Rebecca Foust was a finalist in the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2009. Her poem “The Cormorant” was featured in issue 294.2.
Satan “flew, and on the Tree of Life . . . sat like a Cormorant;”
—Paradise Lost, Book IV, ll.194-96
The four-chambered heart and wings
somehow transcend his reptilian brain
and come with dusty black feathers
that fray the frock coat of this dour,
penurious parson. An oddly dense
puddle of shadow inking the float,
he does not give deign even one glance
in our direction. We dog-paddle close,
but he waits until we touch wood
to unfold awkward, creaking wing,
splash down on water, upend, dive
and sleek as a snake disappear,
no ripple or wake. We climb up, cold
and late. The sun in decline has turned
the lake red; it’s already starting to burn.
From the author: I wrote this poem when, during a re-read of Paradise Lost, I was struck by the detail mentioned in the epigraph: on his first trip to earth, Satan came not in the form of a serpent but in the form of a cormorant. Cormorants are shore birds, dark-feathered, and sizable, weighing upwards of 11 pounds and with wingspans as wide as 39 inches. All species are fish-eaters, catching their prey by diving from the surface, sometimes as deep as 100 feet.
The events recounted in the poem occurred in the summer of 2008 when I was staying in outer Cape Cod with my family. My husband and I somehow managed to get away by ourselves for a late afternoon swim and decided to go to Slough Pond, a tiny, pristine kettle pond whose location is a closely guarded local secret. To get there, we wound through thick woods on a single-lane sand road, ending at a clearing just big enough to park our car, then picked our way down a narrow foot trail. It was a perfect Mary Oliver kind of cape afternoon, with the smooth surface of the pond inked slightly more indigo than the sky, and a few wild azaleas blooming at the water’s edge. We’d gotten a late start, and when we arrived the shadows were already long on the water, the light beginning to slant. We’re strong swimmers, and so we planned to swim all the way across the pond and back, resting on an old wooden float moored about halfway. We noticed a cormorant there perched on the float, spreading its wings out to dry, and I remember thinking that it looked like a dark blot on or tear in the otherwise bucolic canvas of water and sky.
I may have been musing over the name of the pond as I started out across its cool surface, thinking about how some people pronounce “Slough” to rhyme with “cow” and others to rhyme with “cue.” I may also have been thinking about the “Slough of Despond” in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The sky was completely clear when we entered the water but then dark clouds blew in, turning the pond gray and chopping up its surface. The waves made it hard going, and we wanted to rest on the float before swimming back. We expected the cormorant to fly away but it remained, implacable, and looming larger and larger as we approached. It looked, as I said, like a blot on the day, and I felt some kind of deep, old fear. Utterly unperturbed, the bird waited until we actually touched the float before taking off—huge and black and suspended on air for a second before diving and submerging. As it disappeared, I saw the dark, sinuous form eeling away under the surface, and it may have been then that I thought about how much the bird resembled a snake. While we sat on the float catching our breath, the storm blew over and the sun came back out to descend with fiery radiance, turning sky and pond red and orange as any ember. It had completely set by the time we swam back to the bank and emerged, chilled.
A few months later I came across that reference in Paradise Lost and remembering the day at Slough Pond, thought about how birds and reptiles share a common ancestral root and have similar physiologies with feathers and beaks perhaps being modified scales. That got the poem started. I must have been reading one of Lemony Snicket’s books in the Unfortunate Events series to my kids that fall, because it occurred to me that the while drying its wings, the bird looked a lot like the Baudelaire children’s evil uncle (Count Olaf), envisioned by me as “a dour penurious parson.” I thought about how the bird didn’t move until we touched the float, and about how that could be expressed as “touch wood,” a superstitious ritual with roots in touching a relic of the true cross. And I loved the connections between the cormorant and the snake, not just what I’d observed, but also their sharing a common evolutionary ancestor, and both being forms assumed by Satan while on his mission to bring about Eden’s fall. I wanted the poem to convey what I felt that day, a horrified realization that evil can show up in the middle of any ordinary beauty and that even when you cannot see it, it is still there, a reminder that what looks like Eden is not really Eden at all. The reference to the fiery lake in the poem’s last line is straight from Paradise Lost.
This poem, in pretty much the same form you see here, was reviewed in a workshop during the second semester residency of my MFA program at Warren Wilson. In what would be my first experience of the “herd mentality” that can mar such workshops, the teacher pretty much advised me to scrap the poem and start over, with the others sitting around the table chiming in their agreement or saying nothing at all. I did not scrap the poem, and my belief in it was validated later when the editors at the North American Review notified me that it was a finalist for the James Hearst Prize. It was my first sonnet attempt and is among the first dozen or so poems I ever published, but “The Cormorant” remains important to me because it was what taught me not to take writing workshop pronouncements as gospel and to trust my instincts about my own work.
Rebecca Foust was the 2014 Dartmouth Poet in Residence and is the recipient of fellowships from the Frost Place and the MacDowell Colony. Her fifth book, Paradise Drive, won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and will be released in April. About its linked narrative, Thomas Lux says “There is great music in these poems, and sonnet after sonnet is masterful. Not since Berryman’s Henry have I been so engaged by a persona.” You can order Paradise Drive by visiting http://www.press53.com and clicking through to Foust’s author page.
FYI: Since 2007, Foust’s poem’s have appeared in 7 issues of the North American Review. She won second place for the James Hearst Poetry Prize in 2012, and was also a James Hearst Poetry Prize Finalist in 2013. Rebecca’s poem, “Prayer for my New Daughter” is featured in issue 300.1, Winter 2015.
Top Illustration (Sneak Preview) by Anthony Tremmaglia, an Ottawa-based illustrator, artist, and educator. His clients include WIRED, Scientific American, Smart Money, HOW, and San Francisco Weekly. Anthony is featured in issues 299.1, Winter 2014 & 299.4, Fall 2014 and his most recent work (featured above) in upcoming 300.2, Spring 2015. Find more of Anthony’s work at http://www.tremmaglia.ca/
Second & Third Images: Courtesy of WikiMedia Commons