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Analysis of the Poem 'Of Politics, & Art' by Norman Dubie

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Norman Dubie

Norman Dubie

Norman Dubie and a Summary of 'Of Politics, & Art'

'Of Politics, & Art' is a poem that takes the reader from the physical setting of a childhood schoolroom, whisks them off into Herman Melville's classic novel Moby Dick, and returns them to the speaker's here and now, before landing them back in the same schoolroom.

It is some journey—shifts in time and consciousness all the while underpinned with dark winter storms, the dying, tragic teacher and the vivid imagery of desperate men at sea in an open boat.

This is a poem ostensibly about the power of elemental Nature, death and foreboding, and different ways to meet your maker, but Dubie manages to steer the poem away from the edge of doom and into a more philosophical light. But only just.

In typical Dubie fashion, the poem has fascinating characters, pending catastrophe and a novel approach to its subject. Shock and awe are never far away, and the detail in some lines is highly cinematic.

All this creates a peculiar intimacy of tone that is magically at home, despite the contrasting overview of a potentially frightening life situation and a teacher at death's door.

It's this combination of fact and fiction, together with shifting perspectives and time that give the poem a poignant feel. The reader comes out of it a little drained, concerned, and apprehensive. And they might be wondering what on earth became of Mrs Whitimore—did she survive the educational system?

'Of Politics, & Art' by Norman Dubie

for Allen

Here, on the farthest point of the peninsula

The winter storm

Off the Atlantic shook the schoolhouse.

Mrs. Whitimore, dying

Of tuberculosis, said it would be after dark

Before the snowplow and bus would reach us.

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She read to us from Melville.

How in an almost calamitous moment

Of sea hunting

Some men in an open boat suddenly found themselves

At the still and protected center

Of a great herd of whales

Where all the females floated on their sides

While their young nursed there. The cold frightened whalers

Just stared into what they allowed

Was the ecstatic lapidary pond of a nursing cow's

One visible eyeball.

And they were at peace with themselves.

Today I listened to a woman say

That Melville might

Be taught in the next decade. Another woman asked, "And why not?"

The first responded, "Because there are

No women in his one novel."

And Mrs. Whitimore was now reading from the Psalms.

Coughing into her handkerchief. Snow above the windows.

There was a blue light on her face, breasts and arms.

Sometimes a whole civilization can be dying

Peacefully in one young woman, in a small heated room

With thirty children

Rapt, confident and listening to the pure

God rendering voice of a storm.

Melville, Moby Dick and Mrs Whitimore

Reading through the poem in one take is a little like reading a part of a modern novel where the narrative shifts from one timezone to another, from the present to the past and back again. Or think about the start of a movie, with a voice-over.

Taking the lead role is one Mrs Whitimore, the sickly teacher, and Melville's Moby Dick, the symbolic novel of 1851.

The politics come in the form of political correctness, mentioned in the fourth stanza. Two women discuss the future of Melville's one and only novel, Moby Dick, which may or may not be on the educational reading lists because Melville omitted women from the book.

By the way, the fact is, women do play a role in Melville's classic, but only a very minor one. So, given this information, the contrast within the poem is stark—women are the focal point here, whilst men are essentially sidelined.

And the art? Well, the art of dying is one thing, the art of political writing another.

The speaker's role is to articulate the gap between the two, entertaining the reader along the way, juxtaposing a fictional group of whalers, at peace, no mention of Captain Ahab or the whale, with a group of schoolchildren, with storm and Mrs Whitimore, near frightened out their wits?

First published in 1989 in the book Groom Falconer, this poem reflects what one critic, Vernon Shetley, said of Dubie: 'his work manifests a powerful disposition to relocate his imagination out of its own time and place'.

Analysis of 'Of Politics, & Art'

'Of Politics, & Art' is a free verse poem of five stanzas, 31 lines in total. There is no set rhyme scheme and the meter (metre in British English) varies from line to line.

There is a sickly teacher in a schoolhouse. A winter storm rages. The school children are on the farthest point of the peninsula and will have to wait for the snow to be cleared so the bus can get through to take them home.

This is a great Dubie scene, dramatic, almost gothic, with doom waiting just around the corner. There's a sense of impending disaster in the opening stanza as a child (we presume) speaks for the whole group.

We're not sure if this is a retrospective scenario—is this now the adult looking back, reproducing the thoughts they had as a child in that dark winter room? It could be. Whatever the perspective, the class has to wait, listening to their teacher read from Melville. The speaker knows Mrs Whitimore has tuberculosis, and that she's dying. Such a thought to contemplate when a child.

That brief single-line stanza reinforces the idea that Melville's inclusion in the poem is of peculiar importance.

The third stanza is basically a short scene from Melville's book Moby Dick. The imagery is vivid, and the parallel between whalers and schoolchildren, who both face adversity, is obvious.

Note the trio of lines, 15, 16 and 17 which capture the imagination and lend weight to the idea that this poem is also about nourishment and femininity:

Just stared into what they allowed

Was the ecstatic lapidary pond of a nursing cow's

One visible eyeball.

That word lapidary relates to the polishing of gemstones and such. There is strong assonance in the line and the half-rhyme allowed/cow's resonates.

The fourth stanza is a shift in time, to the here and now of today. The speaker has overheard educational talk between two women, one of whom suggests that Melville, with his lack of empathy towards females in his books, may not be taught for a decade to come.

This conversation again reinforces the contrast between the male and the female gender and their roles in education and in fiction. Politics is the common ground, political art in which correctness is the hot topic, the specific area the poem invites the reader into. The reader then has to make his or her mind up as to whether or not they agree with the first woman's suggestion.

Finally, stanza five brings us round full circle. Only Mrs Whitimore isn't reading Melville any longer, she's into the Psalms, the old testament book of songs and prayers. Could it be the poem is turning religious? Or is the teacher seeking solace from the Bible, the voice of God?

It's certainly a highly visual and emotive scene . . . there's a handkerchief, snow and blue light (remind you of an emergency situation?); there's the idea of the teacher as a symbol for a dying civilization as the storm rages on.

The woman is facing death even as an omnipotent God voices his anger, all power and threat, even if the children are not yet aware of it.


© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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