Last year when I put together Electric Bathtub Psalms, my first chapbook, I found water to be one of my number one metaphors. Born to an aquatic family, water was not just part of our holidays but part of our very being. My grandfather had fished the Croatian side of the Adriatic Sea for most of his life, before coming to the United States in the late sixties. Of course he wasn't alone. He brought his children and the memory of his wife, who had died of cancer while waiting in a UN sponsored Italian refugee camp. He came to a community as well, for slowly but surely for several years the island where his people were from was moving to the Americas, many settling in New York. And so, this was the legacy of experience that shaped my understanding of the water.
As a child I hated to eat fish. My brother and I made faces and stared at our plates. I remember complaining that Americans ate fish without bones and never with heads. I came home one day and told my mother about this thing they call fishsticks. Processed, she replied and tasteless she concluded when finally she capitulated and gave them a try.
As the years went on and we grew up in New Jersey my mother often took us to the beach. When I was seven though, we finally went to the island, the place of her childhood. I remember arriving late at night to a remote place with hardly any lights, mistakenly sticking my foot between the stone dock and the small wooden boat. Wet and dark I was aware that we had come to spend a summer truly living on the water. I had plastic swimmies to help me float and by early the next morning after a breakfast of nutella and toast we were given instructions for how to swim in the water. We were watched by the aunties, the old women and our mothers and my brother and I happily joined our cousins.
Years later I would return, first during the war and subsequently, making a side trip whenever I would find myself in Italy or London on business. This of course, was before I gave up on corporate work. So, polished and privileged I would show up to then submerge myself as well as I could in the ways of our peasant culture. From the subdivisions of suburbia I would transform into something quite different. Through the years I learned that an ugly American was more than the day tourists who came on boats but it was also those of us from the diaspora, from Queens or Long Island or Los Angeles, who took very long showers and brought too much clothes, who would rightly be judged on how long were our showers and how many times did we need to take them.
Of course there was also the matter of the fish. The Jadran as we called it had been severely overfished. And pollution from Italy came over unchecked. Locals left and new ones came in and with them machines and ideas about how to satisfy the urge for the meals I had once spurned as a kid. Fish here was loved. It rose from outside grills early in the morning. It was frying at lunch and at night. Soups, simple and clear were in someone's pot. There were hundreds of fish and each one of the older people I knew had a name for every fish and how they were best served. There was love for the food and for the traditions it fed, for our culture that we sang of of and the dances we danced. It was all part of one mass.
As I wrote the final thanks and other bits for my book I considered the fact that the editor had placed my Love Song as the last of them all. It was dedicated to my granfather and to our journey together. I couldn't deny all that I had gained from being part of the modern world. My education and opportunities that I jettisoned with radical idealism were not something I would have found on this island. But then again, maybe there was something wild in me too, something that came from these shores. And maybe this thing took hold of me hardest and strongest one day when I fished with my grandfather.
We went out in the morning, decided on action the night before. In his eighties he stood straight and tall, bag and spear slung over his shoulder. We went to the place on the other side of the island and we waited for an eel to show itself. Eels, according to some, make the best brodet. And as time went on, my granfather got his in one clean movement of the spear and this he did for me, to show me how it used to be done, back when there was plenty of them. He held up the eel so I could take a picture but didn't smile. He said he almost felt bad. This one was small, not too small to take, but small enough to know it was riding a line between what was proper and what was not. The onions were cooking on my great aunt's stove before we even got into town. The once fisherman, still respected, and his grand daughter were coming back with their catch.
The solace I found in those memories is bittersweet, just like the expression on my grandfather's face. And as plastic and tourists continue to build up on those shores. As rich Europeans and Americans lick their lips at the fish I hate to tell them that most locals often eat chicken. And as I gather with my grandfather, in these his last days of his final years, we have plenty of fish. It comes now from the Atlantic and it is caught within regulated waters. It's fresh and my uncles bring it to the shared table. Just recently three of them went out, my two uncles and my cousin and each came back with a Striped Bass. Beautiful creatures, strong with big heads and scales that gleam like pearls. It took two men a while to clean and cut them. As my father put his hands to work, as smiles and pictures and children on the periphery whirled I took a little minute and went into my other world and typed in Striped Bass on Wikipedia.
It goes as far south as the Gulf, yes, that one. The one where I can imagine the fish silently screaming. Warning each other, don't go that way. But that's the way the fish go. So, as politicians talk and we general people sqwak, I see no deep changes afoot. And I remember why I named my book and where I sat when I did this. At the time I was living in a posh sublet in a section of Brooklyn. From my window every morning I awoke and as the spring came on there were plenty of people lining up along the shore of the East River, just under the Brooklyn Bridge. Boats sailed by, barges and tugs and cruise ships. Brides and grooms stood at the edge of the skyline, while photographers pointed their cameras at the seductive outlines of man and nature meeting in a storied intensity that is only New York City. Perhaps it was my mood or the nature of my work, perhaps it was the dogs lined up on very short leashes, but all I could see while I drank my last days of plastic bottled water, was that no one but no one, ventured into the water. It stood like a mirage, lovely and wet, but too dirty to drink or approach. It stood toxic and full of a litany of chemicals that had little to do with H2O.
Some of my words have been prophetic and the good thing about it is I'm not the only one. My prophecies and understandings don't come just from me. They come from centuries of fishermen and navigators and the women they left behind. It comes from proverbs and from hymnals and it comes from the sound of the birds who I now hear singing at night. And even now as my words seep out into the world at a rate much less than 15, 000 barrels of oil I sit by the shores and count the days. I take pictures of family and of the things that we eat, for these things will never, ever come back and those that do will be toxic for me. Maybe not for future generations but for me and for those living now, we're right in the middle and we're not getting easily out. Luckily, as my granfather says, you can always be sure of your someday death.