Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world

Conversation 8

RED SEA
Margaret Sweatman

*
Prologue

Neatly park the car beside the sea.
Listen to the waves.   What do they say?

Criminal.    Criminal.

*

1.
What was Given

Watch the white sea birds
Rising, rising, for miles.
White sea birds
Spiral higher, soaring towards
Spindles of heat.
You will only see them
When the sun strikes their white wings
And they shine till they’re far, far from sight.

White sea birds soaring off sea surf
And the swan is white, white as the seagull,
Snow geese, white falcon and pelican;
The surf glistens in the sun.
The white tailed kite and the clouds are white
Till they gather pitch, black and toxic
And the rains fall and the marshes
Are drowned and it smells of death
Down in the river cane.

While the earth bleeds
And our lives become wind,
Never mind, never mind;
The singers are no longer silent,
The prophets are no longer blind. 

 

*

2.
The Bride’s Song

Sweet as honeysuckle, the bride
Lifts her face to her chosen one.
In the shadows of a simple shed
Sheltered from the strange summer sun,
Ferny shade, a rusted spade,
By the blue watering pail, she kisses him.
The wedding guests buzz like bees to bellflower,
Lady slipper; she can barely breathe
So taken is she. 

What will morning bring
But more delight?   Far,
Far from here, a falling star.
Blissful, the gifts rustle in tissue.
Who would deny her beauty?
Truly she will thrive forever. White as bone
Ash, her porcelain skin.

 

*

3.
Children, Playing

The children play
In a hot, hot night under leafy lights.
They’ve never been so old, or bold,
They’ve never so daring and so wise.

So must they be.
The world and all
Is tossed to them,
A shattered ball. 

They howl and chase, wild horses on the street.
Now their mothers call them home,
Cassandra!  Theseus!  Come to bed! 

Go to sleep, children, sleep, so the ancients may find rest
Riding on the back of your dreams.  Take us out to sea.

And the young boy shouting, “Yes!” 

 

*

4.
Song for a Father

Every time I open my mind to
Reveal the yellow roots of our unmaking, I hear

Glass shatter, collisions of steel; star-scrapers
Topple and crash and dust rises in black blooms of smoke
And all the wisdom burns, it burns, wisdom burns.    

Now you wear a crown of nothing.
Hero of nothing, zero becomes you.

What is this wilderness of mirrors?
We have been careless, we have been rapacious.
Now we are a wilderness. 

Wind strips leaves from the trees, wheat from the fields.
Sand, seduced from the shore, out to sea
Returns.  But 

I am not beholden
To you.
I let you go.  I keep
Nothing
Close.

 

*

5.
Fifth Act

An eye-dropper, a drop of red,
Then the blood from Earth is bled.
Earth thou art slain.

No medicine in the world can do thee good;
In thee there is not a summer, not a harvest left to live.
It is the King, the King’s to blame. 

It is the poison’d cup; it’s too late.
Murdered, murder turns upon itself;
She bleeds, she bleeds, blood in her tears.

Cover your children’s eyes or they’ll seek revenge
For the world has been taken away from them.

Obedient subjects, busy with small gain.
Earth, Earth thou art slain.
It is the King, the King’s to blame. 

 

*
Epilogue

Stones at the shore
Glisten.
Clear water.  Ice!
Black birds flitter in the marsh,
Black bird song.
Here is the hot sun,
Here is the coolest shade.
Sleep, sleep, and dream.
A summer rain sweeps across the lake,
Shhhhhh, shhhhhh, blue curtains of rain
Sweeping, the distance.
Will there be thunder?
The smell of sky.

I have broken the promise I made in the garden.
I am only myself.
Restless, prison.
Man and woman.
Green, green garden,
Remember me.

RIP Human
Carla Gunn

Today really sucked extra because Miss Happ made my mind hurt. Bad. Again.

She gave a sheet that said to list the gifts the earth gives us. I put down five things: water to drink, clean air to breathe, forests for homes, earth to grow food in and food to eat. Then the sheet said to list the gifts humans give the earth. I thought about it hard, but I couldn’t think of anything good. All I could think of was air pollution and lots and lots of garbage.   

I looked up the word “gift” in my dictionary just to make sure I was actually supposed to think of good things. The definition for gift was: “something that is given voluntarily and without compensation”. I guess that means that a gift could be good or bad. So then I wrote down pollution and garbage. I thought some more and came up with ocean aches and forest burns and land disease. That made five. I figured that was enough.       

Then the sheet said to draw a picture of the greatest gift humans could give the earth. I thought and thought about that one. There are some things humans can do for the earth like stop chopping down all the trees and stop dumping toxic wastes in its oceans and stop sending poisons up into its atmosphere and stop murdering all of its animals all over the planet but the instructions said the draw the greatest gift humans could give the earth. So I drew a picture of the earth with legs and arms dancing around a grave that said “R.I.P. Humans”. I was so busy colouring my picture that I didn’t see Miss Happ standing over my shoulder. 

“What does that mean, Phin?” she asked.

I told her it was the greatest gift we could give the earth because then the ecosystem including the atmosphere and all the animals and fish and birds could become healthier and healthier instead of diseased and dying like they are now. I told her that the only thing that would die if humans died out were a few parasites. Now that I think about it, maybe I shouldn’t have said that last part because that’s when her face really started to look weird — like my mother’s face looked when she told me about the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.

Miss Happ said, “Phin, these drawing are going on our class wall in the corridor. These are drawings to celebrate Earth Day and to teach people about living responsibly. I don’t think this drawing is appropriate.”

I told her that the sheet said to draw the greatest gift we could give the earth and this was the greatest. 

Miss Happ said, “I am not going to argue with you about this, Phin. I think you know as well as I that this is not a picture we can hang in the hallway for Earth Day. Please draw something different.”

I sat and sat in my chair and couldn’t think of anything else to draw. I looked at what Kaitlyn had drawn and she had a picture of humans picking up garbage out of ditches. I couldn’t figure out how that was a greatest gift because the humans had put the garbage there to begin with. That would be like somebody setting someone else’s clothes on fire and then throwing water on that person to put out the flames and then calling the water a gift. It just didn’t make any sense.

I looked to see what Gordon was drawing, and it looked like I don’t know what, so I asked him what it was and he said it was a person cutting down trees to make houses. This didn’t make any sense to me, but Gordon seemed to be happy enough about it.   

When Miss Happ came over to check on me, I still hadn’t drawn anything else. 

Miss Happ said, “Phin, why haven’t you drawn something?”

“Because I couldn’t think of anything to draw that isn’t a lie,” I said.

Miss Happ didn’t say anything for a couple of seconds and then she said, “O.K., Phin, you can take the picture you did draw home to show your mother but we won’t be putting it up in the hall.”

I said, “O.K.”  But I just knew I was in trouble … again.      

As soon as Miss Happ left, I got out my list of lies and added another one: For Earth Day Miss Happ puts lies about humans on the wall in the hallway.


“RIP Human” was originally published in Amphibian copyright © 2009 by Carla Gunn. Reprinted by permission of Coach House Books.