Christopher Cokinos (M.F.A., Washington University in St. Louis) teaches in the English Department at Kansas State University. His first collection of poetry, Killing Seasons, won the 1993 Robert Gross Award from Woodley Press.
Ancient Shark Jaw
— found below a dam's eroded spillway at the flood-formed "Tuttle Creek Canyon," in Kansas, summer 1993. Presumed a new species, possibly 250 million years old.
I was lifted from shale with such noise and grace!
The careful tap and clack of a hammer, the thwack
and crack of splitting rock, sometimes
quiet talk I could not untangle for all the stony
dirt that muffled the new world still.
Then the clawing saw whining its blade
close enough I would have shook, escaped
if I could. Through plaster layered to protect me,
I could still hear applause, see a circle
smiling at my still-sharp teeth when I was raised
into air that is a different ocean, raised
from this old, dry riverbank carved
and gutted with the summer floods
sent down hard from the spillway gate a mile up.
This was the old river course, before the dam.
This was ocean before then.
Once water lazed or surged through its own body
like renewal, like itself only and always—
Months of rain the reservoir could not contain.
Is this surprising? That I know?
The earth has spoken for a long time.
And where you can stand, we once swam,
crushing shells, eating flesh inside.
Our jaws could rip your fingerbones
like pink anemone.
Now the floods have dried to hot autumn days.
Below the spillway: ledged, canyoned
and fissured, newly exposed rocks step
off into themselves, into air.
Juts and strata seem shocked to space.
Tourists crawl and walk across here, underneath
imagined water. They smoke and picnic,
taking pictures, taking rocks.
They'll stand on a ledge,
sometimes, and squint against a light
I never saw, alive.
But now I'm here: a cold, white room
where others spray and dust me, buff and polish,
wearing white masks, white gloves.
I'll live soon behind glass, lit and explained:
a placard will tell my life, time,
and I will swim, a single jaw dreaming myself
into wholeness, my fluid body dark
curving again in the green-vast Permian water.
I will swim in your museum air
Ultrasound shivers my bones, astonished.
Such care you give the old, discovered dead.
Is this what you call love? Forever?