I have more to come specifically on poetry, but as oil continues to pour ceaselessly into the Gulf of Mexico, I'm feeling compelled to write a note on the language coming out of this disaster, it seems now, the worst environmental disaster in the history of the United States.
The names BP has given to its efforts at containing the leak, "junk shot" and "top kill", remind me of military campaigns. (The Daily Show did a great piece on the various terms.) The names seem to have come out of the BP public relations machine or maybe they are an adaptation of engineering language (an online glossary of gas and oil terms includes the term to "kill a well", "mud kill" also appears on BP's simultaneously technical and emotional explanation). Whatever their origin, they have the same sort of effect that military names do.
While one method involved plugging the leak by shooting garbage into it and the other was an attempt to cover it with mud (here's a quick overview), the terms BP assigned these procedures were immediately on every newscasters' lips. There is comfort in assigning a name to a complicated situation that's hard to wrap your mind around, to a catastrophe, like the way we refer to hurricanes by name. (The name "Katrina" dropped 100 spots on the most popular list of baby names after the storm.) Or think of the dismay on the news when that pesky Icelandic volcano had such a difficult name to pronounce. I remember when "September 11" became what people were calling what happened that day, and later just "nine eleven", it seemed to happen collectively, in the way that slang does.
Something different happens when the name comes from a corporation or a military operation, there is a conscious naming, an effort to shape the kind of comfort that's taken in the words. "Operation Desert Storm" has an air of romance, adventure. The air of "Operation Iraqi Freedom" kind of speaks for itself. The oil rig in question is called Deepwater Horizon. While I couldn't say what this refers to in practical terms, it sounds beautiful, a deepwater horizon.
There isn't much anyone can do, the oil just keeps flowing. The attempts to contain it are uncertain and slow, and there's probably not much new news the 24-hour news outlets can report on the hour (for weeks now) other than that: the oil just keeps flowing. But if there is Top Kill, then: Top Kill is about to happen, Top Kill is happening, Top Kill has failed.
The terms are also easy to pronounce, they are brisk, they sound authoritative, single syllables with hard consonants (despite the pornographic side of "junk shot"). They sound like something reliable.
People who choose to mistrust the kind of comfort these names offer tend to opt for ironic distance instead. Yes, we have to laugh to cope, but what has been concerning me lately is if this detached reaction has an equally negative impact. If you're not reacting because it feels like someone is taking care of things (Top Kill is happening) and that feels pretty good, is it necessarily worse than not reacting because it has all become too absurd ?
Speaking of absurd, and speaking of trying to do something: another curious term that has come out of this event is "hair booms". Perhaps I have been too much of an ostrich about the disaster, but I hadn't heard of these until a couple of days ago. These are mats made of human and/or animal hair (here's an impressive photo), which, for a while, were being considered as a way of soaking up and mitigating the impact of the oncoming oil. Dog groomers and hair salons around the country were collecting donations, but just today BP rejected everyone's donated hair, explaining that they were not as effective as synthetic models.
I feel like I just wrote a piece of imaginative fiction. There seems to be less and less need for satire, all you have to do is write about what's going on. In a very similar, slightly better parallel universe, a well-written account of current events here in our universe might be the most brilliant piece of comic fiction (science fiction?) to come along in a decade.
Last week many people posted a video of the spill underwater, a view of the giant plumes of oil mixed with chemicals taking shape under the surface. It made me think of a bit of a Keith Waldrop poem I had read just a couple of days before, something about it found its way into my consciousness. It's from a poem called "Silk", it's in the book Transcendental Studies (it won the National Book Award last year):
It's hard for us -- creatures of the surface -- to reckon with depth, whether of earth or ocean. Under our feet, out of the air and the light, life is unimaginable -- though we know perfectly well how waters heave with animals and plants and how the organic extends into the soil, deeper than the roots of the tallest trees.