Last night it rained at least three times as storm after storm hammered our way.
For most of August, Florida has been heavy, flat and becalmed, brooding, I suppose, the advent of hurricanes which this year are stalled. Yet eerily, that hasn’t kept these monster gully-washer storms from brewing up, squeezing out a gulf’s worth of drench every time. Last night’s procession was even weirder, each storm its own armada of flashing and thunder and rain in such torrent you’d think the world was ending: Noah’s flood, not once but thrice in a night.
Fortunately our house is on relatively high ground and everything drains down toward the lake. But I was slow getting to sleep, bedraggled by those sounds in drowning dreams, appalled at how much more moisture heaves from our carbon-suffusing atmosphere and from what weird calm it brews up. (Maybe we’re just becoming anaesthetized by the incessant drumroll of awfulness.)
And is this just beginning? Will each tenth of a degree centigrade added to the global temperature intensify the storms dimensionally, the way an earthquake’s Richter scale of energy increases tenfold with each whole number, and with 31 times more energy? If so, what kind of immediate future are we in for? And can we even conceive past that?
Such calibrations are the only way to comprehend how much worse the hyperbolic monsoon rains have been in Pakistan this summer. With the Indus River valley so flooded in the southern Sindh province that it has created a 100km-wide lake, farms and villages have been wiped out, 33 million Pakistanis are homeless, more monsoon rains are expected as well as killing heat waves, and aid coming in is far short of the need, like to few sandbags hoisted against rising waters.
Elsewhere, the Mississippi River is so flooded from heavy rains that water treatment facilities in Jackson, Mississippi, have been overwhelmed, cutting fresh water supplies to the city’s 140,000 residents. Aging infrastructure in many American cities in the South are not keeping up with these developing threats, leaving poor, mainly Black residents left behind from white flight to the suburbs to suffer while Republican supermajorities in their state capitals refuse to allocate monies for needed repairs. Long lines of residents wait to pick up bottled water to drink, cook and brush their teeth in. Schools are shuttered, and authorities don’t know if the city’s fragile and aged water pipes will hold up as water pressure is restored.
Earthly rivers are one thing: But of even greater magnitude are the atmospheric rivers churning with increasing moisture. These relatively narrow regions of the atmosphere funnel most of the water vapor outside the tropics. They move with the weather and each carries about the average flow water at the mouth of the Mississippi River. Last week, New Zealand was struck by one, with Wellington receiving 27 inches of rain. A similar atmospheric river hit the West coast of North America in October 2021, dropping 15 inches around San Francisco’s Bay Area and creating 50-foot waves. And in March of this year, a moisture-laden atmospheric river, the strongest yet to make landfall on Antarctica, triggered a heatwave, with temperature reaching 65 degrees above normal.
California has a 1 in 50 chance on any year of getting caught in a month-long megastorm where successive atmospheric river plumes strike the state and precipitate as moisture tangles with mountain ranges. Coming in winter, these normally brew up snowstorms (snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas has been California’s strongest defense against drought), but a warming atmosphere means the greater likelihood will be rain, in this massive storm up to 8 feet of it, flooding valleys, overwhelming dams and other infrastructure and imperiling the lives of millions. A storm of this magnitude could cost 750 billion dollars to rebuild from, and many communities may never recover.
What happens when the rain comes and comes? Noah’s ark was built on the threat, seen in its ultimate drowning gesture as judgement of an angry God: wipe the earth clean of unacceptable life and start over. While there’s no evidence of a global flood anywhere near the time of Noah, scientists do point out a local flood event in the watershed of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers around 3900 BCE. (Due to the curvature of the earth, residence of flooded villages in that area might not have been able to see anything above water at the visible horizon.)
Here’s a thought: Could such Biblical events be more the result of writing’s evolution from pictographic representations of reality to the symbols replicating the sounds of the human voice? David Abram in The Spell of the Sensuous tracks the evolution of human language from just one of many of the world’s varied voices toward something privileged and only-human. The first attempts at writing were pictographic, offering representations of things as images – goat and camel, boat and jar. Gods were animal-headed, winged and clawed, rooted as they were in deep nature. The first attempts at symbolic representation human communication’s inner meanings came in the form of the rebus, a pictograph of a linguistic joke in which a real thing contained some human quality in it.
It was the Hebrews who first formed an alphabet representative of the human voice. Abram writes,
With the advent of the (Hebrew) aleph-beth, a new distance opens up between human culture and the rest of nature. The pictographic glyph or character still referred, implicitly, to the animate phenomenon which it was the static image of … In turn, the sensible phenomena and its spoken name were, in a sense, still participant with one another — the name a sort of emanation of the sensorial reality. With the aleph-beth, however, the written character no longer refers to any sensible phenomenon out in the world, or even the name of such a phenomenon, but solely to a gesture made by the human mouth.
… Traces of sensible reality linger in the new script only as vestigial holdovers of the old — they are no longer necessary participants in the transfer of linguistic knowledge. The other animals, the plants, and the natural elements — sun, moon, stars, waves — are beginning to lose their own voices. In the Hebrew Genesis, the animals do not speak their own names to Adam; rather, they are given their names by the first man. Language, for the Hebrews, was becoming a purely human gift, a human power. (101)
Once the world became ours to name, we became free to judge it as worthy or not. (Remember, in the Biblical account, God sent the flood “to destroy all flesh” in punishment for the sins of humanity.) No wonder we resort speak of Anthropocene weather events as calamities “in Biblical proportions.”
The Greeks later used a similar alphabet to perfect the written expression of human thought. Between the eighth and sixth centuries BC, the written culture slowly began to replace the ancient oral ones. (No surprise then that the first written literature were transcriptions of the oral epics The Odyssey and The Illiad. “The scribe , or author, could now begin dialogue with his own words even as he wrote them down,” Abram writes, “viewing and responding to his own words even as he wrote them down. A new power of reflexivity was thus coming into existence, borne by the relation between the scribe and his scripted text.” (107, author’s italics). The distance between literate thinker and natural world completed with Plato, who has his teacher say in Phaedrus, “I’m a lover of learning, and trees and open country won’t teach me anything, whereas men in the town do.”
The first written poetry comes along somewhere in the sixth century BC with the likes of Archilochos, Sappho and Pindar, who composed lyric poems accompanied by the lyre. Every sappy love song derives from these guys, as well our lyric incessant absorption in all things I Me Mine Anne Carson writes in Eros the Bittersweet (1998), her magnificent monograph on early lyric poetry,
As the audio-tactile world of the oral culture is transformed into a world of words on paper, where vision is the principal conveyor of information, a reorientation of perceptual abilities begins to take place within the individual … The difference revolves around the physiological and psychological phenomenon of individual self-control. Self-control is minimally stressed in an oral milieu where most of the data important for survival and understanding are channeled into the individual through the open conduits of his senses, particularly his sense of sound, in a continuous interaction linking him with the world outside him. Complete openness to the environment is a condition of optimum awareness and alertness for such a person …
… When people begin to learn reading and writing, a different scenario develops. Reading and writing require focusing the mental attention upon a text by means of the visual sense. As an individual reads and writes he gradually learns to close or inhibit the input of his senses, to inhibit or control the responses of his body, so as to train energy and thought upon the written words. He resists the environment outside him by distinguishing and controlling the one inside him. In making the effort, he becomes aware of the interior self as ean entity separable from the environment and its input, controllable by his own mental action …
If the presence of absence of literacy affect the way a person regards his own body, senses and self, that effect will significantly influence erotic life. It is in the poetry of those where were first exposed to a written alphabet and the demands of literacy that we encounter deliberate mediation upon the self, especially in the context of erotic desire. (43-44 passim)
Lyric poetry then, was created as a defense against the assault of Eros and the call of the wild. Here is one of Sappho’s surviving lyrics, translated by Mary Barnard:
With his venom
of limbs, Love
strikes me down
Mamas, don’t let your daughters grow up to be poets, and the gods save them from that desire which invades the sacred precincts of this new sense self. For who isn’t erased in the quench of desire?
By the time poetry gets to Sylvia Plath in that terrible winter of 1963 and at the frozen end of her marriage to Ted Hughes, you feel yourself wondering if Love has become a nature too hard to resist, much less bear…
First, are you our sort of a person?
Do you wear
A glass eye, false teeth or a crutch,
A brace or a hook,
Rubber breasts or a rubber crotch,
Stitches to show something’s missing? No, no? Then
How can we give you a thing?
Open your hand.
Empty? Empty. Here is a hand
To fill it and willing
To bring teacups and roll away headaches
And do whatever you tell it.
Will you marry it?
It is guaranteed
To thumb shut your eyes at the end
And dissolve of sorrow.
We make new stock from the salt.
I notice you are stark naked.
How about this suit —
Black and stiff, but not a bad fit.
Will you marry it?
It is waterproof, shatterproof, proof
Against fire and bombs through the roof.
Believe me, they’ll bury you in it.
Now your head, excuse me, is empty.
I have the ticket for that.
Come here, sweetie, out of the closet.
Well, what do you think of that?
Naked as paper to start
But in twenty-five years she’ll be silver,
In fifty, gold.
A living doll, everywhere you look.
It can sew, it can cook,
It can talk, talk, talk.
It works, there is nothing wrong with it.
You have a hole, it’s a poultice.
You have an eye, it’s an image.
My boy, it’s your last resort.
Will you marry it, marry it, marry it.
Maybe writing is why it’s so damned difficult to compose a decent poem inflected toward our original animal voice. I sure struggle with it; human concepts and conversations keep intruding. And the human heart overwhelms everything else with its needy voltage.
When I was out in Salem Oregon for my younger brother’s funeral in 2008, I remember those huge gusts barreling off from the Pacific, like monster hands bearing heavy, hard and moist air. It was a tangible presence, even menace. I found myself short for words; it harkened back to something bashed about by Titans in their Taraturus.
Those huge hands are back at work this week as a massive heat wave grips the US West, with 40 million Americans under excessive heat warning. Temperatures from up to 115 degrees will last until the middle of the week, and Death Valley may nick the global record for September heat, passing 126 degrees. Wildfires are exploding from Eugene, Oregon to San Diego County.
As winter approaches, the atmospheric rivers will come. Their effect is worsened by land that has been scrubbed by wildfire, increasing the possibility of washouts and landslides. Extremity is a cycle, brutality becomes seasonal fact. My older brother is now slowly succumbing to cancer and those Pacific winds do not seem far, even from here in Florida.
Is the world is taking back its language from us, or speaking in ways it is no longer safe or reasonable for those of us who, as Rilke wrote, “live in their heated poems and stay, / content, in their narrow similes”? The wild is taking back its vernacular, and my sense is that we had better learn to speak its name before it devours us. (If we can. Survival is only one scenario.)
Well look, it’s raining again, in that silver salvo that washes gulleys. A curtain of drumming quicksilver. Noah, pack your bags, it’s time to get to work.
For this challenge, give voice to these atmospheric rivers. You don’t have to write about them per se, but try to register the evolving magnitude they suggest. Maybe it’s disturbing a love poem. Or flooding a burnt Earth poem. Or howling in the storm wind an extinct animal poem. Or some new mash of energies that no one has managed yet to name. You decide, but fill your poem’s sails with a blast of something akin to the hurl of atmospheric plumes.
Brave and pregnant voyagings!
TASTING THE LAST OF THE ICE AGE
We stuffed our mouths with snow
& bark on sleds to the border.
The ice hotel was not forgot.
Sleds kept their ice caps on
& skidded between forest folk—
they waved, they cried, we saw it all.
We live in the hotel beyond estrangement.
It floods sinks swerves—
Ultraviolet auroras on postcards slip
from their raining frames.
The diamond chandeliers
hold prismatic sleepers
between glass sheets.
When staircases come down
we lose distinctions.
Still thrilled, yes, thrilling as ever—
the midnight sun stays on & on.
We do not anyway think of leaving.
Cities nearly all torched.
Pull-apart bodies stagger
into melting ice. One
drinks from a frozen glass
then drinks the glass too,
face at frost removes.
Flakes ache to re-constellate.
This dawn a pair of lovers,
were trapped in an ice alcove, caving,
beneath a smeared Patagonia
cover, and puffer jacket, p.53?
Stone told — “look under me.”
They were already dead.
Hardly anyone notices a tender
chilling bliss. The giant cumulous
are walk-ons for permanence.
All the slow night they are there.
published in Poem A Day, Sept. 2, 2022
Fallen from heaven, lies across
The lap of his mother, broken by world.
But water will go on
Issuing from heaven
In dumbness uttering spirit brightness
Through its broken mouth.
Scattered in a million pieces and buried
Its dry tombs will split, at a sign in the sky,
As a rending of veils.
It will return stainless
For the delivery of this world.
So the river is a god
Knee-deep among reeds, watching men,
Or hung by the heels down the door of a dam
It is a god, and inviolable,
Immortal. And will wash itself of all deaths.
— from River, 1983
GOODBYE TO THE HANDS THAT HAVE TOUCHED HIM
Rocky roads, sleepless nights. Heart decides
that love exists at the root of his problems.
Without love his path would be a smooth
as a plate of glass and he’d sleep like a kitten.
Without love, he would be a Brain. Wasn’t it
only love that wouldn’t let him think straight?
As a Brain, new work would stretch before him.
He could be a general and send troops into battle.
He could be a surgeon and cut hearts with impunity.
He could be a critic and dissect what he didn’t like.
He would live in a stone house on a mountaintop.
New books of poems would be brought to him
and he would shout, No, no, no! He would eat
nothing but red meat. He wouldn’t need friends.
He would be happy in the company of machines.
Then Heart wonders what do Brains do for fun?
For a Brain, a poem is just a collection of signifiers,
a sunset is just a sunset, a rose is only a color dying.
For fun, a Brain thinks solely about itself. Its house
has mirrors in place of windows. Every bed is soft.
Brain stands before a mirror and does the brain dance.
Instead of laughing, it grunts and rumbles. Instead
of singing, it coughs. Heart can’t wait to get started.
But first he must say goodbye to his friends, those
who have hurt him, those who haven’t hurt him yet.
He will bid farewell to all he loves: late afternoon light
upon the birch trees, goodbye to birds and bird dogs,
goodbye to the hands that have touched him.
This may take a few days but Heart won’t dawdle.
No more resentment, no more sleepless nights.
He will toss out his emotions, chuck even his tear ducts.
One bright morning he will awake and be a Brain.
For breakfast he’ll fry up a batch of dead poems.
— from Pallbearers Envying The One Who Rides, 1991
AFTER THE APOCALYPSE
After the apocalypse, I yearned to be reckless. To smash a glass
brought first to my lips. To privilege lust over
tomorrow. To walk naked down the middle of a two-lane
road. But, too late, without my bidding, life cracked open,
rushed, openmouthed, like a panting dog whose name
I did not call—my lips shut like a purse. The last man
I kissed was different than the last man I fucked.
We were so desperate then, the two of us, undone
by longing, drawing night from the cracks
inside us, drawing the night out, as long as we could,
until dawn broke like a beat egg and our heartbeats
quieted in private fatigue. I’d be lying if I said I don’t recall
his name. The end of the world has ended, and desire is still
all I crave. Oh, to be a stone, sexless and impenetrable.
Over half of me is water, a river spilling into restless limbs,
the rest of me is a scalding heat like the asphalt under my feet.
After the apocalypse, I mothered my mother, became
grandmother to myself, distant and tender, temples turning
gray. The whole world cascaded past my shoulders, like the hair
self-hatred taught me to crave—though all my Barbie dolls
were black. And the Cabbage Patch Kid my grandmother
placed under the artificial Christmas tree, sprinkled with tinsel,
in Memphis, Tennessee, the city where my mother waited
for her first pair of glasses in the Colored Only waiting room.
She said the world changed from black-and-white to Technicolor
that day. My mother watches TV as I roll her hair. She sits
between my legs. I’ve never birthed a child. I have fondled the crown
of a lover’s head, my thighs framing his dark brown eyes.
I entered the world excised from my mother’s womb. Her scar
is a mark the color of time. I am my mother’s weeping
wound. On my last birthday, I cried into bathwater.
I hid my tears from my mother because that’s what mothers do.
After the apocalypse, I had the urge to dance on the president’s
grave. The dispossessed threw me a belated quinceañera. My godmother
wore a necklace of the dictator’s teeth. She sliced an upside-down cake,
licked her forefinger, and said, “You have mastered sadness, querida,
may your rage be sticky and sweet.” My father offered his hand—this time
I took it. We glided like ballroom dancers across the red dirt floor.
He wore a grave expression. I embraced him tightly
so as to cloak my face. Instead of a toast, he handed me a handkerchief,
wet with tears. My father circled the guests silently, dabbing gently
each of their cheeks. This too was a dance unfolding.
I folded the handkerchief into a fist and raised my fist like
a glass of champagne. The pain in my father’s eyes sparkled
like the sequins on my tattered gown. If it hadn’t been so ugly
it would’ve been beautiful. The party ended just as the world had:
with the sound of rain beating against the earth and each of us
on our hands and knees peering into pools of mud and thirst.
After the apocalypse, time turned like a mood ring. My mood
changed like a thunderstruck sky. The sky changed
like a breast, engorged, staining the front of a white silk blouse.
I got laid off. I went thirteen days without wearing a bra. I changed
my mind about the fiction of money. Money changed hands.
I washed my hands religiously. Religion changed into sunlight—
something allowed to touch my face. My face changed into
my mother’s. No, into a mask of my mother’s face. Traces
of heartache changed into a pain in my right hip. The stock market
dipped. The S & P fell freely. I did not fall to my knees
promising to change my life. The price of paper towels changed
and the price of toilet paper and the price of white bread and milk.
Whiteness did not change. Some things stayed the same. We named
the moon for its changes, but it remained the same. Gravity
pulled at my organs like the moon’s tug makes a king tide.
America’s king would inevitably change and inevitably stay the same.
After the laughter subsided the crying kept after we held hands
and screamed and screamed and squeezed and screamed after
regret and shame and a single bush filled with speckled thrushes
singing redwing bluebird wood thrush on the wood of a branch
and forest thrush in the branches of a forest open pine
and after your mother refused to haunt your dreams after
you placed her in a wooden coffin and you sang like a blue bird
breast trembling beak open like a mother’s beak foraging feeding
offspring after laying on a clutch of blue eggs and after spring
after pining for spring ignorant of your grief and unraveling
with or without your blessing cool days and rain after icicles
crying and after you kept from crying and after you cried
there was no one left to protect after you blessed the demon
possessing you and after it left you were even more alone
a grandala calling and calling and after calling after your mother
a hole closed and a hole opened after that after all of that.
There is a scar near my right eye no lover ever noticed
or kissed, a faint mark: split skin sewn.
And so, and now, there was never a before. Never
a time when the wind did not smell of dust
or storm or brine or blood. Never an hour when I entered
a field of bluebells without trampling at least one flower.
And so, and then, on the day I was born, a stampede
of horses filled my chest. Astronomers can only guess
how the universe formed. The planet is dying:
the horses, the mothers, the farmers, the bees. I am
the ground, its many grasses and wild clover.
My teeth grow yellow, ache, decay. I wash a plate,
polishing the moon’s face—both will outlast my brutal
hands. And so, in the minutes of after, the moon drips
on a silver rack and the plate floats, cracked with age,
in outer space … a stray soapsud sparkles then bursts.
— Yale Review, June 4 2020, anthologized in Best American Poetry 2022
We are given the trees so we can know
what God looks like. And rivers
so we might understand Him. We are allowed
women so we can get into bed with the Lord,
however partial and momentary that is.
The passion, and then we are single again
while the dark goes on. He lived
in the Massachusetts woods for two years.
Went out naked when the moon would allow it.
He watched the aspens when the afternoon breeze
was at them. And listened to rain
on the butternut tree near his window.
But when he finally left, they did not care.
The difficult garden he was midwife to
was indifferent. The eight wild birds
he fed through both winters, when the snow
was starving them, forgot him immediately
And the three women he ate of and entered
utterly then and before, who were his New World
as immensity and landfall, are now only friends
or dead. What we are given is taken away,
but we manage to keep it secretly.
We lose everything, but make harvest
of the consequence it was to us. Memory
builds this kingdom from the fragments
and approximation. We are gleaners who fill
the barn for the winter that comes on.
from Refusing Heaven (2005)
BY THE WAY
for Adrienne Rich
I’ve given it time, as if time were mine to give.
There was a dam, larger than Hoover or the President or the patent
For the metal creature that sucks up all the dust.
Words had to stop and ask permission before crossing over.
Oh, sometimes they were wild with the urgency of sweet
Mostly the rest were kept in the net
Of swallowed or forbidden language.
I want to go back and rewrite all the letters.
I lied frequently.
No. I was not O.K.
And neither was James Baldwin, though his essays
Were perfect spinning platters of comprehension of the fight
To assert humanness in a black-and-white world.
That’s how blues emerged, by the way—
Our spirits needed a way to dance through the heavy mess.
The music, a sack that carries the bones of those left alongside
The trail of tears when we were forced
To leave everything we knew by the way—
I constructed an individual life in the so-called civilized world.
We all did—far from the trees and plants
Who had born us and fed us.
All I wanted was the music, I would tell you now—
Within it, what we cannot carry.
I talk about then from a hotel room just miles
From your home in the East
Before you fled on your personal path of tears
To the West, that worn-out American Dream
Dogging your steps.
You lived on a pedestal for me then, the driven diver who climbed
Back up from the abyss, Venus on a seashell with a dagger
In her hands.
I had to look, and followed your tracks in the poems
Cut by suffering.
Aren’t they all?
We’re in the apocalyptic age of addiction and forgetting.
It’s worse now.
But that dam, I had to tell you. I broke it open stone by stone.
It took a saxophone, flowers, and your words
Had something to do with it
I can’t say exactly how.
The trajectory wasn’t clean, even though it was sure.
Does that make sense?
Maybe it does only in the precincts of dreams and poetry,
Not in a country lit twenty-four hours a day to keep dreams stuck
Turning in a wheel
In the houses of money.
I read about transcendence, how the light
Came in through the window of a nearby traveler
And every cell of creation opened its mouth
To drink grace.
That’s what I never told you.
— from An American Sunrise: Poems (2019)