TWO POEMS by Martha Serpas

Fais Do-Do

A green heron pulls the sky behind it
like a zipper. Sharp rows

of clouds fold into themselves, erasing
the framed blue tide.

Barrier islands disappear into
the Gulf’s gray mouth.


Everywhere something strives to overtake something else:
Grass over a mound of fill dirt, ants over grass,

the rough shading of rust between rows
of sheet metal frustrating the sky.

Boats breast up three deep in every slip
and as soon docked are waved away.


The only music’s crickets and lapping,
happy bullfrogs on slick logs.

A rustling skirt of palmettos
around the roots of a modest oak

that appear after hard rain. A fiddle,
or idling motor, moves away.


Go to sleep. God will come
in an extended cab for all of us:

 the children, the dogs, the poets.
That old Adversary, the Gulf,

our succoring Mother, having given
everything, will carry the whole of us away.

from The Dirty Side of the Storm (W.W. Norton)


 The Discipline of Non-Fulfillment
for and after Margaret A. Farley


Eastertide, Margaret, and all
That we’ve given up comes back
To us at once, chicken and

Sausage gumbo, twelve-packs of Dixie,
Picayunes, and the man-god builder
Of trawl boards who frees bird dogs

And coons from steel jaws.
At once the humid air rolls back
And northern light pours through.

Girls in pastel dresses spin, petals
To relieve pink azaleas
Of carrying the day

On their own. A crowded
Sea of greens, innocent water
Wedged by shorn banks below.

Eastertide, Margaret, and tide
Means something different here,
But wouldn’t you say it’s the same

Sweeping abundance overtaking
Shoals and inlets, joining lake and bay,
Drowning everything in between?

Don’t answer. I’ll focus on some small
Thing, a blue heron lifting from brown stubble,
Light off bleached barnacles, helicopter blades

Beating the marsh into submission.
No action hero will rappel down

In camouflage or lab white

To sew together the last scraps
Of duckweed and spoil, like
Discipline of non-fulfillment,

You offered from the pulpit
Years ago, as if you were explaining
The abbreviated life of dogs

To children, laying a still,
Furry body down in its damp
Space and closing up the hole.

from The Dirty Side of the Storm (W. W. Norton)


The Gulf is our adversary and our mother.

1965-1983 Most summers my family went crabbing on Grand Isle, Louisiana, about thirty miles from our home. While I swam in the surf, I wore the year’s worn-out sneakers to keep the tar off my feet and the crabs from pinching my toes. The rigs stuck up like iron pickets along the horizon. We boiled our catch at night in the screened space under the camp. If there was a breeze, we sat out for hours.

1984 I began scuba diving under the rigs, which form underwater reefs: ten or twenty feet of murky gray-green blindness and then a shattering of clear blue—groupers, tarpon, look downs, spadefish, amberjacks, down to a hundred, a hundred-twenty feet. The restful moan of the beacon. A calm Gulf on descent, and then, you never knew, maybe four foot chop on the surface after a half-hour dive.

The flag of Louisiana features a Christian depiction, “the pelican in her piety.” A pelican plucks her own breast to feed her crèche. Some flags even show three drops of blood near her beak. Those drops might as well be black. Louisiana has torn up its own marsh to feed our greed for energy and the greed of other states unwilling to risk their own environments and cynical enough to ignore ours.

The root of piety is duty. Is this martyrdom our (feminized) religious duty? Or is it an exploitation of a present-tense culture and hospitality? Or is it also again greed, our own fearful greed for “pennies on the dollar” from the energy industry?


Martha Serpas’s most recent collection of poetry is The Dirty Side of the Storm (W.W. Norton). Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, and Southwest Review. Other work is included in Bearing the Mystery: Twenty Years of Image and in the Library of America’s American Religious Poems. A part-time hospital trauma chaplain, she teaches creative writing at the University of Houston.

NEW LETTERS ON THE AIR PODCAST:  This Wednesday, June 9th, Martha Serpas will be discussing a documentary (seven years in the making) on coastal erosion—shrimping, poetry, music, oil, wildlife, and “actual environmentalists not politicians only.”

See a trailer at Veins in the Gulf. Full film out in September.

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