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Manatee

One Poem by Lance Larsen

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My Spirit Animal Used to be the Armadillo

I was trying to explain the nuances of innocence
vs. experience in “The Tyger” when a student
said how randomly cool, her spirit animal
happened to be tiger, and soon students
were coughing out their own spirit guides: bear,
red-tailed hawk, cobra, the usual killing machines.
Also wolves. Not one vote for the manatee.
That’s when I chose the blubbery peacemaker
that nibbles sea grass. I needed more mellow
in my life. For years I channeled the armadillo.
I love the way they roll up in a ball like old
philosophers, hoping every iteration of fire
will pass them by, including gun-toting Texans.
But manatees, those pliant giants, are my new
magnetic north, soft and sad and nurse-like.
No, more like a librarian lost in the stacks.
Closest relative: elephant. Life expectancy:
sixty years plus eons and eons if you count the rough
drafts they’ve gone through. I count all rough drafts.
Best mythic explanation: one day moonlight
fell into a puddle of milk, got struck by lightning
and now the puddle twists and turns in the coastal
deep like a chubby ghost. If I said, Quick,
draw a manatee from memory, no cheating,
you’d likely sketch some slug of a creature
doing flip turns and call it good. Well, it isn’t good.
Manatees are dying in Florida and I’ve never
touched one. They’re dying in Florida,
and I’ve never paddled a single mangrove forest.
Some nights, dreaming of water, I remember
a neighbor girl in my third-grade class who drowned
in her own backyard. In a deep lake or fast
river I could understand, but on a cul-de-sac
under lazy maples, how? Maybe, if she
had chosen a dolphin or orca as her spirit
guide, she could have saved herself. It’s a dumb
thought, but back then I half-believed it.
Or a manatee, which I’d never heard of.
Picture plus-size ballerinas doing synchronized
swimming, only they synchronize all the amniotic
fluid wrapping the world and all the regret
I carry in the fat of my body. These days
the manatee turns circles in my square dreams.
These days I swim laps at the rec center.
After my final set, I like to sink to the bottom
and lie there, like the drowned girl. Gone
the kicking and splashing above, just bodies
in slow motion, like passing clouds. Then I close
my eyes and wait for a manatee with a battered
face to dive to the bottom and give me breath.
And when it happens, a miracle: my mouth tastes
like sleep and stars and eating oysters on
the half-shell for the first time. This is called excess
empathy. This is called trying to prevent
my own death. This is called drowned girl
dreaming among mangrove groves. Try saying that
quickly seven times. Try saying it underwater
in a grave while asking to live one more watery day.

 

  

    

Lance LarsenLance Larsen’s most recent collection is What the Body Knows (University of Tampa Press, 2018). A professor at BYU, he’s won a Pushcart Prize and an NEA fellowship. In 2017 he completed a five-year appointment as Utah’s poet laureate.

Read or listen to two poems by Lance Larsen previously appearing in Terrain.org.

Header photo by Thierry Eidenweil, courtesy Shutterstock.

Terrain.org is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.