Watson and the Shark

after John Singleton Copley


From the leather bench, legs swinging 

          a foot from the floor, she brings her gaze

to the shark: its hideous teeth, its misplaced

          lips and mistaken shapes, the sinister

               way its mass slips beneath the surface


to surface again as a scythe-shaped fin.

          I follow strokes of light converging

on the crew, every body strained to save the naked boy

          but one, his face hauntingly matter-of-fact,

               the pact a sailor makes with the sea


a tacit acceptance of death in all

          its disgraceful forms. If she sees

what I’m seeing, she’s not saying.

          Now she paces, takes in details to piece

               together, then climbs back onto the bench


and clambers off again. She stops and stares:

          bloodied leg, sailors’ hands outstretched, Watson

reaching out toward something past the boat,

          past clippers, slave ships, masts like crosses

               and holy towers on shore, past


the horizon and its amassing

          clouds, where waves vanish in the rising sun

the shark has come from and will return to

          after playing with the man who’s falling

               asleep in the water. “Isn’t it silly?”


she asks as she turns away from the canvas 

          and smiles up at a man who’s stopped

to look and listen to headphones explaining

          Copley’s shift from portraits to works

               of historical ambition, myth made


from the everyday, and she tells him

          the boo-boo’s not so bad, they’ll get him

in the boat and take good care of his leg.

          The stranger nods—not quite sure, I’m sure,

               of what’s taking place but maybe


grateful everything will be okay—

          and walks away as my daughter settles

on the bench and waits: for the painting

          to change, for the sun to rise, for me

               to take her hand and let her lead me on.


Brian Simoneau’s poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boulevard, Cave Wall, Crab Orchard Review, North American Review, Salamander, and other journals. His work is also included in Two Weeks: A Digital Anthology of Contemporary Poetry (Linebreak, 2011). Originally from Lowell, Massachusetts, he lives in Boston with his wife and two young daughters.