What would you call a seahorse
if you had never seen a horse?

On the coast of Peru they had no concept
of horses but they had seahorses

and they had to call them something
and whatever it was, we don’t know

and can’t know because the word
vanished centuries ago with

the empty space where the idea of a
seahorse, riderless of associations, once lived,

like the name for anything we don’t
know until we hear it storming onto

the shores of our innocence
and suddenly it must have a name,

not because it is needed or desired
but because it is dreaded, like the red seahorses

that stalked your veins til death, barebacked
summer lark, you who emerged stark from the

froth of waves and lay your stranded shadow
on the hot shells til you were shot

by a disease that had no name and no
history and somehow missed me, no why,

and finished you off before we
would even think of dismounting.

Roger Atwood’s poems have appeared in Town Creek Poetry, The Gay and Lesbian Review, Potomac Review and Linden Lane Magazine. He is the author of a non-fiction book, Stealing History (St. Martin’s Press, 2004). His essays and articles are widely published, including in National Geographic, The Times Literary Supplement, The Massachusetts Review, Latin American Research Review and Mother Jones. He is a Contributing Editor at Archaeology magazine and teaches writing at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, where he lives.

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