Once there was an opening, an operation: out of which oared the ocean, then oyster and oystercatcher, opal and opal-crowned tanager. From ornateness came the ornate flycatcher and ornate fruit dove. From oil, the oilbird. O is for opus, the Orphean warbler’s octaves, the oratorio of orioles. O for the osprey’s ostentation, the owl and its collection of ossicles. In October’s ochre, the orchard is overgrown with orange and olive, oleander and oxlip. Ovals of dew on the oatgrass. O for obsidian, onyx, ore, for boreholes like inverted obelisks. O for the onion’s concentric O’s, observable only when cut, for the opium oozing from the poppy’s globe only when scored. O for our organs, for the os of the cervix, the double O’s of the ovaries plotted on the body’s plane to mark the origin. O is the orbit that cradles the eye. The oculus opens an O to the sky, where the starry outlines of men float like air bubbles between us and oblivion. Once there were oarfish, opaleyes, olive flounders. Once the oxbows were not overrun with nitrogen. O for the mussels opening in the ocean’s oven. O for the rising ozone, the dropping oxygen, for algae overblooming like an omen or an oracle. O Earth, out-gunned and out-manned. O who holds the void inside itself. O who has made orphans of our hands.

More by Claire Wahmanholm

Poem with No Children In It

Instead, the poem is full of competent trees,
sturdy and slow-growing. The trees live on a wide
clean lawn full of adults. All night, the adults grow
older without somersaulting or spinning. They grow
old while thinking about themselves. They sleep well
and stay out late, their nerves coiled neatly inside
their grown bodies. They don’t think about children
because children were never there to begin with.
The children were not killed or stolen. This is absence,
not loss. There is a world of difference: the distance
between habitable worlds. It is the space that is
unbearable. The poem is relieved not to have to live
in it. Instead, its heart ticks perfectly unfretfully
among the trees. The children who are not in the poem
do not cast shadows or spells to make themselves
appear. When they don’t walk through the poem, time
does not bend around them. They are not black holes.
There are already so many nots in this poem, it is already
so negatively charged. The field around the poem
is summoning children and shadows and singularities
from a busy land full of breathing and mass. My non-
children are pulling children away from their own
warm worlds. They will arrive before I can stop them.
When matter meets anti-matter, it annihilates into
something new. Light. Sound. Waves and waves
of something like water. The poem’s arms are so light
they are falling upward from the body. Why are you crying?

Related Poems

Ballard Locks

Air-struck, wound-gilled, ladder
            upon ladder of them thrashing
through froth, herds of us climb
            the cement stair to watch
this annual plunge back to dying, spawn;
            so much twisted light
the whole tank seethes in a welter of bubbles:
            more like sequined
purses than fish, champagned explosions
            beneath which the ever-moving
smolt fume smacks against glass, churns them up
            to lake from sea level, the way,
outside, fishing boats are dropped or raised
            in pressured chambers, hoses spraying
the salt-slicked undersides a cleaner clean.
            Now the vessels
can return to dock. Now the fish,
            in their similar chambers, rise and fall
along the weirs, smelling the place
            instinct makes for them,
city’s pollutants sieved
            through grates: keeping fish
where fish will spawn;  changing the physics of it,
            changing ours as well:
one giant world encased
            with plastic rock, seaweed transplanted
in thick ribbons for schools to rest in
            before they work their way up
the industrious journey: past shipyard, bus lot,
            train yard, past
bear-cave, past ice-valley; past the place
            my father’s father once,
as a child, had stood with crowds   
            and shot at them with guns
then scooped them from the river with a net, such
            silvers, pinks cross-hatched with black:
now there’s protective glass
            behind which gray shapes shift: change
then change again. Can you see the jaws
            thickening with teeth, scales
beginning to plush themselves with blood; can you see
            there is so little distinction here
between beauty, violence, utility?
            The water looks like boiling sun.
A child has turned his finger into a gun.
            Bang, the ladders say
as they bring up fish into too-bright air, then down again,
            while the child watches the glass
revolve its shapes into a hiss of light.
            Bang, the boy repeats.
His finger points and points.

The Night the Rain Had Nowhere to Go

Before wanted posters were hung    her name & face    at gas stations
& the Magic Mart      Before she testified    to the House Subcommittee 
on Energy and Mineral Resources    made congressmen look

at her slides     orange creeks    scummy tap water    a nude girl bathing  
in mine waste     Before capitol police    detained    interrogated her
for an hour     Before she told reporters    I’m a hillbilly    a Cherokee

a fierce mother     Before the ridge behind her house     was blasted
& her children got nosebleeds from the dust    had to play inside
Before strangers gave her children the finger     taunted them     Before

coal trucks swerved    tried to run her off the road     Before the sand
in her gas tank    & knifed tires      There was the night the rain came 
moaning down    had nowhere to go       valleys near her house

had been filled with debris     everywhere the soil pressed down
a great grinding flood      Big Branch Creek       took her access bridge  
her sidewalk     She led her son and daughter    out of their house

tried to climb the hill     tried for higher ground    They couldn’t push 
through liquid mud     the hill washing down on them    their feet sunken 
slipping in mud    the earth sliding away

Triple Moments of Light and Industry

During our protest at the refineries, our friend R tells us there are bugs in the oil in the earth-colored vats at Valero & Shell, tiny slave bacteria changing sulfides, ammonia, hydrocarbons & phenol into levels of toxin the mixture can tolerate, & then we consider how early tired stars gave way to carbon molecules a short time after the start of time & now carbon makes its way in all life as the present tense makes its way in poetry, the sludge in the vats where the hydrocarbonoclastic bacteria break things down to unending necessities


                            of     which Dante writes
 
                                  of           the middle of hell
                                                 
                           light     where no light is

 

R says his friend who tends the bugs for the company feels tenderly toward his mini-sludge-eaters, they are his animals, he takes their temperature & stirs them & so on. We pause to think of it. Such small creatures. At the beginning of life the cells were anaerobic, ocean vents of fire, archaea, then they loved air. In the axis of time there are triple moments when you look back, forward or in. As a child you were asked to perform more than you could manage. Your need was not symmetrical. It is impossible to repay the laborers who work so hard. R describes his friend’s work as devotional. The bacteria do not experience hurt or the void but their service is uneven & that is why i protest.