after G.W. Steller
These beasts are four fathoms long, but perfectly gentle.
They roam the shallower waters like sea-cattle
and graze on the waving flags of kelp.
At the slightest wound their innards will flop
out with a great hissing sound,
but they haven’t yet grown to fear mankind:
no matter how many of their number might be killed,
they never try to swim away – they are so mild.
When one is speared, its neighbours will rush in
and struggle to draw out the harpoon
with the blades of their little hooves.
They almost seem to have a grasp of what it is to love.
I once watched a bull return to its butchered
mate two days in a row, butting its flensed hide
and calling out quietly across the shingle till the darkness fell.
The flesh on the small calves tastes as sweet as veal
and their fat is pleasantly coloured,
like the best Dutch butter.
The females are furnished with long, black teats.
Try brushing them with your fingertips
then note what happens next – even on the dead
they will grow firm and the sweet milk bleed.
A Fairy Tale
She had been living happily ever before,
waltzing through imagined ballrooms in the arms
of a handsome young prince. Then, one day, they kiss
for the first time, he takes back the word love
and suddenly bloats to an idle, wounded beast
that stoops above her in its unfamiliar, thickening hide.
She trembles before his yellow breath and white, strange eyes.
Each night from her solitary bed, she overhears the echoes
of unimaginable rages which transform their castle
to a ruin of shadowy rooms with a cursed and sleeping heart.
At last she understands him poorly enough to be terrified
and run a gauntlet of scattering wolves to the arms of her sick father
who greets her with a tearful goodbye. They subsist
for ever after on a diet of simple gruel and vague desire.
When passers-by ask her about her life, she waltzes the laundry
to her heart and answers with a distant smile: Once upon a time.