Read “Fiddleheads” here.
I love a poem that expands, like an upside-down funnel, from the minute detail of a single moment into the universal. It’s as if, in these poems, the poet realizes that the universe is contained within every image, if only one has the depth of sight to realize it. Maureen Seaton’s poem “Fiddleheads” has this sense of enlargement, but it’s also a tightly controlled poem which folds back on itself often, each image seeming disparate yet connected to something that came previous.
The poem progresses in a kind of three steps forward, one step back fashion, but each step creates not only distance on the page but a panning further back, including a larger swath of experience. For example, in the initial image, the speaker hears “tiny cries” coming from “hundreds of fiddlehead ferns boiling in an enormous pot” and considers “what an odd person” she is to hear the voices of vegetables. The speaker quickly moves to a new image of “a mouse curled behind my third eye,” but links this metaphorically in several ways to the fern image: the mouse “furls like a fern” and “whimpers like a fern being boiled.” In turning from the mouse, Seaton pans out from the more immediate and tangible images of ferns and a mouse to DNA, then undertow, then planet earth and brain cells, and so on. Each image references a previous image, sometimes the one it directly follows and sometimes one several lines back in the poem. In this way, the poem jerks the reader forward and back through images, the mind building connections and sidetracks and dead-ends as it continues forward.
Along with the images are two pronouncements, which seem to be the core of the poem and which all resurface at somewhat regular intervals. The first is the idea of the speaker as odd, which shows up twice in the first quarter of the poem and then is reprised about four-fifths of the way through the poem: “there’s something odd, I thought, about someone whose imagination runs this wild.” Second is the poem’s addressee and the specific phrase used three times when addressing this person: “when you hurt me.” This phrase appears at the beginning of the poem and twice about two-thirds of the way through the poem. These two concepts, the speaker’s oddness and the hurt which the speaker is addressing, seem connected. As the poem moves out and out from image to image, the speaker seems to be searching for answers: why am I odd, and why did you hurt me? Did you hurt me because I am odd? Or perhaps even the question, is it because I’m odd that what you did hurt me? I can relate to these questions. I imagine many people, like me and this speaker, have a part of us that wonders if we are the true source of the hurt perpetrated against us. Sometimes it’s easier to believe that we are wrong than that we have been wronged by someone else. This poem seems to wrestle with such feelings.
Ultimately, the poem wants to abolish these questions by creating an existence where everything is interconnected, so individual differences become irrelevant. This is discussed in terms of the Earth as consciousness: “this planet Earth, is she alive and we’re her brain cells, / each one flickering, going out, coming back to life?” And the ending of the poem returns to the individual as simply one brain cell, the Earth as one whole being: “I can do this, I say, / and the planet shifts imperceptibly. From a great distance, she appears to be at peace.” The individual cells are in turmoil from day to day, but the whole creature seems well and peaceful when viewed from farther out.
Not only is this enlargement a way for the speaker to create something bigger than herself to put her pain in perspective, but she also creates a sympathetic sufferer. In the third line, the speaker says, “…when you hurt me, I curled like a mouse behind my third eye.” And here, at the end of the poem, the speaker is to the earth what that mouse is to the speaker: a small, internal part, an acute pain not visible for someone looking at the whole being.
The space behind her third eye is where the speaker’s pain resides and also from where all the questions seem to bloom, keeping her separate from others, and sweeping her away seemingly without her consent. Seaton writes, “ Think of…the way a sudden wave can drag a child under…her / siblings farther away and more powerless than she ever imagined, the pure and ecstatic / irreversibility of undertow.” Later, the ocean returns:
…When you hurt me, I evolved like a backboned sea creature, translucent nervous system sparking along in the meanest deep where I was small enough not to care my passions ran to swimming, gulping, spitting bubbles back into new oceans.
Here, the speaker is again out of control of her rambling thoughts and back in a loneliness reminiscent of one from her childhood. The childlike state of her mind saves her, though, from feeling too bad about this—she’s “small enough not to care.”
But small as she is and in this deep place, she is not seen, and her pain is not seen. In her aloneness, she wonders if the pain is really her own doing, that the “you” of the poem is not to blame as much as her own oddness is. Yet the poem doesn’t read as if the speaker is giving in to despair. It’s a playful poem, one in which many questions are raised and many synapses connected but which also lands on acceptance. The Earth cares for each small part we humans play, sending “Winter and red-tailed hawks when we least expect them,” nourishing the speaker into her resolve: “I can do this.” And it is in this same way that I imagine the speaker cares for her poor mouse, trapped and hurt within her.
Seaton, Maureen. “Fiddleheads.” Little Ice Age, Contemporary Classics Poetry Series, 2001, pp. 25-26.