A Swimmer in the Air

By Howard Moss 1922–1987 Howard Moss
       That sea we see of surfaces
   Turned upside down would be another world:
A bone shop, soaked in pearl, a dumping-
Ground for rarities, the sea-maws pumping
   Grecian garbage Roman cities hurled
       Seaward westward toward our faces.

       That sea would yield up secret farms,
   Gray-rotted by itself, encrusted thick
With unimaginable wealth, the spoil
Of deaf-mute drownings, the immemorial
   Dead, floating in a blue-green bailiwick
       Of nun-like plants waving arms.

       That sea will not turn over. See
   In its deepest keep, far from its shallow,
The formal, hidden iceberg, slant, oblique
With pregnancy below, thrust up its peak—
   Like ourselves in the water-beasted wallow,
       Caught in a cellular ecstasy.

       In the same vein, all flesh conceals
   Articulation’s fishnet, whose thread-bones
(A metaphysic harp from sky to heel)
Hang in the flesh that dangles from the creel
   Depending from the weedy Hand that owns
       All fishnets and all fishing reels.

       His answers breed a further question:
   The fingernails of scale a snake will shed
In spring, coil after coil, on moistened clay,
Though similar to the serpent wriggling away,
Are but facsimiles, though not quite dead.
       Testing this, see how the rest shun

       Drying memorials to that race
   That mined our viewpoint in the Garden,
Whose inching tape maneuvered in the sun
To measure every guilty length of Eden.
   Man is an animal that needs a warden
       To frighten off the Master’s face,

       For even an idiot sees a world
   No tree or dog would dream of, finds a name
For pain or absence of it, marries love
Of one kind of another. In his grove,
   Insensible fruit trees and wild game
       Grow naturally, though he lies curled,

       The spit and image of our wish,
   Smoking a pipe, with an ice-cold Cola
Clutched in one hand, and the Sundy funnies spread
On both his knees. He’ll leave his lurching bed
   To throw hot jazz on an old victrola—
       A far cry from the primal fish

       Whose fine-boned spine our back remembers:
   The river bottoms, and the sea-silt soft
As soup, the mudflats where night crawlers came,
Tempted by the water tops to change the lame
   Arrangements, making of the air a loft
       Fitted to our brackish members,

       And out we clambered, eyeing land,
   Our moist eyes focused on the moron green,
Hot on our backs abnormal dryness, shadow
Forming in the seanets, seaweed into meadow,
   Finally landing at the foot of pine,
       Heavy with salty contraband

       While the birds beautifully beat blue
   On erect wings, as magically they soared,
Feathered and efficient, from tallest trees to stake
A claim so ravishing that now we undertake
   To map an area we once ignored,
       Still exiles from that upper view,

        For, mummers of the ocean’s Word,
   Our dry translations tidied from the deep,
Bespeak its ancient languages. The salt
Our tears and blood must harbor from its vault
   Is shed on every beach-head where we creep,
       Part man, dry fish, and wingless bird.

Howard Moss, “A Swimmer in the Air” from New Selected Poems, published by Atheneum. Copyright © 1985 by Howard Moss. Reprinted by permission of Estate of Howard Moss.

Source: Poetry (October 1956).


This poem originally appeared in the October 1956 issue of Poetry magazine

View this poem in its original format

October 1956
 Howard  Moss


Howard Moss was the poetry editor of the New Yorker for almost forty years. In that influential capacity, this quiet, unassuming man was one of the key figures in American letters in the late twentieth century, boosting the careers of many young poets by publishing their work in one of the few mass circulation magazines which bought poetry and paid well for it. Writing in World Literature Today, Ashley Brown observed that "it . . .

Continue reading this biography

Poem Categorization

SUBJECT Nature, Seas, Rivers, & Streams

Report a problem with this poem

Your results will be limited to content that appeared in Poetry magazine.

Search Every Issue of Poetry

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

This poem has learning resources.

This poem is good for children.

This poem has related video.

This poem has related audio.