If there’s life after death, it isn’t the body
I’d want, which after all is a rather shoddy
container. I’d want to come back as pure voice.
I’d want to tell of this beach before the turtles
confused the porch lights for moons as they hurtled
ashore to lay their eggs. I wouldn’t point
an accusing finger. I just want the record
straight, to tell how black skimmers in sinuous hordes
turned in the sky like pages of print; how they strained
the sea, their lower mandibles seining for fish.
That the snowy plovers took flight in waves of applause,
their wings beating so fast they seemed to pause,
strobe-lit. I’d tell how the sea relents
in early spring, exposing the muck where creatures spend
themselves in extravagant numbers—fighting conchs
hopping like slow rabbits in search of a mate
on their singular black feet; Atlantic cockles in spate,
their speckled mantles like pink tongues on which
they twirl and fall through the inch-deep surf
in a ritual dance. And skates dragging a scarf
through the shallows as their wingtips
and eye ridges froth the water to tulle.
And horse conchs, with their glossy orange lips
cartwheeling over the sand bar, heroic
as salmon swimming upstream. Then the water stood
still—limpid, glassed out, afloat with ripe
coconuts and mangrove pods, those brown-tipped
exclamations, each an infant tree that accretes
an island if given a toehold. For weeks
the tides lay like a blanket over freshly laid
eggs—the leathery leis of the lightning whelk,
the castanets of conchs with dozens of baby
gastropods inside each disk of salty milk.
At the end of a month, the water peeled back
like bells ringing, and everywhere the egg sacs
burst, and tiny offspring poured forth.
This was before the beach became a “catcher’s mitt”
for trash, before the oil spills and red tides,
before the hard corals blanched and died,
before the fire sponges rotted in their red glory.
If I could come back I’d tell this story and the stories
found only in record books: the tarpon reaching
twelve feet, the groupers big as cars,
cone shells grown heavy as bricks on their packs
of poison harpoons. And everywhere the fish, scarce
now—mackerel, trout, pompano, drum—so
plentiful once they fed us for millennia.
I’d send my voice like a whale song into the deep,
threading it through turtle grass and sea wrack
singing to the soft corals and sea hares, the polychete
worms and squid, Come back if you can, come back.
ENID SHOMER is the author of four books of poetry and three of fiction, most recently The Twelve Rooms of the Nile, which NPR named one of the six best historical novels of the year. Her poems and stories have appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Poetry, Best American Poetry, Boulevard, as well as in more than seventy anthologies and textbooks. From 2002 through 2014, she edited the University of Arkansas Poetry Series. In 2013, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing from the Florida Humanities Council. She lives in Tampa.
This poem was a finalist for our 2014 Auburn Witness Poetry Prize Honoring Jake Adam York. Learn more about our annual contest here.