Read the introduction by guest editor Robyn Schiff.

 


BYSSUS,

 

              the 
bundle of filaments
secreted
by "the noble pen shell, true mussel,
and the false"
is, it's said, "ugly
in the dark."
And thinly spread though it is,
dark's the sea
where byssus does its work,
uglily.
But if the byssal threads
are cut—                      

just so,
with no detriment to
the mollusk
that made them, having extended its
fine-clinging
tensile hairs as strong as
the sea which
would jilt them and's thwarted –

having
extended these straw-wisp
suction cups
to cling to the rocks and tenanted
detritus,
or a stable vagrant
mistico
slipped down to stay –

having by
increments secreted                  
a byssus
which hardens in the water, and grips,
the secure
mollusk has no sense for 
what does
not move it, and you may
snip its stiff
scruff –

              oh,
this mollusk
has all the comforts of
tide and the
comforts of shore, you may take a lock
of its locks
without loosing the life,                         
the pen shell
may be swayed, slightly, yes,
and the sea
meadow spreads, and you may
outstretch –                              

you may lace
your hand in the thin threads,
tethers
"too expensive to be quotable,"
and remove
one or two in good faith,
if you know
the method of the cut
that promises
neither to unmoor nor
mortally
wound it –       

in all
of Sardinia, in
all of
Italia, all the globe, who
can hold
these feather-anchor-spits,
split-hair-
thick, sheer and quoteless,
this byssus?

Chiara Vigo, who
is in years
getting on, but has a
daughter yet,

today
Chiara is diving
below
gentle naval boats, to do what she
only,
and shorn strands of byssus,
knows, not
even a
mollusk, not even a
pen, I
imagine –

and only 
imagination makes
trespass
in the unsightly dark,
but if
the thread is cut,

severing
the fine umbilico
between pen
and sense of shore, this diminishes
by a hair
the unaccountable
inventory
of the deep, and also
increases
by a hair or two to
follow the
pen shell's hold, soundless threads
bridging each
absented space –
                            as if
to insist
something will follow – as
if this
is harmless
              (have you learned
to be harmless) –

in darkness
she distinguishes the
body from
its cables; she cuts, each
keeps; at
surface, the thick dull threads
are soaked,
dried and combed, combed once more,
doused in
lemon, and finally
strand on strand
"twisted together with
a spindle
made of oleander,"
and then –

—threshed in
a nearly see-through cloth
called "sea silk,"
the spun threads glister goldily.
Of sea silk
such songs are wrung. But I
have not
learned to harvest one thread
without harm
and without harm I fear
you haven't either.

 

 


NAVAL SHIP WORM

 

THE HOLES

Copper-bottomed boats,
                            the Royal Navy hoped
could keep the teredo,
              ship worm, limber mollusk,
out. "Cosmopolitan,"
                            veriform, and cited for
"depravations,"
              this bivalve makes use
of its small shell
                            as a tool to tunnel into
soft salt-soaked wood,
              rasping at fibers
until inside
                            the worm stays
where it will
              whittle, chip, and enamel
a self-same space
                            until it's done for. 

And though one made
                            a solitary habit
of existence,
              so had others the same
made fulsomeness
                            in emptying.
The ship fills,
              the ship empties;
at a slight bow blow
                            the hull furrows,
crumples,
              and with stray particles,
fast water,
                            the bilge overflows.

But copper on the water
                            frustrates a wood-intending tooth—
where copper meets brine will bloom
              an oxychloric-slick surface
that deters a prospective
                            boarder. And it sickens.
Therefore sheath
              the complete royal fleet
with the stuff. It's 1779.
                            Sheath the merchants vessels
but seldom the traffickers
              through warm waters.
For the sheathed ships sail
                            slower than before.
And it sickens.
              Betime ship worms
who want for only
                            wood and seawater
rapidly take residence
              elsewhere.

Is it a worm
                            across the ocean
in buoyant open tangles
              of tree limb and foam
cusping? Does the worm
                            undergird a seaside outpost
of the firm-footed world
              in a country "bathed
on all sides by sea"—
                            as is Holland where
a century later
              along the Y:
Nieuwendam's
                            bedded pier posts
riddle with holes
              where homes had been
and sea water slides
                            through center until
"at slightest blow"
              the dock crumbles into sea?

And some live below
                            where copper-plated hulls
heavily coursed their bulk
              of shadows—a submerged
fo'c's'le, mast beams,
                            crow's nest cupped in mud.
Notice escapes.
              It also leaves open
holes all over.

 

 

THE HALLS

A ship worm is "never
                            known to destroy
the work of another."
              In close quarters
at a rapping
                            through the wall
it swerves its line-like
              excavation askant
at strong angles
                            from the run of the grain
from its ease or pleasure
              from all comfort future
that it might avoid
                            an encroachment.                     
A ship worm is never
              known to another.

 

 

THE HOLD

It's born swimming,
                            "open at both ends,"
muscle stretching long
              across cavity.
The ocean very deep.
                            And wood in it but rarely.

It swims and swims and
                            that is it. Or swims and
swimming fastens on
              a passing timber
passing fast,
                            begins to move with it,
lurching "at a not
              inconsiderable
rate of speed,"
                            surface overtaking.

When it finds its foot
                            on wood that will do,
with foot it suctions a grip,
              and twin triangles of shell
affixed as a face
                            around a mouth
press the grain.

The shells lined
                            with wedgelike teeth
around the tranquil foot pivot,
              "auger-bit, gouge, and file,"
rasping the timber
                            as steadily it gives
a way inside.
              Rows of teeth
that in turn had served to turn 
                            the surface
retreat inside the throat.
              Fresh tools
accrete and dull
                            into an efficiency
the worm lets itself.

Increment by
                            increment,
the ship worm glazes
              freshly excavated
arches of the gallery
                            to a nacre
"scarcely less hard"
              than its shell.

And entryway dwindles             
                            to window.
Dwarfed now
              in a corridor
it can never quit,
                            the worm grows to fit
its home. The worm
              it seals the door.

In necessity  
                            two posterior
siphons slip
              across the lintel.
The lither one to sip
                            oceanic aliments
and the stub-tail
              pumps out swill
and floods into the sea.

And when that sea
                            wafts danger,
two palette-shells
              snap over the end
like a hatch.

 

 


Alyssa Perry lives in Iowa City, where she works as a teacher, actor, proofreader, and editorial assistant with Rescue Press. She holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her recent work appears in jubilat, LVNG, and Poetry Northwest.

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