A day at the beach

…..sunlight spreads wider to the hot pitch of summer’s perfection. Mother, tired of print and peccadilloes, rushes to the water, where she swims straight out on the ocean’s curve, the salt on her lips, undercurrents pushing against her thighs. Effortless, taut and well tuned like desire, she swims toward the horizon then stops, spreading her arms to float gently, kicking her legs in the green light below, resting her head on the sound of the sea. Her eyes check the sky for grey worry-lines, see nothing but blue postcard purity.

No bloody-fanged monster will rear up from its mud lair on the ocean’s soundless floor to seize her body in its giant maw. No clattering bronze-winged creature will snatch her from the water to feed a crag’s nest of young. Why then, in the midst of safety, this landfall of rocks, blisters and briars scratching the delicate sides of her mind? Why this quiet panic even as strong men splash within hailing distance, and two canoes paddled by teenagers are within hauling reach, if she’s not afraid of sinking and drowning in the deep? She knows that she cannot choose not to know, that daily news infiltrates her blood cells like poison stitched in the cut of her clothes. The gold ring on her finger, the gold chain around her neck, a decade of good works: all these gifts she would give for the sweetness of shutting down the brain, of pure instinct like a worm’s passing dirt through its entrails, of living life in the joy and reflex of making love and her body’s music, choices made without cool premeditation. Any gift required of her she would give not to know about missiles and firestorms and warheads that would boil her in the sea. Floating in circles of sun, she wonders about men in their submarines, the slip of machines heavy with the world’s end somewhere below the level of light and reason in the cold cold tombs of their certainty. Potent weapons aimed at each other like metallic cocks ready to explode, she feels unsafe on the tip of a match about to strike over a sea of gas.

Still, what pain can there be when angels swim next to curly-headed gods in the sea? Circling, opening and shutting her eyes, her hair fanned out like wisps of black cloud caught in the glimmer of the ocean’s silver lights, she swims under the wall of arguments to the side where fun and fantasy are. There she becomes heat and scintillating flesh attracting strongly muscled men, Neptunes splashing about the warm waters of her brain; there panic describes a boy playing a reed flute in a copse of trees. But undertows of fact and fear drag her back to the hard embrace of nuclear arms, where she cannot escape the smell of fires nor the red flow of eyes running down cheeks. The blue vacant bowl of the gleaming sky, the play of children in the dancing sea, are not really true any more. Talk of the apple’s appleness, of God’s essence or grace; refutation by the rock, the uses of silence and things of joy and beauty forever are not the truths of today, nor the rhetoric of freedom; nor when deep death hunkers down on the shore of the sea, snuffing out fun and fantasy. The water is cold, the day hard to bear. Her skin breathes in the beginnings, the endings, and a silent black scream flies from her tongue. She spins, whirling in the still heart of chaos, reaching for the shape of seed and flower.

She ducks, hides under mushrooms and debris as, screaming over the roll of the waves, a host of dying children in flames run to vanquished, eliminated mothers. Unconscious, come now while sunflowers still follow the sun and music is made by flautists in subways and poets cry that no-one listens any more. Come now, while there’s still time for fish and lily-pads, and rainbows pouring into living lakes. Spinning, she swims again under the wall. The uncalculated fall of a leaf is there; little girls skipping rope are there. Kate Greenaway illustrations and speeches by politicians are there, that comforting life of pictures in award-winning books for infants of three still sucking their thumbs. Is the Bible true, she asks, God’s promise that oceans will not spill over the earth, drowning apologists and pigs in their sties; that the end will not be an expression of divine wrath measured in tidal waves and unceasing rainfall? Pulled away again, she tries for words that mean what they say, unviolated by cunning men who call venom the sweetest apple-juice. Devil’s business, this mounting of weapons to burn the world, to outdo Stalingrad, Alexandria, Auschwitz, Babi Yar, St. Bartholomew’s Day, Nagasaki, to raise tons of cinder to a blackened sun. She slips under the surface of the sea, submerges in security. Here, where no land nor air is, she feels safe, for she trusts ancient promises more than politicians and generals, who calculate the worth of her life in the tallies and find her a justifiable pile of ash; her children, her past, her future, all expendable. She knows they will kill to the end of time and to protect their time. Like a heretic at the stake, she must perish to save her soul from Satan’s grasp.

Shark’s anger pushes her up into light where flames fall away, unable to touch what she must do in the world’s dying. On the land she can see the old woman gathering seashells from another age; her silly loving husband pretending that monstrosity is a game; teenagers and musclemen locked in self-admiration. In the sky she hears a cormorant’s call, its voice pierced with poison, its graceful flight slowed by winds of panic, strong above water smelling of gas and fire. She swims to land, aware of the future: of men rotting in open graves, of women blasted to shadows, of children consumed in balls of fire made by men whose brains are padded with apologies for death. The foam swirls about her ankles, her hair becomes a net to catch sparks of light and reason; knowing fire can take her, she strides to the shore. She’s strong enough to cultivate roses at ground zero. She can raise her two hands against warriors and politicians. Her feet touch the golden sand, the wind picks up and the shapes of seeds are planted firmly in the wind as the children run to her laughing, voices loud with jubilation.

by Kenneth Radu

Full poem previously published in _Treading Water_, Oberon Press, 1992