White Whale

Ann Killough

It was not just the whiteness of the whale’s skin but what was written on it.

The hereditary scars.

The way they appeared of their own accord more and more forming a network of incomprehensible commandments.


She knew that the metaphor of the whale continued to patrol the coastal waters of her national imagination like a restless lover.

And that the hunt for it seemed to be repetitive, and compulsive.

And that each hunt ended up bound to the whale by the difficult rope of its own discursive harpoon and that grievous human suffering was usually involved.


She knew that one likely referent for the whale was the leviathan obsessions of the entire metaphorical body of her nation.

With its vast apparatus of conquest and its high-frequency cries of longing.

Into which the figures of individual speech were continually being swallowed like an encyclopedic series of phosphorescent microscopic organisms or Biblical prophets.


But that at the same time the whale was also in reference to some alternate and dreadfully impinging state of things.

That it was not just exhaustive and inexhaustible but possessed of some mute and terrible reality that was the object of infinite national desire.

So that the figure of Ishmael alone in the water became more and more important to her.


As though Ishmael were a kind of reduction of the whale to some secular remnant.

As though by clinging to Ishmael she might have some kind of reduced hope for the release of her nation, or at least for the salvage of a traumatized but serviceable discourse of relative sanity.

As though relative sanity were what her nation actually wanted, or ever had.

Ann Killough's
work has appeared in Fence, Field, Mudfish, Poetry Ireland, Salamander, Sentence and elsewhere. Her chapbook Sinners in the Hands: Selections from the Catalog received the 2003 Robert Phillips Poetry Chapbook Prize from Texas Review Press. Her Kinereth Gensler Award winning manuscript, Beloved Idea, has just been published by Alice James Books. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, where she is one of the coordinators of the Brookline Poetry Series as well as of the Mouthful Reading Series in Cambridge.