Studio     Writing     About     Contact

Lower Cambrian

Vija Celman’s velvety prints
of the ocean in the dark


Ernst Haeckel's monographs of
mollusk and starfish



Limestone roadcuts flank
the station wagon on
the Maryland turnpike.
I press my temple against the pane,
nose the air, drop my jaw.
Things arrive and recede.

A dribble of water
from a fissure.
A stromatolite inside that rock—
an animal that looks like
a brain pretending to be a cactus—
would mean
this was once tropical sea.

I amuse myself by transforming the drab
lichen lining the Appalachians
into emerald and saffron corals
swaying in the currents.


My grandmother’s Virginia Slims
powder out from a box of blouses
sealed ten years ago.


Mr. Haeckel's drawings of calcified corals
(though gaudy as parlor wallpaper)
were attempts to name and colonize
life before humans.

Mr. Audubon rationalized
playing with dead birds
by magnifying, measuring
and sketching wingspans.

But who’s the real genius,
Audubon or the man
who propped up his dead bride,
piling on makeup once her skin
began to go, stabilizing the abscesses
with sawdust and putty?


We roll up the drive, get out of the car.
Stretch and survey.
Our all-American summerhouse is
a coconut ice cream cake
perched on wicker.
Only the dark under the porch,
held back by latticed slats,
suggests the possibility
of blooming rot.

Author’s Note: John James Audubon’s (1785-1851) The Birds of America, an illustrated collection of 700 species, was produced from earnings of portrait commissions and hunted animal skins. Audubon was an Ornithologist and Painter but also a slaveowner, mineowner, and traveling salesman whose life was (literally and figuratively) saved often by his father and wife.

Vija Celmins
Untitled Ocean, 2016
Mezzotint on Hahmuüle copperplate white paper

Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur, plate 90: Cystoidea, 1904