Nothing can mitigate the sheer ugliness of the gateway to the South Shore. Even Sister Mary Corita Kent's rainbow-draped tanks are, when you get right down to it, tanks, and the other eye-grabbing colors in the drab landscape are from Mad Ave's calculated and seductive palette.
But we were headed south, Capeward, toward what I once called in a poem "the Atlantic of my earliest reluctances," and my soul was as Novemberish as it was going to get in the August heat, so what were a few more irony-rich, spleen-inducing sights ?
I could bounce from Ultima Thule to A Mighty Fortress Is Our God within the space of a mile and still have energy left over to photograph a bored-looking pink-clad tart in a Hyannis window.
We signed on to the nearest we could find to a whaling ship, a Hyannis harbor cruise boat called the Prudence. I found it a good omen for our voyage that ma semblable, ma soeur was seated on the dock, a wind-whipped cloud of white over mild blue.
I assumed our ship was adequately provisioned for its 1 hour itinerary,
and, as we bobbed in the mild chop of the harbor, I gazed at our fellow vessels, and reflected on my heritage. There was seafaring and Melvillian blood in my veins: my mother's mother was a Starbuck, and, (so I am told) there is a Starbuck House on Nantucket commemorating a sea captain of the same name and lineage.
Our captain, it appeared, was of a more sanguine disposition than Ahab, so I alone would have to bear the existential burden of this voyage. I was more than prepared for that, I thought, as we pulled away from the dock.
But that, of course, is a presumptuous statement. The sea, whether wine-dark or snot-green -- and the harbor's was more the snot-green variety -- is a great provoker of thoughts existential, metaphysical and artistic. It is the all-purpose metaphor our womb and tomb, the cradling mother and the angry father, birth, life and death, time and eternity, love and hate. Little wonder, then, that Kenneth Koch ended "The Art of Poetry" with the warning
...At the end of a poem
One may be tempted to grow too universal, philosophical and vague
Or to bring in History or the Sea, but one should not do that
If one can possibly help it...
At sea, you understand the siren call of that as you bend like an undinal vast belly seaward not moonward, aw hell, seaward and moonward, crying thallassa ! with Sigmund Freud and James Joyce and Homer before them, and Homer Simpson after them who has, after all, spent many hours of his life-as-Everyman both on and under the sea.
Who am I kidding ? I am the world's biggest landlubber. Ankle deep at low tide on a sandbar in globally-warmed ocean-cum-bathwater, I worry about riptides. What was that you were supposed to do ? Swim perpendicular to them ? Parallel ? Steer intothe direction of the skid ?
I went to sea, once; the memory is dim. It was a small boat, wooden. It was small, but large enough to have a hold. It was an excursion with relatives, elder relatives; I am remembering babushkas, but they were likely ex-spouse's Irish and not my Lithuanian relatives. It was cold, windy, a autumnal gray day promising rain. The sea was likely snot-green, and it likely made a slopping sound against the side of the boat. It must have been a birthday, or some other occasion, because, most significantly, there was a cake. It was a big round cake, covered with smooth, thick, pure white frosting, cream frosting studded with big, red strawberries.
The cake glows like a lighthouse eye in my memory. The day was gray, drab and cold; the sea restless and menacing. But that cake ! It was domestic joy, safety, pleasure, more Mother than the sea could ever hope to be. I daydreamed it underwater and us with it. It protected us, eternal mother strong to save, and lit the way home with its brilliant white cream.
Even the world-class depressive, Weldon Kees, had to admit that the bathers had smiles, albeit smiles that faded as they left the water -- No death for you. he laments. You are involved.
That line follows me to the beach every year, like a small over-coiffed poodle, easily mistaken for a monkey. I wrote a beach poem 10 years ago, practically to the day, that dogs me, too. It was conceived at some other beach, near the antecubital fossa of the Cape's bent arm.
These perfect and private things...
“The Smiles Of The Bathers,” Weldon Kees
Glorious ! The voice carries onshore
without inflection or hesitation,
and the bather stands disclosed in his public
nimbus. A watery coterie has assembled.
He, waist deep in his Glorious ocean,
speaks for them. Yes, they murmur, yes.
The visible bay’s blue inscape stretches
from hazy Wellfleet to hazy Orleans.
If you set out for France from here, swimming
into an improbable sunset, you’ll hit
Boston, knickered below its prim horizon.
Better, then, take a pure, Euclidean tack,
and skim like a bright isosceles
the line that hinges sheer to sheen,
as pi informs its arcs, degree by degree,
plane to plane; or, better yet, stick
to the proximal, your back’s quartz-flecked
bouillebaise of sweat and sunblock,
and the flyleaf where you’ve scrawled
...the smiles of the bathers fade...Kees
Their dark heads blot the wind-scuffed, silver water
between ground line and the vanishing point
where a blue wall rises, immaculate, complete.
I wade through shallows. Stands of cordgrass sway
in the bottle-green, translucent swells.
Underfoot, the rippled seafloor downslopes.
A red hairband eels past. I’m seasick, almost.
Air and water strip to their colorless gesso --
I breathe and float. Above me, voices,
refined to cadence, circle and chorus
the triumphant return of Glorious !
Battened like a fugitive gull on landfill,
hungry for glaze, for oceanic gloze,
it swoops, a severed main de gloire
loosed from the gallows to nosedive booty
and root like a mandragore for the tidbit
occulted in this sandy littoral’s
kelp-strewn impasto. But the joke’s on it.
Salvage on, glorious Glorious. Salvage on.
The beach is clean as bone and twice a day
celestial influences strong arm the timid deep
to swamp whatever glory holes remain.
But those were my wordy days. Mandragore ! Main de gloire ! Tsk tsk, imagine that. I traffic in photons now; am a paparazzi who snaps the Kennedy Compound with a 300mm telephoto --
then turns to such conventional subjects as sailboats
and windsurfers -- no, no, who am I kidding ? -- who turns to such queer and solitary objects
as channel markers
beacon lights atop rocky shoals
and atop green buoys --
all the things that mark the sea lanes
(and here we landlubbers pause to drink in the strange magic of that phrase)
and, that, like so many strawberried cream cakes, lead the seasick, homesick voyager home.