I set out for the Met, ostensibly to see those much talked of tapestries, but really I just want to see the shark: that is, Damien Hirst’s “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living,” a title that is nearly in iambic pentameter (the first ten syllables scan perfectly) and represents a seven-foot long shark encased in formaldehyde.
I am impatient for the visceral experience sure to accompany such a piece, a modern incarnation of the sublime. When I arrive, I walk right up to the gaping mouth and peer in. A woman peering beside me says cheerfully, “It certainly makes you curious.” I smile and nod politely, though I have no idea what she means. Curious about what exactly?
Personally, I’m thinking about formaldehyde, how it works. The shark’s teeth have much worn away, and her skin is slightly withered. (She is the second Hirst shark; the first one disintegrated.) She doesn’t look particularly fierce, but I try to consider what it would feel like to be seconds away from being eaten. No luck.
Frederick Seidel’s “Anyone with the Wish,” a.k.a. the best shark poem I know, details how “anyone with the wish can swim with the sharks, / And circle the meat, / And feel close to the teeth,” but by the time that revelation is made in the final stanza, who would want to? Who wouldn’t wish instead to be the shark? “They bury their face in life explosively, / And shake their head back and forth to tear some off.”
At a basic level, I think Hirst may be making the same point. That the difference between living and dying should be more distinct.
Again I imagine being eaten. Still nothing.
And then I walk around to the side of the tank. For a moment, right at the corner, an optical illusion occurs: there are two sharks, and they are moving.
My body freezes and releases almost simultaneously, the way that happens when someone grabs your arm on the street and you don’t realize at first that you know him. Or something falls in your apartment in the middle of the night. Or you mistake a speckled stick for a rattler. For a split second, you’re dying. And, more importantly, you’re trying to live. Adrenaline floods your system for the ensuing fight or flight.
“Life is going ahead as fast as it can, / Which is what a poem does.”*
And you can’t get that from Baroque tapestries.
*from “Poem Does” by Seidel.
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