Skiff Hill (and other poems)

Skiff Hill

Scars across this “sharpening rock”
(Nauset people honing tools
and weapons) would seem a glacier’s striations,
if they didn’t run like talon slashes
counter to the grain, didn’t have
the texture of intention
                                         instead of time.
A tourist’s bench, now, with vistas
of the marshes where Champlain took it all
in—wild grape, beach plum and crops
of corn, pumpkin—decades before
the Mayflower (hunting the Hudson) spun
across trench and filigree, the Cape’s
chronic wrist and forearm, shattered
elbow.  In Chatham, his plaque classifies
“…explorer, navigator, mapmaker, journalist,
artist and soldier.” 
                                      Where is the middle
distance of history?
                                      (Is it true
that plates from Vietnam, leftover
metal pads for chopper landing
skids have been sunk vertically
like cultivar blades, integrated patches
in the border wall?)
                                       Nearly a mile
of spartina between voracious surf
and this bluff.  Improbable, that
whoever drew an axe-head down
this slot, stone to fashion stone,
would have mistaken those cones of sumac
berries for cardinals,
                                      tattered meat.

The New Bathymetry

             On the photo, “Children Bathing, 1947”
                   —Charles “Teenie” Harris
Summer relief was different for us:
playing Cousteau in another galaxy,
relinquishing our makeshift grappling
hook (broken rake) when it snagged 
a mooring chain, the brave among us
diving, eyes clamped, kicking
downward to plunge forearm deep 
into muck for who knows what.
At school we’d seen beneath the ocean’s
infinity; filmstrips erased reflection,
filtered murk of fathoms to reveal
the continent’s continuation.  We understood
where we stood was just our slab’s
extension; without water, we could stroll
to basalt basements, the Marianas Trench,
and find what we’d always suspected yet
denied without a way of being
part.  So, what am I searching for
in these faces under a Pittsburg hydrant’s
sidewalk storm?  Why this need
to superimpose my own, or even venture
that they’re studying future selves with a kind 
of enigmatic dignity, imagining other
people pinned to bricks by hose jets?
We crowded the gunwale, drawing our perforated
bucket up, its plume of silt
in the sunshot green a suddenly redolent,
fecal glyph smearing the prow, which,
once the sand was under our feet, 
we rinsed with a handful of Atlantic. 


My college girlfriend read
her other boyfriend’s poems
to me one night, some
graduate student who drove
from Boston on weekends, whose name
was George, because of which
he somehow seemed more
literary than I.  I
remember some conceit
about maps: the routes
through their time together,
how he strode along
the “blue turnpikes” of her veins
with his tanned fingers,
etc.  She must have loved them
(the poems); they were for her,
but suddenly offered to me
as if her own, written
for me.  They were.  My
humiliation probably not
what she was after, nor praise
for my rival.  We leaned
against each other like lovers,
though we weren’t, really,
(some dead aunt’s couch
bandaged in afghans, weed-smoke).
Once, I met them back
from one of their hikes, absorbed
his praise of trailside grapes:
“…pungent, intoxicating.” What
people use this language?
I thought, standing bathed in
the florescent corpse-light of the dorm’s
hallway, its tangled, stubborn
smells, our brands of deodorant
and beer, limited, identifiable.

Poem About Walden Pond Without Any Mention of Thoreau

The swim was a means of stripping
the patina of tourist’s grime.  Dust
sueded the leaves, hung over
the parking lot like cannon smoke,
packed gravel still trembling with
the decamped army, sated herd.  
That day, I’d imagined enough
proof of revolution, a road quilled
with bayonets, seen the famous recon-
structed bridge, tracked (from the safety
of Emerson’s arbor) a thunderstorm strafing
hills, all gunpowder and bilious
                   The pondwater was clean.  Serious
swimmers in Lycra and goggles passed me
as if I were roadkill, trolling the freight
of torsos and legs in haphazard lanes.  
It was then I considered the urban
refugees back in their walkups, sad
the chill of the dip had fled their skin
while cussing out a sun that wouldn’t
quit.  Too hot to cook, showered
and shirtless, were they firing up
their fans, shivering in the mist before 
the plundered tombs of their freezers,
equivocating takeout? Tacos? Mongolian
                       On my back, ditched
noncombatant angel, I gave up
lumbering up the ladder of thought-
over-thought from my buoyant self,
capsized, set my compass for sink
and stroked through the green fantasy
of getting to the bottom
                                             of everything. 


  • Ralph Sneeden was born in Los Angeles in 1960 and grew up on Long Island and the North Shore of Massachusetts. His poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, The Adroit Journal, The American Poetry Review, The Common, Ecotone, Harvard Review, New England Review, The New Republic, Ploughshares, Slate, The Southampton Review, The Southeast Review, Southwest Review, The Surfer's Journal, and many others. His second book of poems, Surface Fugue, will be published by EastOver Press in October 2021.

  • These images are from a 1921 illustrated guide to figure skating by Bror Myer, a Swedish skating champion. Meyer felt the guide necessary as in "latter years the art of skating has made such rapid strides." On his use of photography, he said: "To facilitate an easy interpretation of the text, as well as to show more clearly the various movements, I decided, after great consideration, to illustrate the work by means of photographs taken with a Cinematograph." From Public Domain Review