Shellsby Craig Arnold
Winner of the 1998 Yale Series of Younger Poets competition, Craig Arnold's Shells was acclaimed as "a gifted collection of daring writing" by the contest judge, the distinguished poet W. S. Merwin. The book is an intriguing set of variations on the theme of identity. Arnold plays on the idea of the shell as both the dazzling surface of the self and a hard case that protects the self against the assaults of the world. His poems narrate amatory and culinary misadventures. "Friendships based on food," Arnold writes, "are rarely stable"--this book is full of wildly unstable and bewitching friendships and other significant relations.
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A drifter, or a permanent house-guest,
he scrabbles through the stones, and can even scale
the flaked palm-bark, towing along his latest
lodging, a cast-off periwinkle shell.
Isn't he weighed down? Does his house not pinch?
The sea urchin, a distant relative,
must haul his spiny armor each slow inch
by tooth onlysometimes, it's best to live
nowhere, and yet be anywhere at home.
That's the riddle of his weird housekeeping
does he remember how he wears each welcome
out in its turn, and turns himself out creeping
unbodied through the sand, grinding and rude,
and does he feel a kind of gratitude?
The Power Grip
Out of the blue he calls, to report our mutual friend
has just dumped her lover of seven years,
and why? Because he hit her. More than once? She says
it's gone on since they started going out.
She never breathed a word ... Maybe she was afraid
of what we'd think. Maybe she thought he'd stop.
Me, I suspect the worst of everyoneI bet
the sex was great. I bet he gave good head.
This should make me upset, I know, but the receiver
is warm and round and is an exactfit
to my ear, the voice that fills itso easy to get used
to the liberties he takes, the indiscretion
of age, skill, seasoning. Men don't talk enough
about fucking, he told me once, and leaned
closer across our table in the bar's dark corner,
the tip of his middle finger wet, tracing
obscure designs in a pool of spilled beer. Think
of the slack we 'd pick up if we just sat down,
knocked back a few drinks and compared notes. His notes
were by far the more exhaustive; he did all
the talking, the connoisseur's attachment to the part
spare of the wholethe way bodies may be
compounded, spread out and open, made explicit,
to grow loose, to spasm, the joints mapped,
the soft parts, their degrees of sympathyputting
fresh drinks into my hand, keeping up
the low murmur, seamless, fluid as Latin Mass,
its litany go down on hergo down
on her againpractice, in case of emergency,
the Power Grip. The what? He held his hands
to his face, index and little fingers thrust up, pressed
togetherthis is the church, this is the steeple
thumbs enticingly open. Pinkies tickle the ass,
pointers spread the lips, thumbs for a chin rest ...
and then as now, not knowing what or if to say,
struck dumb, made all into one open ear.
Someday I'll get a call, some time after the fact,a relative, a friend-perhaps the woman
whose last bruises are fading as we speak, who won't make
the same mistake againbut more likely
someone who knows only my rank in his Rolodex:
He passed away last week. When I ask how,
a silence, long enough to suggest in what poor taste
the question is. Not knowing is worse
than what I can imagine: he died of eating raw
mussels, the ones he freely harvested
from the black rocks on the cleaner stretch of coast
upcurrent from the harbor. He'd been warned
again and againby beachcombers, by stray marine
biologists, by the diehard fishermen
whose poles he found wedged between the larger pebbles
been lectured on dioxin and red tide,
been sick two times already, the second nearly died.
Perhaps, instead, tipping a scrubbed clipped shell
between his lips, he breathed the wrong way, stifled
on fringed orange flesh. I watched him once
lie belly-down on the steep pitch of a boulder, boots
locked between the rocks, freeing his arms
to plunge, now to the elbow, now up to the shoulder
in a tide-pool, where he knew mussels grew
thickest, their fractal clusters dark as new bruises,
shells liable to chip, and once chipped
their insides quick to rota blunt butter knife
in his right hand, the left sounding blind
under the surface, contours of curve, crevice, valve
Perhaps he slipped in headlong, struck rock,
was dragged out of the brine too late, or not at all,
his body left to slowly evanesce,
the blueprint for bouillabaisse, never trusted to paper
in twenty generations, the thin layer
of man between the brain that held it, the salt broth
that stocked it, now dissolved. All that remains
is the Power Grip, a secret handshake, the device
of an old cult, a rite not softened
by long use, by cultivation, a sacrament
of which I've now been made receptacle.
For a cook
What I remember most is what he did to the couple
who sent his best pasta back to the kitchen,
pronouncing it "too thin." Capers and kalamata
olives tossed with squid-ink angelhair
salty, he used to say, as sweat on a black man's cock.
He said this often, not only to shock:
food should be made with love, and love to him was sweat,
saliva, tears. What do they want from me?
he muttered, adding an egg, more Parmesan, a pint
of heavy cream, and tossed it all together,
the straw-yellow sauce stringy with albumen,
thickened with semen as an afterthought.
Now he is dead. I write the recipe of all
of him that's still out there in circulation:
tips of fingers and knuckles, pared away to scars
by the big knives, carelessly julienned
together with the root vegetables, the stray chips
of thumbnail, here and there a curled black hair,
spit hissing in a skillet, a drop of blood in the sauce,
the oil of his hand glazing the dough.
Easy at first to think they're all alike.
But in the time it takes your brush to scour
away the cement their beards secrete to stick
to the rock, to one another, you find the lure
of intimacy a temptation. Palm
cupping each shell, you learn a history
from what you scrape offlimpets, worm-
castings, their own brown crustthe company
they've kept, how many neighbors, on the fringes
or in the thick. This patriarchal shell
suffered a near-mortal crackhinges
skewed by a scab, its valves will never seal
perfectly, ever. This one lost a chip
of its carapacethe nacre gleams, steel plate
in a war veteran's skull. Here is a couple
tangled by their beardsbut do they mate?
You can't remember how they reproduce.
Now and then you'll find one open, startle,
fling it asideyour fingers come too close
to what you hoped would stay hidden, the veil
lining the shell, flushed pink, not orange,
no, not yet. Once they are cleaned, and more
or less alike, they're ready to arrange
in the skillet, large enough for a single layer,
with chopped onions and garlic, maybe a pinch
of tarragonno salt, they will provide
the salt themselvesbutter, a half-inch
or so of dry white wine. Replace the lid,
turn on and light the gas. Make sure the match
is thoroughly stubbed out. If you've been tempted
at any point to see in them an image
of yourself, you must make sure your mind is emptied
of all such madness. Mussels cannot mind
the slowly warming pan, the steam, or feel
real pain, which requires sympathy, a kind
of tenderness. The worst, most capable
monsters admit a feeling for the flesh
they brutalizethe inquisitors who cry
with the heretic they rack for a confession,
the kind cop who stops the third degree
to offer coffee, a smoke, the death camp
doctor who celebrates a patient's birthday,
slips him an extra piece of breadall sympathetic
men. Think how delicious they
will be, the shells relaxing, giving up their humble
secrets, their self-possession. Your demands
are not so cruel. Don't follow their example.
Slice the lemon. Make sure to wash your hands.
Baffling flower, barely edible
camouflaged in a GI's olive drab
out loud you wonder
Who's it trying to fool?
It is a nymph that some god tries to grab
and have his way with, I explain. She scorns
his lust, and when he sees he's met his match,
he turns her into a flower, covered with thorns
to keep her other lovers out of reach.
You say You made that up. You say That's sick.
You say The things men think of are so cruel.
Under the bamboo steamer there's a slick
of emerald-green water. I watch you pull
the petals off, each with a warm knot
of paler flesh left hanging at the root.
A "loves me, loves me not" sort of endeavor,
I say, but you don't laugh. It hasn't been
so long since liking me for being clever
stopped being enough for you. Sly pangolin,
endearingly nearsighted, belly rolled
up in a spiky ballthat's how I keep
my wits about me. I notice how you've polled
the petal-points an inch, how you scrape
each leaf with your incisors, the two
small grooves they leave. It makes me sick to watch.
You're awfully quiet today. What's wrong with you?
I want to tell you what ... but there's a catch,
deep in my throat, that stops me, makes me choke
the words back, crack another pointless joke.
The recipe is written in your voice:
Sauté the rice to the color of a pearl
in oil flavored with pepper, cinnamon bark,
bay leaf and cardamom, the small green kind.
Simmer until the spices have all floated
up to the topif you want to, pick them out.
Just before it's done, stir in the saffron
crumbled and soaked in milk. Such frail red threads,
odd how they bleed so yellow, so contrary
to what a purple flower's genitals
should look like. It was in a dirt-poor dive
somewhere in Spain that I had my first taste
of paellahow anything could cost
so much, I couldn't bring myself to believe
until you brought me out into the fields,
the ragged sweeps of autumn crocuses.
Not like the ones I've seen breaking the frost,
clumps of three or four, with the forced cheer
of things made to wake up too early
these were a paler purple, less audacious.
The harvesters were children, mostly girls,
working their way in no special pattern
from bloom to bloom. One of them let me plunge
my hand up to the wrist in what she'd gathered
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