Death at Sea (New Poem)


So on my recent expedition, I finally had an open sea encounter with a Great Hammerhead shark.   Technically, I had one at Protea Banks in South Africa, but it was VERY fast and mostly fleeting – all I saw was it’s caudal fin speeding it away from our group of divers. 

In Florida, to quote erstwhile shark fisherman Quint, I got the head, tail, the whole damn thing.  Unfortunately, Great Hammerheads are a speedy fish and this one was on a mission (my camera battery also died, so I didn’t get a shot), so it was similarly fleeting. But I saw it – and now, when it comes to the big sharks – I’ve only got three left I need to tally in the wild:  a tiger, a basking, and a megamouth.   

Sadly – this was not the only thing I would see on this dive.   I witnessed a man die.  The news article I’ve linked to glosses over what happened, but it was a fairly grisly way to die.  As a spectator to it, I’ve been trying to make sense of it – and gosh, let’s see how my brain reacts the next time I do a big step off a dive deck or try to get up on a ladder out of the ocean. This poem is an attempt to reconcile what I know and what I don’t know about death.    

Death at Sea; or a Great Hammerhead Responds to the Sinking of the Fricka, April 16, 2022 
(Sphyrna mokarran)

When a sailor dies at sea
some of your kind
say they become dolphins.

The human belief
that dolphins are beneficent
is based on their smile
but when you see it
you are not caught in a gleaming beacon of friendship
the cetacean is no Lisa Frank rainbow swimmer;
they are the grinning monster under the bed,
and you are staring down the Joker’s knife.

They joyously ride the bowplanes of a ship
the way a siren uses a tuning fork to test their voice.
Every boat that leaves the harbor has an escort,
a pilot to guide you through the treacherous waters, 
because once free, you belong to them.
And they know.
They can echo heft of an iceberg,
smell the intensity of flame,
count the grains of gunpowder that can
dance upon a pinhead. 

Why they do it, we don’t know,
a rumor’d bargain struck long ago
to enrich Neptune with a chain of souls
they carry men to the Reef of Tolls.

Their smile knowing,
a permanent smirk
knowing that a death at sea is not a joyous moment
for a future of surf and a seafood smorgasbord.
It is the grief of widows and orphans,
lawyer’s pens scratching paper
the tick-tack of typing out press releases
telling everyone the search will end
at sunset.

While dolphins play,
we toil.
Despite all our teeth,
we have no grin.
Vilified for honesty,
our mouths are open to enrich us –
food for the body
or food for the blood.
In this Blue Eternal,
these heavenly waters,
there is nourishment
but it is work,
no deals with decrepit Gods
who died long ago.

We are all Old Salts
having passed in the sea
from one form 
to another.
This one now that I borrow,
will return spiraling to the trenches and claws,
is a scale held by Neptune’s sister Themis
with each of my eyes as far away from the other
that seaworthiness allows.
I see all.
I sense all.
The justice of Gods and evolution
flowing through me
So when you saw me speeding along
I was racing towards to dying.

While you hovered,
exhaling nitrogen in miniature bubbles,
tragedy enflamed my every synapse in
already knowing the outcome.
By the time you had arrived,
die was cast,
red and unflinching.
I was there to take the tally,
So if a dolphin must ferry a man’s soul
as part of the Trident holder’s take,
decoration for the god whose skeleton
fringes the shore of the World Ocean,
know we were there to see it transform
faster than the smilers can carry it away.

The body hauled on board
I continued on currents,
always moving.
Mourning is for living of the land.
For me, death simply is.
It was unfair,
Crane’s Open Boat
on Winslow’s Gulf Stream.
Unlike most sharks
who either believe in only the infinite chance of Evolution
or the benevolent grace of a violent Sea,
I believe in your God and
your Devil.
This tempest of blue is just another of their tables
In the hold of a pirate’s bark that will never reach its destination
until the Sun has flared and my home has evaporated into stellar mist.
Each of them cheating at Liar’s Dice,
playing for souls.

Whether as solitary glimpses under a blaring star
or in great packs that create shadowplay,
we will always swim to a dying ship,
there to witness.
If Judgement is to come,
our heads will tip
port, starboard,
good, evil
let the gods, both living and dead, know
that a soul was there,
and if it needs to be carried
we will do it
as neutral as we can balance
in the uncertainty of a shipwreck
when death comes at sea.

When a sailor dies at sea
some of your kind
say they become dolphins.
Our kind believes
they become something more.    

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