Day 119: 10/22/13: On Mothers & Shipwrecks

English: Illustration for "The Wreck of t...

English: Illustration for “The Wreck of the Hesperus” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. From Illustrated Poems and Songs for Young People, edited by Mrs. [L.D.] Sale Barker. Published 1885. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another blurred batch of sea poems today. That none of the students chose “The Wreck of the Hesperus,” that morbid Longfellow melodrama that my mother used to recite, left me vaguely disappointed and relieved. No one could have owned “Hesperus” like my mother with her thick Salem Mass. accent. I cannot read it without hearing her voice. The skipper of the Hesperus binds his daughter to the mast during a violent storm. She, being  a rather chatty child, keeps asking the beleaguered old salt questions that he patiently answers until the twelfth stanza:

O father! I see a gleaming light,

Oh say, what may it be?”

But the father answered never a word,

A frozen corpse was he.

In Ma’s dialect, corpse became a very earnest “caawpse” and I had to suppress my delighted laughter or she would not continue to my favorite part:

Lashed to the helm, all stiff and stark,

With his face turned to the skies,

The lantern gleamed through the gleaming snow

On his fixed and glassy eyes.

I loved the lantern. I loved the snow. I loved the odd repetition of “gleamed” and “gleaming” and I loved death’s glassy stare.

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Day 118 10/21/13: Sea Fragments

School passed in a blur of dangling modifiers, wordy and mixed constructions and about twenty-four recitations of sea poems by Frost, Baudelaire, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore and that time-traveling favorite “Anonymous.” One student recited a poem I had memorized and recited in 1979, John Masefield’s “Sea Fever.” It is amazing to me that I remember even a fragment of a stanza of “Sea Fever,” since I can’t remember what I had for lunch–but certain phrases whip and twist around my head like ghost nets. Simple juxtapositions–“the lonely sea and the sky,” and the hurried feeling (then & now) of “a gray mist on the sea’s face and a gray dawn breaking.”

I could tell which students connected to the specifics (the curve of a shell) or believed, as Marianne Moore believed that the sea is “a grave.”

The language of effective conservation has to include poetry, science and humor. It has to become a lasting and permanent force inside us, not something we dutifully digest and regurgitate in slogans–although I spotted the words MORE BIRTH LESS EARTH spray painted on the side of rusted bridge over the 101 Freeway, about 20 years ago. It’s stuck with me as stubbornly as any poetic fragment.

P.S. I hope it’s true that demand for shark fin has declined 50-70% in China.

John Masefield, Hampstead, January 1st, 1913.

John Masefield, Hampstead, January 1st, 1913. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 100 10/3/13: Seal Lullaby

I post this Rudyard Kipling poem in honor of my trip to the Marine Mammal Center tomorrow where I will meet some pinnipeds on the mend:

Seal Lullaby

Oh! Hush thee, my baby, the night is behind us,

And black are the waters that sparkled so green.

The moon, o’er the combers, looks downward to find us

At rest in the hollows that rustle between.

Where billow meets billow, there soft be thy pillow;

Ah, weary wee flipperling, curl at thy ease!

The storm shall not wake thee, nor shark overtake thee,

Asleep in the arms of the slow-swinging seas.

Pacific harbor seal in recuperation pool at th...

Pacific harbor seal in recuperation pool at the Marine Mammal Center. Photo Credit: The Marine Mammal Center (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 80: 9/13/13: The Way It Is

Once in a while you read the poem that articulates something you’ve been trying to say your entire life. This is one of those poems for me.

Animals & People: The Human Heart in Conflict with Itself 

by Pattiann Rogers

Some of us like to photograph them. Some
of us like to paint pictures of them. Some of us
like to sculpt them and make statues and carvings
of them. Some of us like to compose music
about them and sing about them. And some of us
like to write about them.

like to write about them.Some of us like to go out
and catch them and kill them and eat them. Some
of us like to hunt them and shoot them and eat them.
Some of us like to raise them, care for them and eat
them. Some of us just like to eat them.

them. Some of us just like to eat them.And some of us
name them and name their seasons and name their hours,
and some of us, in our curiosity, open them up
and study them with our tools and name their parts.
We capture them, mark them and release them,
and then we track them and spy on them and enter
their lives and affect their lives and abandon
their lives. We breed them and manipulate them
and alter them. Some of us experiment
upon them.

upon them.We put them on tethers and leashes,
in shackles and harnesses, in cages and boxes,
inside fences and walls. We put them in yokes
and muzzles. We want them to carry us and pull us
and haul for us.

and haul for us.And we want some of them
to be our companions, some of them to ride on our fingers
and some to ride sitting on our wrists or on our shoulders
and some to ride in our arms, ride clutching our necks.
We want them to walk at our heels.

We want them to walk at our heels.We want them to trust
us and come to us, take our offerings, eat from our hands.
We want to participate in their beauty. We want to assume
their beauty and so possess them. We want to be kind
to them and so possess them with our kindness and so
partake of their beauty in that way.

partake of their beauty in that way.And we want them
to learn our language. We try to teach them our language.
We speak to them. We put our words in their mouths.
We want them to speak. We want to know what they see
when they look at us.

when they look at us.We use their heads and their bladders
for balls, their guts and their hides and their bones
to make music. We skin them and wear them for coats,
their scalps for hats. We rob them, their milk
and their honey, their feathers and their eggs.
We make money from them.

We make money from them.We construct icons of them.
We make images of them and put their images on our clothes
and on our necklaces and rings and on our walls
and in our religious places. We preserve their dead
bodies and parts of their dead bodies and display
them in our homes and buildings.

them in our homes and buildings.We name mountains
and rivers and cities and streets and organizations
and gangs and causes after them. We name years and time
and constellations of stars after them. We make mascots
of them, naming our athletic teams after them. Sometimes
we name ourselves after them.

we name ourselves after them.We make toys of them
and rhymes of them for our children. We mold them
and shape them and distort them to fit our myths
and our stories and our dramas. We like to dress up
like them and masquerade as them. We like to imitate them
and try to move as they move and make the sounds they make,
hoping, by these means, to enter and become the black
mysteries of their being.

mysteries of their being.Sometimes we dress them
in our clothes and teach them tricks and laugh at them
and marvel at them. And we make parades of them
and festivals of them. We want them to entertain us
and amaze us and frighten us and reassure us
and calm us and rescue us from boredom.

and calm us and rescue us from boredom.We pit them
against one another and watch them fight one another,
and we gamble on them. We want to compete with them
ourselves, challenging them, testing our wits and talents
against their wits and talents, in forests and on plains,
in the ring. We want to be able to run like them and leap
like them and swim like them and fly like them and fight
like them and endure like them.

like them and endure like them.We want their total
absorption in the moment. We want their unwavering devotion
to life. We want their oblivion.

to life. We want their oblivion.Some of us give thanks
and bless those we kill and eat, and ask for pardon,
and this is beautiful as long as they are the ones dying
and we are the ones eating.

and we are the ones eating.And as long as we are not
seriously threatened, as long as we and our children
aren’t hungry and aren’t cold, we say, with a certain
degree of superiority, that we are no better
than any of them, that any of them deserve to live
just as much as we do.

just as much as we do.And after we have proclaimed
this thought, and by so doing subtly pointed out
that we are allowing them to live, we direct them
and manage them and herd them and train them and follow
them and map them and collect them and make specimens
of them and butcher them and move them here and move
them there and we place them on lists and we take
them off of lists and we stare at them and stare
at them and stare at them.

at them and stare at them.We track them in our sleep.
They become the form of our sleep. We dream of them.
We seek them with accusation. We seek them
with supplication.

with supplication.And in the ultimate imposition,
as Thoreau said, we make them bear the burden
of our thoughts. We make them carry the burden
of our metaphors and the burden of our desires and our guilt
and carry the equal burden of our curiosity and concern.
We make them bear our sins and our prayers and our hopes
into the desert, into the sky, into the stars.
We say we kill them for God.

We say we kill them for God.We adore them and we curse
them. We caress them and we ravish them. We want them
to acknowledge us and be with us. We want them to disappear
and be autonomous. We abhor their viciousness and lack
of pity, as we abhor our own viciousness and lack of pity.
We love them and we reproach them, just as we love
and reproach ourselves.

and reproach ourselves.We will never, we cannot,
leave them alone, even the tinest one, ever, because we know
we are one with them. Their blood is our blood. Their breath
is our breath, their beginning our beginning, their fate
our fate.

our fate.Thus we deny them. Thus we yearn
for them. They are among us and within us and of us,
inextricably woven with the form and manner of our being,
with our understanding and our imaginations.
They are the grit and the salt and the lullaby
of our language.

of our language.We have a need to believe they are there,
and always will be, whether we witness them or not.
We need to know they are there, a vigorous life maintaining
itself without our presence, without our assistance,
without our attention. We need to know, we must know,
that we come from such stock so continuously and tenaciously
and religiously devoted to life.

and religiously devoted to life.We know we are one with them,
and we are frantic to understand how to actualize that union.
We attempt to actualize that union in our many stumbling,
ignorant and destructive ways, in our many confused
and noble and praiseworthy ways.

and noble and praiseworthy ways.For how can we possess dignity
if we allow them no dignity? Who will recognize our beauty
if we do not revel in their beauty? How can we hope
to receive honor if we give no honor? How can we believe
in grace if we cannot bestow grace?

in grace if we cannot bestow grace?We want what we cannot
have. We want to give life at the same moment
we are taking it, nurture life at the same moment we light
the fire and raise the knife. We want to live, to provide,
and not be instruments of destruction, instruments
of death. We want to reconcile our “egoistic concerns”
with our “universal compassion.” We want the lion
and the lamb to be one, the lion and the lamb within
finally to dwell together, to lie down together
in peace and praise at last. 

Day 72 9/5/13: The Past Tense

Today in shark class we marveled at the oddness of shark biology—the sand tigers’ practice of intrauterine cannibalism (unborn pups eat other embryos while still in the womb) and the unborn big eyed threshers that eat eggs from their mother’s uterus, a practice known as “oophagy.”  (I love the sound of that word–somewhere between “egg” and “oaf”).  We talked of Hawaiian and Aztec shark god myths and marveled at pictures of weird species like dwarf lanterns and goblin sharks.  I suggested we all convert to an ancient shark worshipping religion and walk around the campus in strange wooden masks.The class had the feeling of discovery and aimlessness that grade school classes used to have—“Oooo—look at this weird picture.” I guess my goal, if I had one, was immersion and delight.

I told the class that as a child I mourned the eclipse of “Jaws” reign by “Star Wars” in 1977. Since I lost my father last year, any mention of childhood summons him. My father was, after all, the person who took me to see “Jaws.”  Each memory threatens to pull me into  unknown depths. Even the well-worn stories are reframed by his absence.

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Day 70: 9/3/13: Back to School

First shark-themed class. Babbled about my project. Showed a seal hunt from “Air Jaws”–trying to exploit/explore that weird human position: thrilled by the predator, empathetic  to the prey. Human beings as part of nature & observers of nature.

Trying to judge the silence of the audience. Were they bored? Enraptured?  Too soon to tell what the chemistry of the group will be. Some classes feel like interminably dull parties in which people with little in common engage in 16-week  conversations. Prattled on about how conservation being fun.  Offered extra credit for seeing Blackfish at the Laemmle in Pasadena.

“Can we watch it online?”

“Buy a ticket,” I snapped.

My God. Sometimes they’re just so lazy.

Talked about shark stereotypes. Of Megalodon. Of Mindless Eating Machines. Made a series of self-deprecating jokes. Realized how hard teaching is. Got a few laughs. Tried to scare away the slackers by telling them they’d be forced to memorize and recite a poem about the sea, remembering when I had to memorize and recite poem about the sea in a 7th grade science class. “I must go down to the sea again to the lonely sea and the sky….” Was I mindlessly repeating the lessons inculcated into me when I was 12? I flashed on my science teacher, Mrs. McClure, staring moodily through her goggles into the quick flame of the bunsen burner.

“Memorization is a lost art,”  I said, fondling my inflatable shark head. Gave my standard, if-you-think-you-might-drop-this-class-hand-in-your-syllabus-on-the-way-out spiel.

A sweet boy with Buddy Holly glasses stopped by my desk. “I have to admit,” he said. “Sharks might be….too overwhelming. I’m was hoping for….you know….Modernism?”

Day 64 8/28/13: The Shark as Spiritual Vehicle

I feel (is it liberal guilt?) when I explore the terror sharks inspire rather than reiterating the urgent fact that we are the true monsters of Planet Earth killing 100 million sharks a year. There I said it. Now, in my ongoing quest to define all the nuances of terror that sharks inspire, here is a passage from the  Illustrated Book of Traditional Symbols that adds a mystical dimension to the primal human fear of being eaten alive:

“The jaws of the monster depict either the gates of hell and entry into the underworld, or they share the symbolism of the clashing rocks, the wall with no door, the eye of the needle, etc., as the contraries, polarity and duality, which must be transcended in order to attain to the ultimate reality and spiritual enlightenment, they must be passed in the “timeless moment.”

Passing through the jaws of the monster is then a heroic trial,  a “difficult passage” from one plane of existence to another, a journey that is impossible in the physical body.

In my perverse spirituality, the shark’s resonance as a terrible God-vehicle is as powerful an argument for conservation as the obvious necessity for apex predators in balanced oceans. But I know it’s a tad esoteric for the op-ed page.

Day 63: 8/27/13: “A Fin in a Waste of Waters”

Today’s title is  a recurring line  from Virginia Woolf’s novel “The Waves.”

That line mesmerized me when I wrote a paper on “The Waves”  for my Woolf seminar in graduate school.  I love the desolation of it–” a waste of waters,” and though I’ve not returned to that book in many years, it persists in my consciousness, a potent symbol, a perfect fragment.

However, High modernism is not the only source for memorable reminders of the power of the dorsal fin.

On September 25th, Ralph Collier, founder of  Shark Research Committee and author of the fascinating and disturbing book “Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century”  will be my guest lecturer at Glendale College. I am a proud member of the Shark Research Committee and frequent reader of Pacific Coast Shark News,   Collier’s archives of detailed eyewitness descriptions of shark encounters (sightings, breachings,  bumped surfboards,  headless seals washed up on the beach or more rarely, full-fledged attacks) from California to Washington.

I could spend days scrolling through these accounts–which are both scientific and poetic, eerie and beautiful. A man diving near Refugio in Santa Barbara County  takes sanctuary in the kelp canopy after a 12-foot great white steals a freshly killed lingcod from his hand.  Two miles west of Refugio, a shark, “possibly a great white,” lifts a kayaker out of the water.  On a cloudless day in Big Sur, a two-foot high dorsal fin surfaces then disappears.

Phrases like “glassy calm” and “crescent-shaped bite” dazzle and terrify. Detailed, crime report-style identifications:  “blunt nose, 12-14 feet in length, grayish black” alternate with the ephemeral, and elusive:   “the shadow of the body was about 15-feet in length.”

These encounters, these observations are usually over in seconds.

The shark moves lazily or with the precision and speed of a torpedo, over the reef, out to sea. Or simply sinks and disappears.

Français : Aileron de requin. English : Shark ...

Français : Aileron de requin. English : Shark dorsal fin. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Day 61 8/25/13: Scuba & Swinburne

Sketched portrait of 23-year-old Algernon Char...

Sketched portrait of 23-year-old Algernon Charles Swinburne, poet and author. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a slow learner in nearly every thing. I am a fan of multiple examples, slow demonstrations and repetitive gestures.  For most of my life, this caused me a great deal of frustration and shame.  Now I don’t really give a shit. I’m happy to be taking extra diving lessons while the rest of the crew heads out to sea next Sunday.

I used to explain my general ineptitude at sports,crafts, handiwork, cooking, to the fact that I spent more time reading about things than actually doing them.

As a moody teenager, I  stayed on the sand with a book, using Swinburne’s ocean to deepen and transform the cold, black  waves of Plum Island, Massachusetts into something primal, maternal:

No wind is rough with the rank rare flowers;
The sweet sea, mother of loves and hours,
Shudders and shines as the grey winds gleam,
Turning her smile to a fugitive pain.

Mother of loves that are swift to fade,

  Mother of mutable winds and hours.
A barren mother, a mother-maid,
Cold and clean as her faint salt flowers.
(From “The Triumph of Time” by  Algernon Charles Swinburne)

Day 51 8/15/13: Sharks’ Teeth by John Ciardi

Action: Looking forward to screening and teaching Rob Stewart’s movie Revolution a follow up to Sharkwater which I just downloaded from iTunes. Until then, this little poem:
The thing about a shark—-is teeth
One row above, one row beneath.
Now take a close look. Do you find
It has another row behind?
Still closer—here, I’ll hold your hat:
Has it a third row behind that?
Now look in and…Look out! Oh my,
I’ll never know now! Well, goodbye.