To Ernest Brace

And when the seven thunders had uttered their voices, I was
about to write: and I heard a voice from heaven saying unto
me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and
write them not.

That raft we rigged up, under the water,
Was just the item: when he walked,
With his robes blowing, dark against the sky,
It was as though the unsubstantial waves held up
His slender and inviolate feet. The gulls flew over,
Dropping, crying alone; thin ragged lengths of cloud
Drifted in bars across the sun. There on the shore
The crowd’s response was instantaneous. He
Handled it well, I thought–the gait, the tilt of the head, just right.
Long streaks of light were blinding on the waves.
And then we knew our work well worth the time:
The days of sawing, fitting, all those nails,
The tiresome rehearsals, considerations of execution.
But if you want a miracle, you have to work for it,
Lay your plans carefully and keep one jump
Ahead of the crowd. To report a miracle
Is a pleasure unalloyed; but staging one requires
Tact, imagination, a special knack for the job
Not everyone possesses. A miracle, in fact, means work.
–And now there are those who have come saying
That miracles were not what we were after. But what else
Is there? What other hope does life hold out
But the miraculous, the skilled and patient
Execution, the teamwork, all the pain and worry every miracle involves?

Visionaries tossing in their beds, haunted and racked
By questions of Messiahship and eschatology,
Are like the mist rising at nightfall, and come,
Perhaps to even less. Grave supernaturalists, devoted worshippers
Experience the ecstasy (such as it is), but not
Our ecstasy. It was our making. Yet sometimes
When the torrent of that time
Comes pouring back, I wonder at our courage
And our enterprise. It was as though the world
Had been one darkening, abandoned hall
Where rows of unlit candles stood; and we
Not out of love, so much, or hope, or even worship, but
Out of the fear of death, came with our lights
And watched the candles, one by one, take fire, flames
Against the long night of our fear. We thought
That we could never die. Now I am less convinced.
–The traveller on the plain makes out the mountains
At a distance; then he loses sight. His way
Winds through the valleys; then, at a sudden turning of a path,
The peaks stand nakedly before him: they are something else
Than what he saw below. I think now of the raft
(For me, somehow, the summit of the whole experience)
And all the expectations of that day, but also of the cave
We stocked with bread, the secret meetings
In the hills, the fake assassins hired for the last pursuit,
The careful staging of the cures, the bribed officials,
The angels’ garments, tailored faultlessly,
The medicines administered behind the stone,
That ultimate cloud, so perfect, and so opportune.
Who managed all that blood I never knew.

The days get longer. It was a long time ago.
And I have come to that point in the turning of the path
Where peaks are infinite–horn-shaped and scaly, choked with

But even here, I know our work was worth the cost.
What we have brought to pass, no one can take away.
Life offers up no miracles, unfortunately, and needs assistance.
Nothing will be the same as once it was,
I tell myself.–It’s dark here on the peak, and keeps on getting
It seems I am experiencing a kind of ecstasy.
Was it sunlight on the waves that day? The night comes down.
And now the water seems remote, unreal, and perhaps it is.

Analysis, meaning and summary of Weldon Kees's poem A Distance From The Sea

1 Comment

  1. Margaret Ruth Porter says:


    He was common, ordinary so to speak,
    nothing special about him,
    wearing the usual clothing of the Sherpa,
    warm, useful. Not thin coated.

    Engaged as he was in public debate
    he found it difficult to make a decision,
    whether to lead or to follow?
    In the end it came down
    to the need for enough diesel fuel for winter
    to pour into a certain kind of heater
    that escapes description universally.
    A way to pay for warmth in the winter.

    Twelve Nepalese were killed in Baghdad today,
    someone whispers to me. Not that it matters.

    So he put together some things:
    bread, cheese, Sherpa foods,
    the usual fare and set out to rendezvous
    with the ten or so moralistically staunch
    climbers engaging him: moralistic because
    insisted on the unusual. Very moral.

    We should say ethical but that is just not physical enough.

    The two parties met and he collected the agreed upon
    Sherpa coin. No one knows what it looks like.
    It might be Chinese or in this case, Ben Franklin-like
    because of the universality of Imperialistic trade,
    so it goes in the impoverished world.
    Doesn’t matter to us or to the Sherpa who Ascends.

    He turned to the leader of the group
    who had learned the Sherpa language easily enough,
    certain tough families of words useful
    to climbing: torch, fire, food, oxygen,
    death, liquor, book, socks, cold, die-ing (being a
    progressive form of the former), pain,
    mother, father, and of course, candy…
    and he said, “I’ll have to stay ahead of you all.
    I’m uncomfortable in the company of others.”

    The leader was puzzled but agreed to the stipulation
    all the same. It must be some sort of standard
    in Nepal he thought, some sort of requirement.

    “How will we follow then?”

    “I’ll leave my footprints in the snow of course.”

    “Oh,” the leader said, chastened at his own stupidity.

    The trek began the next morning which happens pretty
    early up there, finishes pretty late,
    with the Sherpa starting off at night, slipping out
    as fast as he could go
    as an angel in the moon’s glow.
    One mustn’t dally on a short night.

    The moralistically inclined group set out.
    They were pleased to see the tracks well defined,
    deep and the weather pleasant, the mountaintop
    in view, achievable. Very optimistic,
    if you will. Occasionally they caught sight
    of the Sherpa, his head bobbing up and down
    in the distance, disappearing behind rocks,
    reappearing. The tracks were still quite good.

    The second day was much the same only the Sherpa
    was no longer in sight, the tracks slightly obscured
    by the light snows. Some of the tracks looked
    a bit altered, a yeti paw here or a trace of goat there.
    That was expected and no one yet bristled.
    The guy at the end of the rope disappeared
    but no one noticed. Each of them caught
    in their own meanings, their own cold.

    By the third day however, the bristling
    was looking more like a forest fire;
    the cold was like a burning heat;
    the sun was no longer just the sun
    but an actual star; the sky was no longer
    so far away and the shells of gas,
    the rings of Jupiter, all of them somehow related.

    By then the tracks had completely disappeared
    and were replaced by paw prints:
    first a snow leopard, then some kind of bird,
    a wolf and finally, a palimpsest.

    When the group began noticing, one after the other,
    the disappearances of the others, when the final
    moralistic climber was left to himself,
    he felt the Sherpa beside him, pulling him tightly
    dragging him, whipping him with a leather strap,
    his nails digging into the final climber’s frozen flesh.

    The guide had been there all along and had dismissed the climbers
    one at a time, disguised as a snow leopard, a yeti, and the wolf
    until he decided which one he could keep company with.
    “Here we are!” he said, peaceful and not very excited.
    He’d been to the spot how many times now,
    “How do you like it?”

    “Die-ing,” he replaced the form deliberately.
    The Sherpa deliberately replied, “Death.”

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