Bubbling inside curved gulf waves,
blackened, swirling slick—chunks of it
glistening in orange water;
And I am homesick for Louisiana. My paw-paw,
dead five years this week, taught me to clean catfish,
peel crawdads, spit tobacco. He called me bay-bee!
He let me ride the dump truck–squirt gasoline
onto burning skidder tires until flames singed trees,
black smoke billowing so thick it grayed sheets
hanging on maw-maw’s line. We took swim trips to Biloxi
where sandcastles with deep moats got kicked to nothing.
On television I watch a 12-year old girl cry over oiled
Pelican wings fanning the watertops. She cries far away from me,
where grease saturates sand. And in another southland,
the swallows of San Juan Capistrano have checked into
a local country club this season–scouts mold mudnests
beneath designer roof tiles: a view of green green golf courses.
As a child growing up in Hawai’i and California with my mother, the ocean was neverending and all powerful. The ocean was a different entity every day; Hawaiians have words for the different moods of the ocean, the different kinds of waves, and respect is required. In the summers my mother sent me to live with my father in rural Louisiana. In East Baton Rouge Parish it was always thick, hot heat and heavy rain.
My last visit to Louisiana in July 2010 was for my grandmother’s funeral. My grandmother taught me a lot about the balance between nature and man, and how things are constantly changing and taking on new forms if we’re able to see past the obvious. My grandmother was an avid gardener and always found a way to balance human objects—like ripped hoses and old buckets—with nature. She’d plant roses into rust-covered gas cans, vine tomatoes into the center of a bald tire. She was picky about how she disposed of her trash, and she took care to separate “trash” from “garbage”—that which could be turned out into the yard for compost and renewed. She saw something of use in everything—from the rotten cucumbers on the back porch to the large air filter she used for her umbrellas; and she loved to walk the family property—she said nature kept her humble.
The family property is bordered by a large, pine-lined pond full of fish, frogs, and mosquitoes. Sometimes something unbelievable would pop up, like a single, ripened watermelon, or blackberry bushes full of ripe berries. On my most recent visit home, I walked the family property alone, making my way down to the pond my grandmother and I had fished at so many times. It seemed different. I saw the small fishing boat my grandmother had used—but it was half-buried in sand. I saw old tires tossed into the grove of pine trees. I saw emptied plastic jugs that used to hold oil, and burnt out old machine parts, and trash—lots of trash, all just thrown out into the unused portions of land. There used to be a grotesque beauty to the way grandma had balanced nature and machine, but that beauty wasn’t there anymore since her decline and move to a nursing home.
I threw rock after rock after rock into that pond late into the afternoon on the day of my grandma’s funeral. I was missing her. I was listening for the deep plop! of each rock to pop and then ripple across the expanse of the water as they fell into the pond. I realized in that moment that I had never been to that pond before; like the ocean, that pond was wild and untamed. It was teeming with death and life— ants crawling through sand toward a dead snake, tadpoles bubbling at the edges of the pond, fish skimming for bugs. Everything is wild and different in each moment, and it is only hubris that makes humans think we have any control over any of it. If we are to survive without destroying ourselves and everything around us, it will be because we are able to see past the obvious, find ways to use up what we already have, and like my grandmother did, search for the beauty in decay–and search for ways to keep it in balance.
Kirsten Ogden grew up in Honolulu, Hawai’i, San Francisco, and Baywood, Louisiana. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Anderbo, Louisiana Literature, BAP Quarterly, Fringe, and Avatar Review. She is a former Peter Taylor Fellow in Poetry and a poet laureate of Gambier, Ohio, where she spends summers teaching in the Young Writers at Kenyon program. Kirsten currently lives in Los Angeles and teaches writing at Pasadena City College. You can find her on the web at eatthepaper.com.