Tim Tomlinson’s suite of linked poems on the vast and complex underwater world has something of the layering of the ocean itself. From the gentle fascination of ‘Eagle Rays’ to the guilt-and-relish of ‘Lamentation’ to the unexpected yoking together of worlds in ‘Nocturne’, the poems open up tiers of meaning. It would be tempting to mistake these poems as deep dives into the ocean and its creatures. However, for me, such a reading is incomplete even if it is not incorrect. These poems are (also) made by the tether that clearly links the speaker to the world of water and wonder. By the human eye marveling, comparing and witnessing. This self bears witness to the eagle rays and the snapper and the coral reefs as much as it observes its own temptations, its mortality, its wretchedness, its complicity in their suffering. To me, this honesty — so different from the impersonal, quasi-objective camera eye — is what truly drew me to Tim Tomlinson’s work. Enjoy this set for how it is not about this or that but this and that, this through that, this because that.
— Pervin Saket
The Bombay Literary Magazine
. in a wedge
. through blue water
near the reef
. by everything
. except me
Lamentation for the Mangrove Snapper I Speared on the Turtle Grass Beds at Morgan’s Bluff
The way you moved that morning,
that hungry morning, over the grass flats,
snouting the green blades for shrimp, your plump flanks
the reddish green of the Brazilian mango,
hungry—like me—distracted, unwary of my shadow
darkening patches of green on the approach.
At the trigger’s click you leapt, only to offer
a sweeter entry point for the spear’s tip,
just behind the gills, the plump filets left unspoiled.
Oh, what a fight you gave, sliding
off the shaft and into the mesh bag, how you dove
again and again and—oh, wildly!—again
while I ascended in the shadow of the skiff,
and how your gills puckered on the surface, sucking
for water, your eyes expiring. Stunned.
And oh, how good you tasted that morning
amidst butter and lemon and onions. And how bitter now.
Each time I shut my eyes, I see yours.
Is it too late to become a better person?
once again the colorful fish
with the expressionist eyes
and the coquettish manner
move their thick green lips
to make speech without words
and I wake up in the dark
and listen for the sound
of my bubbles ascending
but hear only the whisper
of my wife’s peaceful breathing
as if the sixth mass extinction
is happening elsewhere
her chest rising and falling
in the dark shadows
thrown by venetian blinds
I take a glass of cold water
at the kitchen window and watch
the moon direct the tides
and wonder how anyone
could think I don’t have
Rarely is There a Why
. — a golden shovel after Jane Hirshfield’s (No Wind, No Rain)
Rarely is there a why for a what.
It’s hard to give a precise word
or phrase or theory for what
exactly I mean, but I can describe an act.
It happened off Apo on a day that was
calm above, but below the water’s surface it
was quite something else once we
got separated at ten meters and I thought
hey, wait, why are you going up? Never did
it occur to me that I was going down, not
until I saw nothing but blue and thought, oh, how little I matter.
© Tim Tomlinson. All rights reserved. Reproduced here with the permission of the author.
This is a Caribbean reef squid (Sepioteuthis sepioidea). The people at the MarineBio Conservation Society declare that “Caribbean reef squid are one our favorite cephalopods”. It isn’t hard to see why. They have intelligence, good looks and great communication skills. Tim sent us this lovely photograph, and frankly, his poems could have been about, say, the pleasures of Soviet architecture, and we would’ve still run the cover. As a poetry lover, we know you like to snorkel and deep-dive into text, but if you actually like reef exploration, then Tim suggests checking out Paul Humann and Ned DeLoach’s book Reef Fish Identification: Florida, Caribbean, Bahamas.
Author | TIM TOMLINSON
Tim Tomlinson is the author of the chapbook Yolanda: An Oral History in Verse, the poetry collection, Requiem for the Tree Fort I Set on Fire, and the short story collection, This Is Not Happening to You. Recent work appears in Bangalore Literary Review, Live Encounters, Tin Can Literary Review, and Best Asian Short Stories, 2023 (Ed. Anitha Dev Pillai). A new collection, Listening to Fish: meditations from the wet world, will appear on Nirala books early in 2024. Tim is the director of New York Writers Workshop, and co-author of its popular text, The Portable MFA in Creative Writing. He teaches writing in NYU’s Global Liberal Studies.