Those bare-breasted women who hung

over the mantel of my cold sea-

green childhood were ama, or “ocean-

women,” divers after pearls, seaweed and shellfish

in elegant prints by Utamaro


of the ukiyo-e or “floating world”

where ama have free-dived

in frigid waters for thousands of years

a hundred feet per breath, sixty

dives a day, well into their eighties


In Iwase’s black and white photos from the 50s

their compact bodies framed radiant—

though proud of their skill, all

have other work, mostly farming, and say

they are not good enough to be called ama


Perhaps what half-starved sailors

(like the Dutchman Hamel whose ship

the Sperwer ran aground in 1653)

saw streaming past were ama

whom they called meremayds


So I keep diving (though I have other

work and am not good enough) to see what,

rich and strange, I can bring from below—

abalone lobster starfish urchin

and every now and then a pearl








Photo by Angel Jimenez on Flickr