Posted on: 26 February 2017 by Sarah Hymas in Ecology and Environment
"Wave Motion" introduced by Sarah Hymas
Perhaps the long wait for their advance to set me adrift
exaggerates how they envelop body into body
with their booming clamour and syncopated cuffing
of each frontrunner and almost my balance
as if I were plankton to be folded deeper into water.
And how oxygen around my submerged feet-now-legs
is cut with carbon dioxide, inhale with exhale,
sending half thoughts as thin and high as cirri. Light.
Yes, also, how light is shattered with each rolling crash
which seems impossible for something that moves so fast
we only see it by what it shows us. Yet light is scattered.
I see it spitting bubbles, swirling with mud
and torn weed on and under a surface smashed
to absorb as much as possible before reflecting all else back.
And all this stuff that isn’t anything anymore
moulding, remoulding in the churning. Splinters
of foam-bright plastic somersault about me
in a contrariness of being tossed away,
dragged under and still young and tough enough
to escape entombment in ocean memory.
Amongst all its millions no microbe yet
breaks down the chains of molecules stretching
or shrinking their repeated patterns. Coils
I feel in the waves, wrapped tight then loose
around air, swinging at my legs. This mirage
extends to tideline pushing forward, pulling back,
fuming and flexing around where it ought to stop
to ebb through my untangling polymer from sea.
This poem explores the increasingly significant problem of ocean plastics, pollutants which are broken down and dispersed by waves. My interest as a poet is to highlight the interdependence of sea and human, to bring fact into embodied experience, and to locate myself as observer within the ecology I’m writing about
I wrote this poem after a research trip to my local beach on Morecambe Bay in North West England. Tide tables, like many forms of forecast, have the soothing clarity and apparent rigidity of columns and columns of numbers: high and low water times and height. So while on my selected research day, it read high water was 1331, it inevitably is so much more than a point on a clock. I was at the beach for 1100 to watch the changes up to and during high tide. I sat on a rock, some distance from the sea, wrote, poked at the barnacles and whelks in the pool by me, saw how some barnacles were already filter feeding, others not, felt the wind increase as the water rose, jotted down details of birds and other sounds. It was warm and sunny but I was waiting, clocking minutes, and time passed slowly until the water grew louder, ruffled close enough to force me to stand, then climb onto a clod of saltmarsh. The waterline passed me. I turned to watch it, my back now to the sea, still writing ¬– of the sensations around my ankles, calves – of what was being tossed about around me. I knew the water would not rise above my knees. I also had a clear route up off the beach if my calculations were wrong. The intensity of identifying the exact point of high water, the moment of it turning, consumed another half hour, watching, writing. I felt quite deafened by the concentration of sound and observation. Dizzy.
I didn’t use these notes, per se, in the writing of the poem, which is comprised of two sonnets. That I had made these notes, had been forced to attend and transcribe experience into words, seemed to be enough. I actually used previous notes made on tidal function as the structure to convert experience into the first sonnet. The sonnet made for an interesting, conflicting form for the subject. On the one hand it has a very definite structure, echoing the columns of tide tables, which is why I was drawn to the regular four tercets and final couplet variation of the form. The stanzas enabled me to focus sequentially on each function, then make the turn from facts to the multifaceted nature of light on the body’s surface which, in that final couplet, could be read as either the sea’s skin or mine, a conflation of the two bodies already enveloped within the waves.
With the fundamentals of wave action presented in the first sonnet, I needed a second to present the consequence of their motion: the breaking down of plastic debris into pieces small enough to become impossible to sift from water. Waves here, in the age of plastic, are a symbol of vitality – essential for photosynthesis, the vertical mixing of primary producers – and of toxicity, speeding up the break down of plastics. This ocean-wide pollution has disastrous, well-documented, consequences for marine life: photos of albatrosses with gutfuls of lighters and bottle tops, of the pacific garbage patch, are widespread on the internet, and in September 2016 the UK government began the process of banning microbeads in cosmetics. Again the sonnet offers a form to present distinct elements: the movement of plastic within sea, and composition of both. It becomes impossible to distinguish, and therefore extract, one from the other.
Setting these poems as companion pieces makes the organic ocean and the inorganic plastic within it distinct yet comparable. Placing myself in the poem places the human within this equation, while attempting to keep the focus on the sea, while the narrator is hopefully peripheral to the scene. It’s a constant challenge to balance the ratio of subject-sea and viewing narrator in poems of the sea to keep the sea’s energetic nature, its unknown and possibly unknowable qualities, central to the integrity of the poem. The proportion of vast sea to human experience comes under jeopardy as the poem is being written. My writing on the sea is an attempt to illuminate this tension, to keep the relationship between sea and human in motion within a linguistic framework, as much as it is to understand the sea more and to share that understanding with others. I hope such understanding can be kept ‘live’ by the subject pushing against the formal boundaries of this poem, and this consequentially enables a chance for care and action.