“Don’t piss in your mother’s eye,” an old Russian saying goes—meaning, keep the waters clean. Many indigenous peoples conceive of our planet as Turtle Island. In one creation story, this land beneath us is a living, breathing entity that once offered itself to save a woman falling from the sky. There’s a hadith from the Qu’ran that says the mountain (Uhud) love us, and we love it. There is something in us that wants to return that love. But our love is complicated.
Oil is in some ways like money; we know that it’s necessary, but our relationship to its physicality is often repressed. When it appears—as a stain on pavement where we park, spreading wider as our cars age—we lament the sight of it, a visible sign of mechanical failure. But when an offshore drilling rig explodes—as it has now in April 2010—and millions of gallons of oil begins seeping into the ocean, strangling the living waters, it’s hard to ignore. Relentlessly dematerialized, oil is both a magical and crude substance that has greased the wheels of modernity. In the United States, the discovery and harvesting of oil at the end of the 19th century began as people searched for a replacement for whale oil to light lamps—for all the evening activities of the leisure class from reading literature to dinner parties. Moby Dick, in some sense, embodies Walter Benjamin’s “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” We had to slay the whale to feed our longing to read deep into the night. Arguably every major war in the twentieth century has had oil as either one of its goals or became a pivotal resource in determining who emerged victorious. The lust for oil has led to C.I.A. overthrows of governments (Mexico in 1911, Mossadegh in Iraq in the 1950s, among others); state assassinations of protestors (Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria); threats to indigenous peoples, such as the U’wa in Colombia, who famously threatened to commit mass suicide in the mid-1990s if Occidental drilled on their native lands; and ecological disasters from oil spills and water contamination.
“Ode to Oil,” a series of poems I’ve been writing, whose first version was published in 2008 in Artful Dodge, thus attempts to sing into being that complex relationship we have to the bubbling crude, that organic silt of centuries, that organic soup of past plants and animals which feeds our world. Each poem is a little song, part of the fizz of centuries effervescing; for a love poem to goo, I could not help but find in an old wineskin, the sonnet (in Italian, sonnetto is “little song”), a temporary container for its fugitive amorphousness. My hope is that, in the hardened shell of the sonnet, oil is not made into a liquid praline, nor is the sonnet reduced to a barrel.
Sunday, May 30, 2010
Poets for Living Waters: Responding to the BP Oil Spill in the Gulf
Poets Amy King and Heidi Staples have been engaging in a poetic response to the BP oil spill, called Poets for Living Waters. Check it out. I have three poems up right now. Here's my statement, revised from one that was included in my "Ode to Oil" sequence from Artful Dodge (2008):