Classic oceanic poetry takes on haunting new meanings | Poetry
youS Eliot wrote The Dry Salvages as the World War II bombs fell on London. The poem imagines humanity adrift in a leaky boat, the sea “all around us.” But poetry, like the sea, is never still. “Where do the drifting remains end up?” asks the poem. The answer: “There is no end, but addition” reads differently in 2022 than in 1941, as Every year 12 million tons of plastic are added to the oceans.
Reading is a tide, and each tide brings with it new associations. now it’s hard to read Sea Fever by John Masefield without thinking of bleaching the coral, or that of Samuel Taylor Coleridge The old sailor’s rhyme without imagining Photographs by Chris Jordan of dead albatross, their stomachs full of brightly colored plastic. “’Esperanza’ is the thing with the feathers”, but bird flu is decimating seabird populations.
Poetry, both old and new, not only reveals the astonishing beauty of the oceans, but also frames the monstrous dilemmas of rising seas, pollution, and declining biodiversity.
Marshallese poet Kathy Jetn̄il-Kijiner’s Iep Jaltok collection confronts the existential challenge of rising sea levels for island nations. At 2 degrees, her young daughter’s fever prompts sour reflection on the arrogance of fossil fuel consuming nations: the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C “Seems small… just crumbs / Like the Marshall Islands / should be seen / on a map”. Jetn̄il-Kijiner was the Marshall Islands’ climate envoy at Cop27 and criticized the failure to phase out fossil fuels even as developing nations celebrated loss and damage fund.
“The call of the rushing tide / It is a wild call and a clear call that cannot be denied;” writes Masefield in Sea-Fever. Similarly, the Marshall Islands’ claim to a livable future in the face of rapidly rising tides is, or should be, irresistible.
There is hope in these poems, but it is something done in the face of grim predictions. Two poems, arranged in the shape of baskets, anchor the Jetn̄il-Kijiner collection, the words like small atolls in the white sea of the page:
The loss of indigenous cultures devastates entire worlds. Among the Alaskan Inupiaq, seals, whales, and seabirds are people. Even “Oil is a people”, writes the Inupiaq poet dg nanouk okpik. Throughout her Corpse Whale collection, okpik uses a split pronoun, “she/I”, to express this sense of shared personality. “Will they crawl around her/me, sink her tusks into the sea,” he asks in If Oil is Drilled in Bristol Bay.
For millennia, the Inupiaq have lived off the seafood, but the interests of the fossil fuel industry, which extracts 1.5 million barrels a day from Alaska, conflict with traditional ways of life.
“Where they will / reclaim the sea for roads,” he writes in No Fishing on the Point, “She is / I have watched the currents, / […] / they bring […] parties and hunger.
For much of human history, the vastness of the sea has suggested eternity, a metaphysical space into which we have dumped both our dreams and our waste. There are at least 415 marine dead zones all over the world, areas so polluted by nitrogen and phosphorus that the water is free of oxygen. Like the “rotten sea” of Coleridge’s poem, where “a thousand slimy things / survived”; nothing can survive in a dead zone except jellyfish and bacteria. “Balloon, balloon, balloon, balloon,” strikes the jellyfish in Les Murray’s poem Jellyfish, hinting at both its soft-bodied form and the prospect of a future ocean dominated by anoxic life.
But poetry is not science; Not simply bound to report on the state of affairs, poetry is free to imagine what might be. by brenda shaughnessy The Octopus Museum it 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 fruitful bodythe chromatophore creatures rave (“your skin / sings eight thousand synthesized octopoid loops”) and Ecco the Dolphin, the hero of Sega’s 1990s video game classic, “walks through pristine 16-bit oceans”.
Parkin’s poems celebrate a fluid nature uncontained by binary thought. A carrying bag floating in the sea becomes “a lazy carelessness / of masses of plankton”. The synthetic and the organic flow into each other. That fluidity can be deadly: Turtles eat plastic bags because they resemble “the ghost of a jellyfish.” But Parkin’s transport bag wants nothing more than to “unpack” […] / to become once more boisterous masses of plankton.” We know that some bacteria colonize marine plastic and they have even evolved to metabolize it. The force that sustains all life, Parkin reminds us, is desire.
Desire is also the main stream of The European Eel, by Steve Ely exuberant recreation of the incredible transatlantic migration that eels undertake towards their spawning grounds in the Sargasso Sea. Little is known about their lives in the ocean, but in Ely’s narrative it becomes a testament to the irrepressibility of life. A female eel will gradually consume her own body to fuel the journey, “reducing herself to the future seed of her species.” It culminates in an ecstatic account of the eel’s sex, coiling itself in billowing clouds of golden milk and ovules, “sparks from the cornucopia’s flame / Archaea’s indestructible dark pleroma.”
Life quivers in the shallows as well as in the depths. The glory of the beach is celebrated in Of the Sea, by Elizabeth-Jane Burnett bestiary of the intertidal zone. Mud shrimp drifting with the tide float on “silk light”; ragworms, burrowing in estuarine mud, glow “in all the love of being.”
We could say that a poem is a bit like a boat, a boat supported by rhythms that surge or swirl. It is also like the sea itself, with its deep places and its ever receding horizon. “The sea has many voices,” Eliot observes in The Dry Salvages. More than anything, the multiple 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 from the sea.” If we would only listen.