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Beach Vocabulary

May 20, 2022

Beach Vocabulary, by Emily Hockaday, is a short volume of poems, a chapbook, that anyone who loves spending time on the beach will enjoy. The poems are accessible but they also reward re-reading and musing.

In the first poem, “Walking Back from Cherry Grove at Midnight,” we see that “the ocean and sand/are a broken zipper” and are moved from a denial that “death is far/from my mind” to acceptance that it’s “the only conclusion,” with a bit of a comic turn (“look, I lied”). That poem frames the rest, with their images of jellyfish as “clear discs like breast/implants; unnatural and plastic” and people in the ocean, out past the breakers where “if a wave crashes too/close, I have to choose:/over or under.”

I like reading about the thought process for how humans can feel themselves part of nature, even in “Moonless Night” when the speaker takes that thought to a logical end, holding up a “damaged foot” to the sky and saying:
“I am feeling
sorry for myself; I am thinking about
the high deductible I hit on our health
insurance last year and the money
I will pay this year for Cortisone
Injections. The fox I imagine myself as
would either move through the pain
or become less efficient, more
scruffy, more gaunt, and then,
like all of us, die somewhere here
in the dunes”

The poem “Damage” considers how beaches change:
“Entire dunes have shifted or
dropped off. Beneath the rolling
ocean, sandbars layer closer and closer
to shore. A trench is formed
and, like anger, water becomes
more destructive with a path.”
At the end of the poem, however, we are asked to “watch as the water fills with living things.”

My favorite poem of the volume is “La Nina Year,” which brings several of these kinds of images and ideas together by taking a step back at beginning and end:
The subway is filled with people arguing
about what is pointless. I think pointless thoughts. I write them down.
Death is just a different kind of forgetting. A chemical change, a memory failure.
I am not prepared on this lovely spring day to feel desperate.
Am I worried about Earth? I am not. It is a face, too, ever-shifting.
I am not really a new creature every seven years. Scars remain,
embarrassments remain, penchants for evil deeds and tequila.
the newness comes daily, with that white strand
in my eyebrow, the fingernail indents in my palm.

The ocean’s tongue moves great sand deposits
around on the floor, and from descending planes
to JFK we see these bars move out parallel
from the shore until the water is too deep.
I too have rings of protection. They too
are flooded. You are caught out somewhere
fighting the sweep, trying to find the same
wave of grief. I do want to share with you; the avoidance
is unintentional this time—a long ago learned skill
to fold myself into origami. Imagine I have
two dimensions. I am the paper.

Beginning underground, this poem moves above, to where the intersection of land and sea is visible, and from there back into the medium that carries the words to readers’ eyes. There are waves of meaning, and then there are lines that can stand by themselves.

Reading and thinking about these poems in May, one line in particular caught me and pulled me deeper: “I am not prepared on this lovely spring day to feel desperate.” I like the word “prepared.” Even though for the last few mornings I’ve woken up to the sight of spilled dirt and ripped-apart plants and had to go out to repair the damage from a raccoon who keeps clawing the dirt out from my potted plants on the deck, each one is a beautiful morning to be alive. Even for the damned raccoon.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 20, 2022 11:24 am

    Darn raccoon! I hope the two of you can come to some kind of agreement so your plants survive. the poetry collection sounds great.

    • May 23, 2022 1:50 pm

      After trying all kinds of suggestions for protecting the potted plants (the best was a cayenne-rich animal repellent), I’ve hired a company to trap the raccoon and relocate it.

  2. May 21, 2022 7:19 pm

    I really like the parts you’ve shared. I’m a beach person, as you know. I’m going to have to find this!

    • May 23, 2022 1:51 pm

      These seem like northern beaches, around the NYC area, but a beach is a beach!

  3. May 23, 2022 11:29 am

    Sounds like another good poetry collection. Thanks for all the lines you’ve shared. I’m particularly intrigued by the image of the ocean and sand as a broken zipper

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