Animals: Two Poems by Stephanie Niu

Diver Walks into the Sea and Stays

Zone I: Intertidal

Before I go, I must learn to clear my ears.
Remove water from my mask while under,
control my breath until my spongy lungs
become a kind of swim bladder. Even then–
I am unwieldy. Unnatural. I am clunky machinery 
strapped to a barrel of air and plastic 
finned feet. I am a lemming stepping
into nothing. I walk the plank freely.
But once under, I can breathe. Here,
everything is suspended, slowed,
a kind of human miracle. Even wisps 
of cuttlefish ink hang still in the water.
Imagine being surrounded by so much
unknown. Everything is suddenly worthy
of devotion. Everything has something
to teach me. I suddenly see how quietly 
the world goes about its business
without me. The purple stars, the soft glow 
of a shark embryo resting
on the kelp forest floor. I realize I want
something impossible: to hear a secret
no human has ever been told.

Zone II: Pelagic

Let me introduce you: here is

the slow music of a moving eel.

Strange teeth. Ink suspended

in the sea. Everywhere, green–

more green than you can imagine.

But you are already imagining.

Amazing, isn’t it, the human

mind’s speed? It races

under the demands of gravity.

Here, we float. We still breathe.

The whale’s lungs grow larger

than any brain can know, with ease.

Zone III: Benthic

I lack jaws.        I lure 

        with light.

My clear        face 

        is one big eye.

In heavy        cold,

my shape is

wise.              I need

nothing. I survive.


If you ever met a girl with eyes the color of a swordfish, you’d leave whoever you were with and go with her. 

-James Prosek, “Swordfish Research: Woods Harbour, Nova Scotia” 

According to the fishermen 
mounting the harpoon stand,  
hauling chunks of gray flesh 
into trucks of ice which I learn 
are swordfish with the head 
and tail lopped off, there is a blue 
that only lives in the sea. The long 
glassy fish with the needle-nose 
is too dangerous to drag living 
onto land so instead the harpoon 
buries deep, stays in the fish 
until it tires on a buoy, stunned, 
its body gone copper. They tell me 
sometimes, if you are lucky, a fish 
will flicker back to its living color, 
even as it is dying, the indigo shimmer  
so deep you might lose your footing  
to its gravity, and I wonder if this miracle 
if worth all the death they must witness,  
the miles at sea, the boat deck piled 
high with disembodied meat, the blade 
entering and entering the silver bodies 
so they might glimpse the living color 
once, watch the catch become a hunter 
again, however briefly, the way sometimes  
a blade can turn radiant in its sheath. 

 This poem ends with a line from Hafiz’s poem “Radiant in its Sheath.” 

About Stephanie Niu

Stephanie Niu (she/her/hers) is a poet from Marietta, Georgia who earned her degrees in symbolic systems and computer science from Stanford University. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in ENTROPY, The Southeast Review, Poets Reading the News, and Storm Cellar. She works as a product manager in New York City. You can read more of her work at