We'd rather have the iceberg than the ship,
although it meant the end of travel.
Although it stood stock-still like cloudy rock
and all the sea were moving marble.
—Elizabeth Bishop, “The Imaginary Iceberg”
I carry this poem with me when I work on expedition ships as a naturalist. Every time I see ice, whether berg or glacier, I think of Bishop's poem. “We’d rather have the iceberg than the ship,” I whisper to myself. Sometimes, I say it aloud to a Zodiac of guests I’m driving around ice. We stare into the blue contours, listen to waves lap them away to dissolution. Bishop’s words feel transgressive and true. Of course we would rather have the iceberg. It’s so much better than diesel and cleats and bottom paint. It is the sea in a way a boat can’t ever be. And yet, of course, we need the ship if we want to be in the presence of the ice and water and the fluidity between them.
Iceberg. Ship. We are traveling in dangerous waters. All waters are, really, dangerous. But the water. The water. The possibility and deep gladness of it.
I’m not talking about the water you see from shore. Not that edge-view, safe and turn-back-able. I’m talking about water as home. Ocean as home. Living upon (belowdecks, within) a medium that will drown you; loving it. Thinking about all that is hidden beneath its reflective surface—acres and miles and mountain ranges of salps and turtles and dinoflagellates and sharks and cephalopods and crabs. Catching glimpses. Missing most of the world you know is beneath you. Wondering. Drifting. Trying to keep a true course against the pull of tide, the push of wind.
This morning, a world away from ice, I went to the ocean before the August crowds arrived for their daily basking. I floated. I stared at the sky. The water was cool, a chill to it, but not uncomfortable. Terns flew overhead, their tails folded back into the tines of a strange fork. Above them, blue sky and a loose netting of clouds. The organs in my torso felt as if they were discovering their optimal shape and arrangement, and I felt buoyant, clear, as if the boundaries of my skin had eased. I was my body, but I was also something more fluid. Small swells rolled in. I floated just beyond the break, riding over the waves easily. Anything might swim below me: shark, striped bass, gray seal, sand lance.
I could talk about the specific planktonic tang in the air, the seasonal cycles of this shore, which I first came to when I was twenty-six. But I was drifting. Not scientific. This was Cape Cod, the literary ocean of Thoreau and of the cranky and yet celebratory Alan Dugan:
One thinks: I must
break out of this
horrible cycle, but
the ocean doesn't: it
continues through the thought.
—Alan Dugan, “Note: The Sea Grinds Things Up”i
What comfort Dugan’s words were to me when I found them. The ocean continues through the thought. It doesn’t stop. The imperative of the ocean is to carry on, no matter what. I seek this continuing. Beyond moment, beyond self. The poetics of ocean: a bright and vulnerable concentrated heartbeat in the vast.
I remember being a child in Tacoma, standing at the top of the backyard stairs that took us down a steep, blackberry-covered bank to the rocky beach we lived beside. It was at least five hundred feet down in my mind. By the numbers, more like forty. In a big wind, herring gulls hovered in front of me and we eyed each other. I remember trying to leave my body, to dissolve into Commencement Bay, into Puget Sound, into the ocean beyond that that I didn’t yet know. I could feel my heart trying to leave my chest, to join all of that water. It was the purest sense of yearning I have ever experienced, and even now, thinking of it, I can feel a tingling in my pectorals, as if they could open and disperse me. As if they’d love to do just that.
What is the ocean as a place? It connects disparate shores. It morphs. It is a mysterious source. It is a road, a barrier, a temptation, a trickster, a hazard. It is its own world, essential to our shore-biased selves, yet often overlooked and misinterpreted. I’m talking about those big basins, those seven seas, those horizons without the punctuation of land, disorienting but for the stars that still point their courses and the winds that blow across them in predictable lines, legible if you can read them.
Some of the poems that move me most feel in their unfolding like being carried by strange currents: “K was burn at the bend of the ear in the mouth of Remember. She was the fecund chill burn in her famish” (Harriet Mullen, “Kirstenography”). And what strange eddies Emily Dickinson swirls us through: “Done with the compass— / Done with the chart! // Rowing in Eden— / Ah, the sea! / Might I moor—Tonight— / In thee!” (Poem 249).
Ecology understands this transgressive mode better than poetry, perhaps. Or, a bluefin tuna understands this better than a poet. In the course of its life, a tuna swims thousands upon thousands of miles of ocean, finning through the specific natural and legal dangers of each one. How can a poet know that kind of life, that scale of awareness? We plod along, gravity-bound. Cars and airplanes and boats open pathways, but it's not the same as to glide through a vast basin mapped by currents and prey. And yet, isn’t poetry like this? Slipping through all that seeks to fix us? Traveling through syntax, yet operating beyond daily speech or understanding, arriving in a more vast plane of awareness?
Profound: “the vast depth of the ocean or the mind.”ii Things that move us inexplicably we call “deep.” Coming from a source outside our perception. Aboard a ship, we take soundings to figure out the contour and materials of the sea floor. We sound out words. The sounds of poems carry us into strange waters. A sound is an arm of the ocean forming a channel between and island and a mainland. For a whale, to sound is to dive deep.iii
When I was twenty-one, I took a job as a deckhand on a boat in Southeast Alaska. To follow the shore north from where I was born and from the waters my family traveled in the summer felt like a natural progression: Tacoma to the San Juan Islands to Desolation Sound. Dixon Entrance to Glacier Bay. Sound to Sound, Passage to Passage, the water itself led me. Then the boat went south along the Pacific Coast to the Columbia River (crossing the terrifying bar at Astoria) and to Mexico’s Gulf of California, and I went with it. I think that even in my first week of living and working aboard a boat, my view of the world shifted. The new demarcations that mattered were shoal and inlet, weather front and tide. Places that seemed like separate destinations (Alaska, Baja) became clearly connected as we navigated the slow miles between them, noticing currents that hurried us along or that slowed us.
“Oceanic Studies” is a relatively new academic field which explores a shifted orientation to the ocean, rather than the land, as a determining worldview. To me, it feels inevitable, essential, and right. Hester Blum, the scholar who introduced me to this concept, writes:
the sea should become central to critical conversations about global movements, relations, and histories. And central not just as a theme or organizing metaphor with which to widen a landlocked critical prospect: in its geophysical, historical, and imaginative properties, the sea instead provides a new epistemology … If our perspectives have been repositioned in recent decades to consider history from the bottom up, or the colonizer as seen by the colonized — to gesture to just two critical reorientations — then what would happen if we take the oceans’ nonhuman scale and depth as a first critical position and principle?iv
To think oceanically is to think generously. Oceanic thinking connects disparate cultures. It connects the facts of the world with our feelings about those facts, our use of those facts. It chuckles over their uneasy meeting. The boundaries of bodies of water are messy, dangerous, and turbulent and they are the sea's most productive places.
Terrance Hayes has a poem, “The Carpenter Ant,” in his newest collection, How to be Drawn, that feels oceanic to me. I was reading it this morning, so it is fresh in my mind. The poem drifts through language-play: “It was when or because she became two kinds / of mad, both a feral nail biting into a plank / and a deranged screw cranking into a wood beam.” The aunt, the ant, the built house inevitably breaking apart. She “taught herself to carpenter and unhinged.” Hayes has denied separateness, as poetry often does, through metaphor and wild juxtaposition.
Other poets allow currents of understanding within their work to eddy and touch. Perhaps most poems do. But I hear the surge most clearly in work like the unspooling syntax of Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Headwaters (“my mother my mother my mother she / could do anything so she did everything the world / was an unplowed field a dress to be hemmed a scraped knee”) and W.S. Merwin’s The Folding Cliffs, an epic poem about a 19th century Hawaiian family struggling with the introduction of leprosy to Kauai from European sailors:
they talked faster and louder as the canoe came closer
and they could see the black heads and blue skins of the strangers
who were paddling backwards they were coming backwards
they must be coming from afterwards or from somewhere
that was already gone and people started to laugh
I hear it in Robert Hayden’s “Middle Passage” and in Walt Whitman, who is everywhere and “out of the cradle, endlessly rocking.”
Derek Walcott’s Omeros, though, gets at this idea of oceanic orientation and understanding better than any poem I know. He charts an oceanic poetics, and the ocean as an actual place is central to his epic. His Caribbean island is ocean by virtue of the orientation of its community to the shore. It is connected by ocean to Africa, to England, to America, and to the histories of travel between those places—all are a comprehendible, if not easy, sail from St. Lucia. Through the ocean and through the drift of story and the recurring eddies of image, Walcott brings his story into conversation with Homer’s:
It was an epic where every line was erased
yet freshly written in sheets of exploding surf
in that blind violence with which one crest replaced
another with a trench and that heart-heaving sough
begun in Guinea to fountain exhaustion here,
however one read it, not as our defeat or
our victory; it drenched every survivor
with blessing. It never altered its metre
to suit the age, a wide page without metaphors.
Our last resort as much as yours, Omeros.
—Derek Walcott, Omerosv
A mountain or a city fixes us here. Ocean asserts an unfixity: we are also here, and here, and we could be there, too. We drift. Place and time are less certain. Emotion and memory flow as water, in non-linear paths, sometimes funneled into a quick current, sometimes so broad and unfocused they seem to be motionless.
I am a teenager, staying at a friend’s cabin on Hood Canal, a narrow thread of inlet at Puget Sound's edge. We are sleeping on her parents’ speedboat, away from the closed woods of the shore, bobbing. It is warm and still. For some reason, we look over the side and see light in the dark water. Not reflected stars, but phosphorus, as we called it. Bioluminescence.
I don’t remember discussion. I know we got in the water. The air was soft and black, and our bodies were soft and black within a confusion of light. No one knew we were in the water, and I felt a huge, terrifying joy. My absence—or, not that precisely, but the non-glow of my body, its displacement of light and yet its triggering of light by my movements—and not my presence was the source of beauty.
I have been in glowing water since. Baja, sea lions zipping trails of light beneath me. British Columbia, each stroke of the oars dripping gleam. Cape Cod one cold winter, the shore-sand glowing under the pressure of my foot because of the ocean it still held above the lap of waves. Moments of resonance become waypoints and markers on a life’s map, we return to them for perspective and scale. Most of mine involved the sea.
The ocean is not just muse or metaphor. It is not only a pathway humans have traveled with their fraught histories. It is also an inhabited place. Not a blank upon which the poet can freely imagine without betraying an actuality and an ecosystem: fish, copepods, tunicates, eels, porpoises, murres, and diatoms. There’s been enough of that.
Humans have so much work yet to do in order to understand even the hem of the ocean. How do we write the life of oceanic creatures in a way that honors the accuracy and the mystery of their lives? Poetry can do that. It can make vivid the impossible. The suspended state a poem conjures allows us to consider the strange, to allow the rich strangeness of non-land-based lives into focus, their mystery intact:
you would dare to be changed,
as you are changing now,
into the shape you dread
beyond the merely human.
A dry fire eats you.
Fat drips from your bones.
The flutes of your gills discolor
—Stanley Kunitz, “King of the River”
What salt-rich analgesic allows
this self-division, as the disc parts
and tendril arms, each with a thousand
calcite eyes, sway into slender helixes?
—Linda Bierds, “Questions of Replication: The Brittle Star”
I want to advocate for the ocean as a muse that trades projection for investigation. But what if we peer beyond the surface, break through our own reflections, and learn what does (and doesn’t) go on unseen? Those old tales of bays so thick with fish that they could be traversed as bridge? Not so farfetched then as they appear to our depletion-calibrated gaze. Feel free to imagine kraken, leviathan. They exist, after all. But write their actualities along with their myths. When poets and poems get specific about the ocean, when the writer has truly grappled with fact and science and found where it sings or wails in verse, oh, then— we float in the eddies and the details. In the memory of what it is to be more than singular.
The ocean is not boundless; it is not big enough to carry on with its cycles despite us. In weather and climate and nations and biogeography, it determines our lives. It is not beyond us, but part of us, no matter how distant we are from a shore.
What of the lives of those who consider the sea a workplace? That’s me, when I work as a naturalist—traveling by ship to explore coastlines, giving information to underpin travelers’ awe at bubble feeding humpback whales or a wandering albatross. And boat-work is moored in a longer tradition of labor: fisheries. The harvest of what can’t be seen from shore, what can’t be easily tracked or traced as it crosses borders and boundaries of nations and of depths.
Industry needs poetry. Or, rather, we need poems that consider how work can sing and, in singing, explore the specific beauties, difficulties, and circumstances of labor. Not in a romanticized way, but in a clear-eyed and nuanced way. We need it for the fishing industry as much as we do for factories and surgeries:I cannot tell you
I don’t know another line of work as tangled with myth and consequence as contemporary fisheries. Beautiful, and a little terrible. Terrible now, because of what we know: poor fisheries management, ocean acidification, microplastics from our shore-lives—straws and shampoo bottles—and also from our sea-lives, the ropes and nets we put in the water to catch wild creatures.
Sometimes, when I’m working on local whale watch boats out of Provincetown and an old, rusty scalloper chugs by, gulls clouding the stern wake, I ask the captain if he misses fishing. Most of the whale watch captains used to fish commercially, or their fathers did, their grandfathers. Some of them still do on the side. But not one of them has ever told me he would go back to it.
They know the water more deeply, with more precision, than anyone I have met. They can read a swell or smell a patch of plankton. They remember clearly the details we can’t see, too, the stuff beneath the surface that must be known. We steam along, looking for whales, and a captain, if he’s feeling conversational, might say at a certain point that this is where he’d turn his dragger to avoid a patch of rocky bottom. I look up, trying to fix the location by lining up a couple of distant hills. But I know that by tomorrow I’ll have forgotten what he’s remembered for decades. A good memory doesn't matter. A living relationship—a conversation with the water—does.
Sometimes, young crew come on the boats to work in the galley or as mates. I can smell the romance of the sea on them. In the wheelhouse, they talk about fishing, about going out to George’s Bank for tuna. They are eager bluster, hopeful that the captain will acknowledge them as one of the tribe. But the captain knows—we’ve talked about it—that it’s not the same as when he was out there, fishing. The fish are smaller. The numbers down. The sea is less than when he left it.
Ashore, gift shops sell pictures of fishing boats, calendars with images of fishermen hauling nets. Lobster pot buoys hang from fences. Fishing is attraction as much as industry. That romanticized vision clouds us. Blinds us to bycatch, bioaccumulation of pollutants, the damage of ghost gear.
This isn’t the place, I know, to go on about such troubles. And yet. If not in poems, where else will we tell it? We once feared the sea would erase us and now we hope it will. We hope, despite all signs to the contrary, that it might absorb and disperse and dilute our presence so that we become inconsequential after all.
I am standing on the bow of a boat traveling north along the coast of Mexico. The swells are widely spaced. No one else is up yet, other than the captain and crew working the four to eight. Deep blue light of pre-dawn. Coffee. Binoculars heavy on my neck. To my right, the rugged shore of Baja California Sur. Ahead, to port, astern: ocean.
I am at once fully in my body and utterly separated from it. I am horizon. It is almost sexual, the expansiveness. My lover is a few thousand miles away. We have been apart for a month. I have thought of her, felt her, every morning in this moment. The fluidity of time and space echoing something like sex, or love.
I don’t “think” of it on the bow (I am doing anything but thinking there), but here, I want to sing praise to the sea creatures that embody this fluidity. Squid and their flashing skin, their ability to sense and respond to color and light with something other than eyes. The way they move by pulsing water through themselves. Parrotfish and wrasse and slipper limpets that change sex depending on time of life and the society around them. For a while, male; for a while, female. The sexuality of dolphins—wild and full of impulses beyond procreation.
The ocean reveals the possibilities this planet offers. No “typical” sex, sex life, or parenting strategy. From physical form to behavior. From life history to territoriality. The ocean celebrates multiplicity. What reassurance that there are so many ways to thrive.
In his essay “Feelings into Words,” Seamus Heaney talks about finding his source and writing from it; for him it was bogs and words of peat and spade. My source is scupper and splice, swell and trough. I write from the particular, superstitious cadence of supplication and curse that thrives aboard a ship. From the camaraderie of a crew that, ashore, would probably never form friendships. Crew from different countries and classes and politics who must work together to survive their work. And also, from the path traced by shearwaters soaring over waves, the dappled shadow of a kelp forest, the thunderous glare of a calving tidewater glacier.
In looking back at all I have written, my words that risk honesty and vulnerability about that most sacred thing—the deep and deeply personal origins of poetry—are born of ocean. Only once, though, have I tried to write directly and fully into this source.
It began with a conversation on a boat. I’d just spent a couple of months approaching and then working in the Antarctic Peninsula, a place I’d been dreaming of and writing poems about for fifteen years. Now I was heading home. In the Beagle Channel, Demet Taşpınar, the ship’s doctor from Istanbul, shared her lyric films with me and suggested a collaboration. I said yes. Neither of us knew what would happen, and it wasn’t until five months later that I could sit and drift with her images. My favorite of her films were sparkles of light on water with an occasional ripple or chunk of ice passing through.
Watching the films and allowing them to serve as an incantation for poems, opened a shifting channel. I wanted to be in that color, that drift, that unmoored state. I also wanted to bring intellect to that emotion, to bring history and science and human story to water. The state those films engendered reminded me of that girl-self staring out toward a hopeful nothingness, of what all my life has most deeply resonated: the sea.
Sifting atlas blue from yellow body here again,
gaveling the nail of the first ship here again,
crating star maps in corn husk here again,
unfurling a blank heaven over mapped earth here again,
—Sherwin Bitsui, from Flood Songvi
The truth is, I am most alive in my physical body and thus in the hum and thrum that drives me toward poems when I am on a boat on the ocean. In part, it’s the monkishness of remove from grocery stores and cell phones. In part, because weather is not background, but something to be watched and speculated upon and planned around. But, more deeply, it’s the unbounded horizon. That sense that the shores touch one another through the water that touches them.
Did you know that there is a deep current that travels from the high arctic to the southern ocean, and that, within it, small creatures travel? It might take the foraminiferans and plankton 400 to 600 years for a one-way trip, 1,000 years for the full circle. During that long journey, they either travel suspended as larvae or eggs, or as live adults, reproducing over generations. The full trip is 9,500 kilometers.
What we hold as polar opposites, antipodes, are connected by ocean.
What is ocean as place? It is not sand underfoot and breakers. It is horizon and connection and mystery. It is the vast volume beneath the surface we can scan and all that happens there: currents, creatures, topography, wrecks. It is the fact that we know so little, that the unknown thrums over the majority of the planet. And that the shores defined by nations and politics don’t matter to all that water. And that, back and back and back in time, it was the source of all life on this planet, whether from the ancestral Choanoflagellatesvii or from the huge turtle that islands sometimes. 50% of the oxygen we breathe (maybe even more) is produced by phytoplankton. We are, ourselves, salt. An ocean. And in that dark sea, what isn’t possible?
Elizabeth Bradfield is the author of the poetry collections Once Removed, Approaching Ice, and Interpretive Work. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, Orion and elsewhere. Founder and editor-in-chief of Broadsided Press, she lives on Cape Cod, and drifts between work as a naturalist locally as well as on expedition ships, and is the current Poet-in-Residence at Brandeis University and on the faculty of the low-residency MFA program at University of Alaska Anchorage. As a child, it was her deepest desire to live at the bottom of the ocean.
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