Here lies the water; good:

Ship-wrecked, a whale sinks
with its giant heart a man could nestle
inside, heart he could hear a mile off

slump     slump              slump                        slump

Burial by the sea’s deepest obscurity
where pressure and cold conspire
to preserve position and flesh, for a time.

One eye socket forever angled
up toward the gone light:
corpse become whale fall.

But thou wouldst not think how ill all’s here about my heart

Your corpse examined, opened, your heart weighed and found too heavy.

[I am a fool: I read the autopsy report.

Numbers for proof: your lover’s spleen / unremarkable / liver / unremarkable / skin / unremarkable / genitals / unremarkable / brain / unremarkable / but oh the giant heart

I begged—I begged!—them to send this to me.

I wanted evidence. Like Hamlet, I wanted a text to catch the culprit out.]

Later, an embalming machine replaces your blood with formaldehyde.

So your corpse will not turn green and gray, so it will flush and plump, so it will be a bearable body—one that will not decompose.

You must sing a-down a-down, an you call him a-down-a

In the abyss, decomposition
is sweet subsistence.

But you should know
whales mourn their dead

whose falling particles
slow mouths wait to harvest.


whose phrase of sorrow conjures the wandering stars

We his mourners cannot shape our mouths around certain offices for the dead; we cannot name who cuts and washes and embalms and dresses the body—

[the body once dressed by the mother,
                  once undressed by the lover]

—where did we learn this terrible decorum?

Light passes over the walls of the room meant for viewing; impossible to tell that it belongs to spring. We his mourners tumble through the wake, our orbits erratic around emptiness.

Hamlet names himself—a name he shares with a dead man—when he leaps into his lover’s empty grave, spitting and raging fresh grief.

Without leaping, how to unbury one’s name from a world hollowed out by death?

you would pluck out the heart of my mystery

Humans couldn’t name abyssal whalefalls
until a few years before you were born,
when a skeleton found their lights.

Any creature that watches the whale’s fall
must make its own glow
or its eyes must be enormous,

evolved to seek bioluminescence,
to soak up the faintest morsels
of blue light the water cannot absorb.

but I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him i’ the cold ground

Your eyes were aquamarine blue.

This is true, but still I checked old photos of you—my memory is a sponge. I’m afraid I’ll wring it dry.

For instance, I’ve lost the flowers on the casket—maybe roses, maybe white.

The casket I remember wrongly as cool chrome pink, like viscera reflected in a white-gold wedding band, like rage diluted in salt water.

          [Your casket was not pink.
But I can’t name its color, or what it was made from,
  or what part of the earth humans ripped open
      to extract its materials.]

At first, the bereaved are humored: I’m sure the funeral-goers in all kindness would have agreed with me that the casket was pink, just as Polonius agrees with Hamlet—despite the fact that night has fallen over Elsinore—that yes indeed, that cloud is very like a whale.

This period of indulgence doesn’t last long, for the mourner’s own good.

such bitter business as the day would quake to look on

For our own good, we should invest in whales,
the economists say, we should allow their bodies
to live and die as they did before human industry.

Along migration routes, centuries of whale falls
should lavish the seafloor with rich sediments,
a forest floor of necropolitan nurseries—

but: hoop skirts, lamp oil, perfume, hat brims, umbrella ribs
(Not pictured: blanket piece to horse piece to Bible leaf)

but: candles, corsets, buggy whips, machine grease, animal feed
(Not pictured: petrel plunging into offal)

but: typewriter ribbons
(Not pictured: flensed carcass shoved from Soviet trawler)

but: the lighthouse
(Not pictured: the flurry, the red blow)

but still: entanglements, poisons, depredation,
sonar tests, acoustic bleaching, ship strikes,
thrashing at the surface—

The economists run the numbers.
A whale fall sequesters as much carbon
as thousands of trees.


How long will a man lie i’ the earth ere he rot?

At first I tried to sequester the state of the body
                                                                                          [I mean: your body, treacherous shallows]

and when it surfaced, I tried to drown instead.

                                                                            [Have you ever wondered why Gertrude describes
                                                                                                 Ophelia’s last hours in exquisite detail?
How unwitting our witnesses, we wrecked ones.]

A raft for the bereft:
the name of the dead
in the mouth of a friend.

A decade—more—gone, when I think of your body as it is now, I imagine what might have grown from your grave if the earth had taken into its depths your unembalmed body.

From your flesh I’d grow a garden,
I’d make a forest of your bones.

Or an orchard.
Start with plums:
soursweet glossy
stones to throw at the living.


And will he not come again? And will he not come again?

For decades, the living come
calling on the dead: famished

sleeper sharks, lobsters, giant isopods
with mouths full of heart.

Hagfish eat from the inside out,
worms bore toward marrow

and bacterial mats foam
over lost fins, lost jaws,

even the vestigial pelvis
and femurs for withered legs.

From this banquet of flesh and bone,
cold feast for many hungers,

a reef will rise, given time.

Not where he eats, but where he is eaten.

For a time, to the grieving hunger seems like the grossest obscenity, eating a flagrant betrayal of the dead.

Hamlet—mourning Hamlet, killer, maker of mourners: We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots.

To feed is to be unfaithful to grief. Starving seems preferable.

And then—possibly when the impatient unmarooned are beginning to think or say it’s time to move on / get over it / can’t she think about anyone but herself?—surrendering to the hunger, the thirst

for food, drink, touch, oblivion:
this is a way to punish the flesh that still loves,

                                                                                                                          [I meant to write lives.]

to admit its ugly need.
Shame like salt poured into a ragged cavity.

What is the name for this feeling?

Say in some good future the whales return, say enough become whale falls, say the planet is habitable. Say my son chooses to have a child or children. Given generations, would my descendant someday in uncomplicated hunger bite into a plum, break its sour skin for the gold beneath—and take into their body a molecule salvaged from time, depths, species, a molecule that once was part of you?

And I the matter will re-word; which madness would gambol from.

As generations salvage the whale’s body
the mourner learns new ways to disintegrate.

Grieve long enough and you recognize
who else is surviving on the flotsam
from a dead life, their strategies:

Claudius bargaining, Gertrude in denial,
depressed Hamlet and furious Laertes,
and Ophelia all-accepting—

only to accept the unbearable is madness.
He is dead and gone, she sings.
She names the unbearable.

She comes to the water.

when they ask you what it means, say you this

I came out from under the water knowing
what I can swallow,
what of sorrow
needs to drown.

To grieve is to live abyssally
under immense pressure
in soundless darkness
lungs deflated

and then to wake one night
in a city lit by faint blue stars
someone asking for your name
someone asking where you’ve been.


I named my son after Hamlet’s friend,
a good-hearted man beloved
by mourners, steady in the deep.

You will say—

                                          I know.

Yes, death will make Horatio
a mourner too

and yet

he is the one who lives
long enough to tell.

                                                                                                              [He lives because you died.]

His eyes, like his father’s, are brown:
the color of earth opened in spring.

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange

Whales are not the only ones opened,
stripped and remade on the seafloor,
not the only ones who fall.

(Jelly falls
shark falls
ray falls
kelp falls)

In my dreams, the wake:

An empty room, windowed.

Everyone still watching.

The dust drifts down
from distant watery stars,

settles, rises again.

Count every particle.
Taste their blue hearts.

Now give them names.

Remember: shipwrecks
also fall.


All section titles are drawn from Hamlet, though I have made some changes to punctuation and lineation.

Carolyn Oliver is the author of Inside the Storm I Want to Touch the Tremble (University of Utah Press, forthcoming 2022), selected by Matthew Olzmann for the Agha Shahid Ali Prize. Carolyn’s poems appear in The Massachusetts Review, Indiana Review, Cincinnati Review, Radar Poetry, Shenandoah, Beloit Poetry Journal, 32 Poems, Southern Indiana Review, Cherry Tree, Plume, DIALOGIST, and elsewhere. Carolyn is the winner of the E. E. Cummings Prize from the NEPC, the Goldstein Prize from Michigan Quarterly Review, and the Writer’s Block Prize in Poetry. She lives in Massachusetts with her family.


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