Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Ruthless furnace

Yesterday we heard that the first balls of tar had appeared on the shore of Key West, at Fort Zachary Taylor Beach, a place we've often been to swim -- as much as one can swim there, where the waves break steeply after traversing deep water and suddenly hitting a narrow shelf of sand. When Paul told me he'd read this -- that oil had moved into the current that would carry it to the Keys, and probably from thence around the tip of Florida and up the east coast, I had a physical response. A shut-down. A rupture. Entirely silent but something breaking. I've had this feeling, here and on Facebook posts, that people didn't want to read about bad news, and of course who doesn't feel inundated with the horrors of the news -- war and disaster, extinction and corruption and pollution and the endless failure of leadership? We've been hearing it all our lives and it's only gotten worse. But somehow this sense of steeling ourselves against the realities of the world needs to be broken through, or set down for a while, in the face of this moment's gravity. I think Jack Gilbert is right when he says, in an unforgettable poem called "A Brief for the Defense," that

              We must have
       the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless
       furnace of this world. To make injustice the only
       measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

It's true, but conversely it is also the case that something as grave as the murder of the Gulf of Mexico -- and how much ocean on beyond it -- is so overwhelming an instance of"ruthless furnace" that we need to lay the private gladness down, the good sense of being a living body. We need to be willing to weep, to be outraged, and to ask every question we can about our endless, characteristically American sense of powerlessness. BP says it's a minor spill, with minor consequences, and the turtles die, and the Gulf churns black, and in how many days or weeks will the coral reef be dead forever?


And now, on the evening of the 18th, tar balls on the beach in Big Pine Key, where the endangered key deer live. That means the oil is rounding the tip of the Keys already.


Yesterday, May 19, pure crude oil coating the wetlands of southern Louisiana, "as thick as chocolate syrup," sad the CNN reporter. Photos on Huffington Post of a dragonfly and a crab, covered in oil. Everything in the marshes touched by the oil, which include the marshgrass that IS is the marsh, holding the marsh together, will be dead in a week.


Nancy Devine said...

i agree. we do need to weep and speak up and ask questions. yes, the onslaught of bad news can be exhausting to our cores. but delusion and pretending as the mainstay of our lives is worse. when i lose the energy to keep persisting, i hope someone or something i love---like a piece of writing, a song, a painting, terrific dance--- reminds me to continue.

Erin at Being Poetry said...

I live in Prince William Sound, but I did not when the Exxon Valdez belched its obscenity. Each day, I witness the aftermath of the spill that occurred 21 years ago, environmentally muted but not gone. Still, the gravest damage has been to the psyche of the people who witnessed a beloved place that they thought inviolate be changed irrevocably. The maddening helplessness in the face of oil impacting such a fragile ecosystem has ingrained itself into the psyche of the people of the Sound and been passed down to their children. Whatever the answer is, it will require that the American people be willing to sacrifice something; my hope is that we might sacrifice a lifestyle sustained by petroleum instead of the earth and air that sustain us.

Jessamyn said...

Yes. Exactly this.

Unknown said...

did he ever (even once) make injustice the measure of his intention (to use his clunky creepy phrasing)——?

I can't recall ever reading any poems of his that deigned to address political matters,

but maybe they're there and I haven't read him far enough to find them—

Unknown said...

the subject interests me because I've been wondering whether to update edit my book of selected political poems and vanity-publish it with all my other books on Lulu.com——

at anyrate, if anyone's interested, they might look at:



Unknown said...

hopefully not belabor the point, part 4 of my gulf war sequence:

4. THE ROADKILL (for a Bestiary)

Really a rarity prior to the
20th Century, nevertheless
despite this historical novelty
and its native USA pedigree,
the Roadkill is surely the least
interesting animal there is.

It has no habits to speak of.
Apparently harmless; not found
on any list of predators.
We think those squishy sounds
it emits beneath car tires
are mating calls, cries of love.

Child of Henry Ford, doubtless
its true father was Emerson,
the poeteer who wrote that
"Everything good is on
the highway," meaning this
creature: he was a prophet.

But did he guess his disciples,
those gasoholics eager to kill
every denier of the octane
they gulp to gain personal
salvation as a speed span
that gaps from us to √úberman?

Human was just a bridge to cross.
Raise a glass to his late loss.
All hail that great Rilke spiel:
to make the earth invisible!
Skoal. Let's get rid of it for real.
Fuck is it anyway but fuel.

Let's burn it up on our way
to the stars. Terminal ahead—
Last Exit: Deity. But see
how Evolution swerves instead
to this crumpled cast-off, this
flattened apotheosis. Most

boring of pets. Lowest, last beast
in our abbreviated-by-ecocide
Bestiary, the Roadkill may be
the one we miss chiefly after
all the other brutes here are
emersonized planetwide.

The Roadkill may have been bred
unconsciously to lead us
away from our rapacious
verse. That's why his genus
his ilk begot/his stock is: Dead.
(Phylum: Poeticus americanus.)

The transporation/energy policies of the United States are ecocidal suicidal insane. They arise from our professed need to experience everything as individuals, immediately, directly; to pursue via our private vehicles a liberty of one; to singly dominate and exhaust the environment. This spurious concept of freedom pervades all our culture, not least our poetry, which valorizes the Emersonian/ Whitmanic urge to ubiquitize our presence, to "see it for ourselves." What despoilation of earth and atmosphere follows from that desire. Geopolitical consequences include the current (2001-?) so-called 'War on Terror' which is of course really a war to ensure the continued flow of cheap fuel into our gastanks. The greed to go, to see, to be there, to get it hot, to gulp it down: to never stay at home with the vicarious. What matter how many casualties ensue if we can continue to satisfy this mania which pollutes not just our air but our poems as well. We will pay any price to maintain our selfish addiction to the first-person voice.


word verification: pegasese

(unfortunately latterday poets have to gas up their pegasus)

jpilgrim said...

Mark, thanks for continuing to write about this, and especially this. I am sleeping and waking to this in my head, obsessively reading the news and waiting for more news from my friend who is down there setting up wildlife rescue stations -- and waiting to go myself. Each step in front of the other keeps getting heavier with knowledge of the breadth of this, and the extent of the corruption that allowed it to happen -- I don't understand how it can't be foremost for others and in NY news.

Paul Lisicky said...

From Dr. Sylvia Earle:

We do not know what the tipping point is with respect to undermining these systems that have been developing for hundreds of millions of years that now keep us alive…. Maybe there’s some perverse value in an extreme event such as this, in that it will awaken us to the real underlying issues concerning what we’re doing to the natural systems that keep us alive.

Read more: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/backissues/2010/05/back-issues-sylvia-earle.html#ixzz0oTAHsEwy

Anonymous said...

Mark, I keep thinking about this post of yours. It's true that the magnitude of the damage and loss is hard to face, hard to summon the courage to engage with, in the midst of everything else. I'm linking to this on my Facebook. That, at least, this morning.

Unknown said...

Mark - you're right of course about the need for outrage; thank you for an eloquent post. I'm only sorry that the 'endless, characteristically American sense of powerlessness' that you and others feel is not being somehow replicated over here in the UK, since the company originates here. Far too much (media) attention both in the UK and the US has been drawn to the need to fix blame, instead of asking simple questions about how the spill itself can be fixed.

Peter said...

Just A Question Valentine

O my dear I don’t know
if I should turn the page
and take off for a new life
revised expanded version
or have another go
at cleaning up the bay
I mean the backyard
how could we not create
a picture of our interior
world a world we’ve
soiled like dogs
who can hardly be
expected to clean
it up these last sad
days of the seas?

Taradharma said...

Found your post linked on T.'s facebook. I cannot comprehend the devastation that is occurring. Erin's comment is illuminating: 21 years later the destruction continues.

I am numb.

ts said...

Thank you for your post, Mark. Though there is some devilishness in focusing on these issues, I agree with you that there are times when passivity just will not do. In my research of oil spills in light of this recent spill, I was appalled to learn that 26 oil spills occurred in the last year alone, and three of those spills were near Florida: http://www.incidentnews.gov/search/results/by-date

Thom Dawkins said...

Thanks for your attention and your posts...

I've just gotten back from a field seminar in southern Louisiana with the poet/writer Sheryl St. Germain, and many of us from the trip are still left wondering what to make of the situation.

We spent some time with folks living and working in the Atchafalaya Basin, where the oil companies and big corporation fisheries have already decimated the local industries, and now they stand to lose even more as the oil starts seeping into the marshland.

An entire way of living is being lost alongside the plant and animal life that's dying in the Gulf.

And yet, life persists. Those who live in and around the Atchafalaya go to work every day, fishing and catching what they can, because they have to do so.

sg word said...

Powerless? YEs. But here's one thing I have the power to change. Please don't ever call what is happening in the Gulf, and in surrounding coastline ecosystems, a spill, or a leak. This is using language to willfully minimize the awareness of teh "ruthless furnace." What's happening is better described by any of the following: hemorrhage—a large uncontrolled loss of something valuable; explosion; rupture; burst; torrent; deluge; disaster; catastrophe. One thing we especially can do is demand precise language and truthful language from ourselves, our friends, our leaders. Each of our own hearts and interactions shapes our shared culture as fine root hairs do a tree. Words are one way to do this tangibkly, visibly, powerfully.

melissashook said...

Thank you for writing about this astounding 'accident.' It's embarrassing how we Americans just ignore wall street accidents, housing accidents, oil drilling accidents and watch the endless political wrangling about who shouldn't do what to protect us from the next crisis that we've hidden our eyes in the sand to ignore and, pardon phrase, 'big business' has, oddly enough, not imagined would happen.

thank you!!!

apprentice said...

A great post Mark.

The beauty of the blue heron alone should mean they never drill for another drop.

There are few things as distressing as seeing seabird covered in crude.

We've had spills in precious places like Orkney and Shetland, and all that saved them from total disaster was the wildness of the N. Atlantic, wave surges literally pounded the oil slick until it bio-degraded - but no such option exists in the Gulf.

And sadly those we need to convince won't be reading pieces like this.

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...



A sloop on the horizon, approaching,
white sails and black flag on blue seas.
Closing on a fat, laden galleon, rolling
like a pig in the swell, heavy with gold
from a government's plunder,
the theft of a culture,
now plundered by those of no flag.
Sound and smoke of a cannon.
A predator encroaching, surrender demanded
from men condemned to have no tales to tell,
on a vessel abandoned and reeling
and soon to go under.
A raw justice, indeed. An irony
by the buccaneers laid:
the theft of that which was stolen.

Today the pirates still plunder,
but black flags in the breeze don't portend the raid,
for those that are taking the treasure
pillage all that will sell or is sold,
all that's of value to bring them more wealth;
privateers underhanded and stealing,
not silver or rum or emeralds or lace,
but the womb of our birth,
the soil and the oil and the trees.
No more honor among thieves
or a brigand's democracy,
for nothing is sacred except money,
not even the adventure of obtaining it.
A raw injustice, indeed, a travesty,
for they commandeer not the gold
from government ships, but rape and disgrace
the very Earth.

Copyright 2005 - Evolving Poems 1965-2005, Gary B. Fitzgerald

Gary B. Fitzgerald said...

Thank you for posting my poem, Mark. I don't want to seem too OCS, but the word 'raid' is supposed to be the last word on L2 of S2.

Damn this Blogger format, anyway! :-)

Point remains, I guess. The selfish and greedy are destroying EVERYBODY'S planet.

Anonymous said...

Subtlety is better than force. ............................................................

Robin Merrill said...

Sigh. I've been trying not to think about it. Thank you for reminding me that sometimes we have to face the horrors.

Anonymous said...

After a storm comes a calm...................................................