Sea Levels

A renku (linked verse) sequence about sea level rise and the drowned Bronze Age forest of the Welsh Ceredigion coast, exposed in recent years by climate change-related storms. Here’s the text, for the benefit of the visually impaired:

low tide
we comb the ancient peat
for footprints

drowned forest
the gull’s cry turns eldritch

undead stumps
4000 years later
sprout bladderwrack

our shared excitement
at scraps of root-bark

seaside town
all the colors of ice cream
against the Atlantic

the high street is already
lower than the beach

Tisha B’Av just past
Orthodox Jewish families
stroll the sea wall

land marks us
sea levels us

beneath the waves
we are saying hello
and goodbye

Process notes

Summer is my least favorite season, so I guess it’s no surprise that I fell out of the habit of shooting videos for one-minute videohaikus sometime in July. But an August visit to the submerged forest at Borth and Ynyslas in Wales, scoured of sand most recently by Storm Hannah in April, revived my interest in shooting cellphone video, to put it mildly. I now have plans to finish up the summer sequence with four or five other videos, but this one is different: my first attempt at a renku video. (And at two minutes, it’s too long to share on Instagram. Boo hoo.) The poetry took some time to write, and I was continuing to fiddle with the last three verses up through the final editing.

There is a legend about a little kingdom in the Ceredigion Bay, Cantre’r Gwaelod, that was drowned thousands of years ago, based presumably on earlier glimpses of the ancient stumps, roots and peat. Or it may be actual folk memory; human footprints and artifacts have been found in the peat. There are also arrow-straight glacial moraines leading from shore out into the bay, which look very man-made—I was fooled—and no doubt gave rise to stories of an ancient system of dikes and causeways. All this folk material is very interesting but I didn’t feel it was mine to exploit, especially since Welsh poets have already done so, with the kind of intimate knowledge you only gain by spending a lot of time in a place. John Barnie’s The Forest Under the Sea (Cinnamon Press, 2010) is a great example of this. I was delighted to find a copy in a bookstore in Aberystwyth just around the corner from where we were staying. Here’s one of the shortest poems:

Cantre’r Gwaelod

I’m trying to recall the wreckage of my parent’s lives,
my brother’s,

confounded with claws and stumps on the shore

memory sweeps their images
out and in.

And another:

Low Tide at Borth

Terns have settled for a chat
at ease among roots of the sunken forest
like woodland birds before the tide
turns to reclaim its property, wrapping it
in salty preservatives; the terns

will fly, then, and screech and dive
for the silver mint of fish, the shoal
scattering and shining as did leaves in the Cantref
when a westerly blew and there was fierce
gale-light and no mercy.

We did hear from several people that Borth gets all kinds of savage weather. There only for a few days as tourists in fine, late-summer weather, what we see depends much more on what we bring to the place. For me, that’s a long-standing love of forests, a fascination with ancient Britain, and an environmentalist’s deep sense of foreboding about biodiversity loss and climate change. As for myths, there’s Atlantis, of course, but also, as a metalhead, Chthulu (“eldritch” is a word rescued from obscurity by H.P. Lovecraft). And though I’m not Jewish, a reference to Tisha B’Av seemed to fit: a day for mourning historical calamities.

Whether or not readers/watchers pick up on all that doesn’t really matter. The trick with haiku as always is to balance the sense of wabi and sabi with lightness and earthy humor. It’s the ideal form for travel poetry. Whether or not I’ve succeeded here, it does feel good to push myself and do something a bit more ambitious than usual.

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