Runner-up for the Graybeal-Gowen Prize for Virginia Poets

Assembled Audience

This morning on the beach there’s a small nurse shark,
whiskered & flipped on the sand & right past its shined
white underbelly, a man—dissipated, ponytailed, leathery—

filming his younger blond girlfriend with his phone.
She’s wearing a tiny print bikini—the kind that’s nearly
a thong, cheeky—& is literally shaking her ass. When she

stops he says, Did we get it? & she must have nodded
no, because he says, Aw fuck, let’s do it again. I know
what I gotta do. Hélène Cixous said to be human we need

to experience the end of the world & do you agree with her
right now in this particular moment? There’s a tropical storm
throttling toward us, & everyone is out on the sand before

the cone of uncertainty sidles its way up the Eastern seaboard—
even a bridal party in blush-colored gowns. Even a family reunion
in matched T-shirts. So many things remain uncertain. I keep

thinking of what my friend Emily, who chained herself to a
bulldozer to protest the Mountain Valley Pipeline, told me:
pipeline fighters never ask how are you? They simply say,

it’s good to see you. It’s good to see you, random strangers
on the beach. I’ve been in my house for months. You, under
your striped umbrellas. You, smoking weed in the surf.

You, fishing from the shore. You, head down, searching
for washed-up shark teeth in the shell hash. Your radios &
coolers & sun hats. I know what I gotta do. Buy bottled water.

Safeguard the soul’s passage. Check the flashlight batteries.
Map a topography of displacement & exile. Remain untouched—
the hollow space of the body—the nothing of my mouth

covered by a mask. Cixous also said my body knows unheard-of
songs. Laments. To use a gesture to communicate something.
The same crowd never gathers twice. A dead fish can symbolize

an uneasiness in your body. Someone who is unresponsive.
A portent of bad things to come. It can mean you’re next
on the hit list. An occupation of loss.

Erika Meitner is the author of five books of poems, including Holy Moly Carry Me (BOA Editions, 2018), which was the winner of the National Jewish Book Award in poetry, and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her next book, Useful Junk, is due out in 2022 from BOA Editions. She is currently a professor of English at Virginia Tech.