“A Green Crab’s Shell” by Mark Doty

Not, exactly, green:
closer to bronze
preserved in kind brine,
something retrieved
from a Greco-Roman wreck,
patinated and oddly
muscular. We cannot
know what his fantastic
legs were like—

though evidence
suggests eight
complexly folded

scuttling works
of armament, crowned
by the foreclaws’

gesture of menace
and power. A gull’s
gobbled the center,
leaving this chamber
—size of a demitasse—
open to reveal

a shocking, Giotto blue.
Though it smells
of seaweed and ruin,

this little traveling case
comes with such lavish lining!
Imagine breathing

surrounded by
the brilliant rinse
of summer’s firmament.

What color is
the underside of skin?
Not so bad, to die,

if we could be opened
into this—
if the smallest chambers

of ourselves,
similarly,
revealed some sky.

From Atlantis, published by HarperCollins. Copyright © 1995 by Mark Doty.

This poem appears in an early collection of Doty’s work, a book he published in the wake of his partner Wally’s death from AIDS in 1994. As a graduate student, I sat in the audience in a Cal Poly lecture hall the year he was promoting this book, and I have never forgotten Doty, his sharing of his grief with a room full of strangers and his melancholic, resonant reading of this beautiful, hopeful poem. I love the musicality of the language (note the repetition of the soft /s/ sound), I love the vivid, lush imagery, and the turn toward surprise at the end stirs me toward reflection . . . what if the smallest chambers of ourselves, similarly, revealed some sky?

What do you think of this poem? What images or phrases do you find particularly poetic or lyrical?

2 thoughts on ““A Green Crab’s Shell” by Mark Doty”

  1. A friend recently told me about this poem. We are studying Post Grad Fine Art together. My work is about my place in landscape, in particular my walks on the East Anglian coastline. i gather beach finds and have been experimenting making sperical pieces cast in lime. Lockdown has changed everything but not all: i am not a poet but I write and I love poetry. This is a clear, imaginative and descriptive poem. Thank you for posting it!

    1. I am glad you found your way to it on my site, which in its own way is not unlike that crab shell on the beach, beautiful and stumbled upon.

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