Shell Game

by Fred Longworth
PenShells
Honorable Mention, July 2011
Judged by Tyehimba Jess


The father handed a conch shell to the son.
Put it to your ear—he said—
and you can hear the ocean.

The shell felt big and heavy for small hands.
The boy held it this way and that,
and finally wrestled it against his ear.
He heard a rushing sound, like when
he got down on hands and knees, and put his head
to the vent for the air-conditioner.

He was just old enough to understand
similars—how the rusty hinge on the gate
into the alley sent the same shiver up his spine
as the bantam rooster at Uncle Henry’s farm.

And so, the way that the sea, the blower behind
the wall, and the conch shell kind of
came together was a fun surprise.

The boy put the shell to his ear again.
He remembered how waves crashed
onto the beach, how the noise rose and fell.
The shell seemed different. The sound it made
was always about the same.

How does the shell do this?—the boy asked.
The father smiled. Tomorrow, they would drive
to the cove, take the stairway
down to Sunny Jim’s Cave in the sea cliff,
and listen to the huge, deep musical notes,
the wind fingering the grotto like a bassoon.


This poem doesn’t try to do more than recount a very simple moment, with very simple language. I’m impressed with that choice, and the ability to sound common place in a space where one is expected to strain toward depth and meaning. Wise choice not to try too hard, and let the day speak for itself. ---Tyehimba Jess

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