Poetry Month

Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985

Tor.com is celebrating National Poetry Month by featuring science fiction and fantasy poetry from a variety of SFF authors. You’ll find classic works, hidden gems, and new commissions featured on the site throughout the month. Bookmark the Poetry Month index for easy reading.

On this Saturday we’re featuring a new composition from Catherynne M. Valente, “Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985.”



Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985


Once there was a boy who lived under the sea.
      (Amphibian Man, Aleksey Belyayev 1928)
      (Aquaman, Paul Norris and Mort Weisinger 1941)
Depending on the angle
of light through water
his father, the man in the diving bell, some
Belle Epoque Cousteau with a jaunty mustache,
raised him down in the deep
in the lobster-infested ruins
of old Atlantis
where the old songs still echo like sonar.
He dreamed under Finnish ice
in a steel and windowless experimental habitat
while the sea kept dripping in
of Soviet rockets trailing turquoise
kerosene plumes, up toward Venus,
down toward his sweet, fragile gills
fluttering under the world like a heartbeat.
                 In 1985
I was six,
learning to swim around my father’s boat
in a black, black lake
outside Seattle, where the pine roots
wound down into the black,
black mud.
     The Justice League
had left us. The boy under the sea
     (Ichtiander, 1928)
     (Arthur Curry, 1959)
wore orange scales and his wife didn’t
love him anymore. The orcas who loved him said:
     Hey, man, the eighties are gonna be
     tough for everyone. Do what makes you happy.
     Mars is always invading.
     Eat fish. Dive deep.

Khrushchev took a crystal submarine
down to those iron cupolas
where the boy under the sea wore his
only suit
and made salt tea in a coral samovar
for the Premier
who wanted to talk about his coin collection
and the possibility
of a New Leningrad under the Barents pack ice
by 2002.
                 The truth is,
I loved the Incredible Hulk
with a brighter, purer love.
I, too,
wanted to turn so green
and big
no one could hurt me.
                 I wanted
to get that angry. But when the time came
to bust out
of my Easter dress and roar
I just cried
hoping that the villains I knew
would melt out of shame.
                 The truth is,
I wasn’t worthy of the Hulk.
     But the boy under the sea
     the one with four colors
     and his own animated series
Hey, girl. Being six in 1985 is no fucking joke.
You’ve got your stepmother
with a fist like Black Manta
and good luck getting a job when you’re grown.
Any day now the Russians might
decide to quit messing around
and light up a deathsky for all to see.
     Sometimes I cry, too.

Down in the dark,
a skinny boy from Ukraine looks up
and his wet, silver neck pulses,
gills like mouths opening and closing. He gurgles:
     Did we make it to Venus?
There were supposed to be collectives by now
on Mars and the moon. I would have
liked to see them.
is an experiment, devotchka-amerikanka. To see
if a boy can breathe underwater
and talk to the fish.
If a girl can take all her beatings
and still smile for the camera.
It’s 1985 and I’ve never seen the sun.
     Sometimes I cry, too.

By the nineties,
the boy under the sea
                 (Orin, Robert Loren Fleming 1989)
had wealth and a royal pedigree
a wizard for a father and a mother
with a crown of pearls.
I didn’t even recognize him
with his water-fist and his golden beard.
                 His wife
kept going insane
over and over
like she was stuck in a story
about someone else
and every time she tried to get out
her son died and the narwhals
wouldn’t talk to her anymore.
The revolution came and went.
The records of those metal domes
and rusted bolts
and a boy down there in the cold
got mixed up with a hundred thousand other files
doused in kerosene
pluming up into the stars.
                 That’s okay.
the boy in the black says.
I don’t think the nineties
are going to be a peach either.
We do what we’re here for
and Atlantis is for other men.

                 Once there was a boy under the sea.
I dove down after him
when I was six, fifteen, twenty-six, thirty-two.
Down into the dark,
a small white eel in the cold muck
and into the lake of my father’s boat
I dove down and saw:
                 brown bass hushing by
                 a decade of golf balls
                 the tip of a harpoon
                 rusted over, bleeding algae
and a light like 1985
sinking away from me,
dead sons and lost wives
narwhals and my hands over my head
under my 2nd grade desk
too small and never green enough
to protect anyone.
                 We move apart,
two of us
two of them
one up toward grassy sunlight
and the escape hatch
a narrow, razor-angled way out
of the 20th century.
                 The other
                 distant as a lighthouse,
a lithe blue body flashing through heavy water
heading down, into a private,
lightless place.

Aquaman and the Duality of Self/Other, America, 1985 © Catherynne M. Valente 2012


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