Poems by Ben Cromwell
To My Love
by Ben Cromwell
From Canary Summer 2011
Ben resides in the Jordan River watershed in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Ben resides in the Jordan River watershed in Salt Lake City, Utah.
I am disappearing. It’s only been three days since I left Salt Lake, but she is forgetting me, my face. She said so last night and I told her to find a picture of me, but I knew it wouldn’t help. I am not there and love is so much physical, not just skin on skin, but the weight of her beside me, the movement of breath that I can feel from one end of the apartment to the other. I’m at a conference in Centennial Valley, Montana. Two weeks. No big deal, but it’s more time apart than we’d like, more time than we’ve been apart in three years, and the weight of separation sits heavy on us. My wife, Raven, and I have recently finished hiking the Appalachian Trail together. 200 miles, the last leg from Mount Katadin to Little Bigelow Peak, and we were never more than a hundred feet apart. Now, we’re in different states, and I feel as though I’m disappearing, as though I only exist when we are together.
I stand in the grass outside my cabin in the thick morning fog thinking of climate change and other disasters. The sun has not yet risen, though there is a soft golden glow indicating the horizon. I am in a bird sanctuary so there must be birds, hundreds of them, but they don’t stir and neither do I. Instead, I let the cold mist wash over me. I close my eyes and I might as well be a deer standing stock still or a willow that stirs only with the breeze. I become indistinct, a part of a still, dark landscape. The sun slips silently over the horizon, and I open my eyes to brilliantly orange fog. A door creaks on rusty hinges nearby. I shake the cold from my limbs and step stiffly towards the cabin.
I did not hear about the oil spill for three days after it happened. I do not watch the news, so when my father told me about it, it was as if the whole thing were happening at warp speed. I forced myself to sit down at my computer and watch videos on CNN and MSNBC. There were aerial shots of the oil slicked Gulf and, already, footage of gulls and cranes covered in tarry poison, but the image that sticks out for me is of a woman on a beach in front of a white building, her home and her business, a bed and breakfast on the coast. “I stand to lose everything,” she says to the reporter interviewing her. Hadn’t they already?
In all the images I watched, I could not find the Gulf. As a child, I’d been there on vacation with my family, to Fort Meyers, Ana Maria Island, Clearwater, where we’d swum with manatees. I recall the soft, gritty feel of sand beneath my feet, walking down the beach for hours under the spell of breaking waves. I remember wading out beyond the breakers, the water lifting me gently off my feet, and at the crest, I could see pelicans and other ocean birds diving into the blue water and, farther out, the fins of dolphins surfacing near the horizon like graceful loops of a sea serpent. I remember the wind blowing off the sea, the sky at sunset, reds and purples bleeding into the water. All of it, gone.
I remember another ocean on the East coast. A beach at Chincoteague Island. It is raining, but not hard. A storm is moving out to sea and the waves are gray and turbid with the disturbance. I walk down the beach with my father. We are picking up crabs, giant horseshoe crabs that have been washed ashore by the storm. We cradle the crabs in our arms, each one the size of a dinner plate, and walk to the edge of the water, pitching them as far out as we can. I feel the softness of their bodies underneath. We are saving them.
The oil spill will take lifetimes to recover from. There is so much death to be reckoned. Dead fish and dead birds and dead mammals. Dead species like the smalltooth sawfish, which are lost forever, and other, still wider deaths. The news has made much of the fact that our trust in multinational oil companies is dying. Personally, I never had much trust in them to begin with. Trust in government, too, is very low, but there is another death I mean to get to, hard to talk about. Perhaps it is a death of the bigness of the universe, the idea that we could recover because there was still so much world and so much time. How many more of these can we absorb? I am disappearing with the Gulf under a sheen of darkness.
We met in the Ozarks of southern Missouri. She came into the office of the summer camp where I was working. The next day, I gave her a tour of the lake, the docks and cabins, the woods between. We began to exist for one another, to become substantial, though at first we were only eyebrows and fingernails. True creation takes time
There is another beach that recurs endlessly in my mind, the shorelines of our village on Abaiang, where we were Peace Corps volunteers. Tanraake, Tanrio, ocean and lagoon, the blood red reef at dawn, the waves coming in like a host of starry-eyed lovers.
The kids in Ueen Wakaam used to tear the wooden tops off of their desks. I would see them at the beach, surfing the waves from the very edge of the reef into the shore, a distance that grew longer in September. A king tide hit and we lost three meters of beach. The trees nearest the shore turned brown or fell as the beach eroded and salt water worked its way down into the water lens. There was nothing to do but watch as the island slipped lower into a rising sea. We watched and tried to make the world exist as we had each other, by an act of pure will. Moment by moment, exist. And then we closed our eyes and prayed, but the island is going underwater. The damage is done, no stopping it.
Tebwake, our neighbor, disappeared too, despite our arms around him, despite how much we wanted him to live, and we buried him beneath the sand at the edge of the island. Will they dig him up when it’s time to leave for good?
This morning, I saw pictures of birds, albatross from Midway. Dead birds, choked on pieces of plastic from the great Pacific trash heap. Their bones and feathers decomposing, becoming dirt again, their plastic insides, like negatives of prophecy. Bird entrails pointing towards a bleak future full of death, destruction, the birds themselves, gone.
I am disappearing like Tebwake, like the birds, like Abaiang, dissolving into the background and leaving only poison, the hate filled guts of myself behind. These things are like erasers, like sandpaper. They take the smallest pieces of me with each contact.
She imagines me in the dark, and I imagine her in tiny bits like handfuls of sand. I put them back, carefully, one by one. “It’s not your fault.” “You are worthy.” “I love you.” Our voices are like psalms, our hands move over each other, slow, deliberate, mapping our own diminishment, repairing what we can, relearning the contours of our bodies, the reverse of vanishing.
My wife gave me a stuffed yellow baby the first summer we dated. It was meant as a joke, and we both laughed when she told me it was our child. There was a longing in her voice, a hopefulness behind her eyes. I felt myself breaking open with love.
We are desert people, for our love grew there in the Sonoran. I was living in Scottsdale, which is a wreck of homes and golf courses, but it was still desert, still dry and hot and the yards carried a certain enchantment, despite their concrete cages. Deserts can never really be contained by a city, still less mountains, and the medians of roads, vacant lots, and unwatered gardens were rife with toothy succulents like ocotillo, prickly pear and sand burrs. Scorpions made their way into the most secluded closets, and in the heart of Scottsdale, the serrated profile of Camelback Mountain loomed over the resorts and million-dollar homes, a dragon lying in wait to devour tender, sunburned tourists.
Besides that, there were the 101 and 202, bands of blacktop that separated the heart of the Phoenix metro area from the wasteland beyond. And yet, it was a connection for us. Just 45 minutes on the highway, and the waste began, and it was a waste of a magnificent kind. Fields of brown and orange rock dotted, here and there with dry tufts of desert grass, palo verde, chollas, barrel cactus, and that most majestic of desert dwellers, the saguaro, to say nothing of the wildlife, diamondbacks as thick as a forearm, rose tarantulas, gila monsters, and all manner of small lizards and rodents. It was a paradise of a wasteland where only humans found it difficult to prosper.
That was where we spent our time, camping in washes near Lost Dutchman Mountain, wandering the open spaces of Scottsdale, inhabiting the dry air. It was here that we became a family. I don’t know the physics of it, but there is something that occurs between people when they have loved enough and reveled enough and trusted deeply. Maybe it’s not science, but a kind of alchemy of the spirit.
We had driven south on I-17 to Camp Verde and from there, East towards the Verde River. We rolled down the windows and tasted the dust as we bumped along down the steep, rocky road into the valley, relieved simply to be with one another, alone at last. The past two days had been spent in the presence of my extended family, my parents and sister, an aunt and uncle, and two cousins. It had been cold in the high desert near Flagstaff and my family can be trying, but as we lost altitude, the air began to warm to a pleasant temperature and the stress of such a high stakes meeting (it was Raven’s first with my parents) began to melt away as the smell of water and cottonwoods intensified.
We set up our tent and hiked into the secluded hot springs up the valley. The water was warm and pleasant and we sat and held each other in the spring for several hours. On the way back, she stepped off the trail to pee and I walked farther on.
The cottonwoods hummed with the clicks of insects. Without knowing why, I turned too soon and saw her, her hair, the backs of her arms, the pale rounds of her bottom. She stood and let her skirt fall and I would feel the brush of cloth upon my thighs. The wind in my hair.
That night, we lay together and could not distinguish between our own hands, whose skin was whose. We were composed of earth and rocks and water and waxy cuticles. We were sharp and hard and soft and warm. The tent was our burrow and we were jackrabbits or desert mice contained in the flesh of the earth.
His eyes bulged, sticky and opaque, and the smell of him washed over us in the hot breeze. I keep returning here, to this death, the mouth filled with blow flies, the body swollen and pale with bacteria, death, and a kind of resurrection. And we put him back into the earth. It was a healing. A way to make the whole thing right.
And the Pacific, what can we do with that? And the Gulf, where will we bury it?
We walk slowly through the rain, and the crabs look like dinosaurs, or older than that. They are the very first things on earth, the remnants of the earth’s first dreaming, when it dreamed strange and terrible things, shelled and spiked as if about to make war on itself, or on a vast celestial plane. They move their upturned legs like insects and their shells glow brown and gold in the gloaming. One by one, we right them, returning them to the sea because they are beautiful and helpless, because there is nothing else to do. And it’s easy, the easiest thing in the world.
I’ve begun to write letters to my children, to call out to them and summon them as witnesses, though they are months and years away. Sometimes I tell them of their ancestors, what little I know, of where we came from. Sometimes, I write my sorrows, my worry that there will be no earth for them, no home at all. These I burn because I must. I write to tell them of the beautiful things in the world, fearing that there will be none left. And I write, too, out of hope. That maybe we’ve saved something; maybe the crabs survived, and the skeletons of the birds were not the whole story. There were others that flew away. And there are stories too, about live creatures huddled together in their dens, dreaming you.
© Ben Cromwell