I am driving a whale heart
In the dome of its body the blue
whale has a heart large
as a Honda Civic, its soft engine
pumping throngs of blood
in the equator deep. Whaleblood. Whaleheart.
These words open a little salt-rusted
door in me. I want sometimes
to sit by the wooden boy’s fire
in the cave-belly and fold into a song
and its forgetting. Like crawling
into baritone sleep after the body
exhausted from use. After
the body I never knew
was a mothering kind of creature.
I have wanted to be inside the whale’s
dream, the way the sugar ant wants
to crawl inside my own heart and feast.
I left home in a whale heart
drove it through blizzards,
off the side of the road, straight
across the country trading coasts
for no good reason than to change
my life as much as I could.
Largest heart, Deepest diver,
your blood its own ten-ton sea,
traveling hundreds of miles a day
in the ship of your body
sounding your single horn
to preserve your solitude.
Chugging toward black rock, black hills
and the carved-out drop of badlands,
my offkey songs another dry slap
against the windshield.
Hydranths in the cloudhead,
which current to follow in the rising dark?
Windmills became mineral plains,
whales floating above the salt flats.
I ran to them but they disappeared
in my arms. Driving my fish-heart
into the yellow headlands’ tinderbox
of dead grasses, the baited questions
were already hooking my future.
In the corner of a borrowed room,
I dealt a haphazard astrology:
If Perseids dripped from the eucalyptus
If a film about tide pools was projected onto
the fog If the basin proved to be fertile
then I’d stay in San Francisco. No memory
anywhere in my wake.
I think now it was not where I landed
but the story of the leaving.
Before I knew how to be inside my life,
rootstock in the daily,
what I loved most was careening
toward the idea of it,
never the stark arrival,
fumbling with knifed keys
in the shadows, stepping
over the gray pool
of mail with its terrible small weight,
but one foot in the swirl,
those brief seconds of lift
before the tide pulled me in.
When you washed ashore, Largest,
it took four men to pull the heart
from your body, they wanted to see it
hauled from the depths.
It would take 640 male hearts to make yours.
It would take the starry plough
culled from the mountain
to know anything about you at all.
And then it’s ten years, twenty,
and my body it’s been the good sea,
though suddenly, never alone again
so that when waiting
in a doctor’s annual office
I can be seized by the floodwaters—
the canned triumph of a pop song,
a plastic seashell in a decaying aquarium—
the wire so easily tripped.
When everyone is briefly accounted for
I plunge into epiphany,
slipping out to fetch the godly bills,
the dollar grocery papers, waxy catalogs
that locate me across every migration
and something in the way the domed sky
shivers with its palpable fade
or I am exhausted
to the point of sheer openness,
it returns me to the gasp
of emerging from that car’s
salt-rusted door at Land’s End
shedding grain by grain
in the surf. Cold bare feet
on the cul-de-sac asphalt
I crawl into my whale heart,
pocked and peeling now,
that place where love
was sourced in loneliness,
for a single breath, medicinal sip
of beyond, licking salt
from my fingers
in my own private hum
to the buoyant voices
the small hands reaching up
toward their idea of mother.
|Jennifer K. Sweeney is the author of three other poetry collections, including Little Spells, How to Live on Bread and Music, and Salt Memory. The recipient of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets and a Pushcart Prize, she teaches at the University of Redlands in California. Twitter: @jksweeneypoet|
Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Slaughter the One Bird (Sundress 2021), Parrot Flower (Glass 2021), Still Life (PANK 2020), and White Goat Black Sheep (Finishing Line Press 2018). Winner of the New American Press 2019 Heartland Poetry Prize, her work has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as North Dakota Quarterly, Salamander, Slipstream, The Berkeley Poetry Review, Borderland and many others. She is an associate poetry editor for the Nimrod International Journal of Prose and Poetry and Embody reader for The Maine Review. Find her work at kimberlyannpriest.com.