Marine Biology

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series


As a kid growing up in Washington, I had a giant admiration for Slick Watts. “Downtown” Freddie Brown too, of course, swishing rainbow jumpers from deep. If there had been a three-point line back then, forget about it; you would’ve needed a pinball machine to keep score. But Slick Watts was first. Slick Watts of the Seattle SuperSonics—bald in a league otherwise unanimously sporting afros and longish hair. He wore a headband when nobody else did. He invented the scoop shot! And if I’m misremembering—if others deployed it too—then I don’t want to know. Slick Watts ruled, and I used to imitate him while going against invisible defenders in my driveway.

If you’re betting that I liked the Seahawks, though, you lose. Nunca. Nada. By the time they added Tampa Bay and Seattle, I was already a wild-thing Raiders’ fan. I used to run through other kids’ arm tackles, thinking (maybe even chanting aloud), “Mark van Eeghen, Mark van Eeghen.” I watched Kenny Stabler’s 1974 miracle pass to Clarence Davis, knocking the Dolphins from the playoffs. What a happiness launch pad! And I saw Rob Lytle fumble before the goal line, saw the Raiders recover, saw the referees conspire to give the Denver Broncos the ball back and a free pass to Super Bowl XII. Which they lost, karmically, 27 to 10.

Anyway, sports. I’m saying I liked them a bit. So when it came time to write a report on a famous person’s biography, who do you think I picked?

Jacques Cousteau.

The ocean’s own Messenger Angel.

Before him, everyone who wanted to explore underwater had to do it like Captain Nemo, wearing that lead-boots/air-hose contraption dreamt up by—no kidding—Leonardo da Vinci; that’s how dated the design was. Well, Jacques Cousteau wanted to swim not trundle, so he went to work inventing scuba gear: self-contained underwater breathing apparatus. The fact that he used English for the acronym is just further proof he knew what he was doing. Americans had all the televisions. It was mainly to kids like me that he was bringing the Good News. I’m saying, when I grew up I wanted to play in the NFL or NBA, but I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau.

I planned on majoring in marine biology, but it didn’t work out that way. Instead, I went with literature and writing, and I can’t say I regret it. A lot of the time, though, I find myself writing about sharks; or the coastline, seagulls, coral reefs, humpbacks, manta rays, salmon, and waves. The Ocean.

Jungians and astrologers could probably offer reasons, even interesting ones that I might be glad to hear. A mermaid could maybe add her take on it, saying some are just more irretrievably spell-cast than others. I don’t know. Love isn’t easy to quantify. It’s easier to go ahead and praise it, and Friday is Epiphany, marking the end of the holiday season, so why not?

I’m going to offer up one of my ocean poems now, but I’m also going to ask you a favor: Down in the comment box, add your own praise song or thank you, as if were the table we sit down around and raise our glasses. Because sometimes it is.

Standing at Half Moon Bay State Beach,
Facing West: A Shark Song

I like how they live, the way they hunt sea lions,
the way they attack those meat loaves

when they flop in off the rocks.
What glorious feeding:

the silent, giant hunger underwater
with its blank eyes, gallery of teeth,

its jaws thrown forward, impossibly wide,
then down with dispassion, thrashing

its catch—a bloody avalanche—
ripping out a hundred pounds each bite,

returning through clouds of torn blubber for more,
the dorsal fin cutting like a scythe…

what glorious food: seals full of salmon
full of grunion spiced with krill.

I remember Thanksgiving at a rich friend’s home,
having goose stuffed with duck stuffed with quail,

all seasoned with tangerine blossoms and cloves,
basted in whiskey,

served with a sauce from currants and plums.
It’s got to be heaven tearing in.

It must be god-like
to survive a million years, to be perfected:

Devourer of Ocean Life, Terror to Man,
absolutely unmoved by and worthy of our praise…

may they outlast us.
May the seas swim with good things to eat.



Rob CarneyRob Carney’s fourth book, 88 Maps, was published by Lost Horse Press (distribution by University of Washington Press). Previous books and chapbooks include Story Problems and Weather Report, both from Somondoco Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to a new radio interview with Rob Carney, and here’s an older radio interview.

Photo of sharks by Pexels, courtesy Pixabay.

  1. My first love was the ocean, well more specifically, the Pacific. At four I had a crush on the Atlantic—shells offered for my adoration—but the Pacific gave me a shark, no question where my heart would reside. I knew this relationship would be dangerous, the best kinds are, and over the years my affection grew stronger like the waves my body so happily let thrash and glide like a torpedo to the shoreline, only to turn around and run back further into their embrace. I learned my love could sometimes be cold or clouded from view, so I tried other lovers— the green eyed beauty where playing in another’s tide pools didn’t feel right, the artist who drew the curves of the shoreline that only left me remembering, the sculptor who thought sand wasn’t a good medium, the deck hand who told me he was a pilot yet couldn’t navigate my heart, the musician whose songs were never about the sea— eventually I moved away to an inland sea and found my next love, a poet. He wrote words that could fill the moon and pain the heart with memory, and he loved the ocean as much as I do. But that wasn’t it. His hold on me was when he said, “We’ll never have a TV in here.”
    That’s when I knew this was a man I could catch a wave with.

  2. Kudos–great poem Rob. Love this series. I’ve never forgotten my own first long paper in 4th grade on sharks. 10 pages!

  3. Someday, When a Child Asks About Kites

    I’ll tell him about wild birds so large
    they nested between skyscrapers,
    clogging city streets with their down
    when molting and disrupting office men
    with thunderous mating calls.

    I’ll tell him that fireworks were concocted to frighten
    the birds away and make room for people.

    I’ll tell him about a massive exodus of birds
    sailing into space with singed tail feathers,
    bearing billboard-sized nests in their claws.

    I’ll tell him how, when the birds were gone,
    we set to filling the world, walking edgeward
    of each map to reach around the globe,
    find ourselves, and feel crowded enough
    to snipe fire and iron at each other for decades.

    Then I’ll tell him that war-weary children invented
    kites and held them in the wind like fishermen,
    hoping birds would think they were food
    and return.

    If he’s the right kind of kid,
    he’ll wave the kite a little more fervent,
    hoping the paper looks delicious.

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