I Thought the Ocean was Forever

From The Guardian

We hear the call of the sea in poems from Coleridge and Eliot to Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner, but those words also sound a warning – if only we would listen

David Farrier, Mon 26 Dec 2022

TS Eliot wrote The Dry Salvages as second world war bombs fell on London. The poem imagines humanity adrift in a leaky boat, the sea “all about us”. But poetry, like the sea, is never still. “Where is there an end to the drifting wreckage,” the poem asks. The answer: “There is no end, but addition” reads differently in 2022 than in 1941, as 12m tonnes of plastic are added to the oceans each year.

Reading is tidal, and each tide brings with it new associations. It is difficult now to read John Masefield’s Sea-Fever without thinking of bleaching coral, or Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner without picturing Chris Jordan’s photographs of dead albatross, their stomachs full of brightly coloured plastic. “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” but avian flu is decimating seabird populations.

Poetry, both old and new, not only reveals the oceans’ uncanny beauty, it also frames the monstrous dilemmas of rising seas, pollution, and declining biodiversity.

Marshallese poet Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner’s collection Iep Jaltok confronts the existential challenge of sea-level rise for island nations. In 2 Degrees, her infant daughter’s fever prompts a bitter reflection on the arrogance of fossil fuel-consuming nations: the difference between 1.5C and 2C “Seems small … just crumbs / like the Marshall Islands / must look / on a map”. Jetn̄il-Kijiner was the Marshall Islands’ climate envoy at Cop27, and criticised the failure to phase out fossil fuels even as developing nations celebrated the loss and damage fund.

“The call of the running tide / Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;” writes Masefield in Sea-Fever. Likewise, the Marshall Islands’ claim to a liveable future in the face of rapidly rising tides is – or ought to be – irresistible.

There is hope in these poems, but it’s something made in the face of grim predictions. Two poems, arranged to resemble baskets, bookend Jetn̄il-Kijiner’s collection, the words like tiny atolls in the white sea of the page:

Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner poem from Iep Jaltok collection

The loss of indigenous cultures washes away whole worlds. Among the Inupiaq of Alaska, seals, whales and seabirds are people. Even “Oil is a People,” writes Inupiaq poet dg nanouk okpik. Throughout her collection Corpse Whale, okpik uses a split pronoun, “she/I”, to express this sense of shared personhood. “Will they crawl around her / me, sink their eyeteeth in the sea,” she asks in If Oil is Drilled in Bristol Bay.

“Where they want / to claim the sea for roads,” she writes in No Fishing on the Point, “She’s/I’ve watched the currents, / […] / which bring […] feasts, and famine.”

For much of human history, the sea’s vastness has suggested eternity, a metaphysical space into which we have poured both our dreams and our waste. There are at least 415 marine dead zones around the world, areas so polluted by nitrogen and phosphorus that the water is free of oxygen. Like the “the rotting sea” of Coleridge’s poem, where “a thousand thousand slimy things / Lived on;” nothing can survive in a dead zone, except jellyfish and bacteria. “Globe globe globe globe,” pulses the jellyfish in Les Murray’s poem, Jellyfish, intimating both its soft-bodied shape and the prospect of a future ocean dominated by anoxic life.

But poetry isn’t science; not bound simply to report on the state of things, poetry is free to imagine what could be. Brenda Shaughnessy’s The Octopus Museum presents a future Earth ruled by cephalopods, creatures whose intelligence is proof that, as the philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith puts it, “the mind evolved in the sea”. In Caleb Parkin’s day-glo collection This Fruiting Body, chromatophoric creatures rave (“your skin / sings eight-thousand synthesised octopoid loops”) and Ecco the Dolphin, the hero of Sega’s 1990s video game classic, “roves immaculate 16-bit oceans”.

Parkin’s poems celebrate a fluid nature uncontained by binary thinking. A carrier bag floating in the sea becomes “a lazy misremembering / of plankton masses”. The synthetic and the organic flow into one another. That fluidity can be deadly: turtles eat plastic bags because they resemble “the ghost of a jellyfish”. But Parkin’s carrier bag wants no more than “to unpack itself […] / to become once again bustling plankton masses.” We know some bacteria colonise marine plastic, and have even evolved to metabolise it. The force underpinning all life, Parkin reminds us, is desire.

Desire is also the main current of The European Eel, Steve Ely’s lush recreation of the incredible transatlantic migration eels undertake to their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. Little is known about their ocean-going lives, but in Ely’s telling it becomes a testimony to life’s irrepressibility. A female eel will gradually consume her own body to fuel the journey, “reducing herself to the seed of her species’ future”. It culminates in an ecstatic account of eel sex, coiling in billowing clouds of golden milt and ova, “sparks from the cornucopian flame / of Archaea’s unkillable, dark pleroma”.

Life thrills in the shallows as well as the deep. The glory of the foreshore is celebrated in Of Sea, Elizabeth-Jane Burnett’s bestiary of the intertidal zone. Mud shrimp drifting with the tide float in “silk light”; ragworm, burrowing in estuarine mud, shimmer “in all the love of being”.

We might say a poem is a bit like a boat, a vessel borne aloft by rhythms that surge or eddy. It is also like the sea itself, with its deep places and ever-receding horizon. “The sea has many voices,” observes Eliot in The Dry Salvages. More than anything, the many voices of oceanic poetry declare the vitality of life even in the midst of crisis. “There is a lullaby in all of us,” Burnett writes, “a call of sea”. If only we would listen.

David Farrier is professor of Literature and the Environment at the University of Edinburgh, and the author of Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils

Photo by SSH

Perspective

I am standing on the seashore.  A ship at my side spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the blue ocean.  An object of beauty and strength, she sails into the distance diminishing in size, until she hangs like a speck of white cloud where the sea and sky mingle.

 Then someone says, “There!  She’s gone.” Gone where?  Gone from my sight—that’s all.  She is just as large in mast and hull and spar as she was when she left my side, and she is just as able to bear her load of living freight to the place of her destination.

 But her diminished size is in me, not in her; and just at the moment when that someone at my side says, “There!  She’s gone,” there are other eyes watching her coming and other voices ready to take up the glad shout, “Here she comes!”

Henry Van Dyke

Photo by SSH

Endings

In literature, we have a chance for closure. We can put the punctuation mark wherever we like, whether it marks the end of grief, the beginning of a relationship, the birth of a child, the end of a life, or the decision to live again. . . . Writers are not seers. Armed with the “knowledge of what has gone before,” we mold events, truths, into narrative, and hope and know that the last punctuation mark is not the end, but the invitation to begin again.

http://blog.pshares.org/index.php/author/evdecleyre

Photo by SSH

When the Music Plays You

“I love trying to spin the world into a web of words. And I love those times when it feels like those words turn into a world of their own.”  — Rose Auslander 

I am seventeen and practicing the piano.  I go at it two hours a day, and no longer need the nagging of my parents, when I used to prefer playing softball after school. The work itself is its own reward, playing a passage over and over at different rhythms, until it comes out smooth as silk.  

I rarely practice after dark, since I don’t want to disturb my father, who may have brought work home.  But now that I’m on the yearbook committee, there are days when I simply have to. It’s winter and the room is dark except for the light over the piano, and I feel my father’s entrance and his quiet sigh as he sits down well away from the piano and me.

It is near the end of my practice session, when I play something for pure pleasure, and tonight it’s a Schubert impromptu, a piece I love to play, complex and romantic.  I am aware that my father is in the room; I am aware of all the ambiguities of our relationship; I know, however, that my ability to play so well has pleased him, and that falls into the complexity of Schubert, me, my father, the abuse, all the pain of never knowing if he has loved me or not. 

Somehow, I throw myself into the music, I become the music, the music — Schubert — is playing me.  It’s transformative. I am no longer in this darkened living room.  My father is still here, because there is a musical line connecting us, and I thrill as the phrases and chords and notes become a world of their own — a world described by incredible beauty and freedom. And at the end, I bow my head over the keys and feel full of the act of love I have just performed.

Photo by Roger Eichholz

Silence

Once again, I have run across a fragment that long ago I stashed in a dark corner of my computer for future use, and I failed to attribute it. I like this piece because it fits so well with my focus on the natural world, both in Evelio’s Garden, and in my daily life. If anyone recognizes this piece or its writer, please let me know so I can attribute it properly. Thanks. SSH

Hello chatter, my old friend.

The sounds of silence are a dim recollection now, like mystery, privacy and paying attention to one thing — or one person — at a time.

As far back as half-a-century ago, the Swiss philosopher Max Picard warned: “Nothing has changed the nature of man so much as the loss of silence,” once as natural as the sky and air.

As fiendish little gadgets conspire to track our movements and record our activities wherever we go, producing a barrage of pictures of everything we’re doing and saying, our lives will unroll as one long instant replay.

There will be fewer and fewer of what Virginia Woolf called “moments of being,” intense sensations that stand apart from the “cotton wool of daily life.”

“In the future, not getting any imagery or story line or content is going to be the equivalent of silence because people are so filled up now with streaming video,” said Ed Schlossberg, the artist, author and designer who runs ESI Design. “Paying attention to anything will be the missing commodity in future life. You think you’ll miss nothing, but you’ll probably miss everything.”

Schlossberg said that, for a long time, art provided the boundary for silence, “but now art, in some cases, is so distracting and intense and faceted, it’s hard to step into a moment. Especially when you’re always carrying a microcamera and a screen all the time, both recording and playing back constantly rather than allowing moments of composition and stillness when your brain can go into a reverie.”

Seeing from the Heart

I believe natural beauty has a necessary place in the spiritual development of any individual or any society. I believe that whenever we destroy beauty, or whenever we substitute something man-made and artificial for a natural feature of the earth, we have retarded some part of man’s spiritual growth.

I believe this affinity of the human spirit for the earth and its beauties is deeply and logically rooted. As human beings, we are part of the whole stream of life. We have been human beings for perhaps a million years. But life itself — passes on something of itself to other life — that mysterious entity that moves and is aware of itself and its surroundings . . . . Our origins are of the earth. And so there is in us a deeply seated response to the natural universe, which is part of our humanity.

Rachel Carson

Another Stellar Review of Evelio’s Garden

I read Evelio’s Garden slowly so as to enjoy every moment to the full. I enjoyed the prose, as well as the combination of the author’s personal moments with the beautiful descriptions of places, landscapes, nature and people, all of which make the reading very agreeable. The strength and positive attitude with which she confronts the vicissitudes and difficulties, without losing her calm and sense of humor, are admirable. The descriptions of some of the situations are really comical: for example, the bonsais, Ruth and the bats, the rice and beans on her bus trip to San José. The relationship with Evelio is truly special; her patience, tolerance and empathy are admirable. The way she describes moments of frustration, pain and anger, along with happiness and humor is marvelous. All of these elements mixed with the descriptions of people, customs, the culture, birds, plants and the countryside, made for me, one of those “trips” that will never be forgotten.  My gratitude for the gift of these memoirs and the hours of pleasure I spent reading them. — Enrique Venegas

Finding the Right Words

For a long time, I have looked for a way to describe my connection to the natural world.  I tried in Evelio’s Garden, but no writer that I have encountered since has come as close as I have the privilege to quote here. Of  course there have been many before me, but none that I have discovered as right on as these two: Robinson Jeffers and Oliver Sacks. (And I’ll keep looking!)

The parts change and pass, or die, people and races and rocks and stars, none of them seems to me important in itself, but only the whole. This whole is in all its parts so beautiful and is felt by me to be so intensely in earnest, that I am compelled to love it, and to think of it as divine. It seems to me that this whole alone is worthy of the deeper sort of love; and that here is peace, freedom, I might say a kind of salvation.

— Robinson Jeffers

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The sense of deep time brings a deep peace with it, a detachment from the timescale, the urgencies of daily life. Seeing these volcanic islands and coral atolls, and wandering, above all, through this cycad forest on Rota, has given me an intimate feeling of the antiquity of the earth, and the slow, continuous processes by which different forms of life evolve and come into being. Standing here in the jungle, I feel part of a larger, calmer identity; I feel a profound sense of being at home, a sort of companionship with the earth.

 – Oliver Sacks

Telling Stories

There’s a big difference between writing stories and telling them out loud. This is something I’ve discovered as, over the years, I have recorded bits and pieces of various things I have written. Somehow, the spoken word is infinitely more powerful. Recently I was invited by an interviewer to record a story from Evelio’s Garden, and since her website focused on finding joy in our lives, I picked robins and sea lions. Well, listen and you’ll see how they’re related.

https://open.spotify.com/episode/5UcvOs6GHEna8byGBnyKIY