Of lotions and unguents rubbed each morning
Dispelling the scale and ash of hands
Dried overnight by the heated house,
Mid-winter, of the clicking stove catching
Flame, to bathe the coffee beans picked
By Nicaraguan fingers, thick with callous
And tusk-like nails, until, their sack full,
They haul them overhead into the maw
Of a truck to Managua, shipped by steamer
To Miami and driven to Cleveland,
To Giant Eagle, Tops or Target, until it lands
In a grocery cart, whose wheels are greased
Smooth into the checkout aisle, and hides
In our kitchen cupboard until this moment—
So sing, crude muse, of the oleaginous
piston’s knee, pounding beneath the hood
like a person gagged, tied and bound
for parts unknown, to be buried in a desert.
From myrrh to extreme unction, sing
of Vaseline and fertilizer,
of condom latex and paint slopped on walls,
where I slide a DVD into the teeth
of the player. It sings what I command it,
the soundtrack of the last war. In a bunker,
the crude glups down a POW’s throat,
his mouth jammed open by a compact disc—
its songs now invisible as oil,
glinting like a slice of planet.
7. Drilling the Urals
by Alexander Gurevich, translated by Philip Metres (with Rasul Shafikov)
Stunted firs and birches tremble from fear at the fury of diesel,
the wellbore skips the vertical pre-drawn line by a mile;
two hundred thousand feet down, the geophysicists lose their instrument,
the headquarter commands to plug up. We’ve tilted and missed the bed.
The tired crew in soiled wadded jackets run drill bits in the hole,
a copter hovers over the camp, casting out oil from a puddle;
the loggers from Bangladesh, shaken with the cold of the Urals,
armor themselves in work-clothes against the terror of future frosts.
O the poetry of mines and crown blocks! O timely and false spontaneity
of free speech poured out when struck by a well-aimed tool!
Muscles, rotors, and pumping lines—the petroleum industry—
who always loads them, who always excites them?
Tell me, for whose sake we go, eyes down, employed as lackeys?
Whose greed drives us, cap in hand, to bow to all monopolies—
to a people whose speech is full of fucks and okays—
to work as interpreters or advisors for Shell and Occidental?
On the derrick they stand as one—no mercy for tundra or prairies—
the Russian driller from Ukhta and a wellfed Texan boss;
an insanity become a life, pointing in a northern direction,
allowing no hesitations—like the compass in the brain of Captain Hatteras.
The Middle East is a great freeway
with a forty-car pileup. It is a place
where everything was just right…
The blood of us, each lubricity,
pulses the highways, the arteries,
the capillaries spurting the cells
we are and are driving, ourselves
thrust by an unseen pump, some flexing
which is the center of everything…
or, when flung beyond guard rails,
berms and median strips, the blood of us,
rushing like an ambulance, clots
like a gaper’s block, we slow to inhale
what we could not see to see, the blood
of us, outside our veins, incarnadined—
the shit of the earth, the juice of the bone,
the bliss of the road, the jism of the gone.
“Don’t piss in your mother’s eye,” an old Russian saying goes—meaning, keep the waters clean. Many indigenous peoples conceive of our planet as Turtle Island. In one creation story, this land beneath us is a living, breathing entity that once offered itself to save a woman falling from the sky. There’s a hadith from the Qu’ran that says the mountain (Uhud) love us, and we love it. There is something in us that wants to return that love. But our love is complicated.
Oil is in some ways like money; we know that it’s necessary, but our relationship to its physicality is often repressed. When it appears—as a stain on pavement where we park, spreading wider as our cars age—we lament the sight of it, a visible sign of mechanical failure. But when an offshore drilling rig explodes—as it has now in April 2010—and millions of gallons of oil begins seeping into the ocean, strangling the living waters, it’s hard to ignore. Relentlessly dematerialized, oil is both a magical and crude substance that has greased the wheels of modernity. In the United States, the discovery and harvesting of oil at the end of the 19th century began as people searched for a replacement for whale oil to light lamps—for all the evening activities of the leisure class from reading literature to dinner parties. Moby Dick, in some sense, embodies Walter Benjamin’s “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” We had to slay the whale to feed our longing to read deep into the night. Arguably every major war in the twentieth century has had oil as either one of its goals or became a pivotal resource in determining who emerged victorious. The lust for oil has led to C.I.A. overthrows of governments (Mexico in 1911, Mossadegh in Iraq in the 1950s, among others); state assassinations of protestors (Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria); threats to indigenous peoples, such as the U’wa in Colombia, who famously threatened to commit mass suicide in the mid-1990s if Occidental drilled on their native lands; and ecological disasters from oil spills and water contamination.
“Ode to Oil,” a series of poems I’ve been writing, whose first version was published in 2008 in Artful Dodge, thus attempts to sing into being that complex relationship we have to the bubbling crude, that organic silt of centuries, that organic soup of past plants and animals which feeds our world. Each poem is a little song, part of the fizz of centuries effervescing; for a love poem to goo, I could not help but find in an old wineskin, the sonnet (in Italian, sonnetto is “little song”), a temporary container for its fugitive amorphousness. My hope is that, in the hardened shell of the sonnet, oil is not made into a liquid praline, nor is the sonnet reduced to a barrel.
Philip Metres is the author of numerous books, including To See the Earth (poetry, 2008), Come Together: Imagine Peace (2008), Behind the Lines: War Resistance Poetry on the American Homefront since 1941 (criticism, 2007), and Catalogue of Comedic Novelties: Selected Poems of Lev Rubinstein (2004). His work has appeared in Best American Poetry, and Inclined to Speak: Contemporary Arab American Poetry and has garnered an NEA, a Watson Fellowship, two Ohio Arts Council Grants, and the Cleveland Arts Prize. He teaches literature and creative writing at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.