When I was 13 my parents separated, with my father remaining in Chicago and the rest of us – mother, three boys, a girl and a dog — moved to Florida, into a split-level pool home in a development that had been carved out of an orange grove. My memories of that first summer hovers in the swimming pool back of that house and is thick with the pulpy sweetness of fresh-squeezed orange juice from the trees in our yard.
That summer puberty assaulted me in a wave, a drenching splash of pool water that drew up into a ziggurat of salty hormones. Everything was amplified — a girl in the pool became a siren, my first drag on a cigarette irreverent as a black-light poster, pop harmonies on poolside transistor radio becoming hymns in an immense cathedral — “Close to You” by the Carpenters crossed by Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen.” (It was 1970).
A time of powerful awakenings. Memory points to a girl visiting her grandparents next door who came over to swim. I delivered my first kiss in that pool. The next summer it was the burning pentacoastal faith my heartbroken mother fed us all into. I was baptized in the Atlantic Ocean on my birthday in 1971, and when the minister held me back into the wave I felt this immensity wash through all the way to my soul.
I point to those things as formative, but that’s a homo sapiens for you! So much of my hormonal initiation was naturally sourced. Florida back then still was wild, unkempt, savage, burning. Storms brewed up daily and marched across the state, dumping our neighborhood with thunder and germens at the same time every afternoon. Fresh squeezed orange juice was demoniacally sweet. At night the sounds of undeveloped monstrosity chattered and hissed and slithered on the other side of the tall wooden fence in our backyard. And the ocean — sheer heave and suck of Grendel’s mam, delirious and salty and dazzled.
After two years my parents decided to give their marriage another go, so we left that wild house in Florida for grey old Chicago, a sad, brutalized, freezing ghetto next to deep dead Lake Michigan. My parents didn’t stand a chance. In two years they split a second and final time , my father heading for gay New York City and my mother back to Florida with my kid brother and sister. I finished high school then fled West where I went dug into books, went mad, developed a terrible thirst for booze and abandonment in rock n roll bands.
My mother once sent me a care package of brownies and a couple of vials of shells and sand, writing in a noteThere’s as saying that if you get Florida sand in your shoes, you must always return. Within a few years I had crossed the continent was living again in Florida. I have remained there since.
Was it that Florida sand, or my mother’s voice next to it? I’ll never know, but natural forces were ever behind the yearnings and wild imaginings which eventually found voice in poetry. It makes me wonder if we are all naturally shaped, a nautilus of self defined by loud winds and great tides.
If I only weren’t blinded by my poor fool species, trapping my identity in self-awareness, a continuous narrative of I against World. Questing, adventuring, finding treasure. The voice in my head is of a hero at his height, a stature of strength grappling the day’s opponent. When I look in the mirror I expect to see a guy in his mid-30s (How disappointed I am nowadays!). It’s the musician at the end of his world tour, the poet I thought would make a name for himself.
The world is least visible behind him, even though he owes every breathing and thinking moment to that world. Why is my vision so singulre? Why can’t I see and celebrate the 13 year old amazed and enthralled and horny and intoxicate on salvos of sun and storm, with tides from the Earth’s own adolescence washing hundreds of miles inland every day and the moon this enormous face you could virtually touch?
Does anyone master those natural forces? Or do we simply appropriate them, eating swords of sunlight until our image flashes day and night? Look at the places where nature is most mastered — I think of gated suburbs —houses there dominate the landscape, imperial accumulations of mortar and ego. Can anything intrude there? Moonlight in such places is fainter than starlight; an ironic echo at best.
Humanity has become the devouring dragon, eating world and dreaming of nothing much in deathless surfeit. That is mastery as we have come to know it. But at what peril? We come to know that too well. Here in Florida, my approaching old age is like Beowulf facing off with the dragon again very late in life. Florida is maleficent, her coasts flooding, her interior burning, and storms of Titan magnitude hurling something billions of years old at us, a fraught, interstellar abyss not meant for humans to survive. I think you know who will win this final battle, though the man in my mirror devoutly refuses to believe it.
In his 1996 book The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, David Abram reminds us that shamans – the ancestors of poets — were not masters of nature but master mediators of humanity’s place in the world at large:
The traditional or tribal shaman … acts as an intermediary between the human community and the larger ecological field, ensuring that there is an appropriate flow of nourishment, not just from the landscape of the human inhabitants, but from the human community back to the local earth. By his constant rituals, trances, ecstasies and “journeys,” he ensures that the relation between human society and the larger society of beings is balanced and reciprocal, and that the village never takes more from the living land than it returns to it … The sorcerer derives her ability to cure ailments from her more continuous practice of “healing” or balancing the community’s relation to the surrounding land. (7)
Maybe we’re past reckoning—I fear so—but as poets we can only treat what we can, and after the terrible freeze this past week in Texas — a blast of Arctic air wound from Siberia to Canada and then, thanks to our damaged jet stream, blasted south into the American Midwest and Deep South — it’s clear we owe homage to the natural forces which have shaped us. (Well I remember too blasts of Canadian wind slicing through the concrete canyons of Chicago in January—an atheist absolute.)
For this challenge, write about natural forces as protagonist and hero, speaker and subject, beloved and lover. Tell us about sun-gods and wind-raptors, oceanic heart-sharks and mastodons of freeze. Remember a time when nature was bigger than anything else. Personify, magnify, glorify nature into this magnificent, maleficent more-than-human tenacity which we foolishly attempt to appropriate. How have natural forces shaped you?
I leave you with the following poems as example.
The challenge remains up until 4 PM EST Friday, 2/26.
John Clare (1829)
The thisteldown’s flying
Though the winds are all still,
On the green grass now lying,
Now mounting the hill,
The spring from the fountain
now boils like a pot,
Through stones past the counting,
It bubbles red hot.
The ground parched and cracked is
Like overbaked bread,
The greensward all wracked is,
Bents dried up and dead.
The fallow fields glitter
Like water indeed.
And gossamers twitter,
Flung from weed unto weed.
Hill-tops like hot iron
Glitter hot i’ the sun.
And the rivers we’re eyeing
Burn to gold as they run.
Burning hot is the ground,
Liquid gold is the air;
Whoever looks round
Sees Eternity there.
While I stood here, in the open, lost in myself,
I must have looked a long time
Down the corn rows, beyond grass,
The small house,
White walls, animals lumbering toward the barn.
I look down now. It is all changed.
Whatever it was I lost, whatever I wept for
Was a wild, gentle thing, the small dark eyes
Loving me in secret.
It is here. At the touch of my hand,
The air fills with the delicate creatures
From the other world.
from This Branch Will Not Break (1992)
When the white fog burns off,
the abyss of everlasting light
is revealed. The last cobwebs
of fog in the
black firtrees are flakes
of white ash in the world’s hearth.
Cold of the sea is counterpart
to this great fire. Plunging
out of the burning cold of ocean
we enter an ocean of intense
noon. Sacred salt
sparkles on our bodies.
After mist has wrapped us again
in fine wool, may the taste of salt
recall to us the great depths about us.
from The Jacob’s Ladder (1961)
EXPRESSIONS OF SEA LEVEL
Peripherally the ocean
against the gauging land
it erodes and
it is hard to name
speech without words,
silence renders it:
sky sealed unbroken to sea,
there is no way to know
the ocean’s speech,
intervolved and markless,
no boulder-held fingerland:
broken, surf things are expressions:
the sea speaks far from its core,
far from its center relinquishes the
of any mid-sea
speech, the yielding resistances
of wind and water, spray,
swells, whitecaps, moans,
it is a dream the sea makes,
an inner problem, a self-deep
dark and private anguish,
revealed in small,
by hints, to
keen watchers on the shore:
only with the staid land
is the level conversation really held:
only in the meeting of rock and sea is
hard relevance shattered into light:
upheld the clam shell
holds smooth dry sand,
remembrance of tide:
water can go at
least that high: in
the night, if you stay
to watch, or
if you come tomorrow at the right time,
you can see the shell caught
again in wash, the
sand turbulence changed,
new sand left smooth: if
the shell washes loose,
buries its rim in flux,
it will not be silence for
a shell that spoke: the
half-buried back will
tell how the ocean dreamed
breakers against the land:
into the salt marshes the water comes fast with rising tide:
an inch of rise spreads by yards
through tidal creeks, round fingerways of land:
the marsh grasses stem-logged
combine wind and water motions,
slow from dry trembling
to heavier motions of wind translated through
cushioned stems; tide-held slant of grasses
bent into the wind:
is there a point of rest where
the tide turns: is there one
infinitely tiny higher tough
on the legs of egrets, the
skin of back, bay-eddy reeds:
is there an instant when fullness is,
without loss, complete: is there a
statement perfect in its speech:
how do you know the moon
is moving: see the dry
casting of the beach worm
dissolve at the
delicate rising touch:
that is the
expression of sea level,
the talk of giants,
of ocean, moon, sun, of everything,
spoken in a dampened grain of sand.
Title poem of Expressions of Sea Level, 1963