The calamity of seals begins with jaws. Born in caverns that reverberate With endless malice of the sea's tongue Clacking on shingle, they learn to bark back In fear and sadness and celebration. The ocean's mouth opens forty feet wide And closes on a morsel of their rock. Swayed by the thrust and backfall of the tide, A dappled grey bull and a brindled cow Copulate in the green water of a cove. I watch from a cliff-top, trying not to move. Sometimes they sink and merge into black shoals; Then rise for air, his muzzle on her neck, Their winged feet intertwined as a fishtail. She opens her fierce mouth like a scarlet flower Full of white seeds; she holds it open long At the sunburst in the music of their loving; And cries a little. But I must remember How far their feelings are from mine marooned. If there are tears at this holy ceremony Theirs are caused by brine and mine by breeze. When the great bull withdraws his rod, it glows Like a carnelian candle set in jade. The cow ripples ashore to feed her calf; While an old rival, eyeing the deed with hate, Swims to attack the tired triumphant god. They rear their heads above the boiling surf, Their terrible jaws open, jetting blood. At nightfall they haul out, and mourn the drowned, Playing to the sea sadly their last quartet, An improvised requiem that ravishes Reason, while ripping scale up like a net: Brings pity trembling down the rocky spine Of headlands, till the bitter ocean's tongue Swells in their cove, and smothers their sweet song.
Reprinted from Richard Murphy: Collected Poems with permission of Wake Forest University Press. Copyright © 2001 Richard Murphy. All rights reserved.