Mythologies of the Deep

                                        I want the body 
                                blue in its skin
to forget 
to tread water in open sea—
                                don’t want the drown 
                                        so much as sink
                                        so much as stop 
Boundaries can be needs—can be keep the waters in check—
           can be I don’t want 
                                            to go there yet.
           I’m not talking only oxygen. 
                      I’m saying I want to pry 
                      the body open at its base,
     like a bivalve hinged
                                       and waiting.
                                 How soft is that raw muscle on the tongue?
                                 What is 
           When the sea beast swam 
                                           hard to the surface to feed
                                 the kayaker raised his paddle
                                 to push off the great tongue.
When he told me this the sun was still 
low on the horizon, but I was already forming
                      crystals on my scalp.
                                 I thought of Jonah tossed into the sea.
                                 I thought of all the other people like him
           swallowed by beasts,
                                 sent by some god or ghost it is
           almost all the same.
                      But after he told me
                      I did not dive into the water to wash 
                                                     the salt from my skin
or high hail it to shore sore afraid.
                                           Would you believe 
                                                                 I wanted all the more
                                           to see that beast?
Someone once said 
                                           we tell ourselves 
                                           stories in order to live—
                                 I tell myself 
                                                    to believe.
                                 I want the body whole to know 
                      the drift and drowse of immersion,
                      and also the prick of effort 
                                           collecting on the skin—
                                                                                 the salt
                                           that does not know distinction
                                           that forms
     on the body’s surface—
                those hard, precise prisms.


Americans at Yad Vashem

We walked the museum in a stupor, sick.
The photographs, the newspapers,
the lampshade made of sewn skin,
the auditorium, monstrous high-gloss paintings,
single faces lit.
The metal tree outside a silhouette:
naked bodies falling
up and out like branches.
Below the tree the crowd
of too-young soldiers talked. The day before
other soldiers detained a student
and his new Muslim friend.
The man had dressed him
to sneak onto the Dome of the Rock.

.   .   .

One night in Lent a representative
from the Muslim congregation came
to talk to the people of a church.
The imam said forgiveness
is not the same
as reconciliation.
I was teaching writing via immigration laws.
The students argued languages.
The candidates argued walls.
The imam asked the people:
What communities live underground?
Whom don’t we talk about or see?
Whom are we silencing?

.     .     .

At the museum we saw the names written.
We heard the names through speakers in the walls.
We saw the faces spiraling up.
For once we,
the Americans at Yad Vashem,
did not talk.
.     .     .
Khalid spoke about oppression and the Quran.
He put quotes on his PowerPoint.
He read the passage loud:
Slay them every one.
Then he reminded us: Muhammad
wrote a letter of protection
for the monks at the base of the Mountain of God.
.     .     .
I saw that mountain gray-beige—color of cremains.
There are two principle ways
to the summit. The steeper climb they call
the steps of penitence—the most direct route.
We went the other way.
A Bedouin boy led the camel train—
the beasts running in grunts,
spittle and foam strung from their mouths.
At the top a mosque.
Pads for pilgrims to sleep.
An Orthodox chapel. The usual rocks.
And the view of the mountains,
like fractals,
.     .     .
No one told us to be quiet.
We had already seen the wall
some call Geder HaHafrada,
and others jidar al-fasl al-‘unsuri.
We had bussed through the checkpoints eating dates.
The New York Times and the BBC
refer to the wall as a barrier,
West Bank barrier, or separation barrier.
We had visited the café in the new city
outside the old wall.
A week later the café was bombed.
.     .     .
The candidates stopped talking walls
and started raising fists against radical Islam.
.     .     .
Khalid said, I am a Muslim;
                                             I am not Islam.

.     .     .

He ended the Q&A thanking us for the invitation
and attention.
I did not mention the dates or the Mountain of God
or the soldiers.

I did not talk to them at all.

But to the side he told the woman with the tied-up dreads
he is afraid we believe
we will repeat history

if we allow ourselves to speak.


Harbor Seal

She did not seem 
                        on any one thing.
She swam
            the river
                        dark mottled face 
            above the surface
                        her nose
                                    pointed up stream.
            But     then she turned
her face neck     fair
            bare belly
                 to the sky
                        and closed her eyes—
as if to listen   
            or remember
                        or memorize. 

Related Poems


We don't know if tomorrow has green pastures

in mind for us to lie down in beside

the ever-youthful patter of fresh water

or if it means to plant us in some arid

outback ugly valley of the shadow

where dayspring's lost for good, interred beneath

a lifetime of mistakes. We'll maybe wake up

in foreign cities where the sun's a ghost,

a figment of itself and angular

starched consonants braid the tongue at its root

so all sense of who we are is lost to words,

and nothing that we know can be unravelled.

Even then, some vestige of the sea,

its plosive tide, its fretwork crests will surge

inside our syllables, bronze like the chant of bees.

However far we've stumbled from the source

a trace of the sea's voice will lodge in us

as the sunlight somehow still abides in

faded tufts that cling to bricks and kerbstones

on half-cleared slums or bomb-sites left unbuilt.

Then out of nowhere after years of silence

the words we used, our unobstructed accents,

will well up from the dark of childhood,

and once more on our lips we'll taste Greek salt.