Momento Mori

by Brenda Levy Tate
Pen Shells
Third Place, December 2008
Judged by Hélène Cardona and John Fitzgerald


Hold it to your ear and listen, my father said.
You’ll hear the sea. He offered the conch
– one of a pair on the Florida souvenir counter –

and I lifted it against my never-cut curls.
The ocean spoke then (it must have been so,
for who would doubt the word of a navy man?).

Shoal-dance: hiss and boom and mutter.
We claimed both pink-throated ornaments,
set them beside our fireplace, where smoke

bit into their soft bosses. My father dusted
them often at first, then less and less.
He died on a May morning. I wasn’t there.

Today I am in the family room, clearing my half-
life rubble, those trinkets never fully paid for.
My lost sailor rises from his water rest,

a bubble seeking light. Hold it to your ear,
he murmurs. I study the remaining shell,
pitted with ash acid, patterned with worm

burrows among its turrets. It looks starved.
I raise it to a lobe; my gold stud presses
where neck and jaw collide. Skull tectonics.

What sea still moves over these old reefs
and reaches? Just the eddy of my own
blood – personal undertow that sluices bone –

salt and iron doomed as any rotten vessel.
Heaven forgive my unbelief. I strain to resurrect
a single current here, flood and pull now silent

beneath a nacre sunset. Invented waves dry
in ruined chambers. My father retreats, a tide
ebbing through his deaf labyrinth. I cannot call

after him, nor even wring a prayer to wash
my aragonite dead.


This poem flows with a wonderful rhythm. Great use of language for a story that is both personal and universal. --Hélène Cardona and John Fitzgerald

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