Poem-A-Day: Robin Beth Schaer (again)

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.

***

NATURAL HISTORY

 

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 Tin House, 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.
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Poem-A-Day: Robin Beth Schaer

One of the most beautiful books of poetry I read in the last year was Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer. I keep it on my nightstand and flip to a random page sometimes before going to bed at night just to read a poem that will clear my mind.

It’s one of those books whose poems are so finely wrought that their artistry emanates from every syllable without coming off as pretentious or too academic or more-poetic-than-thou. These are poems that feel intentional in their craft and heft, and which tell intimate stories. But they’re not an “easy read,” by which I mean they aren’t accessible to a fault: you can’t read them without paying attention, your mind really focused on something else. These are poems that feel glorious to wrestle with, and when you’re done, you feel like you’ve read something that matters.

***

AT HOME

 

The copper carries my wishes.
A storm snapped a dozen trees

the day you left; the same
straight firs cut for masts.

The Gazette held no word,
no sight of your sails. Each week,

my fingers traced columns of ships —
Flying Cloud, Lion of Waves,

Golden Empire — with titles
broader than their beams,

bold as thoroughbreds, as if
a name could seal a fortune.

My mind slipped to the ocean
floor, littered with wrecks.

I placed silver coins
beside your picture and knit

scarves until we received
the rattle and whalebone

swallows. I send you handshakes
in return. Our son was born

this winter: eight pounds
and eager thirst, no fever.

It was three days of labor
with compress of nettle

and yarrow leaf, every knot
in the house untied. His ears

are tiny shells, hands in fists,
your brown hair. The cradle

is drawn with yellow dories.
For your birthday, a party

without you here: spongecake
and cherryade. Hope you were

given bread and molasses.
My love, remember, the polestar

is not alone, but twinned,
a pair of suns, guiding you North.

 

***

Credit: Robin Beth Schaer, “At Home” 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 Tin House, 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.