Ellene Glenn Moore is a writer living in Philadelphia. She is the author of How Blood Works (Kent State University Press, 2021), selected by Richard Blanco for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. She has been the recipient of a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Fellowship in Poetry, a scholarship to the New York State Summer Writers Institute, and a residency at The Studios of Key West. Ellene’s poetry, lyric non-fiction, and critical work has appeared or is forthcoming in West Branch, Poet Lore, Hayden’s Ferry, Best New Poets, Poetry Northwest, Brevity, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere.
after a morning motoring through impenetrable fog
Finally, as though it has seized upon the absence of its habitual glory, the day reaches its zenith and disperses the morning fog. My daughter sits in my lap, squinting at the distance. My husband, Andrew, relinquishes the helm to his brother Paul, while his other brother David and our sister-in-law Ariane lean into each other in the sudden sun. We find ourselves in the middle of Vineyard Sound, the Elizabeth Islands muscling their way into our starboard view. The sun is high, so full of itself that the sky seems to recede in embarrassment. From where do we derive this idea of a yellow sun? A blue ocean? There is only white above us, a bald noon light. Below, the Sound is a dank matte of well-water, grasping at its secrets.
We are marginally more at ease in the clarity of this mid-day light. The seabed below us, I am aware, is studded with 160 years of sunk schooners, whalers, steamers, and tugs. Not eight nautical miles in our wake, the flattened wreckage of the freighter Kershaw lies swaddled in sand at the bottom of the Sound, where it sank in the early hours of June 1, 1928 after its infamous collision with the liner President Garfield. Witness atop the surrounding bluffs reported that the freighter’s port side collapsed under the bow of the President Garfield. The sound shuddered across the water, lagging several seconds behind the awful sight. Cold salt water flooded the Kershaw’s engine room, causing the superhot boiler first to contract like a beating heart, then to crack, then to explode. The very element animating that burning organ to a greater purpose caused, in the same instant, its failure. As though one moment of ecstasy was enough. The captain, quartermaster, and officer of the watch were later rescued, dragged from the flotsam; when the Kershaw finally sank below the water’s surface, seven of her crew members accompanied her to the depths.
Excruciatingly, the two ships sighted each other during the calm hours of the middle watch, miles ahead of the actual collision. Testimony from the respective crews laid the blame at each other’s feet. They didn’t send the right signals, each said of the other. We didn’t understand. And this is how I have felt, whistling a series of mis-signals into the brittle wind of my twenties. The baby gift my manager interpreted as overture. The beloved manuscripts returned unremarked-upon. The errant marital nags that suddenly flood the metal core of insecurity Andrew and I carry inside of us. And all of the lost, broken, unfinished, thrown away things, like the milk-white glass elephant I shouldn’t have left on the window sill, the friends in Cleveland I should have emailed back, the ragged edge of outdated color around the top of the bedroom where crown molding might someday go. See how I, unsettled, collect these things, try to emblazon them with meaning. No matter how calm the water, how clear the sky, I cannot seem to find the language to avoid a collision course with my own disappointment.
I am so tired of things being lost. Several weeks ago, Andrew and I stood in our cramped living room and surveyed the pieces of a multi-hued wooden stacking toy our daughter had scattered across the house. As I collected them, flushed with irritation at the perpetuity of disarray, it became clear that the dark blue donut was missing. I’d already found the purple octagonal prism under the dishwasher, a space that is accessible only because the plastic skirting is broken and we have put off buying a new one for yet another season, and I knew I would find the red sphere in the nursery, where it repeatedly slipped away, cradled along the same path by the buckles and dips of the hastily-refinished Dade County pine. I’d watched it make the same slow arc and sudden zag across the floor a hundred times. But the dark blue donut had just vanished, and in my mounting displeasure at yet another thing gone and terminally unfinished, I turned to Andrew and demanded to know where it could possibly be, as though I could brute force into existence the knowledge of its whereabouts. Andrew shrugged and very helpfully told me that he’d just read an article about injection molding and plastic products and that blue, interestingly, is the hardest hue to color match.
This was apropos of nothing, of course, except Andrew’s and my mutual sighting of my impending meltdown. He was trying to navigate around it, inviting me not to accompany my sinking spirits. “So, blue is the hardest hue to color match,” I relented. “Yes,” he continued, “because the human eye has evolved a particular sensitivity to variances in the color blue.” “Why would that be?” I wondered. And for a moment, I allowed myself to be dragged from myself. We discussed possible biological imperatives. Distinguishing poison from pure, mapping blood beneath the thin skin of our wrists. “I think it has to do with the ocean,” Andrew offered. Reading the water, he meant, intuiting danger or direction or depth from the bleed of one shade to the next. It was a small mercy, this conversation. Before we fully entered the crucible of the last decade, this is what the early days of our knowing each other were like: nights talking nonsense into the comforter—what’s the fastest fish in the sea (mako, if sharks are fish, but they aren’t, so tuna, then, it’s got to be tuna), how great would it be to hug in space (very great), what would you call this container (how big is it? does is have a lid? what is it made of? what do you put in it? have you ever actually encountered a bread box?). It wasn’t so much that we took ourselves less seriously, but that we were more enthusiastic in our earnestness.
Most of our conversations now revolve around why I haven’t done the groceries, why Andrew’s business trip is now ten days instead of seven, the last time our daughter defecated, and, briefly, the location of the dark blue donut. We are not unique in this self-parody, drawn with a million other cohabitating couples towards a single point of domestic tedium. We take exhaustive catalogues of our feelings about all of these issues, and also about our circular conversations about all of these issues, which despite their clear relevance to our actual, lived experience feel somehow less intimate than an equally serious debate about the appropriateness of naming a teashop “Té Café” and refusing to serve coffee. When Andrew does this, submits a bit of trivia about color theory or anthropology or manufacturing processes for my consideration, I feel us slipping, however fleetingly, into old rhythms.
Now Andrew slips below deck, drained from hours of staring into the now-lifted fog and tensed with lingering anticipation. Our daughter is napping again in the v-berth, and soon Andrew drops under his own exhaustion. Ariane and David forage for the last of the cold cuts, the deli cheese, the single loaf of soft Portuguese bread Andrew remembered to pick up in Nantucket Town for my sentimental pleasure while I once again stayed holed up in the boat with our sleeping daughter. I know this is Andrew’s worst fear, to be asleep while everyone helps themselves to a rapidly diminishing meal. (What’s your worst fear?—nobody caring enough to wake me up for dinner—what’s yours?—floating in the middle of an empty ocean.) I think of our fears as twin branches from the same hardy rootstock that is existing at the mercy of others. We both, in our way, cling to the swaying trellis of perfect self-governance, no matter how illusory our grasp, how deeply we sag under our own weight. I am not at all surprised that his fear is metonymized in a single, neglectful, familial act, while mine blossoms into allegory. I ease down the companionway and scrabble together a sandwich from the final, single slices from each bag of deli meat, then set it aside for him beneath an upended bowl.
Looking out of the oblong portlight, over the deck and into the Sound, I think again of how blue it simply is not. And, I have not been able account at all for the bit of intellectual whimsy Andrew proffered in the wake of the magnificent vanishing dark blue donut. It turns out, whether or not blue is the hardest hue to color match, the exact opposite of Andrew’s ill-gotten fact is true regarding humans’ perception of it. In fact, perceiving the color blue at all is largely a modern endeavor, think some scientists. Almost nowhere in the seminal texts of civilization is the color blue used to describe anything, much less the sea. Recall Homer’s “wine-dark sea.” Recall Khayyam’s “seas that mourn in flowing purple.” And this deep water of starling plumage, of mission olives, of dried herbs. I struggle to imagine how an eye for one particular shade of blue against another is relevant to navigating this waterscape. Is a sensitivity to this color specific to people whose oceans are ragged patchworks of cerulian, azure, teal, seafoam, navy, marine—the way Inuits have dozens of words to differentiate one snowpack from another? Aputi: snow on the ground; pukak: crystalline snow on the ground; qinu: slushy ice by the sea. On hearing this vocabulary I may intuitively accept that these manifestly distinct types of snow exist in the world, may even realize that I have experienced some of them with my own senses, but my ability to converse about them springs from a florid desire to describe and not the simple, obvious need to know what’s on the ground when I step outside my house.
But that is language and not biology. And anyway, this widely-cited exoticism (52 words for snow? how enlightened, how in touch with nature!) is just as widely criticized. It is true, though, that sometimes the world hangs together in ways we don’t teach ourselves to expect. Ritual begets belief, and not the other way around; prejudice makes fear bloom like mold where there otherwise may have been only diffidence; excise words from a language and you excise the corresponding thoughts. Conversely, having the words possiblizes the thoughts, and therefore thought patterns, and therefore actions, and therefore whole lives, and therefore whole worlds. Are we truly ourselves before we can lie in bed with a new love and wonder aloud if the difference between fireflies, lightning bugs, and cucuyos is zoological in nature, or semantic, or perhaps metaphysical?
To illustrate: I have no memory of any preliterate puzzling over words in my picture books. Until I knew to look for them, words didn’t even exist. What did my mind create to fill in those empty spaces? What were those square sheets of metal hanging over the highway? Why did my mother thumb through that paper wheel before making a phone call? What was my eldest brother doing when he split open a thick sheaf of papers and sat with his feet propped up in bed, unfathomably quiet and still for hours? What I am asking is this: how deep did that blindness run? Perhaps there were no signs, no Rolodex, no novels at all, whole items not just bereft of language but simply absent from my universe. Perhaps even I may disappear, unless I can give others the language to see me.
This, I think, is the crux of my fear. Not the harm, the hunger, my actual person may realize, but the knowledge that I may place my words in someone else’s hands and watch them perform utterly against my intentions. Grasping at some semblance of control, I might reframe the notion of being at the “mercy of others” as being at the mercy of my own inability to make myself perfectly understood. “I sometimes think that if I can just say everything exactly right,” I once confessed to a friend, “then everything will be okay.” My friend regarded me with a vague kind of concern, and for a moment I felt like some wild creature caught in a snare, like I was the snare, and I was hunter, too.
It is both a deep-seated vulnerability and, as is often the case with fears, a weapon I wield against others. Paul knows all about this. Just a few days before, we had it out over his mother’s (my mother-in-law’s) insistence on receiving regular updates from him regarding our location. After several frantic messages from her, fielding a welfare check from the Coast Guard seemed like a real possibility. Picking up on his irritation and thinking, therefore, that some commiseration would be welcome, I made several derisive comments, culminating in a flippant but overly-ambitious statement about it being a crime to make a false report. This one pulled Paul up short. “Uh—” he sputtered, incredulous, “it’s not a false report if she thinks we’re missing.” “But we’re not missing,” I volleyed back, “we’re on a planned and widely-discussed vacation.” Paul never enjoys being challenged, particularly when the challenger is as egregiously ignorant about the topic at hand as I am about the legal standard for “making a false report,” but it dawned on me that he was also unhappy with my unkind characterization of his mother’s intentions. Under that dawn my icy humor thawed into embarrassment, and that embarrassment into a very familiar self-loathing. I hated myself for misunderstanding and for making myself misunderstood. And what could I say that wouldn’t necessitate further justification, compelled as I am to brute force my feelings, my reactions, my thoughts, my decisions into everyone else’s understanding.
Brute force is rarely a friend to understanding. I remember encountering a new translation of a poem by Bashō, one I love dearly and which up to that point I had known as: “A bee / staggers out / of the peony.” This is Robert Hass, relying on the verb “stagger” to translate the bee’s experience: drunk on nectar, on light, on the sheer awe of a single flower’s beauty. The new translation, Sam Hamill’s, reads: “How reluctantly / the bee emerges from deep / within the peony.” I can feel Hamill squeezing my comprehension into shape. Look, look—reluctantly, see? Deep, okay? From within. I think of Saint Jerome’s letter to Pammachius, his argument to “render sense for sense, and not word for word.” Some days I feel as though that is all I am doing, translating myself endlessly to those around me. Fittingly, his letter is a rebuttal to criticism of his translation of Letter LI from Epiphanius to John, which against his intentions became widely distributed and was met with disapproval by the pundits for its non-literal approach. Don’t be so precious about getting every word exactly right, Saint Jerome cautions me. “Each particular word conveys a meaning of its own,” he writes, “and possibly I have no equivalent by which to render it, and if I make a circuit to reach my goal, I have to go many miles to cover a short distance.” I find I have often circled for miles, reaching for equivalence.
To port, Menemsha Bight finally eases into view, revealed by the gentle movement of bluffs and shorelines against each other as our approach shifts them in our perspective. Waves break against the stone jetty, against the sand of Menemsha Beach. I recall a literary event back home, a Spanish-speaker reading a poem whose final lines needed no translation: “azul azul azul azul azul azul azul” she chanted, tender iambs beating into pinpricks on the horizon. We got a translation anyway, rendered by the poet herself: “blue blue blue blue blue blue blue—” I cringed. I, too, have insisted on being my own interpreter. But this poem shouldn’t exist in my tongue. It doesn’t exist in my tongue, not really, any lyrical sense imbued by its native rhythm squeezed out like water from a rag stuffed into a too-small cup. How often I have tried to squeeze meaning into shape. How often I have misjudged the size of the cup. Andrew is awake again, and fed, the protective bowl rinsed and locked in the cupboard. We are tired. We are speechless. The sun has begun her descent, leaving the sky to its blue, washing the green water in a silver blaze, burning off our words before they can leave our tongues.
Bashō, Matsuo. Narrow Road to the Interior: And Other Writings. Translated by Sam Hamill. Shamabala, 2000.
Hass, Robert, editor and translator. The Essential Haiku: Versions of Bashō, Buson, & Issa. Ecco Press, 1995.
Hugo, Christopher C. “Kershaw.” mwdc.org, MetroWest Dive Club, 2000.
Jerome, Saint. “Letter LVII: To Pammachius on the Best Method of Translating.” A. D. 395.
Robson, David. “There really are 50 Eskimo words for ‘snow.’” washingtonpost.com, The Washington Post, 14 January 2013.
“Why Isn't the Sky Blue?” Radiolab, WNYC Studios, 21 May 2012.