Some windless nights on Narragansett Bay,
The deep inlet seems a meadow of fireflies
As multitudes of the luminous jellyfish
Called "comb-bearers" float to the surface
For no evident purpose
But to amaze the fishermen and scientists
Who know them only slightly, each one no more
Than a pear-shaped living sack of liquid
With skin thinner than cellophane, a sheer piece
Of moonlight on the sea, so fragile
The least ripple may tear it
To bits. Calm evenings, the amber green species
May spread out over a thousand yards square,
An island made of bright individuals
Who usually live in the depths, a zone where
Wave movements ceases. Only on nights
Like these do the comb-bearers
Rise, when the bay lies still as a sheet of slate.
Loveliest of sea beings, the color
Of wild geranium, rose-pink, or beach pea,
As some pass beneath the surface of the water
The effect is of rainbow glory
More seductive than moonlight
To the naturalist who might try to scoop one up
Ever-so-gently in his fine net and
Hold it awhile in a clear beaker of brine--
Perhaps the giant of the race, "Venus's girdle,"
Come from the Mediterranean,
An iridescent ribbon
Which vanishes en route to the laboratory
The advantage of their luminescence
Is unknown, being of doubtful value in
Luring prey. As for mating it is difficult
To imagine that these delicate
Melting creatures could sustain
The violence of lovemaking. Yet they make light.
Daniel Mark Epstein is an award-winning poet, biographer, and dramatist whose works include Lincoln and Whitman, Sister Aimee, and the international best-seller The Ballad of Bob Dylan.
This poem first appeared in 2005 in Poetry Magazine, and is reprinted with the permission of the author.