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One Ocean

Sea World, San Antonio, 1989

Oceans away from that village
in Bangladesh, the pond
you once dove into, your body
that lean, that rice-hungry—
Shamu scythes across night
sky! Our applause wild, &
after the show, Father, you are
chosen to feed the resting
whale. You take our hands:
two daughters clasping silver-
scaled fish, reaching forward
into that tooth-jagged hollow
of a mouth. Mother waves—


In November 1983, in the cold, rough waters off Berufjördur, Icelander Helgi Jonasson drew a large purse-seine net around a group of killer whales. Three young animals—two males and a female—were captured and transported to the Hafnarfjördur Marine Zoo, near Reykjavík. The smaller male, who was about two years old and just shy of 11.5 feet, would remain there for almost a year, awaiting transfer to a marine park. In the pool, he could either cruise slowly in circles or lie still on the surface. Finally, in late 1984, the young orca was shipped to Sealand of the Pacific, a marine park just outside Victoria, on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. He was given a name to go with his new life: Tilikum, which means “friend” in Chinook.


Sea World, San Diego, 2011

After the dregs of frozen

           lemonade have been slurped,

after uneaten halves

           of stale sandwiches are tossed,

& after a stuffed Shamu

           is plucked from a bucket of overflowing

identical orcas—bought,

           bagged in bright plastic—& after the last

killer whale glissandoes

           across the Jumbotron, after Brother

falls asleep, bloated belly

           rising & falling across white sheets—Mother

asks, Do you remember that

           old stuffed Shamu you & your sister painted red?


Sealand, Vancouver, 1985

The memory of a memory

           of ocean slanting bright


Tilikum, though the metallic rush

           of filtered water


                                 —I learn how

each scar is the body


                      a story back into itself—

five years old, & I


                      palimpsest—I am & am

not these thin white lines


                                 —Father mends his wide,

white nets beside

           the crib—

                      Sister sleeps—imagine writhing

in that strange webbing—

                      Tilikum shudders from one

           hard, gray corner

to anotherimagine


into water

           more foreign

than water—


                      always for salt—


Nassau Bay, Texas, 1993

Brine-licked, I stagger to where you
curl in Mother’s lap, asleep. Light,

salt-struck. How could I have known
your body would be flung a day later

through the car window? As though
you were the net Father cast across

pondwater—his hands not yet bronzed
in guilt & grief on that steering wheel.

The ocean, long scrolls of hammered tin.
You breathe. The old Suburban

in the end, crumpled metal. I stand over
you, breathing hard: my tongue flicks

out of its child’s mouth, licks saltwater
away from bruised & cracked corners.


Sea World, Orlando, 2010

Threads of gold float in blue water. Instead of waiting for his cue and behaving the

way decades of daily
training in captivity had conditioned him to, on February 24th,

Sea World’s largest orca, Tilikum, did
something unexpected. My hand glides over the

gleaming length of a killer whale, my sister safe beside me. Tilikum took trainer

Michelle Brancheau’s drifting hair into his mouth.
In blue water, threads of gold float

quiet. In West Texas, Father skims leaves from the sky’s chlorinated surface.

Brancheau tried to pull it free, but Tilikum yanked her into the pool.
In blue water,

threads of gold float. The years dissolve. In Bangladesh, I Google “killer whale

texture.” Tilikum closes his mouth. I don’t yet know what I’m trying to find in each

new screen of text. Headline: Whale Experts Say, Reintroduce Tilikum to the Wild.

Father shakes damp, broken stems into a flowerbed. I am still looking for words

synonymous with grief, loss, guilt. Tilikum cuts one black fin through layers of

filtered water & light.


Sea World, San Diego, 2011

I denied we were cut
from the same rough-
hewn fabric, immigrant
father: veins thinned
with waters of the Pabna—
you fell asleep beside
that steel river, dreaming
America. The pale moon
rises on the Jumbotron
above the pixellated
ocean—we gaze from
the third row of the Soak
Zone in Shamu Stadium,
& Brother grins, tugs
at my arm—be kind
to him, this child grown
tall in a house hung with
photos of a sister he will
never know—did I not
cross two oceans to walk
the land you sprang from?
The bones of my wrist
are still this small—


Port of Chittagong, Bangladesh, 1995

From ghost-hungry fog, hulking bodies
of ships emerge. Sit up straight! you command,
& I gather more of myself into the rage

in me that gnaws & gnaws. You press a hand
to your belly inside which Brother grows
& grows—I, too, was once fettered,

as was the sister now buried. Tilikum
splashes rows & rows of shrieking
children with flicks of his black tail.

Mother, what is cut free cannot be
regrown: inside me is a chained, hooded
woman wailing. Inside you, Brother begins

to unfurl. Tilkum unhinges his jaw
for armsful of shimmering fish, glides back
to his square of man-hauled, filtered water.


Sea World, San Diego, 2011

Dive into the exhilaration   (Sister,

two years after we feed the killer

whale)    of the sea in our all-new

(you will die)    Shamu show, One

Ocean. The energy    (Wow! shrieks

the brother born after your death)

& spirit of the ocean envelops you

(we stand drenched, blinking)

in a multi-sensory celebration    (you soar

through the window of a car Father

will never stop driving in guilt)  of life

underneath the sea     (Sister, your wrists

unrelenting, small)    that entertains

as it educates   (you painted Shamu red: gone:

the nail polish, the brush, you)   & inspires.


Cox’s Bazaar Beach, Bangladesh, 1983

Waves erase then restore
me. Father kneels to offer
a cone crimson with chili-
roasted peanuts. His hand is
the anchor binding me
to myself before I let go into all
that ocean. Inside Mother:
indigo waters in which Sister
twirls. The prayers whispered
daily into me are the seams
I will snip free, restitch. I will
disobey & disobey. Tilikum
is not yet a black writhing
in a rough net, not yet a flicking
scarred tail. For now, only our
bodies speak. We glimmer
out of reach. We swim & swim
out onto this glittering dark.  


Tarfia Faizullah is the author of Seam (SIU, 2014), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award. Her poems appear inAmerican Poetry Review, Ploughshares, The Missouri Review, The Southern ReviewMassachusetts Review, Ninth LetterNew England Review,Washington Square, and elsewhere. A Kundiman fellow, she received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University and is the recipient of an AWP Intro Journals Project Award, a Ploughshares Cohen Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, a Copper Nickel Poetry Prize, a Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize, scholarships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and fellowships from the Kenyon Review Writers’ Workshop and Vermont Studio Center. She lives in Detroit where she is a writer-in-residence for InsideOut and co-edits the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press with Jamaal May. In Fall 2014, she will join the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers’ Program as the Nicholas Delbanco Visiting Professor in Poetry.