Martha Serpas

Free Descent
December 14, 2014 Serpas Martha

Free Descent



It seemed I had always been kicking

in the fringing reefs, fiddling with my breathing

to find a buoyancy I thought was neutral.


Don’t get me wrong: there was charm

to the coral coliseum, light curling

right to left on the golden vase sponges.


Mostly I had been holding my depth gauge

in front of my mask like a railroad watch,

a needle

telling me where I had to be, my hand opening

too soon for the anchor line.



Today I am rolling into spangled


blue with no air in my vest. I’ve quit signing

OK. I am not equalizing, inflating,


adjusting, or looking for my buddy.

I drop like windswept rain over glass.

A stowaway on a blue exhale.


This is the wall of my free descent.

Extravagant sound


and bright flourishes, annunciating

anemones flaring like Roman


candles. Sea fans swaying

in a last red trace


past nothing I am owed or owe.



A satin ball, huge as Saturn, hangs

from the lowest branch. I reach


for its crescent lights and it falls,

sickles spinning.


Red tentacles spill from my fingertip

into a waterfall, the chrome, the porcelain glowing.


Lesson: Wonder precedes and postpones pain.



The tangs and triggers wave

from their convertibles. The peppermint wrasse


hides and reappears, tilts and twirls, comical.

Around them

skillet fish flash like dimes in a gumball machine,

pop up and vanish into slick, chromatic sheens.


A spotted moray lurches purple and black


but doesn’t bite, skirts the whorls of tender pink

shells then disappears into the mind’s blue cup.



Only a dream, I was told: the water

rising around the legs of my high chair,

tin cans stacked like doubloons.


First the water swallowed

the linoleum, the baseboards

then the cat’s red dish, the teetering blinds.



I once dived along the platform’s algae-

shaped legs thick as a lady’s stockings.


Spearfishers, sharp barnacles,

a sudden chop, all dangerous

in the confines of the rig.


A mobile of lookdowns

in a glowing white thermocline.

Above us a buoy sounding steady

as an artificial heart.



No quiet like inescapable quiet.



Demand. Valve. Draw. Pull. Hold.

Her mouth seals my mouth.

Her body seals my body.


I am so full, inside the trees,

in the field, on a child’s bed,

I break elemental.

I beat the lungs. I free flow.


A silence behind the staircase

where only souls can fit.



The disk of sunlight at the surface

is less a roof than the wide rim


of a bottomless shot glass, or the spinning

jeweled ballet of a mirrored box.


My body falls, an effervescence,

a threaded streamer, a thought about to sleep.


How could I miss what remains above me?


And here where the light passes off—

a green sea turtle, no longer clumsy


on the hard shore, wrangling with a trawl,

or bobbing bloated on the surface,


dives under me. How little we have

to say to each other, how its limbs move


for mine. Today I drop past the jellyfish’s

giant ghosts into a black mouth, a bliss.


Sliding deeper, not to see the stars

again, but to fall and release the fall.


My smallest bubble rises on its own string

and narcosis with it, beginning.

Martha Serpas is the author of three collections of poetry, The Diener (LSU); The Dirty Side of the Storm (Norton); and Côte Blanche (New Issues). Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, Southwest Review, and Image: A Journal of the Arts and Religion, as well as in a number of anthologies, including the Library of America’s American Religious Poem and The Art of the Sonnet. She holds degrees in English and creative writing from Louisiana State, New York University, and the University of Houston, and a master of divinity from Yale Divinity School. A native of south Louisiana, she remains active in efforts to restore Louisiana’s wetlands. Since 2006 she has worked as a trauma chaplain at Tampa General Hospital. She teaches in the Creative Writing Program at The University of Houston