Alluvial

Visits to the shore are like a trip
back in time. '50s roadside attractions
decay and make it a trip through
sweet Benjaminian melancholy,
for he loved and loathed dreams of the future
becoming dreams of the past. Going offseason
intensifies everything. Resorts seem
like a last resort: Victoriana restored
to look like Disney's Yesteryear Street.
One of the huge houses even calls itself
"Somewhere in Time": this is a rental
vision of being a child in a house with
a tower and porches, once upon a time. . . .
The strip hotels sell different dreams: rooms filled
with fleur-de-lis and moulded plastic chairs,
but if you walk behind, in the alleys
away from Ocean Avenue, these become
row upon row of exhaust vents and
air conditioners. It makes me even sadder
and more restless. Go to the sea instead
and see if the news of its breaking
the dike of the dunes during winter
storms was true. Water and sand
still lie strewn about the streets, and the first
line of dunes is stripped of its grass
and made smooth as a wave. We poke about
dune and saltmarsh ecosystems hiding
from the stiff March wind; their story
is survival in the midst of pounding
and salt overwash turned into
replenishment. Spartina rasps in the
lowlands and thrives.

This trip
also becomes for me a visit to the future,
to facing my own death for the first time
(a sheltered life) at the pivot of forty,
thinking about many friends of my generation
gone early, another just last week. Imagine
being in the tattered Mater Dei Nursing Home
passed on the way down, the mother
of all frightening nursing homes. The room
where we die these days is often a rented room.
A TV that we can't turn off stands
at the foot of our bed, and down the hall
another one blares in the "community"
room where the chairs are put in rows each night
and the floors are waxed as severely
as the halls I remember from high school.
I can see the waxing machine now
arcing gently back and forth along the floors,
and the dolorous janitor who guides it.
Mater Dei: under the purr of a waxing
machine we want to nurse at the breast
of the Mother of God. It's true:
that's what the name says. The Victorians
tried to turn death into sleep; more ambitious,
or more frightened, we try to store it away
in institutions dispensing "managed care,"
and then to give it all a human face, or at least
to give it a name that tries to translate
a rented room into a mother's breast.
To nestle against our mother's body at last,
to turn our heads away from the long,
bright corridors, from the wandering eye
of the TV that never stops. . . . (But that's
a sign of the end. Earlier: "I got used
to it when I lived alone after my husband died.
I'd turn it on first thing whenever I got back
from going out, to have a voice in the place.")

Driving past, I suddenly remembered
a magazine story about a middle-aged
man dying of AIDS who was being
cared for at home. One day when he was
feeling better he suddenly tried
to empty all his dresser drawers,
undress, then run out into the street.
Was he trying to run away from death
by running away from home? Or
was he trying to run to death by undoing
all the signs he was adult,
going backwards in time, step by
step, Mother may I. . . ? And then
I thought of Edward Hopper's
late painting Rooms By The Sea.
Just late afternoon sunlight slanting
down a wall, an open door
---"unscrew the doors from their jambs!"
we once quoted proudly---and on
the other side of the doorway, so close
it must be under the house as well as
on every side of it: the ocean,
open, endless, endlessly
in motion and empty and full
at the same time.

Campgrounds
with names like Echo Park and Nummy Lake
fly past the car window. Their billboards
are filled with teepees, their lots with trailers
using both electric and septic hookups.
Some of the roadside houses farther on
have little monuments in their front yards
called "gazing globes." An obelisk-like base
about 3 ' high is topped with a sphere reflecting
the whole house and yard and even toys and
auto parts in the driveway. Some are chrome-colored,
others fierce and metallic as car paint with names
like "Emerald Glo" or "Tahiti Lagoon."
Everything warps to the sphere's curve, outside
becomes inside, safely enclosed, suffused
with a metallic sheen---is that what we want?
Rome was obsessed with obelisks too,
and sphinxes, spheres, and everything Egyptian.
There are tales of 40-ton obelisks
brought back by slaves to the capital from
Africa. Conquering can be erasure,
salt sown in the fields of Carthage,
but it can also be just accumulation,
layering what you think of as your own
on top of what came before you,
asserting your right to be next,
to outdo. (And thus to be haunted:
are these African lions reposing
so regally with crossed paws by the fountains
resigned to be ornaments, or are they gazing
into the future watching one Rome ruin
and another rise?) Now our monuments
are carried about in wheelbarrows
for front lawns by the side of highways,
but they are still supposed to let us gaze
at the whole, to tell a story winding up
to the top of the column, to put it all
inside a sphere, in one of those snow bubble
scenes to shake and put on a table
by the nightlight, where the storm swirls
about the little house and then gradually
becomes calmer, calmer, and then hushed.

Think of Vezeley, France---
a bright, cold day a year ago, much like today.
The cathedral is organized like a great
chain of being, a Jacob's ladder
of symbolism: gnarled rough-cut stone
underground, with saint's relics and
small lights burning in the grottos,
while directly overhead stands
the main altar, the place of
translation. Above, all is colored light
and sandwashed stone. Another time,
in a local cathedral for the funeral
of a friend's wife, I watched the electric
lights and the brightly colored banners
but was most struck by the communion
made part of the service. I saw a priest
hold a round cracker high above his head
then sharply break it in half and sweep
both hands downward in an arc.
I am drawn more to the obelisk than to
the wafer, to wondering what those slaves said
to each other riding the boat back to Rome,
freed for a moment from pushing stone uphill.
What draws me has to do with how things shrink
as they wander in time, until small enough
to be like a pet in the yard and tell
a story not of emperors and their catalogues
but simply of a gazing globe by the roadside
and our need to imagine everything
inside it.

At last we get down to
the beach. I start walking around
the edges of low tide in a trance,
taking photos. The sand is filled with rills
and runnels---water heading back
to the sea, making small alluvial fans
and deltas, intertwining fractals within
fractals, carrying along sand-grains, shells, and
galaxies quickly in quicksilver light.


[1993-94]


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