from “Bound” in THIEF IN THE INTERIOR
by Phillip B. Williams
Can I be only one thing
at once? I was told to believe in and became that
single vessel beneath which water I would never taste
moved. I was shut tight. I was going somewhere
Little boat made smaller by distance.
Here metaphor and linebreaks work together to help readers imagine a boat—a little boat—but also to feel the loneliness and the vast emptiness in which the boat drifts. But as soon as Williams gives us the “little boat,” in the next line he revises the image. It is not just small in size. It is also far away from the eye. The mind enlarges the ocean, the space, the sense of endangerment. The boat moves, changes. The speaker’s life ties metaphorically to a small boat. Readers can fear for the speaker, for the peril in the speaker’s smallness, or for the peril in the speaker’s uncertain, quick-moving journey.
“My soul is an enchanted boat,” Percy Shelley writes. “Michael row de boat ashore,” sings the spiritual singer, reflecting other comparisons of life to boats or to the crossing of deep waters. Williams draws on this imagery, but then distinguishes his imagery by linebreaks that separate the “little boat,” separating it by white space and visual silence, and by catching the mind’s revision. The poem, rightly so, does not offer a narrative plank to walk from the abstract vessel to the more defined “little boat.” It asks readers to make an associative leap. But Williams’ question “Can I be only one thing at once” troubles. What he is told to believe, he becomes: sealed, reduced, isolated, and going toward an unknown. He is a single vessel above water (sensuality? engagement? danger? agency? satisfaction?) that he believes he will never taste. The magic trick comes in the questions that this moment asks: Which did you choose? Are you the small vessel you were told to be, or did you throw yourself into the sensual oceanic depths of the unknown?