The Yaps and Growlings, This Burly Surf

i. The Gulf of Mexico
On my father’s sunburnt shoulders
just off shore at Pensacola
My little belly sloshy with saltwater
I screech with laughter each time a wave,
a warm, green, salty wave
smacks into us and up and over
like a goofy pet bear.

ii. The Baltic
It depends on when you first were in a bar.
Back in the old days,
when a five-year-old could be sent round the corner
to buy a pack of cigarettes for his Dad,
you’d see the old Russian sailors on their stools,
steaming with frost and rain,
their white teeth strong in brown faces,
grinning like retired heavyweights.
Their broad chests, when they hove in air to sing,
swelled like a mid-ocean surge
to crash upon the ear like a tsunami —
Ochi chornye or Khristos voskres.
Even their soft heels thundered on the sandy floor
when the balalaika trilled suddenly.
They never got drunk.
But they tried.
When the door would open at the same time
the lunch whistle hooted down at Lerro’s factory,
or the bell at St. Mary’s rang for vespers,
their breath would rush in whistling
like a sudden gale sets the troubled tackle humming
and their eyes turn a grey or olive green.
The swart-limbed matrosy with their weather-beaten hands.

iii. The Indian
I know that this will be misunderstood, but
Hurrah for the young Somali pirates.
Only kids armed to the teeth
charging freighters in leaky tubs
in this late day of glowing grids and satellite navigation
can redeem the ocean for what she should be.

If not for them, each tanker that I watch
sleek past Point Loma and the Silver Strand
with its dozing sunbathers
would hum along on a belt as monotonous
as the interstate that carries those on shore leave
southward to depredations and gonorrhea.

A titan flinging whorls of surf
round the Cape of Good Hope,
Scylla marshalling giant squid and narwhals,
Giggling Nausikaa buoying one-eyed Camoes
(and dunking him from time to time)
as he swims ashore at Macau
muttering prayers and cussing like a parson
between gobs of brine,
paddling with one hand,
keeping the damp Lusiads above the slapping wavelets
with the other

iv. The Susquehanna
As befits the oldest river in the world,
she is clever, foresightful.
Made herself long and broad, she did, but shallow—
the longest un-navigable river in the country.
No city of note or grace has grown up on her banks.
As if she saw us coming, and shrugged.
What are two hundred years to her?
When the coal barons set their poor navvies
to poke a bit too familiar round her bed,
she pushed a lazy toe down through the covers
and put an end to that.
They tipped whole boxcars into the whirlpool and couldn’t plug it,
whole trains of boxcars, and still couldn’t plug it.
She kept on calmly gliding down
from Lake Oswego to Havre-de-grace
over the detritus of flesh and iron.

She suffers the slim blue heron in the spring,
the ring-neck geese in summer
and the clammy mists of autumn.
She gathers ice floes in January round her shallow islets
into razor-sharp Matterhorns.
But she will have none of us.

When she swells with anger,
whole armies push at her sides with sandbags
but can’t keep her in.
With spade and fingernail they fill the sandbags
but they can’t keep her in.
Sooner or later they have to scurry away
in glum caravans, behind humid panes,
up the hillocks as she nips at their heels,
spilling into their ugly towns.

Those towns they smell of mud when she retreats.
The transit authorities run their buses for free,
and kids drink potable water from beercans.

v. The Pacific
She always remains the same as when you saw her first:
Brown as the murky swells beneath the fishing pier
near Crissy Field, so that when the harbor seal
glides up to gaze at you with his doglike mug,
his quiet snout, before it breaks the water’s skin
is pasty and indistinct,
like the face of the departed on the double-exposed
sepia daguerreotypes pedaled by old psychic frauds.

Or such a brilliant cyan, bleeding into cobalt,
with creamy froth ringing the black rocks,
that when the old Navajo smith
at his table near the dry latrines in Arizona
shows you a turquoise pendant set in silver,
her eye flashes at you from across the dusty miles.

Star of the Sea, pray for us.