Amphibian and other poems- Cheryl Caesar


Post-MS, my legs are clumsy,
half-numb. Dumb to earth’s
unevenness, I stumble to the shore.
Half-in the water is hardest. Currents pull,
seaweed sways, leads me this way and that.
I trudge through unseen mud.
But then the feet lift, turn to fins.
My movements grow smooth. Cool fingers
of water stroke my limbs.
Now all is calm. Swallows swoop;
dragonflies hover. I’m a slow-moving head,
no threat. Fish pass oblivious.
Coming out, my legs have forgotten
to be legs. Thigh muscles cry weakness. I stay
horizontal almost to the shore.
When I stand, my knees tremble. Birds take flight.
Bent over, I wait to regain
my vertical life. And I wonder
what the whales thought, returning to water.
Abandoning legs, letting paws
revert to fins. Did they weigh
what they were losing? Irredentists,
what was the call they heard that brought them home?

Author’s note on “irredentists”: For this metaphor I am indebted to John Noble Wilford, and his delightful New York Times article, “How the Whale Lost Its Legs And Returned To the Sea” (May 3, 1994).


It’s a supervised visitation,
a controlled contact.

— Two fingers only, in the center of the back!
— Put your whole hand in the water, and wait!
calls the zookeeper.

The rays flow past in their elegant capes.
Their eyes are dark and recessed, 
spiracles for brows.
We can’t read their faces.

Now and then they rise to the surface,
arching against my hand. It feels
like petting a cat and also
like preparing sole filets. After the first time,
I never ate fish again.

Water seems kinder than wind.
With cartilage for bone, the rays are
more graceful than birds, and more distant.

I emerge into bright sunlight, 
turn from the Mississippi up Canal Street.

— Foo’ massa’, twel’ dolla’!
call the shopkeepers.
End consonants fall away; their words are soft and liquid.
They pull me into their touchpool.

The guidelines are set for controlled contact.
Sitting or lying? Water or lotion?
I think of Yeats’s “ceremony of innocence.” 
By such rules, strangers may touch one another.

I lie back. The stroker becomes the stroked.
Under the waves of benevolent pressure, I relax 
until the street noises blend into a bath of sound
where I may safely swim.

To my husband on his retirement
Do you remember the Rotor, my dear?
The Rotor at Cedar Point?
Fifteen strangers in t-shirts and sneakers
evenly spaced around the perimeter
of that iron-grey Twilight Zone cylinder.
Then it began to spin.
The carny barking, obscure as a subway
announcement. Accordion music. And we,
stranded starfish, were flattened
like the accordion bellows, and pulled
into the wall’s greedy embrace. 
And then the floor dropped.
We screamed, but had no choice but to trust
the walls for floor, the centripetal force,
gravity gone sideways. For the length
of one carousel song, it was all we had.
Changes are spinning you now, my starfish.
Your work life has fallen away.
Take my hand; trust to the walls that we have,
the cat-feeding, lawn-mowing round.
Wait out the muffled words and the song.
A floor will rise to your feet, I promise:
untried, untrodden, your own.

Cheryl Caesar like to escape to the Michigan lakes


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