Outer Lands

Bill Carty

I'll tell you the story. I was walkingthe outer edge of the outer landswhere sporadic signs staked in duneswarned to keep distant from the mammals;in fact, there were critical acts in placeto enforce nonmolestation,but between me and the sea a sealappeared to be having a time of it,rocked and moaned in a deepening birth,as if trying to summon momentumto roll down the beach toward water.In short, it seemed stuck and — it's never far offin the imagination — dying. I thoughtI should bring sea to the seal. I filleda detergent bottle at the surf and calledthe seal "buddy." "You OK, buddy?"as the tide went this way, then that,with no sense of intention. An hour before,I had encountered a friend on this beach,both of us having walked through our paststo that moment. Now he was goneand I was supposed to be in the mountainsbut the mountains were on fire.From the highway that morningI watched smoke plumes risein each far valley and drove past my exitstraight for the coast, straight intothis story where I gatheredarmloads of kelp, making a damp bedfor the seal. Increasingly, my effortsbore the whiff of not science,but ritual. I consulted the expertsI wasn't too embarrassed to ask.On my phone I found a videoof a seal snared in Ocean Shores,two cops hunched above it, jabbingat tangled fishing lines with utility knivesas the seal lurched, as the cops joltedfrom its teeth. A crowd in sweaters gatheredas the camera narrowed to tattooed flameson a bicep clenched around the seal.Beyond this, straggling clouds from Constableon the horizon, bright light at their edgesreflected in mud. Then one officerwalked toward the SUV, retrieving a club, I feared,though he returned with a stick and wire loop—one for the dogs they don't shoot, presumably.He fastened the catch at the seal's neckand drove its head into sand until the body stilled,suddenly submissive. What looked like chokingwasn't — this time — and the line was cut,and the catch was loosed, and the seal'sarched back bounded for ocean. The algorithmurged me further: a sea otter pup rescuedby blond hero in board shorts; a stranded whalein Weymouth; a lone porpoise foundin a British farmer's field fifty miles fromthe ocean. Here's the thing: I was lookingat the way things had happened in the worldfor evidence of how the world would happen.Which never works. Each day bearssome crucial variance. And I knew this,practically had it written on a coffee mug,but when I was there, and when therewas then, I had to say stop—and let redfill the harbor, and let red wash the shore,and vow never to touch another living thingfor fear of how my being human might kill it.

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Bill Carty is the author of Huge Cloudy (Octopus Books, 2019), which was long-listed for The Believer Book Award, and the chapbook Refugium. He has received poetry fellowships from the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Artist Trust, Hugo House, and Jack Straw, and his poems have appeared recently in jubilat, Denver Quarterly, Kenyon Review, Paperbag, and other journals. Originally from coastal Maine, Bill now lives in Seattle, where he is Senior Editor at Poetry Northwest. He teaches at Hugo House, the UW Robinson Center for Young Scholars, and Edmonds College.

The Kenyon Review Cover

May/June 2021

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