Reading the Ancients

By Matthew Tuckner

What Sappho calls 
the desiremind or the couragesoul  
I call the swirling Chesapeake Bay 
of my brain and sure
you could call the tugboat 
trawling through the brackish waters 
desire and yes 
you could call the striped bass 
sourcing speed from the tugboat’s wake 
courage and sure 
you could call the crushed beer can 
scything the surf the mind and yes
the soul looks like a blue crab
when I close my eyes to picture it 
aquamarine claw    olive-green shell
I can’t quite place 
the bird tipping its beak into the bay
to capture an absent worm 
absent because fields 
of eelgrass are emptied daily 
by giant pesticidal blooms 
heaps of dead fish 
falling upwards
towards the surface 
but in placing the bird
a red knot    a piping plover
one could easily mistake it for 
the faculties of the soul 
particularly the appetites
so many Plato doesn’t even bother
to tally them though he does
warn of their penchant for battle
the appetites who are hard to see 
when they stand still 
like the piping plover for whom 
they are often mistaken 
yes I’ve been out combing
the waters for a new bird 
one whose bright rusty throat 
and striped back better represent
those flightier emotions
not even Sappho 
has the words for 
is it the tundra swan 
with ass upended and neck submerged
searching for the eelgrass
that isn’t there 
the tundra swan that birdwatchers 
who don’t know better
call suicidal ideation 
maybe the tawny-throated dotterel
is the one for me 
if I cover my left eye 
and squint my right the bird looks like 
the dysmorphia that keeps me 
out of the view of most mirrors
just look at this dotterel
can’t you see the pointed beak
that just screams 
I want to be your worst best friend
a voice that sings
come breach that little bay
of yours come tie the sky together with
us birds a pointed beak that’s just dying 
to be the Orpheus
to your Eurydice the kind of bird
that wants to kickstart
your katabasis a word
that if I’m reading the Greek correctly
can be widely defined as a descent 
of any kind such as moving downhill 
the sinking of the sun
a military retreat 
clinical depression
a trip to the underworld
or a journey to the coast


 Matthew Tuckner is a writer from New York. He is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at NYU where he is Poetry Editor of Washington Square Review. He is the recipient of a University Prize from the Academy of American Poets and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in 32 Poems, Colorado Review, The Missouri Review, Sixth Finch, Bat City Review, Bennington Review, Image, Poetry Northwest, The Massachusetts Review,  and The Cortland Review, among others.

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