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.
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:
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.
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!”
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
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
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.