Home > Poetry > Days After the Tsunami, 2005
Published: Sun Jul 1 2007
Diego Isaias Hernández Méndez, Convertiendse en Characoteles / Sorcerers Changing into Their Animal Forms (detail), 2013, oil on canvas. Arte Maya Tz’utujil Collection.
Days After the Tsunami, 2005


The Seattle Aquarium octopus, Socrates,
has backed herself into the corner of the glass case.
What’s the one hard part on her body, the guide
asks a group of kindergarteners, their knees crossed
and packs slumped on the floor. Hands
jerk up. Her stomach? The ends of the tentacles?
The beak, the woman tells us, holding her palms
together, cupped, opening and closing
like the mouth of a bird.

Yesterday morning, waiting for a bus
in the cold gloom, I watched a Buddhist nun
in thick maroon robes drift
down the hill. Part of me floated over
and hovered across the street. Went with,
the way folds of her fabric
billowed through the fog.

Next to Socrates’ tank, a woman’s lecture
on barnacles. The animal inside waves
white feathers out into the water to feed. “We crush
these, walking on the beach,” the guide
says, hands pinching her hips.

My friend picks me up and drives us past Puget
Sound. He’s a ranger, shares stories. How
he pushed an octopus, tentacles waving, back
from school boys poking with a stick.
He could feel the poison sluicing up
through his arm. My friend snaps his fingers:
“Octopuses flash so many colors under water. Quick:
yellow, green, blue. Finally, a bright red,
when they can’t find some way to hide.”

The wooden steps to my friends’ place worn
with rain. Shells texture the door, and inside
a toddler’s yellow head darts around the Christmas
tree. “We’re letting the tree stay,” her parents explain. Thin
glass balls sway on their branches. A small hand around my knee
while I button my shirt, brush my hair in the full-length
mirror. The girl points to herself. “That Tamsyn,
that Tamsyn mouth, Tamsyn eyes.” Not even a thread,
now, leading back to what she knows.


Making sure the octopus is watching, a man unscrews
the lid on a jar of crab. He leaves the room.
The monitor reveals the octopus slithering
out of the tank, down the side to the table.
She unscrews the lid and helps herself
to many crab. Then, she screws the lid
back on, climbs the side of her tank. She gets back
in the water. Waits.


I turn off the TV. Now they suffer, now they don’t.
Newscasters replay, over and over, a father in Sri Lanka
pulling his son’s unbreathing body from the brown water.


Fat, bright starfish in the “Touch Me” tank
motionless and splayed like infants
in thick winter coats. We press our faces,
our fingers, to the glass, read about seahorses,
about their dried and useless bodies
in tourist shops. Few now.
How many eels. How many moorish idols,
spiny lumpsuckers. How many tangs, wrasses,
flame angelfish? Even the weedy seadragon,
a seemingly random piece of yellow and purplish
kelp floating no place, its white neck and rear fins
undulating like the legs of a millipede—quick,
exquisite, impossible.

The Buddhists give a list. Is it or is it not
the end. Have we lost the acquisition
of analytical sciences. Gone the ability
to attain trance. Is insight gone. The command-
ments, purity of conduct. Is learning gone.
Teaching, and fruit. Then planting. The nourish-
ment of the priests. Disappearance of symbols,
of relics. Finally the gods gather to speak,
and no one comes to listen.


Closer, Socrates’ siphon contracts like valves
of a heart. The same pinkish tissue, her entire body
heart-like. The eyes, inches away, look fake,
glued-on. When the guide dangles a fish,
Socrates stops then finally swirls
a tentacle, the same bend as a heron’s neck,
a woman’s wrist as she accepts an invitation
to dance. The octopus floats and propels
herself out towards the fish, encircles it, tentacles
whirling as if puppeted, as if the things that take
remain separate from what sees. She opens
and tendrils of deepening red emerge, surging
as she drops the silver fish inside.

At the center of the earth is fire. Water
sticking to crust instead of pouring
off into space. Here, the water said to the people:
have a drink. Below the waves, the vertebrate bodies
of deep sea lurkers, lumpy like the faces of boxers. All life
here rotted, subdued in pink and orange blotches
of algae bloom. Any mercy buried
beneath the sand, impervious to wind and sky,
unaware of the sun, unaware of what happens at shore.

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