Ciliate Sestina

"In ciliate sex, two individuals arrive, and two individuals leave: no eggs are fertilized, no offspring are produced. But by the time the two individuals go their separate ways, a massive change will have come over both of them: they will both have acquired a new genetic identity."
      —Olivia Judson, "Unorthodox," The New York Times, Feb. 9, 2010.

Across a crowded pool, you spot your love,
Each eyelash wriggling with temptation's glance,
From top to bottom, side to side. Within,
Your micronucleus proclaims, "I am!"
Identity for sharing in the heat
Of passion fit for thirty thousand genes.

One hundred sexes revel in those genes,
A Kama Sutra praising one-celled love.
Perhaps you mate within the torrid heat
Of cockroach gut—or frolic in the glance
Of iced Antarctic denizens. "I am!"
Your mate insists, becoming you within.

Your micronuclei exchange within,
The gift of wearing one another's genes,
Together and identical: "I am!"
A Tweedledum and Tweedledee of love.
No offspring will result from passion's heat.
Your former selves are hardly worth a glance.

Already, in the magic of a glance,
Your redesign continues from within
As macronuclei reboot. The heat
Of living draws its strength from shuffled genes.
Alone, far from the deep embrace of love,
You split in two. Your child asserts, "I am!"

The same as your departed mate's "I am!"
Identical at first and every glance,
Then altering, with every act of love,
Beyond all recognition. Look within.
What soul survives the changing of the genes?
What self transcends your all-transforming heat?

A billion years ago, atop the heat
Of Earth, when my precursors cried, "I am!"
They parted from your wanton ways with genes.
They kept their form for longer than a glance,
To stabilize their sense of self within,
To secret their identities in love.

From birth, my genes have told me who I am.
But deep within I seek another's heat,
If only for a glance of selfless love.

—Elissa Malcohn