“In exhaustion lives discovery”: Stephen Sturgeon’s The Ship

Daniel Evans Pritchard

“In exhaustion lives discovery”: Stephen Sturgeon’s The Ship
“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
— T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Self-knowledge is built upon self-deception. A person comes to know themselves through the world—sounding against the anthroscape like some blind night-creature—but the world itself is constructed of lies, fabrications, half-truths, inscrutable possibilities and plots that repeat and weaken until they’re transformed into the saccharine propaganda of an everyday exhaustion that’s commonly referred to as the self. At the end of the journey, no matter how far one might explore, Eliot’s awed return to knowledge seems as far out of reach as the past and the intimate dead.

Stephen Sturgeon, in his poem sequence “The Ship,” published as a limited-edition chapbook, embraces these faltering prospects of self-knowledge. His poem is not, as Eliot’s Four Quartets were, a statement of faith transcending the boundaries of reason. There is no atonement in beauty. No reconciliation in the image. Only the recognition that arrives with failure: “In exhaustion lives discovery,” Sturgeon writes. In “this substantial / dialogue with creation”, the poet pursues a Gnostic wisdom:

As pilgrims we accept the trivial
unmaskings of the earth’s unknowableness.

Sturgeon embraces the impregnability of existence as well as the lunacy and danger of trying to see through it. “The world is terrifying,” he writes, “and this boat is not much better / but it is better.” What about the ship is preferable? Maybe the chance for “long absences from society” (as in the Great Tours of the nineteenth century); or the misanthropic corollary that “the river is civilizing us.” The most vivid image of society in the sequence draws its inspiration from the madness of King Lear:

Rain walked down from the clouds
into our opening and closing mouths
in the figure of numerous sluices
operated by an incompetent lunatic.

Before long many spoke up
wanting a government to take account
chiefly of the unimaginable sounds.

The tone is wry, the rhetoric and images surreal, a lyric philosophic mode that seems to ironize its own goals. The poem’s sections range in length, though none run over a page. Some verge upon aphorism, or koans, though even the most self-contained are woven into the movement of the whole. The lines reflect an architect’s control and a certain linguistic reserve: Sturgeon employs verbal flourishes sparingly, purposefully. There is still something of Eliot here, as if the weary boy Prufrock got old and never found Christianity. One can’t help but hear Old Possum’s “voice of the hidden waterfall / And the children in the apple-tree” in these lines by Sturgeon:

We in this boat entered a region
where groves of trees made of water
grew out of the river’s water.
A child among us jumped
into a water-tree’s wet leaves
and scampered through its flowing branches.

That one atypical word, “scampered,” in the closing, signals a crescendo after the piling monosyllables of the previous lines. Eliot’s late verse offers a kind of languid intellectual stasis in more florid prosody, and a solid confirmation of faith that is lacking here—and that absence becomes the engine of “The Ship.”

The opening section of Sturgeon’s sequence stages this central dynamic: the speaker refuses to learn the names of the other passengers, “But the name of the river and of its ministry / I learned.” The river acts as a cipher. It stands for time—how could it not?—it is described as “monster, mother, saint,” it’s an image of love, and of knowledge that lies outside the human production of knowledge. Other people are deeply, almost Biblically fallen—“a human waterfall”, as he puts it—and lacking names. “Our injuries are not unique / in that they are disgraceful.” One section—a fully-realized sonnet, offering a formal completion that’s largely absent from the rest—imagines a nameless woman as a cityscape, a cathedral. It feels remarkably personal. Then, in the closing pair of tercets, that fleeting scent of intimacy is dispersed by deeper needs:

Hold to the river. The wind’s force does not betray
how destination is cradled in God’s mouth
now frowning now smiling at time’s invisibility

licking the hull of this boat. My cathedral
city knocking against her own ears’ doorbells
has its place and vanishes and I do not recognize.

In his debut collection, Trees of the Twentieth Century, Sturgeon writes, “I am more the more I move”, and here, that journey takes place over “a day with thousands of days and nights inside it”. The plenitude represents either a modest conciliatory hope—that one can acquire a self that’s equal to the depth of experiential time—or a truly bracing despair, that neither time nor experience offers any relief. “I am a young animal / tearing away at life”, Sturgeon writes in the closing lines. Do not confuse this with optimism.


DANIEL EVANS PRITCHARD is a writer, translator, and editor living in Boston. He is the founding editor of The Critical Flame, a journal of literature and culture, as well as a board member at VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and advisor at AGNI. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rain Taxi, Prodigal, Little Star, The Buenos Aires Review, The Quarterly Conversation, Fulcrum, and elsewhere.