Wrong Birds after Leviathan 2012 by Emma Hammond
33 Upon earth there is not his like,
Who is made without fear. - Job 41
Spreading out from the brave houses of New Bedford into the darkness these men – Azoreans and Portuguese, black Cape Verdeans propelled from the barbarous coasts, ghosts with their whaling mouths – where the sea speaks in fish. These oil skinned men hang from the edge with their golden links, her white hand open to them like a roaring Christ.
From one silver-bloodied hell to the next, they haul this rope of a hanging man, sprats held firm in their yellow fists. The bone white gulls, horrible like stars, have throats full of the electric hum of the terrible machinery. It is distilled wind, the sound of death – they are throwing it out across the knocked up depths of her baited breath.
Smoke pours from their nostrils as from a boiling pot on a fire of reeds. Their breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from their mouths. Strength lives in their necks; dismay goes before them – the folds of their flesh are tightly joined; firm and immovable. Their undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing-sledge.
Wet lipped, his smoke leaves scrimshaw on the night. She’s hooked and knifed right down the middle as a wingless skate. Shuck on shuck in a steel cage, a man with the face of a pike. Eyes couched in a nest of nets, filmy with salt, hopeless with his sunken chest. He is scrabbling around, lost as a knife as it enters the husk.
Athena, your waterfall of blood. There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. He dives down into the blackest gorges and soars out, invisible in the sunny spaces – tension in his neck. Tension in ropes and winches, Tension in the nylon and crow’s feet, tension in floats and forecasts, hands like the jaws of a shark.
Johnny is a sailor, he is in a white vest. he has coffee in a paper cup. by high noon the men are back. Johnny’s eyes are fixed to the TV. Brian makes a phone call home, the crew loses thousands of dollars a day. Indigestion? Constipation that comes and goes every day? 4.5 pounds of fecal waste. He coughs – his throat is fucked. He is fucked. Johnny is fucked up. he has run out of coffee, there is kitchen paper. Johnny is in a room on the sea. he is all at sea. his eyes close. he is asleep – his whole life he is asleep. His eyes are heavy. His eyes are pain, heavy weather, exhaustion, brotherhood.
Something has gone wrong with the birds. The birds are upside down and they are wrong. They are wrong and under the water. The fish are gulls with bent wings. There is a joint in them, a small tense joint. They are giving off light and are the wrong way around. The birds are wrong and your lungs are heavy with them. Their feet are made of small bones.
Pull in the Leviathan with a fish hook – tie down his tongue with a rope! His snorting throws out flashes of light; eyes like wilting flares. The Lady of Grace is found submerged in 56 feet of water at the bottom of Nantucket Sound, the bodies do not surface. The bodies roll across the sea bed, eyeless, to East Chop-wed with the Summer Flounder.
The mermaid on a man’s arm moves. She undulates on skin, breasts made of skin. She is the colour of skin and the screeching of a terrible bird, harsh as a child. Man as machine, prising out the life and bathing in eternal mildness of joy. Golden beards and eyes that that have seen death forever, foreheads welted as tide-battled sand.
Bug-eyed fish and their gasping mouths. Cut and opened, inside-out and raw as widows. They swim in their own blood. They judder and crash on the waves, souls like tiny Noah’s, stomachs tipped out, gutted and chucked, wet purses nicked by boys. The sea’s red belly empties across the decks like a sickness-a bloated bird that stalks the bloodied boards.
Chainmail from some giant knight, the mechanism churns and moans. Ropes unfurl like the trunks of great soft trees. The sea and the vessel trawl the other, their hulls like chins that push through butter. Starfish – helms from an airless heaven or the hell above – half-swimming wrecks, piled up like Jews. Call them Ishmael. These men of old and their god-like strength.