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Ode on Words for Water


I'm sitting next to a doctor at a dinner party
          at Daphne's apartment in Athens,
and I bring up one of my favorite topics,
          which is words that cannot be translated
into another language, and he says what he loves
          about Greek are all the words for water,
like paflasmos, which means the tiny wave
          that laps against the side of a boat
when other boats are moving through the sea nearby
          and alisahni, the dried salt water on the hair
of your arm, and then we go on to other topics,
          but that night I dream about the time
I swam off the coast of Florida with the stars overhead
          and happened into a school of phosphorescence
so that my body was covered with a shimmering light
          as if starlight and moonlight weren't enough
and if it has a name how could I bear to know it
          much less speak it in the world,
no, it's better to stick with words like drizzle,
          splatter
, or drip until, of course, you need
torrent or flood, not to mention hurricane or tsunami,
          which makes me think of the time
when I was a little girl and we had just moved to Hawaii
          and there was a tidal wave alert,
and as we drove toward the mountains, I saw a line of boys
          heading toward the beach with surfboards
balanced on their heads, and some language must have
          a word to describe walking towards a tsunami,
perhaps a Polynesian dialect just as Inuits have
          a word for melted snow, and think of all
the disappearing languages and their words for water,
          the spray of a mountain stream in autumn or
condensation dedicated to the gods of humiliation,
          because when you are surfing and riding
inside the curl, it's called being in the green room,
          and then there are all the words for green,
such as emerald, forest, teal, and turquoise,
          which is seeping into blue, and what is the word
for the shifting blue of the Aegean off Crete where we stop
          and see a bee with a golden bottom and scarlet head
gorge itself on the feather bed of a giant lavender flower,
          sunlight a riot on the surface of the sea?


Barbara Hamby

Gulf Coast

Spring 2017


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