Joseph Millar

Where we swam alone under the skiff,

its green shadow knife-shaped

far overhead,

ribbons of seaweed,

the soundless engine,

soundless the shouts

and the wind

shouldering the surf’s

white flowers, water

snuffed up our sinuses,

the beach-fire cinders

like phosphorous at night,

jeans caked with salt,

the funeral moon.

Beach with dark rocks and saw grass,

winter  keeps coming down from the north,

each grain of sand ticks underfoot,

each star whines overhead.

Beach with dark rocks, the long boats

drift, the children leave home, no one

speaks. Each night lying down

in our sea-wrack, each day waking

into our skin.


Come close and whisper the names

of the living, names of the dead returning,

sleepwalkers holding their hands out,

litter of sea-straw and sand like dark metal,

song of arriving and going away.

Forgive me my pride, inexplicable

under the circumstances,

storm coming in tomorrow night,

old raingear dotted with herring scales.

I ate the kelp blossom

down to the root,

eel flesh and crab flesh, I ate the shark meat,

octopus, yellow fin, scallops, clams,

delicate flesh of the lobster.



What was the song she sang,

the sea lion cow asleep on a rock

near Point Reyes?

I hear the deep halls of water

filling up on the ebb

as she turns over, sighing into the algae,                     

I squatted still in the autumn sand

thinking of red roe and black hair,

women gone down into themselves,

funky, brash,

croaking and thrashing

eyes staring blind as glass.


Don’t be afraid to go sailing out,

don’t think of riptides,


huge seas

risen over the fly bridge,

threads of fire,

the jaws of a wolf eel

slithering out of the trawl.


One summer night the fisherman told us

he’d run aground in the river mouth, hull

mired deep in black mud. He said he saw

the hour of his birth, the swamp slowly

filling with light, kelp stretched out

like a vestment covering the flanks of the marsh,

the sea’s wretched age, monstrous and fecund,

hair full of dead leaves, rayed petals clustered,

shoals of dark gravel exposed.

Inside the wheelhouse one candle burning,

bunks tilted stiffly to starboard.


He told us sometimes he’d rather be dead

than face the gray rooming house

and a day-job, his heart like iron

remembering the sea and staring

at frayed pallets stacked in a warehouse

smelling of creosote. All

the gathered rubbings of shore trash

making him sneeze and itch:

stove-ashes, moth wings stuck to the screens,

dog hair, spider webs, elm pollen.



Always the sound of the hull slapping down

into the wave trough, always

the caulked seam of metal

its green wet-patch turning to sugar,

saltwater seeping down the spine,

miles offshore the snowy moonlight,

miles below the abyssal trench

where a creature with no eyes

and glandular poison sends its forked signals

into the murk, sleepless predator

prowling the blind shadows,

turning its stomach inside out,

vulnerable, sunk in its hunger.


This time of year you can hate the snow,

freezing the tie-up lines, coating the wharves,

falling into the jagged surf.

If you wait long enough you can ride

into town on the boom truck, its tire chains

shredding the crust, the engine

so noisy no one can speak,

the driver grinding it up into second

frowning with grease on his knuckle.


No place will be open now

except for the sad bar, barren of women,

except for the motel near the dunes

with its flocked wall paper

and rusty heater that moans

in the night like a tired swan.

The next day no one will look

in your eyes, transparent stranger

belonging to no one,

not the children sledding on cardboard

down through the frozen parking lot,

not the waitress humming a song

you think you almost remember…


If she asked you about your family

you could show her their silhouettes

in a drop of water

from Wingaersheek Beach

you  keep in a jar by the window.

You could show her

the rags of evening

fluttering over the waves

and a sofa’s blond fabric

dotted with burns

like the skin of a mangy leopard.

You could show her the plaster

Egyptian sculptures,

emblems of dynasty fallen,

the copy of Queen Nefertiti’s face,

its nose broken off,

her green headdress wound high

into the domed light

sifting down on the sink.

Thy sea is so great

 and my boat is so small

stamped in metal over the door—

your thin hands gripping the shovel

loosening dirt in the garden,

the restless claws of the ocean

turning the pebbles and rocks and sand,

tumbling the chitin and shell fragments

ceaselessly each day and night forever:

Quaternary, Cretaceous, Jurassic, Cambrian

onto the shores of this world.

Found In Volume 40, No. 02
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Joseph Millar
About the Author

Joseph Millar’s books include Overtime (2001),  Fortune, (2007),  and Blue Rust (2011). Millar teaches at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.