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MacQueen’s Quinterly: Knock-your-socks-off Art and Literature
Issue 23: 28 April 2024
Visual Art: Sculpture
+ Poem: 583 words
By Frank Keim

To Carve This Whale


Beluga: Hand-carved wood sculpture by Frank Keim
Beluga (hand-carved wood sculpture), copyrighted © by Frank Keim.
All rights reserved. Image appears here with his permission.


I first search for just the right wood, 
a humble block of Pacific red cedar, 
Thuja plicata, which science says is not cedar at all, 
just a look-alike wood, 
but it’s my choice 
because of its fragrance and ease of shaping 
the graceful lines of the whale’s glistening body... 

I study the piece and ponder the kind of whale 
that wants release from this soft-toned rufous wood, 
and finally decide on a beluga, 
the friendly, toothed whale with a smile 
and a deep sense of trust for its poet carver... 

I start by sawing a rough-cut blank 
with only the hint of what it will be when I finish, 
being careful to leave ample wood 
on both sides of the cedar block 
so its fins and tail won’t break as I work... 

then I choose a rasping tool to further refine its shape 
so I can begin to see the spark of its life force 
and the anima it will reveal 
when it’s finally freed from its prison 
inside the inchoate wood... 

the head is next, a bulbous thing called a melon, 
filled with oil and purpose 
that with echoing clicks allows these whales and their kin 
to locate wary prey 
to feed their mighty hunger... 

then the tail fin, 
such a powerful organ 
as we land-born humans will never know, 
which prompts my curious mind to follow a trail 
far back in time, 45 million years back, 
when these once terrestrial animals returned to the sea 
and, losing their land-loving legs, 
opted for up and down propulsion 
as their mammalian backbone would only allow... 

next the pectoral fins that once were forelegs 
but are now curving appendages as smooth as satin 
for propelling and steering the whale 
in its aqueous medium, 
but oh, so fragile in the last moments 
of their whittling by my knife and file 
that once and twice they broke 
and I had to mend them 
so the fins could swim 
when the carving was done... 

the round affable eyes are next 
that, along with echoing clicks, 
help the beluga see and hunt 
his wary fish-finned and cephalopodic prey, 
and escape the stealth of his piebald enemies, 
the ultimate hunters of the sea world 
waiting with long dorsal fins and powerful teeth 
for just the right moment to swoop in by surprise 
and bloody the life and death 
of this wondrous creature—
the ultimate law, 
nature raw in tooth and jaw... 

and lest I forget, to carve the blow hole, 
yes, like the ones I heard one twilight night 
while skiing near a Yup’ik Eskimo village 
on the frozen shore ice of the Bering Sea, 
when a score of belugas drifting like pale phantoms 
under the cold black water of a misty open lead 
suddenly surfaced, all of them together, 
and blew their held breath into the dark, 
sounding like staccato rifle shots, 
then inhaled, all of them together, 
and dove back under the water 
to avoid certain danger from a stranger 
beside them on the ice... 

finally, the longest most patient process of all, 
of sanding with finer and finer sandpaper, 
then painting with the whitest of white color 
the pallor of ice pans floating 
in shimmering jet-black water, 
to protect my whale from peril 
from above and below 
and let him live long in frigid seas, 
find a mate and procreate, 
and survive as he was intended to, 
as yet another preternatural, almost magical, 
creature of our arctic seas. 

—Fairbanks, Alaska; November, 2023

Frank Keim
Issue 23 (April 2024)

is an educator, nature writer, and environmental activist who has resided in Alaska since 1961. He worked for two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer on the Bolivian Altiplano; as an anthropologist in Ecuador for four years; and as a secondary school teacher of Yup’ik Eskimos in four small Eskimo villages in Alaska’s Lower Yukon Delta for 21 years. He has three poetry books published: Voices on the Wind (2011), Today I Caught Your Spirit (2014), and Trails Taken ... so many still to take (2018). His Wilderness River books were published in 2012 and 2020 respectively: White Water Blue: Paddling and Trekking Alaska’s Wild Rivers, and Down Alaska’s Wild Rivers: Journals of an Alaskan Naturalist.

Frank enjoys canoeing, wood carving, and drawing birds for an in-progress online book entitled Yup’ik Bird Book. He lives in an octagon that he and his wife, Jennifer, built themselves north of Fairbanks, Alaska.

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