A Babylon above the dunes, dazzling
the sky to tiles in its spires of glasswork,
skeleton-steel—by its cells, the city
also dreams of ordering an ocean
to quell the all-dilapidating blue,
flatten, stanch it to a depthless silver
salt-air licks the face of, but cannot eat.
Bright wings line the lepidopterist’s drawer,
opalescent in the light and silent:
the twentieth century’s chrome-hard glint. – 1941
All the brittle bodies, once collected,
of the country’s rarest extant species
might amount to three pounds, hardly deadweight—
after-shape held in the unburdened hand.
Still, aloft our many-mirrored empire
of erasures, above the crimson bridge,
some wingèd thing, fog-lost, is fluttering.
“Steller’s sea cow”
…often it was my wont to get milk in large quantities
from dead ones in the same way as from cows.
—Georg Wilhelm Steller, de Bestiis Marinis (1751)
Bark-skinned and buoyant as a rotten log,
the leviathan of Bering Island
was first hauled, wrenchingly, by shipwrecked men
to shore—who filleted and flayed its corpse – 1742
upon the beach. Steller cut the details
knife-wise: one black, prevaricating eye,
blinking in the sleep of which his own gleamed,
or seemed to, taken at any angle.
What remained of the hide inviolate
when the grim labor of the cudgels slowed
and slackened to a pant, they peeled away—
scraps, fit only for belts and for boot-soles.
The creature’s rich, unspoiled fat, sun-softened
and rendered, burned smokelessly, was almost
sweet-scented, though it tended to impart
certain haunted inflections to the light
Steller wrote by, despoiling the body’s
hidden rooms, flesh-ensconced machineries,
the deep, arborescent architectures
of blood and sensation—de anima;
for, shooing seagulls from the days-dead thing,
he marked the lone and listless silhouette
of a bull, like a felled tree, as it bobbed
along the rain-frothed shoal, holding vigil.
The descendants of this expedition
met with an isle of mysterious bones: – c. 1820
relics to be collected and pedaled
at far harbors as mermaid ivory.
Vest, not unselfishly, a devotion
in this. That life might seek its quiet end,
lapped at the leisure of the long-tailed sea,
in use. Pick me over. Clean me out, Lord.