In Their Own Words

Tomás Q. Morín on “I Sing the Body Aquatic”

Tomás Morín author photo

I Sing the Body Aquatic

When I offer my sweaty hand in greeting
I can see the future. No matter
how gently you squeeze, I know
when our hands meet you will crowd
my crooked index and pinkie fingers
against their straight-as-an-arrow brothers
so that my hand looks more like a fin
than an appendage perfectly evolved
for tying shoelaces or wiping a tear
from the red face of the missionary
who rode his bicycle under the sun
all day to reach my porch.
When he takes my hand he won’t find hope
or brotherhood or whatever
he’s looking for. Because I can see
the future at times like this
and because I have an unshakable faith
in the law of averages, I know
when our hands embrace he’ll find
proof of natural selection
in the shape of my fingers, evolutionary
holdovers from an ear of gills
when the earth was all aquarium
and some distant relative with sleep eyes
and splayed fins who tired of being mocked
by handsome carp said, To hell with it
and climbed out of the sea and across
moonlit dunes toward a sandy life.
In that moment he couldn’t have predicted
300 million years later one of his
descendants having long since grown legs
would be belly down on a beach
before an ocean that would carry him
and his own to the land of Montezuma
to roast in the sun for four centuries
where their conversion into dry Catholics
would be so perfect you would never guess
I can’t swim to save my life
or anyone else’s or that the sound of a wave
pounding a rock makes me nostalgic.
You would never know any of this
until we met on the street
or you knocked on my door and embraced
my hand and felt Galilee on my palm,
which you might mistake for nervousness
unless you were familiar with the embarrassment
of having the only wet fins at a party
because somewhere in your family there was a pike
or two hailing from one of the lost schools
that under pain of death swam
far from the Atlantic or Mediterranean,
around both of which I hear shame
and fear are still the coins of the realm.

“I Sing the Body Aquatic” by Tomás Q. Morín from Machete. Copyright © 2021 by Tomás Q. Morín. Reprinted with permission of the author and by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

On "I Sing the Body Aquatic"

Etheridge Knight’s “The Idea of Ancestry” has been a touchstone for me ever since I read it as a graduate student. As Knight does in his poem, I am trying to expand what family means to me. For a long time I felt embarrassed by my sweaty palms. Being diagnosed with acute hyperhidrosis didn’t make me feel any better, until I learned that it was hereditary. As I stared at my hand and its two curved fingers, which had also been a source of embarrassment to me, I wondered which of my ancestors must have first had wet hands like my own. How could the answer have not been a fish! At that point, Whitman’s ode “I Sing the Body Electric” merged with Knight and the poem was off and running to redefine, and celebrate, my family tree in ways that surprised me and still make me laugh.

Author photo by Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon

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