Effort at speech

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(Host) Vermont State Poet Ellen Bryant Voigt has been writing and observing animals in Cabot for 30 years. But the creature in the following poem was living in the Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland.

Effort at Speech

Nothing was as we’d thought, the sea
anemones not plants but animals,
flounder languishing on the sand
like infants waiting to be turned–
from the bottom we followed the spiral ramp
around and up, circling the tank.
Robert, barely out of the crib,
rode his father’s shoulders, uttering
words or parts of words and pointing
ceaselessly toward the water, toward some
one of the many shapes in the water,
what he could not name, could not describe.
Starfish, monkfish–not fish–catfish,
sea hare, sea horse: we studied the plaques
for something to prompt him with,
but he tucked his head as if shamed.
So I left them at the school of the quick
yellow-with-black-stripes conventional,
passed the armored centenary
turtle going down as I went up,
seaweed, eels, elongate gun-gray suede
bodies of the prehistoric sharks
transversing the reef, and headed to the top,
thinking to look down through the multiple layers.
When it first came at me, it seemed more
creature of the air than of the sea,
huge, delta-winged, bat-winged,
head subsumed in the spread pectorals
unless it was all head–a kite
gliding to the wall between us, veering
up, over, exposing its light belly,
“face” made by gill-slits opening,
the tail’s long whip and poison spine.
Eagle Ray: Cordata, like the eagle;
it skated along the glass–
eagle scanning the sheer canyon wall,
bat trapped inside the cave,
no, like a mind at work, at play,
I felt I was seeing through the skull–
and then away.

Ellen David Voigt sahred this poem from her book, “Two Trees,” published by W.W. Norton.

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