The tongue of the waves tolled in the earth's bell.
Blue rippled and soaked in the fire of blue.
The dried mouthbones of a shark in the hot swale
Gaped on nothing but sand on either side.
The bone tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing,
A scalded toothless harp, uncrushed, unstrung.
The joined arcs made the shape of birth and craving
And the welded-open shape kept mouthing O.
Ossified cords held the corners together
In groined spirals pleated like a summer dress.
But where was the limber grin, the gash of pleasure?
Infinitesimal mouths bore it away,
The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean.
But O I love you it sings, my little my country
My food my parent my child I want you my own
my flower my fin my life my lightness my O.
Robert Pinsky 1990
"Want Bone" is aptly titled. From sexual desire to paucity to simple, innocent longing, Pinsky's poem explores different states of wanting, though it emphasizes erotic desire. Underlying the erotic images and sharply tailored details is that want implies some mode of absence. The imagery, diction, and cadence explore the ache of wantingness.
The first stanza establishes the poem's eroticism, theme (wanting), and central image. It opens with the "tongue of the waves [tolling] in the earth's bell," which is blatantly sexual. The bell is not just a suggestive shape, however; its tolling conveys emptiness, hollowness - that space of absence inherent in desire. The next line, "blue rippled and soaked in the fire of blue," presents the kind of simple, energetic, dense imagery appearing throughout the poem. Repeating "blue" simplifies the visual field, readying us for the poem's central image, the shark's jaw.
The jaw, named "the want bone," actualizes wantingness. The bone is described by a series of "nothings," both connecting the jaw to longing and linking desire and absence. The jaw "gaped on nothing but sand," "tasted of nothing and smelled of nothing," and is "uncrushed, unstrung." In defining the jaw by what it lacks, Pinsky reiterates the connection between the jaw, desire, and absence.
He springloads the tension in the poem with his acute attention to detail; there are very few filler words like "and" or "the." Each line is packed to the brim, but, paradoxically, packed with nothingness. This tension, too, heightens the vibrancy in the lines. The phrase "scalded toothless harp" is at once jarring and brilliant; it juxtaposes the searing (scalded) with the impotent (toothless) with the musical (harp). This jangling set of images sends a shock of energy through the poem, heightening the desire. Pinsky emphasizes the erotic nature of this desire in describing the jawbone as "the shape of birth and craving" that is forever "mouthing O."
The following stanza reworks the same devices; Pinsky focuses the beam of energy with his marvelous consonants and twists that force with sexual imagery. Notice the strength of the phrase "groined spirals." Tack on "pleated like a summer dress" for a little erotic content and juxtaposition and you have a line absolutely packed with desirous energy. Pinsky redirects our attention to the absent inherent in wanting by asking "where was the limber grin, the gash of pleasure?" He openly wonders where the shark has gone, perhaps gesturing at our own lost gashes of pleasure. Is this a little trip into nostalgia? It certainly borders on yearning, that heart-lead lean to the past.
The next lines, "infinitesimal mouths bore it away, / The beach scrubbed and etched and pickled it clean" demonstrates self-similarity across scale. Just as Pinsky has pared away any extraneous imagery, so the billions of bacteria nibbled away at the shark. Then, too, the action and rhythm in the verb choices "scrubbed and etched and pickled" encourage the energy of desire, its strong focus. Perhaps the poem's energy reflects the strength of sexual desire or simply wanting. Perhaps, the poem suggests, wanting is absence strung with energy.
In the final three lines, the verb tense suddenly switches to present, indicating that this desire is ongoing. I find this list fascinating - it departs the terse, sexualized images of previous stanzas, approaching a wider set of desires. Each "my" phrase implies something different, though I will let you find those for yourself. Broadly, they touch on innocence and comfort, protection, ownership, joy, and, finally sexuality. The case could be made that the poem leaves the realm of erotic desire here, but I would argue that these elements are incased within erotic desire. That is, any sexual feelings will immediately or eventually include some mode of innocence and affection.
I had a very hard time writing about this poem, partially because it was difficult to make myself focus and write for a couple of hours, and partly because the poem is so rich. I struggled with the alternate (and equally valid) thesis arguing that the poem, while acknowledging erotic desire, was more diverse in scope, addressing the energy inherent in wanting, the absence of wanting, and different modes of wanting. However, these all fit within the sexual desire thesis I chose. I thought that I would make you aware of the other argument, though, so that you can see how beautiful this poem is. I think there is a lot of beauty in brilliant craft and complexity. So who knows. This PotW is descending into my little ramble, so this is when I bid you all a good night and start working on tomorrow's poem!