Sequence (4)

Another kind of sequence draws the reader on by arousing curiosity. It may tease with a provocative statement, purposely omitting a physical context to waggle a conundrum in the air. For example, consider Ralph Gustafson’s enigmatic lines opening “On the Island of Torcello”:

          Everything is eating everything:
          It is not sufficient.

What is Gustafson driving at, readers wonder. Surely, they are not to imagine a giant mouth or millions of tiny teeth. The puzzling statement forces them to read further to reach that poetic terra firma where concrete images reveal the secret. Gradually the picture takes vivid shape:        
          Five pilings at the wharf
          Of the lagoon are crusted green
          Where the waters wash—lush
          Green, eager for the soft
          Edible wood; the doge,
          Foscari, set at table,
          Dying of indigestion
          At the age of 84—         

Now the sensuous details of woody and human decay—“crusted green”, “Green, eager for the soft / Edible wood”, “set at table, / Dying of indigestion”—make clear exactly what has been eating what. Quite a different, but equally strong, effect would have resulted if the first line were shifted to end the passage. Since the flip side of provoking curiosity is building to a conclusion, all the graphic details of the scene could be pulled together with the one definitive statement: “Everything is eating everything”. In a poem, as in life, wisdom grows out of experience, as much as wondering leads to wisdom.

A simple way to stir the reader’s curiosity is with direct questions. For example, in “Seals” by Gwladys Downes a little girl wonders:           

         How can you tell
          it will rain, when the sun
          lies still on the salt glitter?                                         

The answer is as inventive as the question:  

          clouds move dark-rose and grey
          with small whales trailing after

The poet’s imaginativeness makes the reader hungry for more:

         How do you know an eagle
          is hunting on island
          madronas a mile away?
          a violent uprush of gulls becomes
          that floating high cloud spray

The open-ended poetic volleying can go on and on as long as it delights.