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Featured Poem II • March 2017

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The Warm Past

 

Sonya Taaffe

 
 

in memoriam Ely Kish, 1924–2014


 

Under the taut-winged shadows of pterosaurs eclipsing their rookeries from the balmy sun, my niece plays in the shallows of the seaway, the smallest ammonites fleeing the splash of her hand. Plesiosaurs slip swan necks from the water, mosasaurs dive with pearl-whorled prey in their teeth. We doze on the shore of an endless summer between meteors, volcanoes, glaciation. Out past Jurassic reefs of horn-ringed rudists rise the great corals and sponges of the Permian, their silt tracked by sea stars and trilobites, armored fishes patrolling their opulent salt. Crinoids bloom and sway on Carboniferous seafloors. The deep currents of the Devonian surge with jaws and fins. From the scorpion-jointed Silurian through the Ordovician’s spike-straight shells, time falls farther than the gleam of sun under sea, illuminates Opabinia and Anomalocaris, the enigmas of the Ediacaran, stacks and tidepools of stromatolites encrusting the Archaean sea. The world and its waters dream under a sky as strong as a postcard while far out the painter stands with her pencils and her brushes and her whitening windblown hair, a ghost in a seascape of echoes smelling salt from a million years.

 

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Sonya Taaffe’s short fiction and poetry can be found most recently in the collection Ghost Signs (Aqueduct Press) and in the anthologies Heiresses of Russ 2016: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction, The Museum of All Things Awesome and That Go Boom, and An Alphabet of Embers: An Anthology of Unclassifiables. She lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats and once named a Kuiper belt object.

About the origins of “The Warm Past,” she wrote, “One devastating night in the spring of 2015, I learned within the same half-hour that my all-time favorite Smithsonian exhibit, ‘Life in the Ancient Seas,’ had closed two years previously and that the painter of its showstopping murals, Ely Kish, had died the year after that. I had recently taken my niece to the Boston Museum of Science, where she was indifferent to the life-size Tyrannosaurus rex but loved the model Pteranodon, suspended against a painted Cretaceous sky. I liked the title of a pair of fossil coral earrings by Elise Matthesen. This poem was the immediate result. To all those ancient oceans, to deep time, to science. To the people who brought those vanished seas alive for me when I was my niece’s age, watching a skeleton of stone swim against its painted shadow on the wall.”

 

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