Finfolk Friday: Piscean Poetry

“Piscean” is a word, right? Meaning, fish-like? Because Pisces is the fish constellation?

Anyhoo! I created today’s Fae Friday prompt in honor of the last day of National Poetry Month!

What is your favorite poem or poetry collection (Fae-related or otherwise)?

And of course, being a #RealLifeMermaid, I decided to narrow the parameters to finfolk-related poetry! The following are two of my favorite mermish poems, one traditional and one modern.

Cover of The Penguin Book of Mermaids.  You see a two-tailed mermaid against a background of small blue spirals.  Her long golden hair is also made of spirals.  She wears a golden crown and her golden arms hold up a white ship with rectangular sails above her head.  

Her blue tails stretch out on either side of her breasts, which are two beige spirals.  Beneath her breasts is a horizontal red human figure held up by three dancing blue human figures.

The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry.

According to The Penguin Book of Mermaids, this ballad comes from the Orkney Islands, and takes place in Norway — the speculated birthplace of Selkies. If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may remember me mentioning “The Great Selkie” in my review of Emily Whitman’s The Turning last year.

Aran spends much of the story trying to learn this and other stories about half-Selkie children, thinking they’ll give him clues about his own fate — specifically, when or if he will receive his own sealskin.

Of course, if you’ve heard or read “The Great Selkie,” you can probably guess how helpful it definitely isn’t to a hopeful halfling looking for a happy ending. 😳

Anyway, as tragic as the ballad is, it’s set to a gorgeous melody. The first version I ever heard was William Jackson’s upbeat instrumental piece on the Celtic Experience CD.

Celtic Experience CD.  You see a calm body of water surrounded by misty hills under a white sky.  A castle stands at the edge of the water, at the foot of the hills, and two rocks rise out of the water in the foreground.

It sounds like something from a Scottish sea-travel documentary and I love the comforting tonal dissonance of it all. Like, if you didn’t know the words, you’d think this was a cheerfully nostalgic ode to a happy, thriving Sealfolk culture.

My other favorite version is the one Emily Whitman links to on her website, performed on the Irish-language TV program, Port. It’s a lot more solemn, matching the mood of the story much more closely.

And yes, this is one of my favorite shower songs (the central verse*, at least). 😆

I am a man upon the land

I am a Selkie in the sea.

And when I’m far from every strand.

I make my home in Sule Skerry.

Cover of Till the Tide: an Anthology of Mermaid Poetry.  An inset rectangle against a solid black background shows an abstract painting of mermaids swimming underwater.  The mermaids are sketched against a background of pale peach and light blue, as well as a shadowy shape like a craggy undersea mountain.

The Afterlife of Agua Mala, by Katy E. Ellis.

Agua Mala (literally “Bad Water”) is the Spanish term for the venomous Man o’ War, a creature similar to a jellyfish, that can paralyze or kill fish and leave humans hobbling for days, covered in painful welts. Apparently, even dead Man o’ Wars can poison unwary swimmers.

This poem appears in Till The Tide, an indie anthology of mermaid poems edited by Trista Edwards (one of my Tsundoku Challenge reads). I first discovered the collection when Angélique Jamail quoted two of its other poems in last year’s Poem-a-Day series (see “How To Tell If You’re A Mermaid: A Quiz,” by Heather Lyn and “Pantoum,” by Melissa Stein).

“Agua Mala” is one of the more upbeat poems in the collection…which, yeah, is saying something. 😆 I love the idea of a dying sea spirit trying to reach just a bit of immortality by passing on their essence to a healthy living being. It reminds me of the Dylan Thomas poem, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” Both Agua Mala and the swimmer rage against the threshold of life and death.

Oh, I fight her tooth and nail, Agua Mala’s saline sting, and yet
the harder I kick the waves, the tighter her string of fire pearls

bead into my flesh and stitch a network of elegant welts
over the thin skin of my fattened kneecap, my swelling shin.

~ Pg. 28

It’s up to you to decide whether both or only one of them succeed.

Photo of a small seal figurine on top of a slightly larger stone.

How about you, Bookwyrms? What are your favorite poems or collections, finfolk-related or otherwise?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Credits:

Cristina Bacchilega and Marie Alohalani Brown, eds. The Penguin Book of Mermaids. New York: Penguin, 2019.

Trista Edwards, ed. Till the Tide: An Anthology of Mermaid Poetry. Knoxville, TN: Sundress Publications, 2015.

* There are multiple variations on this verse. I don’t remember where I got the line “I make my home…” (as opposed to “My dwelling is…”) but it’s always rolled more easily off the lips for me.

2 comments

  1. One of my oldest favorite poems, from when I was very young and a great-aunt had given me 101 Favorite Poems, is Masefield’s “I Must Go Down to the Sea Again”

    • Oh yes! I know that one from Kris Delmhorst’s literary album, “Strange Conversations! It’s a collection of songs inspired by, if not taken verbatim from, classic poems. My favorites are “Light of the Light” (inspired by Whitman) and “Pretty How Town” (a delightfully square-dance-esque version of an e. e. cummings poem).

1/100th of an Altairian dollar for your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s