Before everything shut down, we took a walk
through the fish, immune
inside their walls. Too close,
we wanted to enter their waters.
Hands longing against glass, our fingerprints
clung like suckers.
They didn’t look viral.
In the tunnel
we looked up into silver herring circling wild,
containing a clear blue, inhuman eye.
We looked away
from their maelstrom staring like a kraken.
Whale songs called from black speakers.
We were sinking
past blue rays and green anemones,
separating among hammerhead sharks,
their heads stretched like masks
and hiding secret faces. They could help us
understand. In the glass
we watched ours bend wide and smear.
Then starfish appeared, blue and tan arms
sticking to our reflections,
the happy murk
of our crowds bobbing in public one last time
before we hit bottom
at home, alone-together.
Now we rely on tentacles like jellyfish,
deep down, behind screens
in our sea of weird life. Wanting to touch,
we reach from afar. When we find
we change color, excited.
We remember their kisses—
the trails of loving spittle
left across our cheeks long ago
like the steps of the first creatures
come from the sea—
Image: “Dream of Shark” by Groonn, licensed under CC 2.0.
When the pandemic spread into the USA, and all of a sudden many of us were at home and interacting primarily and primally through screens, I remembered notes I had taken at the aquarium in San Francisco. Going back to them after more than a decade, I noticed how my observations could be applied to the onset of the American version of the covid-19 pandemic, a collective descent into the underworld.
At the same time, I rediscovered many observations about jellyfish, about which H.D. writes in her essay “Notes on Thought and Vision.” In particular, in a state between life and death, H.D. had a “jellyfish experience,” the result of a post-war influenza that nearly killed her and her unborn child. A metaphorically quick way to say it would be that long feelers extended from her body, perhaps her womb, and eliminated her isolation through connecting her to other people, creatures and ideas.
Writing this poem, I asked myself whether we could be having a national “jellyfish experience.” If H.D.’s ended in joy and connection, why can’t ours, when we find our way out or through?