is the author of a book of essays, The Night My Mother Met Bruce Lee; a hybrid-genre photo-text memoir that combines poetry, fiction, nonfiction and photography entitled Intimate; and four books of poetry: A Crash of Rhinos, Six Girls Without Pants, The Invention of the Kaleidoscope, and Animal Eye, which was a finalist for the Kingsley Tufts Prize and winner of the UNT Rilke Prize. Her work has received the Amy Lowell Poetry Traveling Fellowship, a Village Voice Writers on the Verge Award, an NEA Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize, the University of Georgia Press’ Contemporary Poetry Series Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, inclusion in the Best American Poetry series and various state arts council awards. Her poems and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming from The New York Times Magazine, American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, The New Republic, Virginia Quarterly Review, Tin House, and on National Public Radio among others.
And now my father sits and sleeps
beside the radio
spooling out its song like the fishing line
he used to take, unraveled
to the makeshift hook he’d tie, its blunted
tip to catch whatever
fish I begged him to find: jealous
of how his father first
had taken him, age 15, aboard his boat
to learn to set the line, cleave
the head, to draw a knife in one
clean sweep down the belly.
My father sent from town to work;
his father with his broken
English. But who knew enough to make
my father stand by the starboard
rail where sharks still trailed the trawler’s
bloody wake, telling him
to watch him take the scythe-
head hook and sweep it
at the smallest shark: catching,
sawing off its head in three
rough jerks, the water blooming
clouds of red as the blunt face sank,
and the body after. My father
watching until the pale
stump rose again to begin
its lurching swim back
to the boat: to dive, then rise,
then dive again:
searching further out for the missing
thought that animated it until
it sank at last and my grandfather
laughed, rinsing down his hook
with pump water. But why
he should laugh at the thrash
of rubbery neck fascia trying
to free itself my father
never asked: one of the mysteries
to go without a name, like the sleek-
backed pods of black whales he once
was woken to, their rank
breath-mist making them both
clutch their shirt tails to their faces.
A shrug, a look, a near wordless gesture
from his father, and then
my father watched to see
if he could answer the riddle
posed silently to him: a boy
who’d gone to school and read
of the delicacy of the nervous system
but hadn’t seen how long a creature takes
to understand it’s dead.
Fifteen years later, my grandfather
drowned, drunk, in the ocean.
And several summers of my childhood
after, my father would gather
a length of blue line to show me
how to tie a knot, thread
the hook, to stand on the beach at the great
edge of the ocean where I said
I thought I saw salmon: no matter
the distance, no matter
it was not their place nor time
for spawning. To watch the enormous
crash and suck of sea mist
hissing to the horizon, where I insisted
that we stand, where he knew
I would not catch anything.
Letter from Elizabeth X, Pribilof Islands, July 13th, 1880
Blunt, bullying, this season’s bachelors climb
the rocks near Nah Speel, sleek backs blackening
the waters inside their seacatchy. The old
bulls line up in rows as at a burlesque
house, while the matkas roll in surf, thrash
upon the parade ground’s volcanic sands
turned glassy from the constant passing of seals.
One by one the bulls slip the line to claim
their females, the matkas cuffed and bitten
on the throat if they struggle, until each one rolls
her belly up, blank eyes wet in supplication.
This is how I imagine it. The event being
“no sight a lady should witness,” as
the Senior Agent says, I am forbidden
from the rookeries; John,
my husband now these thirteen months,
must privately describe it. Libby, he tells me,
you should see how soulful they are, it is
amazing to watch them weep. He takes joy
in their human qualities, recalls tales
heard of selkies who turned to seal-
like girls in surf, braided their hair in seaweed
plaits to chain an errant sailor’s legs. And yet,
in seasons such as this he goes out with other
company men to kill the mating bulls
in their rookeries. I’ve heard the sounds and smelled
grease fires smoking after work, seen John
creep back, clothes spattered with blood.
Still I can’t complain, having begged
him to take me, a lone woman at these edges
of the Pribilofs. Without a maid, John is the one
to tighten my stays, fetch me paper, drawing
pencils, tea. When he’s gone I walk as far
as the officers will let me, to sketch a little
of the matkas and their young. Yesterday, a shape
disturbed me at the game: some figure shadowing
the rocks I noticed late, absorbed by the sight
of two bulls spitting at each other, charging
in an attempt to cut or gore, the matka
flattened before them on the glassy ground.
Interesting, isn’t it, Elizabeth? The shadow
addressed me. I looked. It was the Senior Agent.
He’s complained of my presence here for weeks,
charted my walks around the island; once, in the mess
hall pinched my arm in passing, hissing, Selfish
At home I raged at John,
who shook his head but will say nothing.
And yet how can it be selfish to claim my rights
beside the one I love? A loud groan,
the sea’s kaboom, and one of the bulls,
his shoulder pierced deeply, struggled off.
I watched his slow creep back into the sea,
his shape dissolving in a curl of blood.
When I looked up, the Senior Agent was gone.
Sister, tonight I send along a sketch I’ve done
of a bull with its sleek matka, half-drawn,
only the heads and eyes completely finished, that
peculiar quality to their gaze I struggle
to capture: that clear, yet fathomless unblinking
from which occasionally come–to John’s
continued astonishment– real tears.