The Cormorant – Sarah Bartlett

“Thence up he flew, and on the Tree of Life, / The middle tree and highest there that grew, / Sat like a cormorant.”

John Milton

The cormorant finds me walking alone
and dives right in
takes over my left ventricle
and changes my blood into salt water
I feel held for the first time
a gentle brining of the tongue
Inside me the cormorant washes itself
My heart an old kitchen
a place for banging and scraps
The beach where I stand a cook
a set of arms for the dead
We can never arrange ourselves
this way and achieve such beauty
These whorls and hollows
are not made by the Internet
They are just made then
left behind like mothers

The cormorant likes things
melancholy and public
its lips arriving triumphantly
on the outside of me
crushed word remnants of
honey and squid drip
It doesn’t care that we are all scared
We are all so scared
I Google “what death feels like” and
“shrimp stir fry” in quick succession
The cormorant creates a new typography
writes about me in my diary
She craves happiness
It’s too easy to break this thing
The branch under me
the granddaughter of the branch under me
No one remembers how we landed here
When it climbs out of me
both of us cry

The wind flings into every orifice
clocking speeds like a rabbit
and fucking and fucking
I’m afraid of losing myself
the cormorant finding a new perch
my body finally broken by release
The beach is full of strangers and dogs
The cormorant preens and hides
and flaps back out like a deer’s tongue
ocean air a salt lick
There are three different kinds of tears
like snowflakes they individuate under glass

When I pray the cormorant answers
God is right here and we are fake safe
our bodies laced into the sand’s patchwork kingdom
the same thing written over and over
with the end of a stick
Our private nomenclature appears on the Internet
with new hashtags and thousands of views
Memory now a permanent instrument
outside the body
I run to make my lungs remember
They are lonely
it’s hard to hold the power cord to language
I let them scream
The cormorant screams
there is no one here to say who is louder

I walk inside other people’s footprints
I shrink my stride to make them fit
put hearts at the end of sentences
like stamps and hit send
I look inside a window
of a shingled cottage behind a dune
interior sweet as a doll’s house
my face in the mirror over the dresser
I put it on the Internet as proof
I’m relieved everyone can see
the real me
The cormorant is so thrilled
it sends a text of the image of the image
of my face to a friend as a reminder
We keep walking
I forget myself
I look at my phone
Sand rearranges its symmetry
waits like the top of a throat
The cormorant is also hungry

Pain is a message
ropes of electric flesh
pulled tight until the face reacts
Under glass things become clearer
breadcrumbs building
toward something true
I blink
The cormorant blinks
we press the hatchet of our body
against the wind
Shells decorate the ground
We write our names in the sand
because the tide is coming in
We gift ourselves folded gently
into its mouth



Sarah Bartlett lives in Seattle, WA. Her recent chapbook, Columbarium, was released in 2019 by dancing girl press. Her poetry collection, Sometimes We Walk With Our Nails Is Out, was released in 2016 by Subito Press. She is the author of two chapbooks, My Only Living Relative, published by Phantom Books in 2015, and Freud Blah Blah Blah, published by Rye House Press in 2014. She is also co-author of two collaborative chapbooks. Recent work has appeared in Eratio, PEN American Poetry Series, Poetry Daily, Lit, Boog City, Alice Blue, and elsewhere.

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