The Ships of the Phaeacians Rush Fearlessly Across the Sea

The sea is the forest of the child. Monkfish, red sea bream, and grouper swim through palms and mango trees. The child teeters on the shingle at the edge of the woodland as onshore waves and undertow toss the fronds in a jumble of lime and celadon. In the rubber inflatable his frisson turns into fear where the undercurrents shred the noon light to ribbons.

Marianne Moore writes “The sea has nothing to give but a well excavated grave.” And the sea, Robert Pogue Harrison tells us, “veils an underworld of extinction in which no spirits carry on an afterlife.” Yet the sea god Proteus leaps through the waves; at noon, when the sunbeams hit the waters, hold him against the sand and prepare for his altering shape: lion, leopard, boar, river, tree – the inconsistent god revels in radical mutations.

As if the hospital were a vessel, humming static, and yet taking some of us to unknown harbors and bringing others home, I recall, incongruously, Emily Dickinson’s “Heart in port – Done with the Compass – Done with the Chart!” It is the medical lexicon – ports, charts, docks – that superimposes these images on my vague sense of displacement. Later, foraging the literature of cancer, I read the poem in which Donald Hall imagines the hospital where his wife the poet Jane Kenyon is treated for leukemia as a ship that “without moving a knot” holds the patient voyagers in their berths of “dangled devices.”

“Be kind, Oh be kind to your dead” asks D. H. Lawrence “and give them a little encouragement and help them to build their little ship of death.” The rubber inflatable was once white and red but the sun, seawater, and tar have scourged it to mottled yellow and guava pink. Those were the summers of hibiscus flowers and dense bougainvillea, of scrambled jigsaw sunsets and late movies in open-air theaters.

Photo used under CC.