The Monkey and the Mermaid

– For Deirdre Lickona

(The Fiji Islands)

The monkey made the mermaid blush a sum
Of suns. It was all she could do to keep
Her mind in place, at peace and of a piece.
What nonsense is this? exclaimed the monkey
Climbing through the wordless branches to roots
Of mango, kiwi, breadfruit, papaya….
I speak and you come alive, like a wind chime,
Like wind at the bottle’s lip, like rain’s prayer
In a desert canyon’s mouth. The mermaid
Was sad with tears that never touched the sea
Because her reality was too pure.
She lazed in the sea-surf’s allowances,
Regarding the jungle for all it was worth.
All the sailors have died but she remains –
And monkeys have made a business of it,
Chattering up their kind with presentiments
Of reason, measure, nuanced expression.
Of callipered craniums, eugenic skulls
And scientific hammers sweetly certain.
But you make your money from my pouting lips,
Imagined in endless conjurations,
She said to monkey. You posit the quest
In minds by posing the question of minds.
Gryphon, phoenix, dragon, gargoyle, sphinx…
Who of us has the story right? Which of us
Possesses the better damage or wound?
I would die to be mortal and speak nonsense.
Are you any more real yourself for words?
So Chit-chit! Hyee! and Whoop-whoop! to doom.
For all I care, I shall sing down the moon.
Each looked to the other’s deficiencies –
The mermaid wanting legs as she gazed
Upon her flukes; the monkey starved with food,
His hands itching for books and dangling wands.
Each trembled at evening’s monotony –
No dreams, no fictions, no fabled countries
Of ocean, no acres of Danish canvas
Mistaken for palls. Together they lazed
Along the margin of the sea’s syntax
In hopeless tableaux: he, speech’s figure
Without effect; she, a mixed metaphor
In moonlight’s harsh bath salts. The monkey
Clung to his branch, his baby face awash
With pallid salt-bleach as he gazed upward.
The light was milk and splashed the mermaid’s scales;
Her hands slid across her continuum
Of fish and flesh. She hummed the fragments of
A shanty-tune; he darned his canvas thoughts
To windy deeds. Together, a story,
They asked each night the compassed horizon
To tell them how stylus, tablet and glass
Would plot out their parts in formaldehyde.
The indolent ocean in careless reply
Renewed their heartbreak with every shipwreck.


  1. Southern Expat says

    Really quite good. (Why formaldehyde? asked the person who doesn’t know how to read poetry.)

    Also, I hear that Planet of the Apes movie is not as terrible as one would think.

  2. Jonathan Webb says

    You had us at the graphic and the poem is piquant. Thanks.

  3. A lovely poem, though i don’t understand it. And one or two phrases don’t fit: ‘her reality was too pure’ and ‘mixed metaphor’. And perhaps ‘harsh bath salts’!

    • SEP,

      The poem is an oblique portrait of the Fiji Mermaid. Formaldahyde seemed a likely word to creep into it.


    • Churchill,

      Funny you should say that. These are the nuggets that the whole poem turns on (at least the first two) – our mermaid shares in the pure reality of the unicorn, Zeus, the sunlight outside Plato’s cave, the “fictions of the mind” which Wallace Stevens is always going on about.

      As for “mixed metaphor” – I would think that was a perfect way to describe a mermaid. Or maybe I’m just not that funny.

      And “harsh bath salts” you can take or leave, but I’m sticking by it like a man who’s in love.


      • Churchill,

        I can’t convince a person to like brussel sprouts, but I can at least point out that the greater reality of the bath salts lies in the fact that they belong to the light of the moon. I thought about moon light on water and for some reason a cake of bathsalts dissolving came to mind.

        Well, glad you liked it, anyway.


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