Poem of the week: Atavism by Elinor Wylie

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<span>Photograph: Robert F Bukaty/AP</span>
Photograph: Robert F Bukaty/AP


I always was afraid of Somes’s Pond:
Not the little pond, by which the willow stands,
Where laughing boys catch alewives in their hands
In brown, bright shallows; but the one beyond.
There, when the frost makes all the birches burn
Yellow as cow-lilies, and the pale sky shines
Like a polished shell between black spruce and pines,
Some strange thing tracks us, turning where we turn.

You’ll say I dream it, being the true daughter
Of those who in old times endured this dread.
Look! Where the lily-stems are showing red
A silent paddle moves below the water,
A sliding shape has stirred them like a breath;
Tall plumes surmount a painted mask of death.

This week, we’re revisiting the work of the New Jersey-born poet and novelist Elinor Wylie. Atavism, from her first collection, Nets to Catch the Wind, is an impressive sonnet, first taking the reader off guard with its title, and following that with the quiet, almost casual admission of the first line: “I always was afraid of Somes’s Pond.” Wylie organises the iambic pentameter here so that “was” is accented – not intrusively but with understated, colloquial assertiveness.

Related: Poem of the week: Sanctuary by Elinor Morton Wylie

The pond she’s not afraid of is a scene of lively activity, the local boys hand-catching “alewives” (plump, herring-like fish) in “brown, bright shallows”. But the narrative moves on swiftly to “the one beyond”, displayed in the evocative colours Wylie always handled so well in her poetry. It’s a winter scene, sinister with more than the stillness of the frost that “makes all the birches burn / Yellow as cow-lilies”. Yellow birch trees are disturbing. The reference to the yellow “cow-lilies” might also be a reminder of how densely these fast-growing water-lilies (also known as spatterdock) can colonise a pond, and leave the fish and other plant-forms dead for lack of light.

It’s interesting that, as the octave closes, the plural pronoun “we” replaces the narrator’s “I”, and gives the story a new emphasis as shared experience, perhaps the half of a conversation. We’re brought firmly into the present tense, too, for extra ghostly effect: “Some strange thing tracks us, turning where we turn.” Cleverly, but not ostentatiously, the “turning” of the couple, and whatever is haunting them, foreshadows the “turn” of the sonnet.

“You’ll say I dream it,” the speaker continues, addressing the reader, as well as her companion, “being the true daughter / Of those who in old times endured this dread.” So the atavism of the title comes into focus. But why is “this dread” the poet’s particular inheritance? Settlers had arrived in Somesville in 1761, making this area the oldest non-indigenous settlement on Mount Desert Island. Perhaps Wylie heard ghost stories while on holiday there, and felt her own high-achieving family shared the guilt of the colonial past. As the fear intensifies, the first image she sees, moving underwater, is the “silent paddle”, clearly an object belonging to the suppressed indigenous population.

The “tall plumes” might be suggested by the red lily-stems, the “sliding shape” by the movement of the water, whereas “the painted mask of death” belongs to a more symbolic order of imagination. Finally, the poem seems to stiffen around the plumed and painted mask. That earlier, relaxed, colloquial tone is lost. The vaguely threatening movements of the ghosts also cease, as if stunned by the mask’s presence.

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary lists two definitions of Atavism: “recurrence in an organism of a trait or character typical of an ancestral form and usually due to genetic recombination” and “recurrence of or reversion to a past style, manner, outlook, approach, or activity”. The second is most relevant to the ultimate closure the sonnet dramatises. The atavistic sense of “dread” is older than the fear of vengeful ghosts handed down by a village or family: it’s the dread felt by the “ghosts” themselves, when their lives were threatened by the tide of new settlers. This past embraces a longer, wider span of human ancestry, which Wylie’s sonnet simultaneously reveals and conceals.

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