Glass-Bottom Boat

By Elizabeth Spires b. 1952 Elizabeth Spires

Key West

In the Cubano diner, tiny cups
of black, black coffee, hot and sweet,
and chipped blue china plates
of black beans and yellowtail,
fished by the fishermen
as the sun came up this morning.

Yesterday out on the reef,
we looked through the floor of the boat,
through layers of clear, clean water—
windows looking into other windows—
down to the floor of the world,
shallow, pliant, and shifting.
There, schools of yellowtail
swam through the living coral,
bright as stained glass,
cast into underwater constellations
both strange and familiar:
a flower, a brain, a cathedral.
Suddenly a shadow parted the school—
as if a cloud had just blotted the sun—
a barracuda swerving as they swerved,
and nothing they could do.
After it fed, the two halves joined,
the missing ones unmourned,
all as it was before.

If I could live for a thousand years,
ten thousand, would ever I see
the great family of men, women, and children,
both preying and preyed-upon,
swimming as freely as the yellowtail?
Would that be heaven or hell?
Each naked human face a candle
joining other candles in a procession
spanning many centuries, entering
the cathedral of live stone
whose heavy doors are cast
with scenes from our own lives,
moving as moving pictures move,
until the reel runs out.
In that world-without-end hour,
will the future read us in relief,
blindly touching each raised
and burnished scene with fingertips,
the ejaculate word forming on their lips,
an O! and then again an O!
of terror and astonishment?
O how will they sing knowing what they know?
Streaming through time, they see
our approach, we are plotted
in space, our light outlives our lives
and sends a signal far into
the future: the past is alive!
Dead and dark for a long time,
we are as stars to them,
stars wishing to be wished on.

Elizabeth Spires, “Glass-Bottom Boat” from Annonciade (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989). Copyright © 1989 by Elizabeth Spires. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Source: Annonciade (1989)

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Poet Elizabeth Spires b. 1952

Subjects Living, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Time & Brevity, Nature, Animals

 Elizabeth  Spires


A critically acclaimed poet and children's book author, Elizabeth Spires lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland. In Poetry, John Taylor cited the author for her "subtle, crystal-clear poetry . . . that is constantly philosophically suggestive, while never becoming pretentious or belaboring." Spires won a 1996 Whiting Award for her volume Worldling and has been praised for her poems that use quotidian moments to ruminate upon . . .

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SUBJECT Living, Seas, Rivers, & Streams, Time & Brevity, Nature, Animals

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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