The Barnacle Tide of Steller’s Sea Cows

by Orchid Tierney

Sea: possibly cognate with gisig (Old High German), suggesting ponds, suggesting marshes, and sigan, suggesting to sink, suggesting to flow down, suggesting Hurricane Dorian sea-swept three sea cows into the sea-water. Sea cows did not sea-sink, were sea-framing and sea-loving, were sea-gentle. They understood their sea-bodies in relation to sea-salt and seawater. Became sea-marsh. Sea-shouldering, their taut sea-tails were sea-svelte. Sea-ensuing sea-shot with sea-brown and sea-white, their coarse sea-smiling sea-hides were sea-fed. Sea-lulled sea-bodies floated upon the sea-thick sea-air of the sea-hurricane. They were sea-light in the sea-swift seawater, were sea-artists, sea-kind sea-buds, unlike sea-corpses and sea-horses for they were sea-filled with sea-filth of sea-distemper, shared sea-fever with the sea-mad seagulls. Sea-soft sea-eyes sea-encrusted with sea-dregs and sea-dust. Sea-dirt sea-hardened in the sea-skins of sea-mouths. They sailed under sea-fire. Sailed like velella, sea-rode the sea-mountains, their sea-legs named the sea-that-fold with sea-cold sea-feces. They sea-sensed themselves sea-rosy like seasoned sea-shrubs and sea-urchins. Sea-licked the sea-surface with their sea-tongues until they beached upon Cedar Island like sea-shillings, overwhelmed with sea-awe of sea-land. They relearned the memory of motion.

The sea-sweet sea-cows were sea-slick with sea-sleeves and sea-snapples. Once, a sea-strawberry, sea-sparrow and sea-sucker, only the slat of land swotted the sea-cows with sea-sickness. The seaboard un-sea-ed the sea-cows on sandy landcape. Dripping with sea-lentils on their land-hinds, the land-cows land-grazed over land-waves like land-beetles and land-bugs. Land-boarded by land-dunes, they were land-born. Land-cast by the land’s sun salt. Land-cows land-made land-claims to the land-club of other land-dwellers and land-tussock, but the sea-memory hollowed out land-fever. The land-wash land-lapped over their land-water land-hooves. These land-cows were landfyrd, without land-hunger even as they seaduced their tender land-legs. On the small land-mead, they land-lacked land-sickness and land-speech. Sealess with sea-speech. They savoured their new species.


Orchid Tierney is an Aotearoa-New Zealand poet and scholar, currently living in Gambier, Ohio where she teaches at Kenyon College. She is the author of a year of misreading the wildcats (Operating System, 2019) and Earsay (TrollThread 2016), and chapbooks ocean plastic (BlazeVOX 2019), blue doors (Belladonna* Press), Gallipoli Diaries (GaussPDF 2017), the world in small parts (Dancing Girl Press, 2012), and Brachiaction (Gumtree, 2012). Other poems, reviews, and scholarship have appeared in Jacket2, Journal of Modern Literature, and Western Humanities Review, among others. She is a consulting editor for the Kenyon Review.


This poem previously appeared in Empty Mirror.

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