Where The Wind’s like a Whetted Knife*

October 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

feodosia_aivazovsky_turkishBrig “Mercury” Attacked by Two Turkish Ships, 1882, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)–a Crimean painter I’d never heard of until I found this painting. Go look at more of his work here.

Last day in Florida. I leave this evening. I’m not ready. It’s warm and very windy now—the swimming was glorious, waves big and raucous. Sparkling blue tumult. My bathing suit was stolen from the laundry so I wore an old one which is too small, and pulled it down in the water. Ah, freedom. Frolic and laughter. Shells in my hair.

“Is that a coconut or a drowned man?”

“Does it matter?”

“I like your breasts on the waves.”

“Thank you, my dear.”

The last few cool days have made me think living here would be quite nice, if I were able to get away a lot in the summer. But it’s not that here is difficult; it’s leaving there.  Manhattan. The West Village. The apartment I’ve lived in 25 years.

It would be easier if I would be moving into a big house on the ocean with a wraparound porch, but I bet everyone says that. And even the ocean day and night wouldn’t block out my memories of New York, but would rather remind me of the noise of traffic, and I’d wake up thinking I was home.

The first time I lived in Manhattan—when I was 11—I couldn’t sleep because of the noise of buses on Madison Avenue. It seemed violently unnatural, of a piece with my father’s suicide the year before. Like being in a rockslide and before you’ve recovered enough to move, the earth shifts again and you fall a few more feet. Or like the paranormal romances I’ve been reading lately, where the heroines end up in Hell frequently, but Hell isn’t Dante’s version; it’s a bit more manageable, like a Sahara crossing with monsters.

Yet by the time I left, at 15, New York was my spiritual home and after finishing school in N.H. and then wandering for a few years, I returned. I like to say how much the city has changed in 25 years, but from this vantage point, it doesn’t seem to have changed at all. More glitzy buildings, cleaner parks, too much Ralph Lauren et al on Bleecker Street. Still, it’s the same people forest. Flirty homeless guys in front of the church, single women trundling dogs in strollers, ambitious young men having drinks together while their poorer cohorts sell used books on  the sidewalk, beautiful girls on their phones annoying everyone, tiny old ladies making their way carefully to the supermarket.

All this because some fish got tired of the ocean and grew legs. That’s such a New York thing to do.

Florida

The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrave roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass.
The state full of long S-shaped birds, blue and white,
and unseen hysterical birds who rush up the scale
every time in a tantrum.
Tanagers embarrassed by their flashiness,
and pelicans whose delight it is to clown;
who coast for fun on the strong tidal currents
in and out among the mangrove islands
and stand on the sand-bars drying their damp gold wings
on sun-lit evenings.
Enormous turtles, helpless and mild,
die and leave their barnacled shells on the beaches,
and their large white skulls with round eye-sockets
twice the size of a man’s.
The palm trees clatter in the stiff breeze
like the bills of the pelicans. The tropical rain comes down
to freshen the tide-looped strings of fading shells:
Job’s Tear, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies’ Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess’s skirt;
with these the monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line
is delicately ornamented.

Thirty or more buzzards are drifting down, down, down,
over something they have spotted in the swamp,
in circles like stirred-up flakes of sediment
sinking through water.
Smoke from woods-fires filters fine blue solvents.
On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.
The mosquitoes
go hunting to the tune of their ferocious obbligatos.
After dark, the fireflies map the heavens in the marsh
until the moon rises.
Cold white, not bright, the moonlight is coarse-meshed,
and the careless, corrupt state is all black specks
too far apart, and ugly whites; the poorest
post-card of itself.
After dark, the pools seem to have slipped away.
The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat
of the Indian Princess.

—Elizabeth Bishop

btw, I’m descended from the most famous Indian Princess, Pocahontas. Just so you know.

* Sea Fever, John Masefield.

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