Excerpt from The Bottom

Atop the bottom, the water-ghost
the riddle-ghost tower, fireballs lapping the ghost map
the ghost nets, the ghost moon, the ghost lines, the ghost traps,
the fingerlings giving up ghost
the long dark drive, the ghost drive, over the derelict moat
the ghost era’s ghost-dish, its secrets, its swallows,
its test site’s thousand ghost bites named for rivers
and ice caps and nautical terms, for fish and for towns named for ghost
the long-gone ghost of the beaver meadow, Las Vegas they called it, skinned
ghost wagers streaming in
the once-and-again wealth of the nation a tour-tram parking lot coast
ghost of the barnacled schoolroom, lesson a nibbling ghost
In the hook-and-sink daybreak
at the ghost-black terminal, its scaffolds and catwalks and ladders and berths,
gunships its ghost-and-ghost host,
a borne-again freighter named Universal Hope is suckling, is guzzling up the ghost
in the cold commons’ ghost mouth, a trio of pearls,
three itches enraptured by ghost
the narwhal the sea cow the sea mink the monk seal a mouthful of ghost word, extinct
the half-seas’ coral a ghost story written in bone-white ink
The king counts his ghostlands,
his wrecks and his flotsam, his jetsam, his water-strays, his fishes.
My wish is: We are on the shore, we are looking out at the water.
You are lying beside me, curled.
The sun is coming up. I am turning you over
I am going to see your face
The sun is coming up, I am turning you over
I am going to be able to see your face

the women who follow the herring shoals
the women who walk the coast
at eightpence an hour, the harbor host
to a thousand smacks of the oceans’ envy—
the dogfish, the cachalot, the thresher, the minke
bitten by a dog on a mile-long chain,
the huers spelling again and again
the end of another vicious enrapture—
roll fingers in sacks vacant of flour
take knives to the belly of that they call “darling”
it’s a job; and the word, grown up from the skerries and docks,
speaks leagues of our need to clock taking in order to live
darling, the bottom is thoroughly touched
it is tractored and train-tracked and floodlit with grid,
the remains of a scuttled crab pot,
its lid long tossed to the porpoise-show public,
where the Prince of Humbugs counts his receipts,
hammering Jumbo with rotgut
“There was Mystery,” the Mock Turtle sighs,
“There was Drawling, Stretching, and Fainting in Coils”
until the water froze in the firemen’s hose,
the seals flopping out on the downtown cobble,
the whales boiled in their tanks—it stank for days of dead giant
it’s pliant, the bottom, it can be caned and rushed
and scraped from the cask and shorn from the wig and
and tilled and tooled and authored
but its blackblues are the blackblues of nowhere on surface
and we have better relations with Mars

to get to the bottom of this fishy deal, we’ll have to walk the plank
sink us down with a long, long roll
where the sharks’ll have our bodies, and the devil have our souls

with the hagfish and snot worms and cutthroat eels,
we’ll pull bottom-wool off sailor’s bones to make our sodden meals
oh, a mermaid’s life is full of strife with men of ease or business
from our heads to our waist, we’re just their taste but after that, we’re fishes
1830: Farmers cutting seaweed to spread on their potato fields spy a creature thrashing
in the water. A boy hits her on the head with a rock, and she dies. Washed ashore, she is
the length of a four-year-old with an outsized chest and a lower half that looks like a salmon without scales. The factor of Benbecula orders a coffin and buries her on the
shores of Culla Bay.
1717: Dutch sailors catch a creature off the coast of Borneo. She cries the cries of a little mouse and shits the shit of kittens. They keep her in a barrel for four days and seven hours, and she dies. The Czar of Russia, Peter the Great, is so moved by a picture of the creature in a book that he travels in disguise across Europe to Amsterdam to press the publisher for further proof.
1620: Charged with securing a colony for the venture capitalist Sir William Vaughn, Captain Richard Whitbourne sails to New-found-land where a beauteous creature with hair of blue
swims up to his boat. A crewman smacks her head with an oar, and she sinks into the sea.
at the bottom of the sea, a whale fall feeds a world—
mucous eels and giant clams and sleeper sharks and you and me
if we sink in that lonely, lonesome water, if we sink into that lonesome sea

the channel is a working-class stiff: bouys and ragged Confederate flags,
a coveline of crosses on cliffs; “Look what they built us,” the pelicans think,
concrete piers and signal towers, all good things to shit on;
the pelicans sit on the dock and take stock: behind the fish, a fish, they say,
and behind that fish, no fish at all, and behind no fish, no fishes;
it’s a port full of spines and postcard designs on the bite left behind in the sea wrack,
a Kodak stab at a shame-faced crab, a can-opener rescue for the chowder shack
from here, the pelting and the smelting emptied into the harbor;
further out, roustabouts, roughnecks and derrick hands get paid to raid the larder
in the bed below the ferryboats, the cars on board umbilical, all of us driving farther
away from the steeplejack sea in a race to be dryer than drenched;
from the jackup rigs and the tension-leg benches a blaze like St. Elmo’s fire,
a sound like the sound of a voice, it’s multiple choice on the subject of “bleak” versus “dire”
“Science is inquiry, not answers,” says the chemist sipping the pot-boiler Gulf
from atop the continental shelf, Humpty Dumpty’s daredevil fall,
the bore that bores at the yolk of it all, a dredging as thorough as Darwin
“I can’t go no lower,” said the Hatter: “I’m on the floor, as it is.”

a little lonely ship to shore; say pelican, think regret
dynamite fouls a pelican’s jowls,
and what’re you gonna do about it, Stumblebum?
sorrow dog, landlocked, sits on the rug; I’ve shipped out to industry’s ocean
happy dog beats her tail on the floor; I’m home once more
with a rucksack of nudge and commotion
oh, sorrow dog, the loblolly boys and their sick-bay gruel
almost fooled us with bunkum forevers;
but cure-alls won’t quarrel with a fevered bitch
and swallows don’t nap in the ice-cold sea
and night scrapes at night like a dash-throat razor
her lungs, catching up to her heart, exhaled, her skin her fur, her fur
and me? a little lonely now shore to ship, pox and rot and flux and itch

sorrow dog died, oh love of mine, sorrow dog died and is gone
we buried her where the fishermen hide from flat-footed women and hogs
we buried her under the water-sky where the bleeding fish bleed on the rod
we buried her by the water-rat reeds on the shores of the ditch they call “lake”
we buried her in the bottomlands, we buried her on the ache of an evening
where it’s nicked by the night; happy dog’s dead, my love, and gone,
happy dog’s gone out of sight; may the cattail and pennywort and purslane
bend down, weave sorrow dog’s soul a weed packet, and cast her out to float
amid the ducks and the snoring geese

the mermaids raise their hands; they would like to ask a question
they are unfamiliar with microphones, and the flotational devices of the press pool
but they recognize a wave when they see one—
they can mimic the speed of sound in air;
when called on, the mermaids manage their mouths into the shape of “What is that?”
it’s a riddle twice as inflated as Texas; it’s six times the weight of the plankton seas
it’s a teaser rendered in styrene with the acronym PCB
it’s albatross innards decoded as omen; it’s a starfish-crossed plea
it’s a whopper, and the flack leaves the bait on the hook
the mermaids listen up: audible distortions and the deafening roar of “No comment,”
which the mermaids jot in their books
but even if the stowaways are thrown to the squids
the commodores can’t keep a lid on the story; it’s leaked
in the driftwood, in the rookery, in the dory in the belly of the catch;
the coda is, “It’s trash”
it’s sorrow dog’s chew toy, and worse—
it’s the skeleton ship’s cargo, it’s clamshelled desires and seventy brands of thirst
Water bottles everywhere, far, far too much to drink

April 17, 2007: Following krill on the heels of the gulls, said to be souls of drowned sailors, a tiny minke whale, 5,000 pounds, 12 feet long, and, at one year old, a baby, enters the mouth of the Gowanus Canal, a Brooklyn waterway which, through the years, has hosted gristmills, tanneries, stone yards, coal yards, gas plants, cement works, paint factories, ink factories, soap factories, machine shops, sulfur plants, chemical works, and rafts of raw sewage. Lead, oil, mercury, cyanide, asbestos, VOCs, SVOCs, cholera, typhoid, typhus, and gonorrhea, the sludge at its bottom is dubbed “black mayonnaise.” It is the day past the day that 32 people are shot and killed at Virginia Tech. The minke whale attracts onlookers hoping for better news. But the minke whale disappoints. She swims for two days. She splashes, she hits the dock, and she dies. Her pale underside is streaked with blood. She is known to the cops and the Coast Guard officials as NY 3673-07. But the onlookers name her Sludgie. In the days past her death, we will sew Sludgie pillows and crochet ourselves small Sludgie dolls. Thirty-four million years ago, four-legged creatures lost their hind limbs. Deer-like, no larger than cashmere sweaters, these were the ancestors of whales.

I will cling to you like a mussel, my love, will you cling to me like a mussel?
We’ll abide astride this dumb rock together, scarred and thin-shelled
and sometimes blue, but nevertheless hanging on;
mermaids, oh, sing your disavowed songs; bend your human limbs to their business:
with the pelicans and puffins and gulls and murres and elegant terns as your witness,
unloose the harbor seal lassoed by scratch; unloose his soft neck and his flippers
unloose his fat middle, his polka-dot cloak, unloose his wet eyes and his whiskers
spill the winds all over this trammel-mouth world, spill the seas up onto its beaches
I want the sun to come out, I want to sail us home, the mermaids sing,
I want the sun to come out, I want to sail us home



I scuba dive. I once went diving in Key West. Everything was dead. Garbage patch. Oil spill. By-kill. Ghost coral. But none of it is a fait accompli. Some belief, some good work, some restraint. Some redemption.


Betsy Andrews is the author of New Jersey, winner of the 2007 Brittingham Prize in Poetry.

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