SEA ADVENTURES, OR, POND LIFE
While reading through the remarkably generous second number of Hix Eros, the poetry review edited by Jow Lindsay and Joe Luna (JLJL), I found myself thinking again about Sea Adventures, or, Pond Life (Runamok 2012), a vertiginous run of linked poems collaboratively built by Harvey Joseph and Lindsay James (Jow Lindsay and James Harvey). Short of reproducing the book in its entirety here, venturing a description of the work would seem an uncomfortably difficult task. The work is wildly disorienting, fantastically so, like C.S. Lewis or Frank L. Baum amped up on the terror of recommended retail prices, like Sandburg's Rootabaga stories which never get old. The book is, in the most immediate sense, an adventure narrative, a narrative set largely at sea, following a route traversed by Japheth, the youngest of Noah's sons, around whom the manically shifting registers and disjunctive flickering of the poems coalesce. In one of the more conventionally coherent moments within the work, a moment uncharacteristic of the book as a whole, Harvey and Lindsay, Joseph and James, offer the surface architecture of the anti-story assembled around Japheth:
Freed from all obligations,
Set out to seek his fortune,
Which, me know, my children,
Means seek adventure.
Spying Tristan & Juliet on the swell,
He made himself into a cod,
& dispossessed them of their coracle.
By hook & by crook, by God.
Orisons of sailors more pious
tested Japheth's tempest-sped brains,
till his Saviour grew overgenerous
& swift He was forgot.
He came where once were fisherman—
Crabbers, whalers, trawlers—but all lived
Nowadays in Rawls's Original Position;
"We prefer not to select," they said.
They had not one resource of Earth,
And woven within their Veil,
A quality not unlike mirth.
He would not stay, but made sail.
But even here, in what appears to be the most lucid moment in the narrative, a number of puzzling tensions and complexities undermine these otherwise unassuming quatrains. In the second stanza, for instance, we have neither Tristan and Iseult nor Romeo and Juliet but something altogether different, a conflation of the two couples that either suggests fickleness and infidelity or signifies the shattering intensity of an absolute love encapsulated in a coracle adrift at sea. When Japheth shape-shifts into a cod and appropriates the coracle the splendor of this love, whatever species of love it might be, is left to drown. This is not the wreck of the whaleship Essex. Japheth is no Ishmael. He bears a closer resemblance to the young Harvey Cheyne of Captains Courageous, the implacable son of a bourgeois railroad magnate rescued from drowning by fishermen in the North Atlantic. Madeleine L'Engle's 1986 fantasy novel Many Waters also comes to mind. The novel's young protagonists, Sandy and Dennis, travel back in time where they meet Japheth, a prospector searching for water immediately before the great flood (floating capital). In any case, the Japheth of Sea Adventures is a violently resourceful character all too willing to let love drown in seeking his fortune. Suddenly the exhaustive catalog of Recommended Retail Prices (RRP) printed in exceptionally small type across the flyleaves at the front and back of Sea Adventures begin to make a particular type of sense.
Amphibious. Japheth traverses the sea in a Frog Ark, which may or may not be the coracle he stole from Tristan and Juliet, making his way to Spain, reminding us of Isidore, Archbishop of Seville, who traced the origin of western civilization back to Japheth. In the port of Cadiz Japheth marries a "pygmy mayd" who somehow, within the space of a month, dies. After a stunningly brief moment of mourning Japheth reorients himself and returns his attentions to exploitation and entertainment: "In the heaving Spanish port | It was amusement he sought, | And in the revolving masses | Simple to snatch their purses." Like Lorca in Andalusia, Japheth sets out for the sun and is almost immediately executed by the Civil Guard: "After a whole month was done | He ventured out into the sun | But a guardsman shot him in the head. | Could it be that Japheth lay dead?" Not at all. Further in we find, "The headwound had reprogrammed Japheth" who now must "get into the astral tory camp | in geosynchronous orbit over hackney city farm." Other characters and themes include: Luke, who is absolutely and not at all a manifestation of Japheth; Sophia; Hermione; amphibians; a lobe-finned fish from the late Devonian period that swallows Luke; Blind Pew (Treasure Island); Imogen; Byron who like Japheth also turns into a cod; toilets; Easter Island; Caliban; the police.