by Melissa Buckheit
What are your ocean-crossing stories? If you were to describe your writing like a body of water, what body of water would it be and why?
I’ve always loved the Atlantic. I grew up near the Atlantic Ocean all of my childhood and into my college years. Its green-grey is very personal. My first collection, Noctilucent, is, in part, preoccupied with the absence of water. I lived landlocked in Colorado for four years and continue to do in Arizona since 2005. Darkness and night almost became a substitution for water, the ocean—almost. Both are very similar, which is why I can’t say one can stand for the other. To be outside at night and to be near the ocean—these spaces/experiences are kin. In the desert or the mountains of the West, one feels the absence of the ocean as keenly as one felt its presence near the harbor; here, memory takes over and my sense of this aspect of my home—water—is omnipresent.
For the past several years, I’ve been writing poems that have been preoccupied with the narratives of my family—immediate birth family, as well as extended family, ancestors, and relatives. In some sense, this means or includes narratives, patterns, scenarios, and stories that I’m aware of and perhaps play a part in—either as a witness, participant, or a “repository.” My sense of a “repository” is a bit like an archive in a library: I was given histories—family members’ perceptions, feelings, or memories—almost with the intention to hold or carry these narratives. One doesn’t always have a choice in the transmission of information; sometimes, one seeks the stories. Almost separate, but intentionally and organically connected, are the poems I’ve been writing about various migrations of sorts and thus, about lands, islands, oceans, and other bodies of water; countries and other physical and spatial demarcations; and preservation of culture, identity, and history. Somehow, these poems have been isolated and separated by time and place. Not surprisingly, there are these “waves,” as in energy (waves and particles), but also of water, which surround each of these times (historically), characters (relatives, family, ancestors, self), and places (the physical locales). These “waves” separate the poems by category but also connect them, therefore, by the intention and association of theme, sensibility, or kinship.
In the midst of these stories—places and times, all felt sensorially as if they were the present—is the act of moving between places, of moving across water and oceans, to arrive at a new place, to return to an old home. This act is almost what we do, isn’t it? Whether literally or of the felt sense (in mind, body, memory, words, movement, image), we embark and we return. I think sometimes it is something like trying to remember a past life or another self—the sense of a place or of a self is so familiar we almost can’t describe it without great effort. It is em-bodied and re-membered, so perhaps the mind has less need to carry it as something separate. Places, times, and people hold this for us—and writing is often landing on these small islets or knolls of land, isolate, almost empty. As the writer, we are alone but populated very distinctly by what lives there, in sense and memory.
Yet, I hate to have the ocean be mostly metaphor. I feel the ocean, personally, in the sense of my aforementioned analogy—it is a homeland, solitude, and release. When I was a child (think about 8 or 9), I always thought the best way to die would be to choose to stop breathing, while floating under the ocean. I felt that if one chose to let go of breath, that holding and attachment, it would be completely different than the struggle of drowning. I do not know this, but I still feel it to be true.
I think many people feel that a homeland is not a specific or defined country. The Atlantic Ocean was this ever-present sense throughout most of my childhood. It will always be my familiar, as I have lived on and in Long Island, New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. I love the Atlantic, its color, its cold, its harshness, and sharpness, its power and very nature. It is not a quiet ocean, it is not becalmed or soft by nature, although small shoals off Cape Cod in the summer can be gentle, to buoy face up to the sun-dazzled sky in July. Stars glint off of the water’s surface.
The “ocean-crossing story” that fills my brain most these days is quite common: it is the story of my relatives who came to America from Ireland, and also the Netherlands, Germany, and England, across the Atlantic, by boat around the turn of the century. A poem published in the April 2012 issue of Shearsman Magazine (UK), aptly titled “Narrative,” addresses my ideas and feelings around the sense of this movement:
Across the wide sea
and you did not recognize me
for what I appeared to be:
the rust and grey water
with its broken remnants of seaweed
rocking, slapping against the side of many pilings anchored
in the vast and realist Atlantic,
which never lied to a soul
who drowned in its waves
or pretended to be anything
other than it was—
barren at times, welcoming, others
—a challenge to the people
who settled there.
In a sense, the story of this ocean-crossing, meaning those embodied in the poem, is about the narratives created in the transition from one country to another, from a homeland to a new homeland or foreign land, from culture left to culture found, supplemented by the aspects of self and community which make the trip with us. Sometimes, the immigrant or foreigner finds herself transformed; sometimes they find themselves lost or found or altered beyond recognition. Sometimes they are recognized in the new place, sometimes not. Although I am not an immigrant, at least not yet, I feel the depth of this even in the sense of where my ancestors, rather recently, came from (about a hundred years and a bit more ago). I feel the confusion at their confusion; I feel the loss here in the United States, as well as what was gained, which is much. I feel the strangeness at my return to a land and country (Ireland, for example), which is not mine but yet I have ties to, which knows and does not know me, which was referenced by some of my family often, in stories, memories, jokes. Yet these places remain utterly different and far more complex than the references we receive as repositories. And yet, in the felt sense, the Atlantic is the tie between two lands for these histories. The poem continues, ending:
Inside the vast sea,
I existed for centuries,
until I came to be born
and landed on a narrow
expanse of island—as after a long trip.
We were waiting to come to America,
my parents and I . . .
We came up through the Atlantic
but we were changed
and could no longer speak,
we had to learn language again,
Our sounds were rough and harsh to unfamiliar ears,
but with each other, intimately
we were shyly gentle,
our voices soft like honey.
I can’t say my writing is like a body of water, for the Atlantic is, itself, a thing that I cannot equate with another thing. I can say that the Atlantic is like sleep, an intimate. For me, this is largely due to its beauty, which is in part violent, and its truth, which is of the most honest nature.
Your first time at the ocean and how did you engage it?
I was born in Glen Cove, Long Island, New York, very close to the ocean. I don’t remember my first moment there, but as a child and still as an adult, I love to watch the sea for long periods of time, particularly in the off season when the beach can be less congested. There is something like oblivion and emptiness in the horizon that draws me—the unrelenting distance; on the East Coast, one cannot easily see it, and the ocean is one of the only unencumbered views available. My parents often took me to Jones Beach (NY) to play; I remember the sand was soft and a very dark brown. I remember the sounds of Cicadas, Crickets, and Tree Frogs near Long Island Sound at night. I like to think that my first moment with the ocean was in utero, in the salt and water balance of my mother’s womb, before birth. I remember this as a quiet and serene space; our cells also contain a constant balance of water and salt, akin to the ocean, where life first coalesced.
After watching this video “Water, Consciousness & Intent: Dr. Masaru Emoto,” how is water is connected to your consciousness? Have you ever drowned in one way or another?
The video, “Water, Consciousness & Intent: Dr. Masaru Emoto,” was interesting in its intention of understanding and exploring the idea that realities and energies exist beyond the traditionally quantifiable world. I think that water is as much a barometer or rather a compound in a fluid state that is or can be altered or affected by a variety of things. I’m not sure I completely align in my belief with all of Dr. Emoto’s ideas about the causality between words and intentions and the effects on the crystalline structure of frozen water, as if the water had a sentient consciousness. It seems somewhat too literal, as if forgetting that water need not be a sort of Rorschach test with direct implications, almost black and white ones, but is part of the whole of our beings (and any living thing, in fact). We know that emotion, energy, and communication affect all beings—for why would they not?
When I think of the self, consciousness, and water, I arrive again at the written word—poetry or fiction or non-fiction—and the nature of immersion (in water or writing or what is required to get to the writing). Your theme for July is “To the Water”; for me, this phrase was very potent, ripe with references and meaning. Virginia Woolf, who has been a great influence and voice (in the sense that many have read her in order to know or follow their own path) for many female writers, says in The Second Common Reader, “The other side of the mind is now exposed—the dark side that comes uppermost in solitude, not the light side that shows in company.” This was in an essay titled, “How Should One Read a Book?” She was speaking in part about what is necessary to write and, therefore, read literature truly, i.e., with truth. I believe that to write or dance or make art—any art form that seeks to communicate in some way about human experience—one must go “to the water” and in “to the water.” Woolf knew herself to be different in some ways in company (around other people), than alone (in solitude). Many writers are like this—I am like this.
One must go into the self, alone, free from pretense, without judgment and despite fear, to write, and this side is dark, not because it is “evil” or related to some other dualistic understanding of human nature, but because it is private, in shadow, internal. I think poetry must have a particular privacy in order to accurately communicate with truthfulness, and not ego, a desire for fame, or co-optation. Then, the poem may succeed on its own; it becomes art, afloat, and independent from its author. This dark side or shadow is akin to immersion in water, whether ocean, lake, river, bathtub, or the body’s own, because, like water, the consciousness we enter to create is interior, another world. It is of the unconscious, what is dreamt, and what is known, often beyond language, in body, mind, and spirit.
In the dark—in the dark we hear the most precisely, do we not?