A strand of algae leaves its rubbery
translucent swatch on my skin. My first impulse
is to peel it off lest a horror
movie version of contagion unfold
and my skin turn zombie green—telltale alien,
more slime than flesh, attracting gnats, pinhead skitters
moving so rapidly all is flux.
My second impulse is to keep it as a totem
of subterranean life, a scrap chiseled
from things that are meant to sink. Deep is form,
like a snail that burrows into silt, shell
growing out of sludgy cravings.
A life-in-death feel. The croaks frogs make
drowning in natural desire. Believe me,
diving into this mosh pit, I do not
float softly through water.
Pond life is too shallow. No flotsam or jetsam,
sneakers, ice-hockey gloves, Chinese message
in a bottle. Even the dam’s stopped up,
no bigger than an oversized sink filled
nightly with dishes. No reputable
oceanographer will chart its depth—
another thing I’ll never know
about myself. Territorial and fiercely defensive,
rock bottom will not be reached.
To be essential something must be both deep
and wide. Eyes with skies in them. Upswept
lashes and brows. A western monsoon.
Dreams that stretch over many nights to mimic
the feel of sea-foam on ankles,
down to the cellular properties of summer.
Eva Hesse escaped Nazi Germany as a five-year-old, separated from her parents and placed on the kindertransport to London. They eventually reunited and immigrated to the US. Although “My Oceanography” is rooted in my experience, the inspiration for this poem is certainly my preoccupation with Hesse. Alienation, fragmentation and absurdity are recurrent themes in her work.
Similar to so many people, I suffer from not feeling like I belong anywhere—a combination of of my particular background and psyche and the general human experience. Although I did not set out to write this poem in a way that would capture Hesse’s immigrant experience, (one to which I can find connections as the granddaughter of refugees and immigrants who fled pogroms in Eastern Europe), once I assembled the book I began to see how the poems are saturated with this history. For me, writing is a largely subconscious, intuitive process. I immerse myself in a project, often for years, (this time, in Hesse) and it entirely takes over my being. You could say it’s like method acting! I’m hard to be around because it’s all I can talk about.
The neuropsychologist Alice Flaherty discusses creativity in terms of irrepressibility in her book The Midnight Disease. She says that writers often experience extreme feelings of empathy when they think that everything relates to their project, so much so that they might believe that the universe is bestowing upon them gifts or signs. She gives the example of a flock of geese flying up after she lost twin daughters and how she believed the geese were a sign for her to finish writing her book instead of giving herself over to her grief. An irrefutable network of coincidence and connection guides me through all my projects. In fact, I would say that the mania of feeling like everything I say or do is forwarding a particular work, brings it into existence. I often walk around the ponds where “My Oceanography” is set, but on this particular day a strand of algae stuck to my skin.
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