure of words are exactly the issue at hand. The metaphors themselves are concrete , and their aptness isn't freighted with the typical twin indulgences, autobiography and literary self-reference. Where another poet challenged with a subject that defies an agile writer's skill to essentialize and so dwell on the inadequacies of the literary form or inspect the fragments of otherwise flushed child hood traumas, Van Voorhees sticks with her idea and works through her conceit; the result is a bright , if discouraging, set of alignments of things that do not speak, still materials that give no hint of what the character's words fail to get to, and the characters themselves, who ought to have remained silent all along.
What's revealed is that this is a conversation that has gone on too long , without a shred of engaging subject matter, a battle to see who can keep the chatter above and bouncing with the animated insistence of ridiculously assertive absolutes; trivial ideas, cast out fleetingly as two people try to distract themselves from their shared awkwardness , are over emphasized, assume great volume, and while the conversation for a while rises and crests with a excited pitch, it is followed with agitation; even as the small talk escalates, it is like a balloon being inflated with too much air; it either bursts or it deflates rapidly. Likewise, both of these dinner mates would quit the game and fall back into the awkwardness they tried to avoid, painfully aware of their lack of similarities. There is only the table, the metaphorical ocean between them, that remains