Benjamin Mueller on “Upon Witnessing the Pelican’s Dive”
My poem, “Upon Witnessing the Pelican’s Dive,” has evolved quite a bit since its earliest form. Initially, I drafted a poem about a trip to coastal Maine that I took with my wife and two-year-old twins. My kids were at an age where they were grasping at new words, rolling them over in their mouths, listening to their sounds. Prior to the trip, my wife and I tried to explain what oceanmeant. We tried to provide context for something they had never experienced. In part, this poem is about their first time experiencing the ocean and seeing it through their perspective.
The idea of the poem expanded when Icarus came crashing into the lines. I had been reading Jack Gilbert’s beautiful poem “Failing and Flying,” about Icarus’ flight. I love the way Gilbert portrays this story in the context of a failed relationship, ultimately seeing his flight as an “end of his triumph” as opposed to a tragedy. This put Icarus in my head, which then led me to the great painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. I was struck by the serene, everyday landscape of the painting while the tragedy of Icarus occurs off to the side of the painting. In the foreground, a shepherd is looking up, thinking he has heard something or seen something out of the corner of his eye, but does not notice the fall of Icarus. The feeling of the shepherd from the painting shows up in my poem as the narrator looks up to see a pelican diving into the water.
As the poem came together, I liked the way all these ideas swirled together, the mixing of innocence of a child’s experience, with an escape of modern life, and the old Greek story about the perils of technology and exceeding our limits. In these modern-technological days, it can feel like we are exceeding our limits on a daily basis. It’s important to have these moments that bring us back to the earth.