It was difficult to choose just a couple of poems to feature here from the book Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer. (I posted one yesterday as well.)
This year, National Poetry Month begins and ends with weekends. At the beginning of April, I featured two poems by the multi-talented Paula Billups, poems which touched me deeply. Ending this month is a weekend of poems by another person whose poetry has impacted me in a profound way. (You can read more of how and why on yesterday’s post.)
The following poem, “Natural History,” broaches the grim subject of the Anthropocene Era we have found ourselves in, while framing the debate in the real root of its sadness: our descendants and the mess we seem to be leaving them. On a weekend when half of my little family marched for the climate, I keep desperately clinging to the hope of productive tasks and resistance willpower, using what influence and abilities I have to chip away at the problem and, ideally, lead others by example.
Like parenting, like teaching, I don’t always know if my leading by example actually makes an impact, but I continue to try to do it, because the alternative feels cowardly.
To say love is why explorers trekked north
with oilskin and sextants believing mastodons
were still alive is fiction, but I would haul a sled
over tundra, hoping a herd survived, hoping you
will survive. My body opens like an umbrella
as you become an abstract of history, speeding
through evolution until you are covered
with arboreal fur. Before you have fingerprints,
or even hands, your ribs unfurl in fiddleheads.
They articulate in pairs. The world without us
is nameless. There are words for all the molten ages
before the seabed bloomed, but none for after us,
not even in Latin. Our imagination spurns
extinction, even when shown a dinosaur egg
or skies once darkened by pigeons. In the museum,
a diorama waits for the future, a camouflage
of blankness. I surrender to your small chance
of being, though you are only a faint shadow
in sonar, a muffled thrum. This love is talons
and wild valor against the baying of hounds.
Glass boxes bear sabertooth skulls, meteorites,
and tracks in volcanic ash. The revolutions
are numerous. A blue whale drifts from the ceiling,
navel wide as a dinner plate, a half-ton heart
on the floor underneath. It is doubtful hearts
will be larger in the future. I want to promise you
permanence, my constant orbit, but even continents
are revisions. I am only your diving bell in water
hemmed by shifting plates. For now, the only name
I give you is my own, though maps are drawn
for seas ten million years ahead. In Ethiopia,
a rift will open wide enough for water
to pour a new coastline and drown the valley
where the skeleton of a woman, not quite human
or ape, was found. As you take my bones
for your own, my greedy passenger, the certainty
of elements is all I have. Your inheritance
of calcium was starfish, then mountain,
then lettuce, and will be a third of what remains
when we are afterward and underwater again.
Bones will say stop before they snap. To reach
the heart, a surgeon cranks open the awning
of ribs until they gasp. My chest expands
without lathe or scalpel, only the force
of your arrival loosening the baleen corset.
To say I made you is inaccurate. You make
yourself from secret blueprints, a shapeling
clutching a manifest of your demands, the parts
salvaged from my body. The revolutions are sudden.
In-between marine, you command dark tides
and destroy me in your making. You wind
umbilical inside, as if to stay. I let the doctors
carve me open like cardboard. My body
could have been a grave. After nothing familiar,
all you know is survival, a green bank of yelping.
You practice a pantomime of instinct, crying
in my accent, grasping for branches with flung-out
arms, and rooting for my breast. Intricacies
of milk and sleep dismantle me. I empty
myself into you, hollowing by the ounce.
There are seven white rhinos when you are born.
A year later, six. I try to tally the animals
vanished in my lifetime and lose count. The frogs
in Costa Rica are gone, an ibex of the Pyrenees,
clouded leopards in Taiwan, the Caspian tiger
and Java tiger, a boa in Mauritius, and grizzly bears
last seen beside the headwaters of the Yaqui River.
Their names chant a grim litany for you to learn,
a half-formed loss. We are in a great dying.
You are going to die. No longer my throat
or temple, the most breakable part of my body
is on the outside now. A javelin anchors the air
between us. Fifty billion creatures have lived
among antlered legends and trampled mud,
but only one percent still ambles leeward.
Dream wary, I feign courage or madness.
There may be no refuge in greenwood,
but you are a stockade of light. I abide
in your clear voice in the grass. You have
only words for what you love: apple,
book, and home. You name the rest yourself:
cat a plaintive moan, spiders are wriggling
fingers, the sky is hands waved above.
But you have no word for me. The question
of who I am confounds you, as though asked
to name a reflection. Not mother or son: us.
We are a coral reef, a pod of whales, descendants
of slime, an endless expanding. Under the city,
aquifer fills with seawater, slowly drawing
the avenues down. Someday, someone
will find our ribs in a midden of oyster shells,
ship hulls, and wooden doors. Instead of a cage,
may they lash our bones together as a raft.
Credit: Robin Beth Schaer, “Natural History” from Shipbreaking, published by Anhinga Press. Copyright © 2015 by Robin Beth Schaer. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Robin Beth Schaer is the author of the poetry collection
Shipbreaking (Anhinga 2015). Her writing has appeared in
Paris Review, and
Guernica, among others. She has received fellowships from Yaddo, MacDowell, Djerassi, Saltonstall, Vermont Studio Center, and VCCA. She has taught writing in New York, New Jersey, and Ohio, and she worked as a deckhand aboard the
Tall Ship Bounty, a 180-foot ship lost in Hurricane Sandy. Her website is www.robinbethschaer.com.