BURNING WATER by Minnie-Bruce Pratt

Burning Water

In the YouTube video a man flips a lighter, flare,
holds it to a belching faucet, the water catches fire,
not a miracle, the companies hydro-fracking us
for gas, the movement of capital in ground water—
And there’s that unpoetic word again, so overt,
admittedly abstract, some even say clichéd, a word
I’d never even heard when me and the cousins sat
in the shrimp boat stern, grownups on vacation
playing penny poker all night in the front, as we
watched the dark horizon line between deep sea
and deeper sky fall behind us and never change.
We hung our legs into strange bioluminescent foam
flung up by our wake, if we’d scooped the water
up with a glass jar as we did the air for fireflies,
we’d have caught eighty species, galactic diatoms
invisible to our eye, to us just some murky water
from the Gulf, which is licked over today with oil
from the blown-out rig, all for lack of a cut-off
trigger, costs half a million, comes out of the foul
profit now crawling on sand—or the drill was too fast,
after all time is money, that is, less for the workers,
more for the company, yes, theory again—or pooled
experience, since there is a connection from abstract
to specific, the translucent organisms that work
to filter water are this morning drinking in oil,
when they float to the surface, when the sun stares
down on them long enough, they will begin to burn
from inside out, microscopic dying stars in the Gulf.
But not the result of a natural, inevitable process.
What I mean is once I saw a flock of little sting rays,
each no bigger than my palm, arrowing like tiny geese
where water met sand in the shallows of Tampa Bay,
I stood in the Gulf and they winged between my feet,
going somewhere I didn’t know. Now what will they eat?
The connection between there and now not inevitable,
matter striking my mind, me trying to catch the spark,



I grew up in central Alabama, where our weather and thunderhead clouds come up from the Gulf, and our river, the Cahaba, flows down to meet the Gulf waters. My first memory is of being carried by my Pa through our glittering river; later I began to understand the complicated twining of my life, my river, the life of the human species with the Gulf and its beings when I read Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. Later I began to understand the economic and political intertwinings in my Gulf region as I studied Marx, Engels and other materialist theorists. Eighty per cent of the land in my home county is now owned by corporations—coal, timber—and big financial interests in Alabama exploit workers in countries around the Gulf rim—Russell sports clothing in Mexico, Drummond coal in Colombia, the lumber companies that import Mexican workers displaced by NAFTA to dig vast pine tree plantations in Alabama. In “Estranged Labor,” Marx said, “The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world,” and said that nature is our body, “with which [w]e must remain in continuous interchange if [we are] not to die.” As capitalism seizes our labor and estranges us from our work, we are simultaneously alienated from nature, and from experiencing ourselves as simply one species intertwined with the world and other species. My work is to make poems that re-establish the link between the “sensuous external world” and our daily life, battered as we are under capitalism by such corporate-engineered crimes as the BP Deepwater Horizon catastrophe. I try to make poems that have the seeds of another kind of “productive life” than what big business analysts speak of—a life spent not for corporate profit, not in coerced labor, not in relation to nature as an inimical force, but with us the human species in “free, conscious activity” in relation to other beings in the larger process of differentiation and development that is our world.

Minnie Bruce Pratt
July 2010
Syracuse, New York

Marx’s essay can be found in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.

For more recent comments on nature and work, click on “BP oil disaster: Profit system pits jobs vs. environment”.


Minnie Bruce Pratt in 2006 on the march/caravan of Katrina/Rita survivors, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and supporters, from Mobile to New Orleans under the banner "Every bomb dropped on Iraq falls on the Gulf Coast."

Writer and activist Minnie Bruce Pratt received a Lambda Literary Award for her most recent book, The Dirt She Ate: Selected and New Poems. Her work has been chosen for the Lamont Poetry Selection of the Academy of American Poets, the American Library Association Gay and Lesbian Book Award for Literature, and the Lillian Hellman-Dashiell Hammett Award from the Fund for Free Expression. She can be reached at www.mbpratt.org.

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