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The Unswept
By Sharon Olds


Broken bay leaf. Olive pit.
Crab leg. Claw. Crayfish armor.
Whelk shell. Mussel shell. Dogwinkle. Snail.
Wishbone tossed unwished on. Test
of sea urchin. Chicken foot.
Wrasse skeleton. Hen head,
eye shut, beak open as if
singing in the dark. Laid down in tiny
tiles, by the rhyparographer,
each scrap has a shadow -- each shadow cast
by a different light. Permanently fresh
husks of the feast! When the guest has gone,
the morsels dropped on the floor are left
as food for the dead -- O my characters,
my imagined, here are some fancies of crumbs
from under love's table.

--------

From Poet's Choice by Robert Pinsky in The Washington Post Book World, a column on one of my favorite living poets, Sharon Olds, who as Pinsky observes has not only been taught and admired (I discovered her in a women's poetry seminar in college) but decried and attacked. "In other words, Sharon Olds must be doing something right," says Pinsky, who believes the appeal of her work stems from her reporting of physical and emotional experience.

"In 'The Unswept' she deploys a word that helps define her characteristic territory," Pinsky notes. "It is a word that nearly every reader will need to look up, as I did when I first read the poem. The poem seems to ask us to look it up, as a way of recognizing a vital overlap between our arcane labels and gritty realities...a 'rhyparographer,' says my Oxford English Dictionary , is 'a painter of mean or sordid subjects.' There's a defiant wisdom in the poet's use of this almost preposterously special term: The visual work of art described here has both a literal and a symbolic power. That is, the tiny rectangles, each depicting a scrap made 'permanently fresh' by the painter, have evocative power. But figuratively, the phrases 'each scrap has a shadow' and 'each shadow cast by a different light' suggest a poetic as well as a moral paradigm: attending to the darkness cast by every least thing, and honoring the different lights in which each thing can be seen. Olds's intellectual energy links that passage of darkness and light, shadow and attention, to the force of a superstition: The morsels that fall under a table are left 'as food for the dead.' The implication is that attention to what is 'mean or sordid' may be a means of elegy: a way to honor the past. The fish bones and chicken heads are left over from the joy and sustenance of a meal, and they are emblems of death and how closely it relates to our joy and sustenance. In a similar way, the poem links the mean word 'crumbs' to the evocative word 'fancies' with its suggestion of different kinds of imagining and eating and writing and decorating.

Saturday we had to check out by 10 a.m., so after packing up and getting everything into the van, we drove away from the shore to the zoo at Salisbury -- an excellent free zoo and public park at the edge of a town that has clearly seen better days, as its large mall is sitting empty with grass growing in the enormous parking lot. (A new highway was built several years ago and we suspect that cars that used to pass through Salisbury and stop for lunch now bypass it on the new roads, hurting its tourist commerce.) The center of the zoo is a large artificial lake filled with a wide variety of waterfowl -- geese, ducks, swans, herons, a couple of cranes -- as well as South American rheas and llamas, inspiring younger son to sing the llama song repeatedly. There are also bears, otters, monkeys, iguanas, a jaguar, a bobcat, an ocelot...many of the usual smaller suspects, though none of the larger African animals like the National Zoo has.

After lunch we drove to St. Michael's, a historic city famous for tricking the British during the War of 1812 by putting lights in trees and on ship masts so that the British bombarded the wrong location, situated where the Potomac River joins the Chesapeake Bay. It's now home to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, where there is an 1879 lighthouse, a boat yard and restoration shed, the buyboat Thor which is now on land for kids to explore, a waterman's wharf where kids can pull up traps full of blue crabs and eel, an indoor oyster dredgeboat and big exhibit on Bay oyster fishing, collections on steamboats and the transformation of the Bay from working fishery to tourist attraction, and collections on Bay naval and historical history. It's a spectacular museum, a bit like Mystic Seaport without the historical reenactors wandering through, but it was nearly 100 degrees and we spent far more time in the indoor exhibits than the hands-on ship and fishing demonstrations outside.

We had dinner at the Crab Claw, a seafood restaurant on the premises (had to have one last meal of crab soup, crab dip, etc.) and drove home in the evening over a traffic-free Chesapeake Bay Bridge. Unpacking was enlivened by the terrible Redskins game and nearly-as-terrible Ravens game. It's going to be a long football season. Since I am behind on posting trip photos, you get Lewes, Delaware tonight; I will get to the Salisbury and St. Michaels photos later in the week!


Lighthouse lens in the Lewes Marine Museum. Cape Henlopen lost one lighthouse to war and another to erosion; there has been no light there since it fell into the ocean.


The marine museum is located at Cannonball House, so named because this shot lodged in the foundation during the War of 1812 when the British bombarded the city in April 1813.


The last Lewes pilot skiff, used before World War II to bring pilots to navigate ships in the bay, and a pair of cannons used during the bombardment of Lewes during the War of 1812.


Originally the Dutch settlement of Zwaanendael, Lewes was renamed by William Penn after the original settlers were massacred by a local tribe of resentful Native Americans. The Zwaanendael Museum, above, was built in 1931 to celebrate 300 years since the town's foundation.


Fake mermaid at the Zwaanendael Museum, made from a preserved monkey's head and fish body of the sort that were apparently popular pranks for a time...there was one in the Discovery Museum in Fenwick Island too.


The lightship Overfalls, one of several ships which replaced lighthouses to help guide ships in and send signals.


The dock at Lewes out the portholes of the Lightship Overfalls.

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