OIL by Judith Barrington


Oars dip and pull.
Blades lift, soundlessly dripping oil
into the slick sea.
Oarlocks squeak
and mist shrouds the rowboat
where we huddle inside our coats.
Somewhere in these shallows
birds are dying.

Oars dip again
and the mist opens for us.
When I look back
it has closed
like the net curtain let fall
across a neighbor’s window.
Someone is watching
what we do here.

My neck hurts
as it used to
after the long drive to Wales
through dark and rain
my chin poked forward
owls haunting the edge of vision.
If I had a wing
I’d put my head under it.

And if I had two wings
I’d need them to fan out—
the feathers crisp
beads of water rolling off like tears
the bones spread
like fingers over my face.
I’d need this water to be clean
when my body paused midair and lightly dropped.

-Judith Barrington

“Oil” copyright Judith Barrington 2004. Reprinted with permission from Horses and the Human Soul by Judith Barrington (Story Line Press, 2004).


I have long been appalled at the contempt with which we treat our oceans, the lifeblood of the planet. Trash, oil leaks, toxic waste, all dumped as if it wouldn’t poison everything it passes by as its currents girdle the world. If we spent as much money and found as much joyful curiosity about the deeps as we do about deep outer space, we might just shape up in time to turn things around.


Judith Barrington is the author of three volumes of poetry including Horses and the Human Soul, and two chapbooks including Postcard from the Bottom of the Sea. Her books also include Lifesaving: A Memoir and Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art. She is on the faculty of the University of Alaska’s MFA program. http://www.judithbarrington.com

3 thoughts on “OIL by Judith Barrington

  1. Dear Judith:

    I just ran across your poem “Oil” on the Poets for Living Waters Website. It’s stunning.

    I wake up every morning stunned at the reality that this continues– too stunned to be able to begin to articulate. I can’t get my head out from under my wing.

    Thank you for this compassionate and prescient witnessing.


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