Features, Poems

Henry Hughes: “At the Edge of the Known World”

We continue our series focusing on Northwest poets with Henry Hughes. A native of Long Island, Hughes has made Oregon his home since 2002. His first collection of poems, Men Holding Eggs, received the 2004 Oregon Book Award; his poetry and essays have appeared in Harvard Review, Northwest Review, and Seattle Review. This month we feature two new poems—“At the Edge of the Known World,” and “Boccacio”— exclusive to Poetry Northwest Online.

When asked about “At the Edge of the Known World” Hughes writes, “honest and thorough writing can challenge those boundaries and walls that separate our public and private lives, it can reveal things that we might only tell a best friend, a lover, or no one at all.”

At the Edge of the Known World

When Sarah and Bill
gin-whispered their invitation,
my starved groin growled. Back in the surf
we kissed down to skin, plunge-

riding the beach pink.
Ribbed mussels swung
in the splash tide, caves glistened, legs
curled and straightened under night’s
warm blanket.

Look, there’s a seal, I said next morning,
twisting to the rolled horizon.
Oh, it’s a surfer—confusing them
like hungry sharks
at the edge of their known world.

Hughes’ “Boccacio” maintains a similar setting to “At the Edge of the Known World,” but is, according to the author, “a dive into ichthyology and literary history.” He continues: “Bottom fishing a couple miles off Depoe Bay, I caught a bass-like fish with a huge mouth that the captain called a “bocacio.”  Well, how could I not think of Giovanni Boccacio?  Was this fish named after the great Italian author? A few years later I was helping my partner’s young son do a report on local fish and we read Milton Love’s reliable, colorfully written field guide, Probably More Than You Need to Know About Fishes of the Pacific Coast. The entry for bocacio (Sebastes paucispinus) lit me up all over again. There’s no evidence that the fish was named after the writer—“bocca / boca” means “mouth” in Italian and Spanish—but I had a great time blending details about the fish and the writer.”

Boccacio

The bocacio, a large-mouthed rockfish found along our Pacific coast,
was not named after Giovanni Boccacio, a fourteenth-century Italian
writer famous for the Decameron.

Drop the c and dive
deep from Florence kelp
to an undulant octave of choral anchovy
hovering above the grotto.  Flushed, bigmouthed and bassy,
you fin vino and piped liturgies between
Santa Barbara’s oily legs,
where a pretty tail gives you
two million eggs.

Avoid seals, paisano,
and the Red Death. Your patrons are pleasure and taste.
We tighten our Friday lines on you,
throwing back what’s small and impious.  A hundred stories to tell
plain-tongued and sincere. Until you dreamed
fossils under Petrarch’s robe.
Dying in your last swallow,
fat and Latin.

“At the Edge of the Known World” and “Boccacio” appear exclusively on Poetry Northwest Online. — Subscribe today