Sailor Home

March 1st

 

     The computerized ship is a ghost ship. When I was very young I thought a very great deal of mystery obtained in those lights you see in the great distance across an estuary, or out at sea, but they are human lights, after all, and so are the lights of town seen from among the combers, or at anchor, or skirting the coastline in a placid shipping lane. The captain is a pleasant fellow, but he hasn't much to say. Had a very brief conversation before dinner, a strangely tired-looking man, not like at the University, where the satisfying toil of the paralittérateur combines with that of the high school dean in a most unsavory way; maybe something like aviators, whose lives are proverbially said to be "hours of ennui, moments of terror." It is an admirably silent vessel, I think, only the sea roars somehow as we pass along, or the air, with the gulls crying, and the dolphins plashing beside the bows, and the passengers conversing in sedate tones on deck, strained by the sound of it all, and yet it is not loud. "When you're at sea you miss the land," the captain said to me, "and vice versa." The dining room was quite nice, the crew sang a song of indigenous origin, not very well, and toasts were exchanged. In a few days I shall return home, after so long. I studied the few passengers on board, biologists and technicians, I thought, successful people who kept to quiet roadsteads in academia or business, raised contented families and smiled a lot. As I stood on deck and saw the city withdraw itself at length from around the ship, like a modern Madonna with arms of interlacing curves, and the dusty air of the port receded to the horizon, and the open sea spread all about like a greatly guarded mystery, I felt detached from myself in such a way that the miseries I had endured and the happiness I was to enjoy seemed equidistant, with myself in between, under the sky so terribly big and blue and full of light, on the sea so wonderfully immeasurable and frothing with life, and all of it like existence in the abstract, like a monk's dream of pain expunged and yearning gratified, my soul expanded to the farthest reach of man's knowledge of Earth, and I wept.

 

 

March 2nd

 

     To suffer exile is to be a rhapsode of Ulysses the canny on the sea the color of dark wine, to know the actor's boredom in a foul dream of rehearsed emotion and re-re-registered facial expressions, it is to be plunged in the past with the irremediability of bad translations and creative editing—in a word, it is indescribable tedium, but I have always embraced boredom (and its spectral equivalent, novelty or "originality") as a professional burden; nay, something which in time is a province of discovery all its own, which the insomniac or the soldier on watch knows, keenly ignoring the sun's passage day in and day out, the vagaries of the moon, so tender, so very alarming in its pointed charms, so forbidding in its chaste reminiscences of odes and adventurers. To patiently observe the complexity of thought in a lengthy work is akin to calculating a sunbeam's progress down a wall, or the slow navigation of clouds through the sky, it gives you a field of vision to which the Noh actor's interminable dénouements are a delicious but definitely second-rate rival, so that to be bored (which means, for me, exile pure and simple) has never been for me a significant difficulty; in my profession, that is a most amiable and necessary gift. If you are to avoid the common ailment of scholars, a middle-aged complaint like that known to physicians, who begin to despair of the body as machine, and go bad in next to no time, a professorial cattiness which finds in every opportunity for scribbling a pretext for volubly riding your subject like a hobby-horse let out to air on Derby Day, you must acquire a patience and a sense of absurdity in the face of overwhelming odds, of custom and ingenuity among cowards and cads, you must learn to see as dispassionately the wave breaking incessantly on the prow of the ship, and the side trails of green foam outvying the finest Roman glassblowers in an endless variety of incurved arabesques no human eye can ever tire of, and the great indenture behind you, bending ever so slightly in the miles like a gigantic rut full of wateryou must see all this with equanimity, and the kind of poltroons who literally would sell their own grandmothers, gladly.

 

 

March 3rd

 

     If I were an artist, I would paint like Salisbury Tuckerman, who did the Constitution kedging away, becalmed under full sail, from a British fleet. To be at sea is a delight, it is so vast. Someone ought to catalogue the various descriptions writers have employed over the centuries; today I had time enough to observe it as I had never done before. Glaucous or pink or steely, with Athena's eyes or bouncing skittishly, it always has been to me a strange barometer or palette of love or the psyche, in a way that the sky was in my childhood. Some of the passengers went diving rather heavy-handedly in their plastic suits, making rough jokes and backflipping over the side (we had stopped to make repairs), but for me tidepools were enough; I was startled to find such delicate creatures alive on the rocks, where I had only known sandpipers and little burrowing crabs. Little purple anemones and urchins, feeding in the to-and-fro of surf, flowers of the sea—who would crush them unthinkingly, like a callow Administration of mindbending automatons and the greasers of their wheels? So many gulls fighting over orts on the shrinking beach, a dying old seal flapping in the breakers, the long slow palimpsest on which a generation wrote its epitaph, that is all behind me now, though yet another ersatz movie occupied the passengers' attention this evening, a tactless comedy of address (Meet The Doofuses!) put together on the analogy of plaster casts and museum reproductions. The technicians laughed politely, I thought. All this is very far behind us now. Bad films have an oblivion all their own, the graffiti of a nation. The light enchants me, it is so calm the ship rolls very little, there is only a little counterpoint of oscillation to the rise and fall of the sun over our steady speed, it makes the shadows elongate and shrink very gently, and the colors are imbued with light reflected from the ocean's surface, or the deck and fittings, or even the clothes of a passing promenader, with an inner sparkle I almost laugh at. The dancing lights of a marina in full sunlight signify to me the thoughts of youth, when we thought they held some permanent significance, and these observations are really no less idle, but an intense pleasure I have not known for many years has come upon me, sitting here in my cabin smelling the sea and hearing, I fancy, the moonlight trolling along the horizon, strolling the deck at noon amid the play of light and shade, the ineffable movement of color through air and water, combining and splitting in a thousand associations and dispartings, with that hidden chuckle like a snowflake of light.

 

 

March 4th

 

     Now exile is over at last, we are in port, and I am only waiting for the University party to arrive; then I shall be home, and free. I awoke sitting at my cabin desk well before sunup, looking at the butterfly stars with a strange elation (and it isn't strange that I should write "strange" so many times here) which has not left me. Once on deck and perceiving land, I noticed furthermore that my excitement had become generalized, and this I took as a sign of upcoming things in my native country, a wonderful harbinger. I remained on deck till midday, shielding myself from my robust fellow passengers, whose probing eyes I habitually feared, so long (so long!) had I been away, under the stares of the suspicious, in fear for my life, scurrying before the hateful gaze of the usurper. I thought I saw a surprisingly spruce old woman avert her face with a slow look of raptured recollection, but I could not be sure. All day I noted my impressions on deck, it seemed, in the furious flush of my pent-up imaginings and longings, so eager to forget all I had been through, the trials and tribulations of what had seemed a lifetime in exile. Toward sundown, mere hours from harbor, I carefully covered myself in a tartan blanket on a deck chair, and watched the setting sun, setting on defeat and humiliation. Nothing could perturb my anticipation, so suddenly risen with hope and expectation. I looked up, thought I was asleep, but a sandy-looking biologist was looking over her shoulder at me from the rail, and then she bent over to pick up the blanket which had slid from me in my meditation, her sea-salted strawberry hair flooded me completely, for a long time I seemed to taste that tangled and matted briny swirl of sun-drenched hair going in many directions, with the last rays of sunlight sparking through it in rainbow fireworks dampened by fervent wisps of coconut oil, then she disappeared and I made my way to my cabin, to record my very final feelings on returning from abroad, after so long a time.