A Poem About the Sea, New Freckles and Taking Your Time

If you’ve come to this column from the old one, you’ll know I’ve been pining for the sea for a while now; more than a year.

John – my boyfriend – has been so sick I’ve barely seen the sun this year either. And so I’ve come away for a while, to the city where my parents live. It’s 4000 miles and a continent away from home; it’s nothing like London’s grey skies and chewing-gum pavements. This is where I lived before London. I’ve been away for so long; I’d forgotten what it’s like to have the sun when you want it, and the sea every day.

As I write this, I’ve just got back: my hair is dripping saltwater onto my laptop keyboard, and the scribbled-on print-out of Sea Church by Aimee Nezhukumatathil.

(There are a lot of scribbles on this poem, because I have had to read it over so many times before feeling I could write about it. I love the way it sounds, and I love the way it makes me feel, but I wasn’t sure I understood it properly. It is so beautiful, which is always off-putting; you don’t want to take something beautiful and unpick it badly.)

I’ve been swimming a lot since I’ve been here, and when I look in the mirror I am surprised by my freckles. I thought I’d outgrown freckles; maybe I just hadn’t been outside enough. I ask for the grace/ of a new freckle/ on my cheek…

That’s from Sea Church, and it goes on: …the lift of blue and my mother’s soapy skin to greet me…. That stanza, it’s sort of like Peanut Butter by Eileen Myles in the way it makes you feel ten again. That was the part that drew me to this poem first; the part I find easiest to understand.

Other parts took me longer. The hiss and smoke in the first bit? It took me three reads to realise that meant the waves coming home. It took three reads for the words to properly resolve themselves into a picture; for me to put the clues together to see it how Aimee Nezhukumatathil sees it.

I love the way the poem takes you up and over the mysterious bit, the way a wave might lift you over a rough patch of seafloor.

This might be why I like poetry so much generally: you get to see the world how someone else sees it. You get to see the hiss and the smoke of the waves on the shore; you get to see that the waves really are kind of walls, just like she says.

And then there are parts of this poem that took me even longer still: parts I didn’t understand for a long, long time when I read it, but nonetheless was moved by, like the current in the sea.

This morning, swimming with my mother, I am startled by how slowly I move in the ocean; strokes that carry me yards in the pool barely move me inches in the waves.

I call over: “Mum, why is it harder to swim here than in a pool?” She isn’t sure; it might be the current, or something else. We debate the current for a little while; turn on our backs and float to see which way the current takes us. We can’t tell. We float.

The sea-bottom is silt instead of sand today; muddy and soft as silk. Why? We don’t know. My mother and I dredge our toes through it, wondering. Sometimes, for a week or two weeks, you get one kind of shell washing up on the shore; the next week it’s another. My mum and I don’t know why that happens, either. My favourites have always been the shells that look (if you squint) like a treble clef: an elegant white spiral of calcium carbonate. I had to look that up, what shells are made of. To almost quote Pocahontas: how can there be so much that I don’t know?

My friends have a podcast I listen to sometimes, called The School For Dumb Women, about the obvious things you think you should understand and don’t. I like it for exactly this reason: there’s so much we don’t know, which means there’s always room for that shock of the new. There’s a Ted Hughes line I’ve always loved: At twenty-five I was dumbfounded afresh/ By my ignorance of the simplest things.

That’s how I feel about the shells, and the sand, and the sea – and about this Nezhukumatathil poem too. As I wrote this column it suddenly dawned on me what the middle part meant: the part where she prays, Hide me in a room/ with no windows. It was the kind of simple, total, dumbfounding revelation where you want to grab people by the shoulders and say Did You Know This All Along?!

The room with no windows is the room with the walls that hiss and smoke on the shore, of course; the room with no windows is the room made by the waves as they roll up and roll down, hiding you in the gaps between. I’ve been reading this poem for weeks, saying that line to myself often, trying to work it out. My printout has red question marks scribbled by that line. I wrote this whole column not understanding, and then – suddenly – I saw. I saw what Nezhukumatathil saw, and it felt like real magic.

I love the way I’ve been reading poetry all my life and I still – every time! – come across parts that are to me a mystery. I love the way the poem takes you up and over the mysterious bit, the way a wave might lift you over a rough patch of seafloor.

This is a water-prayer, Aimee Nezhukumatathil says: a water-prayer in a sea church. Like everything, then, reading this poem is maybe a question of faith. You just have to read it, that’s all; you just have to let yourself be lifted.


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