The paradox is that when Bly writes prose poems he is prone to similies which are too often a product of his intelligence. This immediately disrupts his own desire for organic form. "The Dead Seal near McClure's Beach" is a powerful prose poem with enough bad writing to sink a lesser vessel. . . .
The sentence containing the phrase "A shock goes through me" is unnecessary and trite. And the simile is forced, dull, an act of will rather than an act of transformation. And yet I'm not sure the poem would be better without it. Look how intense it would become if Bly moved directly from "My God he is still alive" to "His head is arched back. . .."
The very syntax of "The Dead Seal" shows Bly working at making similes. "The flipper near me lies folded over the stomach, looking like an unfinished arm"; then, still groping for comparisons, "The seal's skin looks like an old overcoat" . . . .
The awkwardness of Bly's similes is transparent. But then jackpot: "Suddenly he rears up, turns over, gives three cries, Awaark! Awaark! Awaark!--like the cries from Christmas toys," is an absolutely terrifying image that recalls the terror children feel when something that's supposed to be funny isn't--sounds of lost souls risen in rubber bodies. I'm tempted to say that this works because its aptness is in the hearing of it, but that doesn't explain everything. It's here, not where Bly tries for verisimilitude, that the seal's presence is made present in the poem. If Robert Bly in one of his gray rubber masks were to read the poem aloud and give "three cries" we might be terrified; but as a poem on a page it's the simile "like the cries from Christmas toys" that breathes life, that is death, into the poem.
Bly, like many strong poets, is most moving when he isn't trying so hard to perform a feat. Melville's harpooneer starts out of idleness. And Bly is best as a poet of idleness, idleness in the Keatsian sense . . . .
When Bly says, calmly, "Here on its back is the oil that heats our houses so efficiently," the effect is wrenching. The sentence has an almost Shakespearean doubleness. The impartial brutality of the world outside the privileged moment, enacted in the poem, provides the context for tragedy. "He is dying... He is taking a long time to die. " For the duration of this poem Bly is in deep communion with this seal. He is shaken to the root of his being and the feeling comes through. Even what I've called the blatantly "awkward writing" is connected to the amount of dread involved in this confrontation between animal and man. Bly reveals more about his theory of the feminine (the "Teeth Mother" and the "Great Mother") in the next lines than in all of his more explicit statements on the subject. The seal is a "he" who becomes androgynous--a link between the sea and the mother. "I am terrified and leap back, although I know there can be no teeth in that jaw." This is the "vagina dentata" which so terrifies the male of the species.
And just so that we shouldn't miss the point that the speaker's fear of the seal is commensurate with his fear of women (and equally bound up with his fear of death and his death wish or desire to return to the sea/womb) Bly, in another awkward and loaded passage (in which comparisons arc once again forced and the connections hammered into place) says the seal "looks up at the sky, and he looks like an old lady who has lost her hair." (Compare this with Keats' line Bly quotes in Sleepers Joining Hands: "with horrid warning gaped wide.") The seal has been transformed into a hag. The treatment of the subject may be labored but the content is heavy, like lead, the alchemical base of creation. The seal is even the color of lead.
From "New Mud to Walk Upon" in Of Solitude and Silence: Writings on Robert Bly. Ed. Richard Jones and Kate Daniels. Copyright © 1981 by Poetry East.