NEA Literature Fellowships

Catherine Doty

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2011 - Poetry)

Breathing Under Water

Florida's just a thumb on a jigsaw puzzle,
but under water the Weeki Watchee Mermaids
pour their tea, cook, exercise, iron clothes, guzzle
with muscular skill their Grapette soda
with only occasional surreptitious sucks
on an air hose hidden in shell-studded scenery.
They grin, open eyes afloat in their blue-lit skulls.
Holding my breath was a skill I practiced, too,
like when I was ten years old and woke to a body
lowering onto my body, and a breath that put me in mind
of a rotten leg, a thing I'd seen in a book once
and which scared me, but not as much as this body
on top of my body, these jabbing fingers. I was wildly aware
that the room I was in was a pigsty, and I was a pig to be sleeping
in my clothes, and I wanted to blame it on someone, which
would have meant speaking, which I could not do--
it would have been too real--and I was too old to blame anyone
anyway. I closed my eyes to make the black world
blacker. The lamp was within my reach, and a railroad spike
I could easily have lifted, and also a bowling ball I'd found
on the tracks, but all I could think of was being ashamed
and dirty, and grateful the whole thing was happening
in black and white, like those mermaids on TV, their lips
and nails a black I knew was red, their long white legs
safely fused in their glistening tails.

Catherine Doty is the author of Momentum (Cavankerry, 2004), a volume of poetry, and Just Kidding (Avocet Press, 1999), a collection of cartoons. Her work has appeared in 180 More Extraordinary Poems for Every Day, Good Poems for Hard Times, and many other magazines and anthologies. Her awards include an Academy of American Poets Prize, a Marjorie J. Wilson Award, and fellowships from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the New York Foundation for the Arts. She has taught for 30 years as a poet-in-the-schools, as well as for the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, the Frost Place, and other writing programs and conferences.

Photo by Henry Stoll

Author's Statement

No one, except, perhaps, its author, is waiting for the next poem, so it is very easy to let one's writing slip to the bottom of the commitment pile. When I got the call from the NEA telling me of the fellowship, I felt my work of writing justified, supported, affirmed, worthy of a place higher than, say, the laundry. That the choice had been made by a group of poets I have long admired deepened my resolve to devote serious time to the completion of my second volume of poems. I am profoundly grateful to the NEA for their recognition, which will both leaven and strengthen me in the necessarily lonely labor of attempting to conjure life from a blank page.