poetry

The Reef

Rachel Trousdale

Just because it’s made doesn’t mean it’s anything
but natural. A thin line skirting the shore, no matter
how long, it appears tiny in the extent of
the ocean it inhabits, the water that is the only thing
that makes it invisible from the moon. Minute and
enormous, to build one would be an impossible
ambition, and yet now and then people, who have destroyed
so many, try in restitution to drop in old subway cars,
holed ship carcasses, their various failed transports,
guilt offerings to the ocean, which does not ask for them,
seeded with first inhabitants—corals who never
imagined themselves a city or wall but produce their cells
and turn the sea salts slowly into limestone.
Piece by piece it is unconsciously assembled:
if the currents are neither too hot nor too cold,
and if those on shore refrain from dumping oil and ashes
too lavishly into the streams, if the ocean bed
is neither too roughly scrubbed by storms nor too unstirred,
slowly the thing will accrete; just as a few minutes
turn into a lifetime, a few infinitesimal many-legged
brief shy creatures become a reef. Building on each other,
each kind makes its own fanciful, bizarre formations:
orange antlers; fluted pipe organs; pink hearts; inhabited
by eels, which shock, and octopi, which change
color and shape at whim, and can compress themselves
into a crevice or expand like a canopy, and die
in the care of their young; each on its own
a study, but each a part, if luck and the currents
hold, of mile upon mile of variegated
whole. The fish, who are not concerned with the flick of rainbow
white at the surface, pass like particulate smoke;
the little striped clownfish burrows into his friendly
poisonous anemone. Somewhere in the crowd
is every color, but silver and blue predominate,
lit with yellow, spiked with vermilion. Here
is God’s plenty, if we believed in God. Instead
we worry that somewhere must be a barracuda,
a reef shark, a magnificent giant stingray; fate
lurks—but that is only to say that individuals
are mortal, which we knew. The reef is time made visible,
its profusion and proliferation, its vivacity,
its wealth instantaneous and enduring. To say
that it is like something would be presumptuous,
but perhaps, in a limited way, a marriage is
like it—something that began with a few small motions
and has turned, by grace of time, into—not an edifice—
a beautiful sprawl, a forest, a live extent.
For this, maybe, we fly south, we don our masks
and flippers and dive into an element not our own:
to see something like, or more than like, the thing we have made.

Rachel Trousdale is an associate professor of English at Framingham State University. She is the author of Antiphonal Fugue for Marx Brothers, Elephant, and Slide Trombone; Nabokov, Rushdie, and the Transnational Imagination; and Humor in Modern American Poetry.
Originally published:
July 1, 2019

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