Jellyfish

By Gayle Brandeis

Poem

It was a big year for jellyfish,
La Niña pulling them
like magnets to the shore.
A fresh translucent mass
was heaped every few feet
along the beach—
edges scalloped
like flamenco skirts,
some hemmed
with thready purple—
the poison ones,
we learned from Chris,
who used to have jellyfish fights
with her friends in Massachusetts.
Didn’t they sting you? I asked,
remembering horror stories
of foot stings, leg stings,
vinegar poultices,
but she said no, they knew
which were safe to lob
at each other,
the creatures smacking
against their bodies
in brief wet flashes
like living artificial breasts.

The beached jellyfish
did look like saline implants—
a vast exodus of implants
on the lam from Tinseltown,
panting their freedom
into the great bosom of sand.
I could almost hear chests deflate
up and down the Sunset Strip,
could almost hear
a chorus of nipples
sigh in soft relief
as one buoyant sack
after another slid
out of its mammary cave
and flopped its way back
to the sea.

Later I saw jellyfish
swimming in the harbor,
their flounces
billowing in and out
like valves of a blowsy heart.
Jellyfish have no heart, no gills,
no brain—they are all undulation,
all open mouth. I wanted to scoop
them out of the water,
plaster them over my breasts,
let them harpoon my areolas
with their stinging cells
the way my nursing children
would clamp their jaws
around my nipples
when they first began to teethe—
La Niña, El Niño, returned to me
as babies, their suckling skulls
all fontanel, bells of milky light.

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GAYLE BRANDEIS is the author, most recently, of the novel in poems, Many Restless Concerns: The Victims of Countess Bathory Speak in Chorus (A Testimony) (Black Lawrence Press). Other books include the memoir The Art of Misdiagnosis (Beacon Press), the poetry collection The Selfless Bliss of the Body (Finishing Line Press), the craft book, Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperOne), and the novels The Book of Dead Birds (HarperCollins), which won the Bellwether Prize for Fiction of Social Engagement judged by Barbara Kingsolver, Toni Morrison, and Maxine Hong Kingston, Self Storage (Ballantine), Delta Girls (Ballantine), and My Life with the Lincolns (Henry Holt BYR), which was chosen as a state-wide read in Wisconsin. Her poetry, essays, and short fiction have been widely published in places such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, O (The Oprah Magazine), The Rumpus, Salon, Longreads, and more, and have received numerous honors, including a Barbara Mandigo Kelly Peace Poetry Award, Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2016 and 2019, the QPB/Story Magazine Short Story Award and the 2018 Multi Genre Maverick Writer Award. She teaches at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University Los Angeles.

5 responses to “Jellyfish”

  1. A spectacularly great poem from a spectacularly great writer.

  2. Thanks for being part of TNB, Gayle. It’s been an honor and pleasure to work with you.

  3. Judy Prince says:

    Wild and wonderful, Gayle!

    Welcome to TNB.

  4. Terrific poem. Really terrific.

  5. Such a stunning, visceral poem! Can’t wait to read the collection.

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