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Dress Rehearsal for Bestiary

                                    Colin Cheney


Crossing, we call it: carrying pollen from one cultivar
lily into the body of another.
And we wait to see what comes & call this consequence.
Diana, who owns the lingerie shop,
says her son, knowing she’s pregnant, insists she drink water
before bed—For the seed, he says, growing inside you.

Later, in the museum, this crosses
with the dinosaurs discovered under Georgia O’Keefe’s
Ghost Ranch that were believed, for a time,
to carry their young to term in utero,
paleontologists mistaking the mothers’ stomachs
for wombs—the contorted brood
suspended, almost waiting for something.

And so we wait to see what takes,
what burgeons into seed. A guy I know at Coney Island
fashions bunnies with duck feet & a fish tail
& releases the plush gaffs into the Atlantic
to explain how rabbits swam across the sound
to Long Island. I want to invent
with nature,
he says—be part of the natural process.

Like Barnum, I suppose, printing handbills
of mermaids—half-naked girls—to draw the public
into his museum where they found a monkey
grotesquely fused to an alewife, or maybe shad.

Measure the consequence here:
some part of him meant us to see
what we still might one day find.
Said to have washed up on the Indian coast,
this Fiji mermaid, Barnum’s gaff,
spread across the web after the tsunami—a sick joke
become a portrait of all the ocean
was unable to give back.

Pretend to believe your eyes, to fathom so many
so swiftly taken, made the sea’s.

Sometimes I pretend that the first woman whose breast
I kissed was not who she actually was,
but someone else—a friend who, in a musical
production of Barnum at school, had played the mermaid
of those handbills. I lay awake
the night before the dress rehearsal, wondering
how they might engineer her transformation,

grafting, to her body, one by one,
each creature from the aquarium downtown,
taking apart my friend & stitching
her back together: half seal, half the electricity
of the eel, a sting ray, school of silver fry.
Let’s pretend that it’s true,
that what happened later didn’t happen, that she
& I lay there listening to the party in the next room,
that this is some glimpsed creature

mistaken, distorted to embody something
neither of us could name.
How sailors turned a fleet dorsal fin, a fluke
into some Kraken signifying
everything they couldn’t know the water’s dark
contained beneath them.

But it didn’t happen that way.

The woman I made love to that night
was as real as what I never understood
I had done. So I graft what she left by accident
to this, cross fiction with fiction
& call it natural history. Maybe
you know what I mean when I say memory
is a bestiary of the sea,
incarnations no one else could’ve imagined,
crossings that never took,

a bird that can’t yet fly who ate her own young.
The bodies of women tangled
in the dying mangroves they couldn’t become
as the sea pulls back.
Or how Diana’s son puts a water pistol to her stomach
& pulls the trigger & runs away, the soak
across her t-shirt spreading.
I shot the baby, he laughs, I shot the baby.


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