Canto for a Mermaid

by William Heath


Halfway down the path
I couldn’t see the house
but I could hear the sea.
The wind even brought 
salt spray to my face  
and, as the trees thinned,
there was the vast blue
undulating thing itself.  


One solitary gull
glides on sickle-wings,
tilts and dips and skims
the swells, more for the thrill
than the fish (that’s how I’d feel),
veers and banks against the wind,
swings out and seems to lull,
before swooping past with creaking cry,
raucous, riding the wind.


The sea lifts us and lets us fall,
ever-moving, remorseless, it
sings its ancient song.  I can hear
the sea-surge murmur like old mariners,
whispering of solitude and sameness,
no sail in sight, only the slow
measured sweep of the sea.  Who can say
when the sea’s been weeping?  Anybody
can stick his hand in its side.


At night the sea licks
the sand free of footprints,
only a slow silver line of surf
on the moonlit curve of the beach,
the shore glows around the bay bend,
a lone sail moves to a whim of wind.
The dark hooded waves churn in,
disclose, for a second, their white skulls,
then die on the sand, dragging pebbles.


There is a cemetery under the sea.
The ships of the lost are sunk
beneath the plummet of thought.
The petrified ears of drowned sailors
are shoved up, like shells, on the sand;
eyes, like jellyfish, trailing nerves
like legs; guts strung among the seaweed;
skin films and floats away; teeth,
sucked to smoothness, spit out like pearls.


I press a circle of glass
to my face, strap on two steel lungs,
and dive below the pellucid skin of the sea,
seeking buried treasure.  I dream down
into deeper green, chuckling bubbles
and chewing seaweed.  Down to touch the bones
of the lost with the wrinkled fingers
of an underwater lover. Here I discover
a maze of mermaid hair.  You are the treasure.

© Copyright  William Heath

William Heath has published two chapbooks and a book of poems, three novels, an award-winning work of history, and a collection of interviews with Robert Stone. visit:

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