Saltwater Wetlands


We were hunted here generations ago;
it was a matter of principle

and dark pleasure to exterminate us one by one.

You’ve lived in the long aftermath,
you know why

you looked in vain for us at the reserve today.

They call us an invasive species.

Perhaps they are right—
I should not speak for all of us

but I have not yet lost faith
that we too may find our place among the races on this earth.



We amused you today,
paddling in wide loops in the tidal estuary,
me and my five hatchlings.

So urgently purposive we seemed to be,
moving in a strict, arcing line in the water

until one of the little ones
broke the spell of seriousness

by following another direction impetuously
and we became again a chaotic family,

unsure of the force of the rules binding us together,
like any other.

I think the same thing brought both of us to this wetland—
an idea of peace,
a place to help us keep our commitments.

But what happened to you
when all five hatchlings disappeared under water

one at a time,
each following another by some instinct
neither of us understands,

and you watched me, the lone parent among the wild birds here,
solitary gray on the vast gray of the water
for what seemed a full minute—

that wasn’t peace you felt—
that was freedom.



You want to leave already.
Strange, the stories of those who find my sadness

too much to bear.
That is not why you want to leave.

Nor are you afraid of what I will
remind you of.

You believe in progress—it is simple as that.
We disagree.

I will make you an offer:
You stay until I am ready to release you

and I will give you a haunting image of my sister,
the estuary at dawn.



I like human beings—
you understand what I’m trying to say.

I like how
the miracle of human consciousness
so often seems ordinary to them,

how they walk past each other
as if there were nothing remarkable in them at all.

That deep, creaturely cooing that I make
perched on a beam under the walkway
as they pass—

I know it reminds them somewhat eerily
of the universals of human experience,

music and mothering—

it is uncanny because it is supposed to be,
my heartening critique.



You think the image you captured
of me alone in the eelgrass

means something because when you came close
on the walkway bridge
I didn’t leave you standing there bereft?

You believe what generations of boyish men
have believed about faithfulness.

look at all this—
the only word for it is beautiful,

the living surface of the planes of water
and the sheer joy
in its blinding lovemaking with the sun,

everything you missed studying me
as I stood watching prey in the water unmoving,
a vessel for your art.

And now you want me to show it to you,
now that we both have left
this corner of paradise—

experience is a far better teacher for you now—
she has some faith left in you.



I live on
what kills others like me.

The wetlands that have been destroyed
by civilization,

and the remade, the intact—
they are all my natural beds.

The secret to surviving the inrush
of salt from the ocean

is to let it pass right through you—
it is like solving a difficult riddle:

the mistake of so many
is to see in it a part of themselves.




You trouble yourself
with your incessant doubts about the afterlife.

I represent your deeper fear,
the one your dread of nothingness
is a screen against.

I will outlive this estuary,
eroding slowly over centuries, floating wherever
the currents take me.

I have been loved by nothing but myself.

I hate the world that made me:
I wish with a burning resentment against my fate
that I had never been.



We have been warned
to consider the dangers of fake wisdom—

hated by poets
I suppose because it is a guardian of ignorance,

the inverse of the sanctuaries
protected for us on the southern coast of California,

where the poets can go months without seeing any of us
and can bear uncertainty—

They call it negative capability:
imagination as a habitat,

a coastal garden
where the living heart rests in its quest to survive.



And because there are many of us
we cannot speak with one voice.

It is like their theory of money—
that because the desire for it can explain human behavior

there must be no other motives involved.

They are the sentimental ones, you know.
The dunes of Bolsa Chica

change with imperceptible slowness
not because they are made of sand
but because the wind here

disappears and reappears from elsewhere,
a calling to each of us.



You like moments
when deep feeling carefully finds expression,

the traces in its play
of subtlety and nuance,
buds in the black branches you seek out and remember.

So you covet the authority of the observer:

let me remind you, friend,
that your father is one among the shades
you love so intensely—

you have not yet said to the world anything
he can be well remembered by.

The creative imagination is simply
an alibi for you.

The difference between a society and its culture
is like the difference between

an ordinary father and his brilliant child—

so say I, a mountain that has seen three empires,
waiting, patiently, for you to ascend—

patiently, as you read on.



Are you ready for absence yet?—
so asked the seagull.

Her white wings were spread wide open
to receive the air,

her body shadowless
on an overcast afternoon.

So a lover opened herself to me, once,
her legs stretched out beneath my thrusting form,

as if straining to receive me whole,
to welcome me.

Art can haunt,
and flight is an art—

its meaning to mortals is clear and incontrovertible
when it is framed by our desire.



I marvel at you humans
who mate for life.

Do you feel you must?

Perhaps if you could fly things would be different.

I am not a beautiful bird,
I do not promise anyone happiness—

I make predictions,—

that art is how
I know when to rip up the tranquil surface and find life.



Benches: four of them,
a semi-circular pattern, no more than a quarter mile into the reserve
from the north gate parking lot—

you can hear very well from there
the cars racing by on the Korean war veterans’ highway,
the way we all come and go.

From above the benches must look
like the arms of a vast lyre of dirt.

From there you can hear
the mullet leap through the sub-tidal water’s surface—

some say their dreams only whisper in shards,
some say every poem is an artifice,
the end—

I have long known that poets first think of their last poem on waking,

but now I see that there is only
the one poem,

the unfinished hymn that sings them through.



My great sadness is
that the life I know returns like the clouds.

At ebb-tide
they have a touching patience with me—
my softness, my secrets.

Yet I am made
to be visible to them only in ordinary time—
they keep for the marsh-ground

their bodily trust,
their deepest passion,
the bonded pairs.

My secret is
how cautiously all species evolve—

the single tern from the marshes
means more to me
than he does to nature,

but I cannot tell him so—

my silence is a language
forgotten like friendship at the end of life.