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SEA Currents Blog

SEA Currents: Corwith Cramer

July 31, 2015

The Simplest Things Come Last

Bach Tong, B Watch, Bard College

Historic Seaports of Western Europe

Docked in Doca do Alcantara, Lisbon, Portugal

sunny with a chance of sunburn

Souls on Board

Within a couple of weeks of her mother's passing, Emily Dickinson concludes a letter to her cousins-Louise and Frances Norcross-with an admissive manner: "I cannot tell how eternity seems. It sweeps around me like a sea." I remember concluding my admission essay for SEA with the same quote. To me, as it was then, the sea is one way of understanding eternity-its sweeping motion and endlessness, the expansive quality of which renders the heart an abundance from a sense of perspective of its insignificance. Something of it keeps the eyes of a beholder restless, the soul surrendered. After two passages at sea, my mind now focuses less on the sea, and more on the eternity, of Dickinson's words. The fact of her mother's death stands clearer, and something amiss before now somehow revealed in clarity. Perhaps the romantic harbor of thought about the sea is abandoned by a new sense of its capacity.

The world changed on the first few days of each of the two passages, and seasickness unsurprisingly played the principle actor. The process now I could masterly recall: the head put an annoying weight of itself on the neck, a light pain swept over, then an awareness of an enlarging unease in the stomach, as food was consumed and idled amid the unease, then a sour distaste that led to some rupture of bodily core that jerked the body forwards and something fell exiled from the mouth. All while the feet were exhausted of keeping up-the same way a baby would cry of discomfort, expecting its opposite would be restored, except in this case, the rhythm at sea was the only thing.  It is not my intention for the vividness of how it remains in my memory to set a grotesque image in anyone's mind. But there is not quite another way to relay the degree to which my body had felt its ultimate agony. It was neither an acute nor an extreme pain. The mere constant meagerness of the agony made life unbearable. Waking up in such state was another agony in and of itself. Each person aboard the Cramer has a bunk barely large enough for a body that are set up in lower-upper style on the two walls of the belly of the ship. And it seemed one can only sleep on the side, so to minimize the effect of the water motion on the other side of the wall. Each time I woke up, I felt the motion again. The poetics of the sea did not quite unfold the way I imagine when I was on land, before I knew what the sea is like in person. But it changes, and I, one day, felt better. The sea was calmer and the Corwith Cramer's deck seemed as solid as ground.

Seasickness provides a great opportunity to understand  how intimate the body is to land. But it also gives a sense of how capacious the sea can be on the body. I have in mind the various accounts I have read and heard thus far many times in this trip, the last of which is from Rui Santos, our tour guide of the Caravela, which the Portuguese used in 16th-18th century for their missions across what later became a powerful maritime empire. Those accounts include stories of sick men being thrown overboard in consideration of food scarcity. They include stories, like M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong, of slaves being thrown overboard in consideration of profit. When I am seasick I stand by the windward side for the constant fresh changes of air. As I look down, I recall these accounts, not for a moment of pessimism but for a moment of enlightenment, of reflectiveness. I am sailing on the same route that took place in these accounts five hundred years ago. At the bottom, unseen thus unknown, lies countless number of such men and women. The sea isn't a romantic poem as it is seen on land.

The workers load cargo containers onto large ships all day long where we dock. We have seen many of such container-ships on this trip, passing us by in their indifference and immensity. Above us, the jets set their course for landing. Construction cranes can be seen variously across the landscape. Everything seems to be changing very quickly, now that we are in a city. Even at sea, the changes are felt, not of wind or of current, but of  the amount of plastic we found-broken into minuscule pieces hardly seen by the eyes. Up the hill, viewed from the Cramer, the orange roofed buildings that are the mark Lisbon's architecture history mingled among angular recently built apartment complexes. Its majestic sight is of a story of another time-a simple and lively palette by the sea. Though the sense of impermanence of what I see becomes the primary.

Today is our last day docked in Lisbon, thus it is given as an unstructured day. This afternoon I walked into a neoclassical cathedral, alone, and all the sudden I got down on my knees to pray. I was sincerely telling my lack of faith in god. Yet I recalled at the same time the prayers I held as I was weather-beaten in my bunk. What an unascertainable part of life prayer can be. When a line is put to the test of its strength to hold up, it tends to pray, not necessary to a particular god, but for the quality of the concentration of the mind, something more than just a psychological soothe.

Leaving the cathedral I visited the Museum of Antique Art, which is the national gallery of Portugal. The section on European art features a great collection of paintings from 16th to 19th century, many of which has a religious light. There is a kind of propeller religion tends to create in an artist, making him asking the same inquiry that Dickinson has in mind: what is eternity? what does redemption, in the end, indeed redeem? how can the past be told?, etc. Questions that, if requires an answer, have a way of remaining in interrogation. There is still something that remains with time, that insists on its permanence in the human mind. I left the museum in the hefting afternoon sun. The Tagus River in sight expands westerly toward the Atlantic. I can see the large ships arriving and leaving, cargos loaded and ready.

Tonight Ali is preparing supper with Jamie. The main dish is called Bacalou, a traditional Brazilian recipe, featuring the cods we have read and learned much about. Afterward, we saw the film Captains' Courageous based on the cod fishing by New England fishermen of the early 20th century. I remember something from Charles Olson's "Maximus, to himself":

I have had to learn the simplest things
last. Which made for difficulties.
Even at sea I was slow, to get the hand out, or to cross
a wet dock.
      The sea was not, finally, my trade.
But even my trade, at it, I stood estranged
from that which was most familiar. Was delayed,
and not content with the man's argument
that such postponement
is now the nature of
         that we are all late
   in a slow time,
   that we grow up many
   And the single
   is not easily

- Bach 

Categories: Corwith Cramer,Historic Seaports of Western Europe, • Topics: c261  port stops  portugal • (0) Comments
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