Mary Ford Neal



Возлюбленный1,  did you know
there is an entire octave 
below the bass staff?
Unfathomable depth, yet
all my forefathers sang it.

It sounded perilous,
hovering on the rim
of eternity.

My дедушка,2  himself one of the blessed,
took me out on Байкал.3 
I was supposed to admire the mountains
and look for the нерпы,4 
but all I could think was 

                    Возлюбленный, have you ever heard
                    of the водяно́й?6 


When I realised my language
was meaningless to you,
all my words sank into silence. 
How does one shoot an arrow
without a target?

                    что ты хочешь?7 
                    я появлюсь, если ты хочешь.8 

There is a chance—
tell me there is at least a chance—
that these sounds make sense to you
if not as words, then as music.
I can hope for that.


To you, возлюбленный, 
the marks I make look 

                    like чёрная магия,9  

and yes, perhaps I am attempting 
to raise the dead,
to summon a note so low
its waves are almost strangers.

               This country is obsessed with depth,
               and I am no exception.


I have thought about it, возлюбленный,
and decided not to abandon 
my ancient, jewelled tongue. 
What did you call it? Godforsaken.

I love its angles, its absence of doubt,
its warlike prongs and unholy crosses,
how it spears and crowns the page.

I can see how it confounds you.
Did you know that ‘confounded’ means ‘damned’?

               I love how this damned language gulps and sticks
               here in my throat, like dark prayer.

It feels not unlike drowning.


If ever you need me, 
возлюбленный, tell the нерпы, 
who know where to find me. 
For голомянки11  they will carry your message.
Until then, I will be busy
doing my work of the deep.


I can remain beneath the surface
for over an hour, if afraid.

Does the thought of me, afraid, bring out
a maternal instinct in you? Relax—

I have few predators, apart from the obvious.

Apart from the obvious, I am the main predator 
in my environment.

You could buy a plush version of me in the gift shop— 
would you like that?

I don’t mind you taking photographs. 
I can make the cutest face – look.

I may not appear strong, but if enough of us were determined
we could drag you to the bottom.

The very thought of the bottom should terrify you.

Calm down. I’m kidding – I can’t even dive a third of the way
to the bottom. 
The real bottom, I mean. 
The abyss.

Even the President in his little submarine 
could only get two thirds as deep as that.

(He has also flown a jet fighter and shot a wild Siberian tiger.
No, I’m joking.)

No need to throw me anything – I am swimming
in abundance here. In any case, 

we are very proud of The World’s Cleanest Lake (Disputed), 
and we do not appreciate things being dropped in.

Some facts about me, OK.

I am sexually mature, and slightly polygamous. 

You look disappointed. Have I spoiled it? 

Boring fact, then. 

In spring, the moulting season,
we become so lethargic that sometimes we forget to move,
lie in the sun too long, and die of overheating.

I try not to worry about it.

You might also hear something about myself and my friends 
being responsible for a decline in the whitefish population, 
but that’s bullshit. We hardly go near them.

Can you imagine how it would be to have a mishap?
To go over the side? 
Do you know what’s beneath you?

Probably best not to dwell on it.

From the Author: ‘Baikal’ and ‘Nerpa’ are part of a larger project that uses surrealism and pseudo-confessionalism to create a disconcerting landscape full of extremes and threats. In this world speakers are unreliable, but there is beauty, wisdom and truth beneath the attempts to deceive and alarm. This poem pair, set in Lake Baikal, Siberia (the world’s deepest lake), uses deception, and the imagery of unimaginable depth, to emphasise how precarious our realities are, and how tenuous our connections with self, others, and certainties.

Mary Ford Neal is a writer and academic from the West of Scotland. She is the author of two recent poetry collections, ‘Dawning’ (Indigo Dreams, 2021) and ‘Relativism’ (Taproot Press, 2022), and her poems are published/forthcoming in The London Magazine, Bad Lilies, One Hand Clapping, The Interpreter’s House, The Waxed Lemon, Anthropocene, Long Poem Magazine, iamb, Dust, Atrium, and many others. Her work has been commissioned by the BBC and has received several Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations.

  1. Vozlyubleniy – beloved ↩︎
  2. Dedushka – grandfather ↩︎
  3. Baikal – Lake Baikal ↩︎
  4. Nerpy – (plural) Baikal seal ↩︎
  5. Byezdna – abyss ↩︎
  6. Vodyanoy – water demon ↩︎
  7. Chto ti khochesh? – What do you want? ↩︎
  8. Ya poyavlyus, yesli ti khochesh – I will surface if you want. ↩︎
  9. Chornaya magiya – black magic ↩︎
  10. Nekromantiya – necromancy ↩︎
  11. Golomyanki – (plural) Baikal oilfish ↩︎