Rose Polenzani - The Ballad of Sedna

from by GennaRose Nethercott

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The Ballad of Sedna
-an Inuit folktale-

Sedna waited at the sea
watching the ships pass by
& dreaming of the distant isles
far past her reaching eye.

Many a local villager
had sought to win her hand
but Sedna turned them all away
for love of foreign lands.

A man arrived from the east
all dressed in finery.
His coat was stitched with silver thread
& pearls from out the sea.

Come back, he said, & be my wife
& wealthy you will be
lain in our velvet marriage bed
with golden filigree.

Oh father, father, let me go
he wants me for his bride.
I wish to see exotic shores
beyond the rising tide.

So off she sailed across the foam
but soon as land was scarce
the air went cold as an empty tomb
& her husbands eyes grew fierce.

Feathers sprouted from his flesh
& talons held him tall.
She saw he was a winged loon
& not a man at all.

Sedna’s husband bore her back
to his home of the cold north wind
where her skin grew pale as ice
& her wild hair wore thin.

Oh father, father, hear my call
for I have been beguiled—
a marriage bed of fishes’ bones
has claimed your only child

Her father heard her sorrowed cry
as loud as any drum
& hastened o’re the darkened waves
to bring his daughter home.

He found her deep within a bower
of mackerel & sand
& they snuck away in a fishing boat
to seek their own homeland.

They had not sailed a league or two
when the bird awoke to find
his wife gone missing from her bed
afloat upon the brine.

The husband loon, he beat his wings
wide as a merchant sail
until the waters galloped high
& the wind began to wail.

Oh father, father, take my hand—
the boat has tossed me up
& I have fallen overboard
into the ocean’s cup.

Sedna clung to the rowboat’s side
but her father feared the waves,
dreading she would tip the boat
& drag him to his grave.

He drew a dagger from his belt
as sharp as a pricking pin
to drive into his daughter’s hands,
& save his fearful skin.

First, he cut her fingertips,
which fell into the sea
& from each drop of blood she lost
a dolphin came to be.

Then he cut her knuckles raw—
but her grip would not be torn
& out from every ounce of blood
a school of fish was born.

At last, he cut her fingers clean.
Her grip did finally fail,
& as she sank, her rising blood
became a herd of whales.

Oh father, father, I am drowned—
it’s you that caused the pain.
The ocean floor will be my bed.
The waters, my domain.

& I will send my sharks to you.
I will send the squid
who’ll drag you down to join me here
to punish what you did.

Sedna waits below the waves
watching ships above
she never sleeps, so does not dream
of distant lands or love.


from Modern Ballads, released January 29, 2018


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GennaRose Nethercott Somerville, Massachusetts

GennaRose Nethercott is the author of THE LUMBERJACK'S DOVE (Ecco/HarperCollins, forthcoming 2018), selected by Louise Glück as a winner of the National Poetry Series. Her other recent projects include A GHOST OF WATER (an ekphrastic collaboration with printmaker Susan Osgood) and the narrative song collection MODERN BALLADS. ... more

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