Karen Holmberg

Man O’War

Sunk to the chin in warm
inlet waters, some instinct nudged
and I turned to see the harbinger
of on-shore winds: the man o’ war
lightly cantering over
the tide ripples’ peaks.
Through its skin, puckered
as blown glass, the bright towels, neon
buckets and shovels
warped and bulged,
violet hued:
a world viewed
through the legs streaking
a wine glass.
Even then I sensed
a sexuality, labial and testicular;
silky, sticky, stinging below surface
as the net of nerves and clotted tentacles
sieved the water,
the viscous ropes furred
with millions of hair-trigger harpoons
tattooing their prey with venom lethal
as a cobra’s.
By morning, turgid sacs
in thousands trailed pennants surf-torn,
tumbled to ribbons, eliciting
that particular pity
when the treacherous
goes slack, turns
ludicrous in fact, sand grains
clinging to gelatin
flesh like sugar candying fruit.
And still it would subtly
wince and shrink, tempting me
to pinch the float
between thumb and finger
and fling those welting reins
to the draining wave.
When I was four or five I watched
my grandfather—Head of Lifeguards, still
a muscleman—bend a woman back
in thigh deep water,
his gloved fingers
peeling tentacles that wound
her neck in yards
of rotted silk.
How gently he untangled
that caul, knowing
each fragment he broke off
could generate a new individual,
could arrow forth
into the surf
soft spurts of poison.

Karen Holmberg
“Man O’War” first appeared in Natural Bridge, no. 18, Fall 2007.