Icy, biting breezes cut like knives;
Sea-spray wave crests crash upon the shore;
Silent, unseen clam and crab life writhes,
Buried neath the surf’s incessant roar.

Winter beach grass, windblown, stiff and dead,
Flagellates the backs of dune and rill;
Scratch of sackcloth, ashes on each head;
Penance for the dying season’s chill.

Portent of the looming doom of Lent,
Season of confession and contrition.
Stiff and dead in sin, yet we repent,
Trusting in God’s promised manumission.

Winter’s sacrifice leads to rebirth.
Raised like new-born beach grass from the earth.

 

 

James A. Tweedie is a recently retired pastor living in Long Beach, Washington. He likes to walk on the beach with his wife. He has written and self-published four novels and a collection of short stories. He has several hundred unpublished poems tucked away in drawers.


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5 Responses

  1. Joseph S. Salemi

    This is a good sonnet, in solid Shakespearean form, and with no tedious near-rhymes or off-rhymes. It manages to conflate the secular vision of a coastal winter (harsh, cold, punishing) with the religious vision of an approaching Lenten season, with its contrition, penance, fasting, and self-denial.

    It reminds me of a line from the modernist Wallace Stevens, where he speaks of “the cowl of winter, done repenting.” This also puts together images of a cold season and the religious picture of a monk’s cowl, and repentance.

    I especially like the assonance of “looming doom,” which is the sort of thing one rarely sees anymore in poetic word choice.

    I have three problems with the poem. In the fourth line, “neath” is an unnecessary clipping. The line remains perfectly in iambic pentameter if you were to write:

    Buried beneath the surf’s incessant roar…

    In fact, this change makes the line more natural, with a choriambic substitution. The way it stands now, it is a totally trochaic line — acceptable, but not as acceptable as the above.

    In line 3, the words “clam” and “crab” are out of place with the final verb “writhes.” Clams and crabs don’t do that, so it strikes the reader as bizarre or bathetic. Why not try this: “Silent, unseen sea-life stirs and writhes”? This gives you the same effect with no verbal hitches.

    The repetition of the phrase “stiff and dead” in quatrain 2 and 3 is a mistake, I think. I see what you are trying to do, which is to connect the “stiff and dead” beach grass with the “stiff and dead” condition of persons who are in a state of mortal sin. But doing it by simple repetition is ineffective, since the reader can see right through it and dismiss the poem as a cheap sermon. What you need instead is a different and striking new image in quatrain three that will re-imagine what “stiff and dead” is meant to suggest. Why not try this:

    Strangled and choked by sin, yet we repent…

    This gives you what you want, without the repetition.

    Reply
  2. C.B. Anderson

    James,

    The way I read it, this poem is mainly catalectic trochaic meter, though the first line of the final couplet is hard to scan that way.

    At first I could not connect the winter seashore images with the beginning of Lent, but at last I realized that the connections simply were not (and were not intended to be) linear. Still, “Penance for the dying season’s chill.” was hard to understand. Whose penance? The “dying season’s” or that of the parishioners taking ashes on their foreheads? Or, why should parishioners do penance for the winter chill? You don’t have to explain, and I don’t have to understand, but it would be nice to know what you meant.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      C.B. In one sense the poem is intentionally amorphous enough for me to answer your question with “all of the above.” The intention, however, was to use the image of the rough, scratchy, winter-dead dune grass (which has a seed-head similar to wheat-since it is a large variety of grass) to introduce the Lenten images of sackcloth, ashes, and penance which are then humanized and made explicit in the third stanza. It is (intentionally) both linear and (as you say) nonlinear. I could, I suppose, annotate what lies behind each of the images, but prefer to leave it to the reader to find whatever sense (or non-sense) they can discern on their own. Dr. S has provided a good interpretation that reflects my intent.

      Reply
  3. James A. Tweedie

    Thank you for the compliments and the suggestions. My response: 1. I accept that “beneath” reads better than “neath” although it makes it the only 10 syllable line in the poem. 2. I was thinking of crabs writhing when they molt (albeit in slow motion) and of the twisting, pulsating thrust of a razor clam’s foot as it digs its way up and down under the sand. Even so, I like your suggestion and will adopt it. 3. The repetition was for folks like C.B. (see below) who may not be able to readily “see right through it” at the first reading (which is, for most people, also their last and only reading). The poem’s imagery/analogy is intentionally obscure and imprecise and the direct reference was, indeed, intended to, as you put it, “connect the two.” I’m not convinced this is a “mistake” per se, but I agree the poem (on a literary level) would be enriched by an alternative phrase. I would welcome a second (and third…) opinion on this from other readers.

    Once again, thank you for taking the time to critique the poem.

    Reply

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