by Traci Brimhall
“Reef before you have to.”—The Practical Mariner’s Book of Knowledge
Never take the time to pray. You will be overwhelmed by wind, overtaken by night. Simply throw the cursed to the swells and hope the squall will be soothed. You can, however, make time to be sick. It may be the motion sickness or it may be the pregnancy. The why is not important here. All that matters is that you have a railing to hold onto instead of a god.
Ask the waves where they winter, they may be too busy to answer, but they will appreciate you asked.
Show an interest in what wants you dead. Read the handbooks to your unborn as the ship rocks. Practice your sailing knots in your own hair if you must.
Don’t even think of whispering the word kraken. It’s already been summoned to the bow and is testing the carved mermaid’s breasts with a shy tentacle. Besides, these are whaling waters. Hundreds of years ago the bay was so full of whales you had to plow through them to get to shore. Like many horrors, it has its romance—men at sea, wrestling leviathans, harpoons in hand and fearfully mortal.
Admit you are half in love with your own fear, how it sharpens your longing for home, for the familiarity of your husband’s body, the fine black hairs between his knuckles.
Accord the myth the respect its thousand waiting teeth deserve. The sea and all the gods in it don’t want your sacrifices or the coins in your pocket or the troublesome red muscle knocking against your ribs. The monster wrapping itself around your whip is nothing more than a spirit trying to pass itself off as an image. It is a god mangled by its own beauty. It is dust that never felt the soft lips of the Lord settle over its mouth and offer breath.
As the hull splinters, leaf through your accounts of Peary, Shackleton, and all the unknowns who died pursuing their own dreams or someone else’s. The fetish for suffering for a dream or an ego is wonderfully human and preceded by so many failures. The trick is always knowing when to give up.
Confess this: The life you’re growing is still an abstraction to you. Confess this, too: Its will to live is stronger than yours.
Listen, you can hoist another sail, or toss your barrels of whale oil overboard, but it will not stop the laughter that follows lightning. It is the coming and the coming undone.
Take no comfort in the light crusading across the ice—it won’t make it to you in time. Don’t believe the permafrost raising the whalers’ graves was not a sign. Your resurrection will be just as cruel, just as lonely. Your child will be raptured elsewhere, and soon. Descend unto your heaven when it comes for you.
Traci Brimhall is the author of Our Lady of the Ruins (WW Norton), selected by Carolyn Forché for the 2011 Barnard Women Poets Prize, and Rookery (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2009 Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, Slate, The Believer, Kenyon Review, The New Republic, Ploughshares, and Best American Poetry 2013 and 2014. She’s received fellowships from the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing, the King/Chávez/ Parks Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. She’s an assistant professor of creative writing at Kansas State University.