Tsumani Prelude

by Brenda Levy Tate
Pen Shells
First Place, August 2008
Judged by Tony Barnstone


Salt water curls back – tongue against sky roof.
Mud sucks and hisses, salivary, raw red
gleaming to horizon like a muscle sheath.
It is miraculous, this wrenched ocean, sudden
absence of tide. Even gulls are astonished.
Thin cloud scallops edge emptiness. Blind bivalves
sputter and spout as I cross their wet bed.

Caught among flotsam, barnacled pine-limbs
point fingerbones. Impaled, a child’s photo
grins grey, wavers. My own eyes (little changed),
bedraggled hair-bow, missing tooth. No acne yet.
I refuse to save myself. Beside a tampon case,
my jewel-box gapes, pink and broken. It may
have just given birth to something unnameable.

Storm petrels knife into the wind. To my left,
an old man bends toward a stained helmet;
three women on my right drape prom dresses
over their arms – lace bodices, tulle skirts.
Half-buried in silt, an Evening in Paris bottle
reminds me I’m allergic. But today’s scents
are kelp, rust, blended fresh remains.

This is too large a harvest for one season.
Diaries with vinyl covers; teen dolls holding
tiny 45s. Worn saddle shoes (brown trim,
not the black I wanted). Oak cane – I know it
from my closet debris. Scattered costume beads,
brooches, safety pins, cracked glass goblets.
Decanter I once gave my dad for his birthday.

I stamp on a wedding ring with cheap
diamond chips. Circular imprint: perfect fake
clamhole. Dried-rose-petal dervishes blow
across cumuli. Ululations (ecstasy? anguish?)
roil heat haze. On the beach, girls’ cries disturb
this universe. Freight-train-thundershake.
Tourists yell run in their language. Not mine.

Along a naked seafloor, silver leaps joyous
and unintelligent. When the rro-ooo-ll is called up
yo-o-onder. I’m not sure where I’ll be, except not
there. The promdress ladies are gone, nothing left
but a mohair stole. I wrap myself in woolscratch,
recall Nana knitting its duplicate. Senior year.
It scrapes at my skin like an oyster knife.

I lie down, open myself.

We’ll drown, the old man reassures me.

Foam gargles toward us.

That’s the point.


The great strength of this poem lies in the care and interest it gives to description, especially in the wonderful and strange first two stanzas. I enjoy the physicality of the receded ocean like a mouth, the tongue of the waves curled back, the raw red mud like muscle sheath. Though the poet restrains him or herself from saying so, implicitly it makes the oceanic force of the gathering Tsunami a godlike thing, a great god tongue coming to lick the world clean of life. The second stanza gives us a picture of the flotsam that the narrator and others are gathering in the bed of the receded ocean---all the detritus of their lives, child photos, tampon cases, and especially that very strange jewel box gaping, pink and broken. It is a strange image of the mother-vagina that has birthed something unnameable. The red mud echoes the Hebrew for Adam (“red earth”) and the vaginal jewel box gives us an intertextual echo of the myth of Pandora and just a hint of the Yeats’ apocalyptic beast slouching towards Bethlehem. So the creation story of Genesis is joined to the Greek myth of the origin of monsters, which have birthed (it seems) this monster storm. Out of that monstrous beginning will come the apocalyptic end of the poem’s little world made cunningly. Why does the protagonist stay on the mud to drown as the water gathers and rolls toward her, refusing to save herself, choosing instead to lie down and open herself? I don’t know, exactly. Yet that strange ending, in which the old man reassures her that drowning is somehow the point of it all, has an instinctive rightness to me. Why resist the god-tongue’s watery word? Why not drown in god and let him/her wash the things of your life away? What will remain then? --Tony Barnstone

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