Jan Steckel is a former pediatrician who stopped practicing medicine because of chronic pain. Her poetry book The Horizontal Poet (Zeitgeist Press, 2011) won a 2012 Lambda Literary Award. Her fiction chapbook Mixing Tracks (Gertrude Press, 2009) and poetry chapbook The Underwater Hospital (Zeitgeist Press, 2006) also won awards. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Scholastic Magazine, Yale Medicine, Bellevue Literary Review, and elsewhere. Her work was nominated three times each for the Pushcart and Sundress Best of the Net anthologies, won the Goodreads Poetry Contest twice, and won various other awards. She lives in Oakland, California.
The diamond rain of Neptune
pelts ruby sea cucumbers.
Workers to the right,
weepers to the left.
Gas sharks scale cloud mountains.
Children will be deported.
Sapphire seas top amethyst reefs.
Families will be separated.
Decapods squirt viridian ink.
Everyone gets a number.
Flounders scream danger!
Avoid the trident!
Naked women clutch their babies.
He’s stirring the atmosphere.
Sleep with the soldiers.
His lightning makes necklaces.
Hide bread and paper.
His thunder splits coral towers.
A temple stood here once.
Jewels salt the noble ocean.
This was the street; the building is gone.
Crystals sink to the heavy center,
accrete to a city of dancers.
They dig their graves, then kneel.
Gymnasts leap horned monsters
arched delicately in the waves.
The Language of the Dead
Island of the White Mountain,
highest point in Spain, I am
the canary in your deepest mine.
No woman is an island.
I fear my own extinction.
Better drape that canary before she sings.
It’s a strong venture, boys,
to float in a wooden bucket
past the Azores on Africa’s coast.
The rats are big as rabbits
and the lizards long as cats.
The land of cochineal,
sugar cane and wine,
westward winds for those
who dare to sail.
3. La Palma
The date palms of La Palma beckoned
to Carthage’s Hanno the Navigator.
“Hanno passed the Pillars of Heracles
and tacked into the outer Ocean.
With Libya on his port side,
he sailed on towards the east,
five-and-thirty days all told.
But when at last he turned southward,
he fell in with every sort of difficulty,
want of water, blazing heat,
and fiery streams running into the sea.”*
4. Gran Canaria
Canary Island Pine lined the street
in California where I grew up.
A Portuguese cemetery housed bones
of nineteenth-century immigrants
from the Canaries and the Azores.
Canary Island hypericum escaped from
ornamental plantings in San Francisco gardens
to grace the mountain slopes around the bay.
Land of red mountains, laurisilva,
a volcano’s crater swarming with blind crabs.
An island more African than Spanish.
Here the guanches mummified dogs,
worshipped them till the whole ancient world
spoke of the isles of Anubis to the West.
6. El Hierro
Island of iron, westernmost edge
of that known ancient world.
Wind-twisted stands of Phoenician juniper.
Fresh pools, salty pools, crenellated cliffs,
rock arches in the surf. The native king’s brother
brought the kingdom down,
sold his people to the French,
who sold them as slaves, same old story.
7. La Gomera
Rubber tree island, where Christopher Columbus
fueled up on wine and water, bedded
the Spanish Governor there for a torrid month.
When he departed she gave him cuttings
of sugarcane to take back to Spain.
The guanches called from peak to peak
in Silbo Gomero, language of whistles.
Now the guanches have all died out,
but Spanish settlers still whistle
the language of the dead.
*from Arrian, Anabasis of Alexander VIII (Indica)