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From The Dolphin House

Note for the following three poems: In 1965, a bottlenose dolphin christened Peter was the subject of a scientific experiment. For six weeks, he lived in a flooded apartment in the Virgin Islands with a woman named Margaret Howe, who was tasked with teaching him human language. Needless to say, this was not successful.

 

 

Margaret’s Visitor


The doorbell never rings. I still

anticipate the TV sitcom bait-and-switch,

the postboy’s shock as Peter

concertinas through the water to the door,

rotates the handle with his bottlenose

and nabs the letter in his mouth,

delivering a suave Midwestern ‘Thanks’ –

and I descend, still fresh

from six weeks in a Lurex bathing suit,

to wait for his reply.

I see the postboy see the desk that hovers

with its laminated paperwork,

like the chrome cloud of an indifferent God;

the hair I shaved to bring us closer

tufting out, my black lips like a faded mime:

and I see Peter, halfway human now,

his eyes above the water

sitting on his nose, easy as spectacles.

‘Oh no,’ he says, ‘it’s no trouble at all,’

craning to sign, the pen between his teeth.

I’m by his side: a painting of two homesteaders

leaning on leaf-nets as if they were farming tools.

A ball bobs in the background, childishly,

but we have put such things away.

I ask him where he’d like our new delivery.

We watch the postboy stagger, fish-legged,

down the street, his mouth a gasping blowhole.

 

 

Fourth of July


Of course he wouldn’t wear a hat.

Of course the soggy tickertape.

Of course this can of frosting in the dark,

water-light softening its jagged edges,

and for just a tick I seriously thought:

what if I slit his throat?

The body bundled in the elevator.

Blood spreading like a firework,

like neurons forming, point by point,

until it reached the grouting.

Those men in caps — the dries, I called them —

laughing as they slapped it on the walls,

asking which one of us had chosen

the shade of paint: me,

or the herring hog?

Nothing from John.

I turned the set up, watched him yawp

‘My Country, Tis Of Thee’.

My saturated bed; a second, mermaid puberty.

His jealous shrieks when my mother phoned.

You can always come home.

I gave my lesson. I wrung out the flag.

Five weeks, and he can’t count to three.

Some holiday.

I spent it scrubbing algae from the walls,

a bad joke in a spangled leotard

as Peter threw himself

against the barriers of language,

battering my legs with a persistence

that was almost human.

 

Peter Speaks


so say
I start to talk the way
you want me to

and say I speak
about those over-water weeks
what would it mean to you

this vocal suit
this crawl
towards the vertical

now the Cetacean Chair

will take the floor

and tell you     what

you want to hear

that you were right

you saw me through the aquatint

but if my world

was too wide and too wild

to shunt

into the traps of consonants

and I began

to make you understand

what would you see

the sea

meeting the logic of the land

swallows and burns

and goes away

and the land learns

nothing it holds

nothing that fits

into the vessels carved for it

this minstrelsy

this passing soon

is meaningless beneath the moon

which sways my home

which holds me down

which is itself reflected light

on the wrong side

of a long night

so say

I rose     sublunary

and sleeved with rays

you cannot see

and say my secrets
rose up too

in words that meant nothing to you

and say my story

whistled     burst

through your unhearing universe

incomprehensible and free

untameable as smoke

and say I spoke

 



ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


’s pamphlets include The Emmores (Emma Press, 2014) and A Bloody Mess (Valley Press, 2015). His work has featured in Oxford Poetry, Poetry London, and The Salt Book of Younger Poets. His first children’s play – an adaptation of The Selfish Giant – was produced at the Arcola Theatre in December 2016. He is a teaching fellow in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. In 2017, he won an Eric Gregory Award from the Society of Authors.


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