4th Annual Terrain.org Poetry Contest Winner Selected by John Daniel
Seven Pages from The Book of Sharks
Before mountains rose from the water and waves ground cliffs into sand,
before rocks rolled down to the shore and became the first seals,
before that long-ago morning when a cloud gave birth to seagulls—
white and gray like their mother, riding the wind—
before storms taught Thunder to waterfalls and the moon taught Quiet to the snow,
before people and questions and the names of constellations
there were sharks, a gliding answer orbiting below . . .
their eyes black pieces of the night brought nearer, their teeth like star-points that could bite,
their purpose the same as the ocean’s purpose: to move, to arrive, to be full.
The oldest carving, though it’s yet to be discovered, is a shark.
Their teeth could be spear points. Their teeth could be tools.
After bringing back salmon from the river mouth, after cutting the hide from a seal—
that hide meaning boots through the winter, a blanket—
somebody stopped to give thanks, or hoped to turn stone into luck,
or saw lightning carving the sky, or fashioned an image of the ocean out of love,
out of wanting to please someone. With a shark’s tooth, he shaped the unknowable
into something she could hold, some proof as sleepless as sharks, abundant as rocks.
And death came fast enough then that such love probably lasted
at least as long as gratitude lasted, and longer than good luck.
Some say sharks are the ocean’s anger at the sun for keeping it caught on a line, on a hook
it can’t remember biting, so all its swimming is an endless
circling back. In their story, the sun is a fisherman,
and the center of the sky is a boat, and sharks shot forth
from all sudden directions to attack; they’ll take anything close enough.
Most who hold to this version are collectors, combing the shoreline for teeth
or finding them in tide pools by turning over crabs.
You’ll know them in town by their necklaces and the jagged bracelets they wear,
by the way they won’t enter the ocean. None of them think their measured streets are nets.
The best explanation I know was offered by a boy. His father had died, and his mother couldn’t hear.
He said, “Sharks are the ocean’s way of talking. Like talking with your hands.”
I was just a boy then too. We were levering boulders
off the cliff point, watching each splash with satisfaction:
higher than the surf, spraying halfway back to us.
He said, “Sometimes we just ignore the ocean, but no one ignores a dorsal fin.”
He walked ahead, and I followed him
to a boulder too big for us to see around. “If my dad were alive,” he said, “he could push this in.”
Divers know sharks share the water, but they dive.
It’s as close as they’ll ever come to flying, and the currents below are more likely to grab
and pull down. The rest of us watch.
We wonder, How can they do that, step out onto that final edge
then leap and just keep dropping?
Back in town, they seem ordinary except for the difference in their eyes—
like they’re looking under the surface of everything for rocks, reading each wave of conversation—
some difference . . . horizon . . . an apartness in their eyes.
Like it isn’t sharks they watch out for. Like it’s people who normally attack.
Given their name, it should be obvious: Blue sharks are blue . . .
even more than you’d think, though. I’ve seen one rise to the surface, just appear
alongside the boat, its long nose out of the water, its eye watching me.
It was June. Summer. The glacier was calving into icebergs.
The wind had cold spots and warm spots. The water had a shark—
only four feet long, I’d guess, and skinny as a cat, but that shark was the bluest thing I’m ever going to see.
There is no body called Carcharias we point to in the sky. They are not our heaven.
We don’t pray, “Forgive us our trespasses.” Few of us praise.
But we could if we wanted to. We could draw from star to star,
teach a son or a daughter, “Those three there together, that’s the fin.
Now follow my arm to that bright one . . . the five nearby like a sideways V, they’re the tail.”
It wouldn’t take a telescope, wouldn’t take a boat, just lifting a finger.
And each night we’d see that reminder before we went to sleep.
Poetry judge John Daniel says…
Many poets refer to myth or incorporate myth, one way or another, as part of their work. The author of The Book of Sharks takes a different approach. He writes of elemental things in an elemental way—he aims to create myth, and from the evidence of this excerpt he is off to a fine start. His diction is plain and sure, his phrasings move with a storyteller’s narrative flair, and the long form and loose stanza structure that he has adopted serve to contain without binding the turns and arcings of his imaginative attention. It is standard to say after judging a contest that all the finalists were strong, and in this case it is actually true. I hated to choose against any of the four. I picked the Book of Sharks excerpt, finally, for its ambition as well as for its present achievement.
Rob Carney is the author of three books and three chapbooks of poems, most recently Story Problems (Somondoco Press, 2011) and Home Appraisals (Plan B Press, 2012). His work has appeared in Cave Wall, Quarterly West, Redactions, Sugar House Review, and dozens of other journals, as well as the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward (2006). He is a Professor of English at Utah Valley University and lives in Salt Lake City.