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.
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.
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.
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
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
into the traps of consonants
and I began
to make you understand
what would you see
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 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
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
through your unhearing universe
incomprehensible and free
untameable as smoke
and say I spoke