Steve Almond’s Bad Poetry Corner #12: Riptide


(Writing wretched verse so you don’t have to since 1995)


Because we are men of a certain age
without visible boundaries or excuses
we ignore the yellow flap of caution flags
and the lifeguard propped against wet wind

The sea whips herself up a greenish
milk whose antique glass shows chalk caps
And though the waves seem unable to decide
the current attacks what counts – the legs

We find the sand bar and the sand ticks
find us flicking itches at our skin
We guard our mouths from slaps of salt
and yell whatever it is we yell

It happens slowly, the tug taking first
our feet from the grainy floor unballasting
the body, we say nothing not help me
not hold me not please hold me

Perhaps it is the ocean’s job to disregard
our longing for the sedentary life
it raises our bones on wobbly plates
and lowers us yards from where we were

The lifeguard can see this most clearly:
We are drifting away I am losing you my
friend watching you dissolve in layered silt
brown arms out beyond a safe depth

laughter I hear in broken stripes
I cannot follow cannot distinguish
the movement of the ocean
toward me from your movement away

You can always count on a Bad Poet to bludgeon the obvious metaphors, the blood oranges, the Indian summers, the barren orchards, and yes, the riptide. Dostoevsky said, “It’s all like the ocean!” Which is classic Dostoevsky: totally vague! The guy probably never even lived in Miami Beach. Whereas I (the Bad Poet) spent four years there, watching that lovely Alta kaker slum transformed into a late-model capitalist playground. If you’re wondering where all the dumb cocaine-and-modeling money went during the early Nineties, I believe I’ve found your culprit.

The only saving grave of that place was the Atlantic, in which basically nobody swam, other than me and Pat Flood. We targeted the buoy at Fourteenth Street for the simple reason that this was the gay part of the beach, ergo where the models and other sullen European women sunbathed topless.

At a certain point, deep into the homoerotic tangle of our friendship, we began swimming buoys at dusk. We’d get stoned to the point of blunt force trauma, then thrash our way through the waves to the pale bobbing cock-shaped buoy – it was about 200 yards from the shore, a distance we routinely estimated at “a mile or so” for whomever might want to know. Then we turned around and dog paddled back and staggered onto the beach to examine our puny musculature. Then it was on to Puerto Sagua, the Cuban place at Collins and Seventh, where we’d eat the bistec de palomilla slathered in onions and enough French fries to kill a drill sergeant.

One night, we got extra stoned and swam out during storm conditions. When we got back to the beach, Flood said, “Uno mas,” and I followed him out. Then it was my turn to demand a third buoy, even though I could barely stand. It was on this last trip out that I realized the situation had gotten out of control. The waves kept slapping salt water down my throat, and I kept coughing, then more water would pound in as I was coughing, and it occurred to me I wasn’t getting enough oxygen, that my muscles were starting their lactic fade, that they were no match for the waves themselves, for the tremendous power of the ocean, and that Flood was too far away to do anything, he kept disappearing behind the pale green swells, the water was hauling me out to that square yard of space in the middle of the sea where I’d find that lunatic Raskolnikov, and I realized that, like Raskolnikov, I’d created my current predicament, that it was a kind of partial suicide attempt, the sort of macho overreach I needed to feel alive in the face of my own spiritual lassitude. Yes, this is what the Bad Poet thinks about in such moments: his spiritual lassitude.

A few months later, a friend of ours showed us a topographic photo of Miami Beach, taken from a helicopter or something. There were all these dark shadows. “What are those things?” Flood said.

“Sharks,” our friend said.

“Bullshit,” Flood said.

Then we saw an article in the paper about how sharks swam in to feed at dusk. The accompanying graphic showed which body parts they tended to target. The one that leaped out at me read Genitals, 2%. I thought to myself: What sort of self-respecting shark would target my junk? That’s not even an hors d’oeuvre, not even a canapé.

Still, it was enough to keep us out of the water. We joined a gym downtown and dropped weights on our toes. I knew then that I would survive. The Bad Poets always do.


This week’s guest bad poem comes from Mr. Stephen Elliott of Chicago, IL. Yes, that Stephen Elliott. “The real tragedy of this poem,” he writes, “is that I was already 21 when I wrote it, and I actually read this out loud to that poor girl.” I’m afraid, Mr. Elliott, that’s not even close to the real tragedy.

Come Fuck The Poet

I asked you to come to my room
Ten feet long and cluttered with empty bottles of vitamins and oil
I promised to show you pictures of a prostitute I knew once
Standing in the window off the street in white lingerie, angelic
She was a friend
And a wonderful lady who always stopped to play with children and was three months pregnant herself
But you couldn’t tell in the picture
And I had given her my thirty dollars too
In fact she was my first prostitute which is kind of a nice memory because she was soft and gentle
I’d told you I’d write you a poem
And tell you cut little stories of sitting alone on a rooftop with a bottle of vodka and a gun
You told me you had other things to do
You and some guys going to smoke some pot
You were afraid that if you came to my room I’d try and grease you up and stick my head between your thighs
But you said you thought I was a great poet
But you had to go

And if I’m such a great fucking writer where the fuck are you going
To sit in a room with twelve guys
Each of them trying to get their dirty fingers in your panties
Each of them reciting the same lines of friendship and something more than sex
Each of them wearing the same sweater and the same designer jeans and pulling their thoughts from the common pool
Look I screamed
Come fuck the poet
We’ve been through this shit already
We’re almost there
Bring in your belt and handcuffs and six inch heels ’cause writers like it kind of strange and painful
Get in that fancy ass candy apple red sportscar that someone nice bought you as a gift and drag your whole self over this way
Bring everything you’ve learned in twenty two years on this miserable planet
And lets wrap a condom around it
And stick it in
And see what happens
Come fuck the poet I screamed

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Steve Almond's most recent book, Against Football, was a New York Times bestseller for at least three seconds. More from this author →