At its deepest point, the Mariana Trench descends over six miles into the black. The water column above exerts over a thousand times the atmospheric pressure we experience at sea level. Any person down here has had their lungs crushed, the water forcing its way down into any space filled with air, and of course, nitrogen begins to dissolve in the blood. In terms of drowning, it is the most complete version, a choking from the inside out, an unequivocal subsumption back into the water. Here in the Mariana Trench, we are below the abyssal zone, that is, we are somehow now below that which is bottomless.
My earliest memory is of her crying. We are alone in a white living room in Germany and she’s holding a red phone to her ear. I have my pastel security blanket with safari animals. I love it almost as much as I do her. When I offer it to her she begins to laugh. She is laughing and she is crying but I don’t understand. I know I’m doing something brave and serious. I know I’ve never wanted to share anything of mine before. But here she is, laughing—laughing and crying. However, there’s clearly nothing funny about what I’m doing, or about the situation we’re in.
But I’m not interested in getting to the bottom of things. It is, as I see it, an impossible task, this illumination of the murk. There is simply too much of it, and already I’m unsure of where to begin, how much to say, how much to hold back, where to point my little flashlight in the first place. No, what I’m after is something else, perhaps even more impossible: a way to accept that there is simply no way to make sense of the senseless. If only there were some kind of alchemy.
He may, or may not, have warrants for his arrest in Oregon and North Carolina. He wants to know, will I sponsor him if he were to return from Hamburg? You can do this for family members, he tells me. This means being on the hook for about five thousand dollars. A sort of deposit on him in case he causes trouble. It’s a formality, he assures me. He tells me he still dreams about the West Coast. No, I say. Sorry, you have to be joking. Even a hundred dollars would be a hundred too much. Does he even remember the time he bragged about smashing a man over the head with a vodka bottle on the train? Or does he just remember waking up, the shattered glass still tightly held in his hand?
The first thing I ever lost was my Florida Gators hat. I was five and she and I were moving across the country from Florida to Oregon. We drove in her burgundy Saab that kept overheating. I remember getting very sick and throwing up, although I don’t think it was because I’d lost my hat—I might’ve even still had it then, puking in the passenger seat. I think I lost it somewhere between Florida and Texas. It might not have been my fault either—she wanted to get out of there and I doubt she wanted to look down over at me and be reminded of what we were leaving behind.
For a long time now I’ve wanted to title a piece of writing, Legacy of Brutality. It’s too much—a Misfits album, after all. But it reminds me of a story he likes to tell about the only time he spanked me. He was trying to nap and I was throwing wood blocks at him. I wanted to play, I suppose. But maybe all I wanted was to hurt him. One of these blocks hit him in the head, and then I was being spanked. It’s a story he likes to tell, often one of the first whenever I introduce him to anyone.
Nitrogen narcosis is a shift in consciousness while diving at depth. It is caused by the anesthetic effect of certain gasses at high pressure, when the nitrogen begins to dissolve in the blood. The Greek word, ναρκωσις (narcosis) is derived from narke, meaning a temporary decline, or loss of senses and movement, numbness. Divers have reported the effect is so similar to being drunk that it is also known as the martini effect, or the more sublime, raptures of the deep.
He lived on a sailboat and took diving lessons. It is the same boat he took me out on and where he named his puppy after my half-brother, who was not his son. He told me not to worry, that the sailboat would heel as we got underway, and did I know what he meant by heel? It would tilt, he said, like this. He was tilting his hand. Once underway, I was convinced we were all going to die, including the dog he’d named after my brother. But the ship righted itself with the mast standing straight as we slowed. I’m no longer convinced of many things—there’s always the chance the ship has yet to right itself.
On January 3rd, 1881 the Lupatia, a bark with three masts, crashed into Tillamook Rock, at the base of a landmass where a lighthouse was under construction. “Terrible Tilly,” as the keepers had nicknamed the beacon, was completed later that year and credited for saving the lives of many sailors until its deactivation in 1957. The wreck of the Lupatia, however, killed all sixteen of the crew—with the exception of their shepherd dog, which had, in the dead of night, swum ashore to safety.
By the time I was thirteen I had a collection of money from all over the world. His father had given me most of the bills. They were brittle and colorful and I kept them in a plastic sleeve, but the only ones I really cared about were from 1930s Germany—a billion Deutsche Mark note that according to his father would barely get you a loaf of bread. That was when I realized the play money in elementary school was no different than the money of the adult world. I still have the bills, essentially worthless, but even if they weren’t, and I could sponsor him, I don’t know that I would.
Recently she has been dizzy and has terrible headaches. She lives out at the Oregon Coast now, not far from Tillamook. Any change in altitude, that is, a change in pressure, triggers debilitating headaches, the kind of headache I can hear over the phone. One diagnosis suggests some kind of inner-ear trauma, the kind likely caused from a blow to the side of one’s head—an exploded ear drum and something comes loose in there and your balance is gone, you begin to hear tinny whining or buzzing. Was there blood? Yes, she says. It came trickling out.
I’ll admit it: I chafe at the thought of poetry, when it becomes a show or veneer, a cloak the writer hides behind. I know, I know, all language is in some sense a show, an endlessly rolling ticker feed of symbols. Of course, there is an end. Philip Larkin reminds us:
Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.
It is the black-sailed unfamiliar, and the silence in tow, that I want in my work, and the work of others.
I don’t tell the truth anymore. It hasn’t seemed necessary—what I mean is, I haven’t known how to. Maybe if it were at all necessary I’d happily oblige, but the truth is no fun, and anyway, it’s not even true.
She and I had been arguing about him. I was fourteen and didn’t want to talk about him and she wasn’t having it. I went to my room and tried to close my door behind me. It wasn’t closing. Why not? There was a shoulder in there, trying to get in. Of course she is afraid of water and Dylan means, “he who lives by the sea.” Of course.
While filming Fizcarraldo in the Amazon, Werner Herzog lost his mind and nearly died on several occasions. I haven’t seen the movie, and truth be told, I find the story of its filming far more fascinating than the movie itself could ever hope to be. The film’s main character’s quest becomes Herzog’s own as he attempts to figure out how to tow a huge riverboat over a wooded hillside. At one point he writes, “In the face of the obscene, explicit malice of the jungle, which lacks only dinosaurs as punctuation, I feel like a half-finished, poorly expressed sentence in a cheap novel.” I tell myself I could read that line forever, gazing into the black-sailed unfamiliar, but I know at some point I’d have to get up, and go about my day.
My dog from high school is still alive and he is a good friend even though, like the shepherd on the Lupatia, he too would leave me out to sea for the solace of sure footing. I love him anyway. He doesn’t like to swim and has a little head and is white with black spots, a mix of many dogs. We have a game we play where I ask him repeatedly, “What is it?” and in response he howls and howls. His answer seems as good as any that I’ve ever heard.
Up here on the land we have eyes again, and so we have vision. Which means: we also have stories. The idea is that stories and art must come from somewhere, or some thing. But it’s not always clear where—in fact, it’s rarely clear. Do they come from the sky? Do they come from the murk? The trench? Or maybe vision comes from someplace infinitesimal, like the strips on the double helix of our DNA?
Does he know that I miss him? He might suspect as much. I can’t say if he’ll ever read this. I just don’t know how to call, or what I’d say if I did.
Am I saying language has failed him, or us? It hasn’t, it can’t. It only fails in translating dreams—which, no one is much interested in hearing anyway. Unless your life is a dream, but even then, please, try to keep it under five minutes: the phone bill is going to cost someone a fortune.
It’s easier to feel comfortable when nothing changes. I feel older every time we talk because it happens so rarely. He once told me he hated his father until he realized his father was going to die. I’m still waiting for that realization, I’m still not convinced mine will ever be dead.