Marriages between humans and the natural world are how we make sense of the ungovernable loves within us. I understand how people can yearn to pledge their troth to giant sequoia, and I feel deeply for would-be selkie children who must be dragged, blue-fingered and yawping with need, from the sea.
Fran Wilde’s “The Sea Never Says It Loves You” gives us a human-ocean relationship that begins as a high school romance. This kind of anthropomorphism isn’t new to speculative writing, and Wilde layers the world of the poem, in which sea and mate court, procreate and share a life, with a bittersweet kind of indulgence. Notice the prevailing tense here is conditional: the poet isn’t telling us this is a definite life, but frames a world of sargasso and Sunday night drive-ins, where an exceptional kind of love is possible… not without cost.
Sometimes, Little Mermaid-esque, the price you pay for incredible beauty is utter silence. In the final stanza of the poem, the object of the sea’s affection finds themselves stranded on the shore of a lifelong quietude: “And you are bathed in salt spray, wishing. / Wishing you were water, / or that the sea would whisper from a shell the name of the first song / you danced to / Or say the name it gave you before it swallowed you up.”
Writing that often seems to reach for the most arcane, the most removed of speculative concepts, often tunnels deepest inward: this is what Wilde’s poem does. We might not all be able to conceive of the sea loving us, or of bearing its “fish-pale, seaweed-haired shell”. But surely we know more than we’re willing to admit, of the silences we’ve bartered in the names of a giant, toppling want. Surely that’s what it means, to sink or swim.
This is the third installment of Other Kinds of Men, a speculative poetry reader in honour of Ursula K. Le Guin. Speculative writing, which encompasses the major genres of mythology, fantasy and science fiction, has often given voice to the most relentless and ungovernable urgencies of this age, and any other. Le Guin understood this: that to write about dragons, ice worlds and other seeming oddities was, in fact, to write into the messy, riotous complexity of ourselves. Here’s to dragons, and here’s to Ursula.