Peter Meinke is a poet. This makes him a kind of magician. He sees what other people don't see. He puts what he sees into words, rarely a lot of words, just some carefully chosen ones.
He has has done this all his life, since he was 15 or so. He is 70 now. In the intervening years, he figures he has written a thousand poems, born of a moment's clear vision like the moment he had last September.
Meinke, the retired director of the Eckerd College writing program in St. Petersburg, was on the Atlantic coast in Provincetown, Mass. While he was there, some white whales beached themselves and died.
Poetry is far more a matter of thinking _ the pursuit for the perfect word _ than it is of writing. In the solitude of his late summer trip, Meinke pondered what he had seen.
Slowly a poem emerged. It was not a poem about whales or nature's tragedies but about the tragedy men inflict on each other through war, in this case with Iraq.
It sat in his computer until February, when poets around the country organized a protest in which they gathered up thousands of anti-war poems and sent them to Washington. He sent his, too. (You can read the poems on the web site poetsagainstthewar.org.) Meinke's poem is entitled Marine Forecast.
+ + +
We wallow through the world white whales
in nature's gift shop thrashing tails
with jaws agape and stare surprised
when others curse our little eyes
that roll on either side but won't
see tentacles that lurk in front
and only Neptune who rules us all
cares that our hearts are large and full.
Once haunted Ahab hunted us
for sins that ground his heart to dust
and those who hate like him will soon
be hoist upon their own harpoons
Though we can't predict how justice fares
we see our fate is linked to theirs:
bound together sinking down
to where all whales and sailors drown
+ + +
I talked to Meinke on Monday about his poem and what it meant. He told me that picking the whales to start off was by careful design.
"It's a perfect symbol for America, knocking down everything in its path," he said.
We blunder. We make mistakes in the name of meaning well. "We're a large-hearted country," Meinke said. "We don't like it when other people don't like us."
And we refuse to try to understand.
Go back to the line about "jaws agape" and "stare surprised." Think of the way we view the Arab nations in the Middle East. Think of France and Germany. We look with our "little eyes" and can't see what's right in front of us.
Then Meinke compared the saga of the whales to the greatest whale that ever lived _ on a page, anyway _ Moby Dick, and Ahab, the sea captain obsessed with his capture. As Meinke pointed out Monday, change one letter in Ahab and you have Arab in combat with the whale.
Ahab went after the whale to get revenge for an earlier attack in which Ahab had lost his leg. The second and final fight had only one possible end.
"All common sense is removed," Meinke said. "They both become malevolent creatures."
In the novel Moby Dick, Ahab goes to his death while lashed by the ropes of a harpoon in the whale's wounded flesh. In the last lines of the poem, Meinke relies on that image to draw his conclusion, a conclusion many of us don't want to hear.
"What I'm trying to say is," Meinke said, "hate will sink all of us."
_ You can reach Mary Jo Melone at mjmelonesptimes.com or (813) 226-3402.