“From This To That,” The New Yorker November 10, 2008
The heart of Grennan’s poem seems to be located in stanzas four and five. The dreamer, walking the tide-line of a very busy-with-flora-and-fauna beach, notices “the head / and periscoped neck of a cormorant as it vanishes / between breaths, reappears, and looks about as if surprised // to find the world as is.” The dreamer then makes note of the bird’s “amphibian gift to live underwater and in the air.” With this comment, Grennan turns the bird into the official symbol of the poem: bird equals human, who is capable of inhabiting two worlds at once, the world of dream and the world of reality.
And, it’s worth noting that either world can be dominant. That is to say we can inhabit both worlds while still asleep—or nearly asleep—or while awake, driving a long stretch of interstate. While I take much of the imagery in “From This To That” as native to the dream world, arguably it could belong to either. In the second stanza he writes, “you walk awhile by the actual tide-line, the ocean drawn back.” But, is the poem’s you actually walking along the beach? An imagined beach? A dreamed one? It’s hard to say, especially since Grennan’s first line tells readers this is a dream poem, which means the speaker can’t be entirely trusted just as voices and images in a dream can’t be trusted. To further confuse the matter, the penultimate stanza’s first sentence is “So stumble on to true wakefulness, / all dreams dissipated, and stop silenced on a seal-smooth rock / half-buried in sand . . .” So, in the dream, the poem’s you is on a beach; in the waking world, the poem’s you is on a beach. Which world is to be trusted? Which is the illusion, the metaphor? As we shift into true wakefulness is the seal-smooth rock a real rock or a stand-in for something else? Is Grennan’s point that neither world can be trusted? All is illusion? Is this a mind-only existence his poem advocates?
According to the poem’s deliberate though subtle disorder, everything remains “half-buried in sand,” including the cormorant—visible “between breaths” (waves)—and you, the cormorant’s congruency. So, at least part of human experience must be born in the mystical, the psychological. It’s the tip-of-the-iceberg thing. The other part is concrete although not necessarily any more comprehendible.
“From This To That” is comprised of seven stanzas, six of which are quatrains whose lines hover around seven stresses in length. Their consistency gives the poem a look of coherence and unity, as does the imagery. Spatially organized, the poem’s catalogue of images is easy to follow even though the language at times is a bit overly poetic. The only exception is the first stanza in which, while describing “the dream-laden vessel of sleep,” the images arrive quickly and somewhat randomly—dreamlike. The rest belong, so to speak, and Grennan more or less provides his you with stage directions for observing them.
The dream/reality and sea/shore aspect of this poem reminds me a great deal of Dickinson’s “I started early—took my dog—“ Both adhere to their formal, structural principles (Grennan’s poem is not a form, mind you), and both make comment on perception and reality with images from a shared environment: the beach. Interestingly, though Dickinson’s poem is stranger, the shift from dream to reality is much clearer in hers than it is in Grennan’s. For all the specificity and detail in “From This To That,” the poem remains an instance of ambivalence.