The Coral Reef


      The sea is a circuit of holes:
mouths, bellies, cavities in coral-heads,
caves, deep cracks and wedges in the rock.
Brain corral stipple the bay meadows like toadstools,
each a community in siege. Shellfish, so frail,
secrete rock-skeletons,
rainbow-jeweled. These build. Rain, wind, the waves,
and boring animals corrode the sculptured lime,
dissolving the reefs to sand-deposits. The parrot
fish puckers his lips for love, and gnaws
death-kisses into coral.

      Snorkelers hug the surface.
Divers scout gingerly among the poisonous
antlers, knowing the lightest brush with fire-coral
draws blood, and raises the flesh in welts: the pores
look out like portholes from the swellings. The sting
in each seems individual.
Coral-wounds are coated with slime, fish-slippery.
They are slow to heal . . . . In murky waters, sun blinds.
Sun trapped in snows of plankton glares like headlights
on wet asphalt, the white on the gray, light blocking out
sight. The scuba-diver

      collides with a wall of fry,
so thick with silver-fish the luminous flanks
seem impervious, but his waving spear-end glances
not one fish on any side, the weightless flakes
dodging and veering, the larger movement of Overall
undeflected by internal
shifts. The school is running from gamefish: jack,
mackerel, gar, tarpon–they in turn pursued by predators:
shark, barracuda no smile that curve of the jaws,
an accidental twist of the gum-cartilage:
a chilling glance commands


      an instance that power needn't
be linked to size. grip speargun. If you shoot, don't miss
the head. spear in the tail. power mower gone berserk.
the handle cannot steer the blades. the head
a madly chopping bushel of teeth, wobbly.
weaving about the spear as axis.
as one who juggles a sixty-pound two-edged machete
under water
. Trigger-finger shifts to the shutter.
Camera-shy fish and cuda-shy man, matched
for the moment, eye one another (neither advancing
to test the other's nerve),


      look away, look back. Cuda
turns! Barrel-length torpedos from sight!
Now, overhead, three Oldwife (Queen Triggerfish)
sail past, like kites. Wide and flat, they cannot
swim straight on, but turn spasmodically
from right to left, in squad
formation, cutting across their own paths,
and across his line of sight, narrowing to thumb's-
widths as they crisscross his axis, displaying one profile,
now another (flash, discard bulb.): triangular snouts
and trapezoidal posteriors,

      the graceful semi-parabolas
of dorsal and ventral fins, the axehead tail.
The man, tank on his back, descends. From seafloor
he peers under a shelf. In an inverted socket,
a lobster, the elusive female, her tail curled
on itself, conceals her treasure:
the orange bushel of eggs, blossom of caviar.
Her bubble-eyes on stalks, (or stilts) look backward
behind her head, see around corners–they stare
and stare. The antennae, like a blindman's fingers
in the dark, must touch to tell.

      Dodging antennae, the diver
squirms into snapshot range. large spiny forelegs.
a male's. thrust over the lens. followed
by wide armored head. gloved hand traps leg–it drops
from body-joint. inert. like head of burnt match.
backwards lunge: muscular
tail contracts. scuffle of spear-jabs. pronged
back disengaged in a last rally of spasms.
drifts limp to the bottom.
Halfway down,
the swarm are upon him, small nibblers lovingly
smooch and probe, their bites

      kiss-languish, entranced,
tenderly scooping flesh from shell, the carcass
suspended in skilled dismemberment, no part
touching bottom unemptied. Death-gyps! The dying
members, portioned into living guts, survive,
survive. Suddenly, the ledge
under his flipper sways, no footrest. Step off.
Move gently. The rock's alive, thousands of coraleyes,
feelers busy busy, tireless reef-toilers. Note
sponge, anemone, barnacle–lovely in their private
sleeps–malingerers these,

      parasites of the colony, taking
a free ride; the workers the small, drawing out of dun
selves mounds of iridescence: minuscule bodies
hatching, in fury of survival, gorgeous refuse, careless
towers of jewels, wreaths of rock-tissue, mouths's
masonry, flowers of fire . . .
At dawn, peering from a light-weight Cessna, cruising
low over the clear bay shallows, the water brutally
calm, the horseshoe-shaped reef entirely in view,
the beholder deciphers the expressions of an aging face,
chiseled by love. Dumbfounded,

      he is pierced with reverence.
The Saint-edge margin, Life/Death, fades, dissolves
in his eyes, dreams: a boy's fishhook waiting,
waiting to make wounds, to tug, to snap off in the big one
lost, to go deep, to die into life, to lie there in rich
corrosion; iron becoming
a part of the fish, the small hard thread of metal
breaking down and entering every canal and cell,
lastly into teeth, fins and scales. Intestines
are intelligence: such skill in distribution–equally–
to every pocket of life.



Laurence Lieberman, New and Selected Poems, 1962-1992, University of Illinois Press, 1993.