Watching the sea is like watching something in pieces continually striving to be whole
Imagine trying to pick up a piece of the sea and show it to a person
Richard Dawson’s ‘To the Sea’ opens with anxious strings, unearthly vocal drones and harmonised chants that carry across a darkening, eldritch bay. There’s a shiver in my heart and a sense of the waves chopping apart what constitutes the sea, the sea, the sea. How much sea do you need for it to be sea? Is every wave an incantation—and if so, whose? What if you took whole eons and chunks of the sea away, would you be left with puddles or rivers? That word that shudders: estuary. When does the sea become ocean? I feel it is to do with a feeling. To feel oceanic is different to feeling the sea. There’s an intimacy with the latter, its intimation of bitter-green waters, childhood memories, tidal flats on which you take off your shoes and wade towards the water. The sea is a mirror for our feelings, but they don’t stay still—you can’t just project them. They change like light; the water answers. The water has its own shanties, stirred up by night tides that lick at the edge of the land less like lovers than knives. A silver kiss of sharpness and silence, a tiredness.
How many times have we apostrophised the sea? Built into it myth, folded our cavernous longing through song and let ourselves out into the blue. The sea is a monster, a tyrant, a Leviathan; the sea is feminine, rippling, birthing and giving. We can never decide. The sea is the unseen foetus of sound in a shell, little figure as portal, an unwhorling. Imagine how its voice would look on a sonogram, the whispers. The sea is a place to blow away cobwebs, to unravel your hair and blink into wilderness. In ‘On the Sea’, Keats urges ‘Oh ye! who have your eyeballs vexed and tired, / Feast them upon the wideness of the sea’. The sea is expanse, expansive, expanding. We can stand at the edge and be caressed by its urges; the catharsis in that. The elastic edges, islands and coastlands and cliffs that shift and zoom and shrink with parallax. We whisper and the wind carries forth our voices. It’s good to howl at the sea, alone on a beach.
Then there’s Charlotte Smith’s catchily titled, ‘Sonnet: On Being Cautioned Against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It Was Frequented by a Lunatic’. The sublime in this poem is born less from the sea itself, the Sussex Cliffs Smith walked all her life, than the ‘giant horrors’ of the man’s madness. A madness glimpsed readily enough by the speaker, at a distance: ‘He seems (uncursed with reason) not to know / The depth or duration of his woe’. His mind is the unseen deep of the sea. If reason is a curse, this state of nature in which the man has found himself can’t be so bad. He can only plunge through his days in a kind of ‘moody sadness’ of unknowing, an eddying through time: his ‘hoarse, half-uttered lamentation, lies / Murmuring responses to the dashing surf’. This primal communion between man and sea is met with the sensation of legend, adorned with a sonnet’s rhythm and rhyme.
But the sea, equally, is a haunted place for all of us. I remember being obsessed with this Los Campesinos! song at a time in my life when I was stuck in the city with unhealthy constancy, wanting to wail for the blue back home. There’s a burn in your chest, then indifference again. ‘The Sea is a Good Place to Think About the Future’ is a song about a broken girl, intimate with and yet distant to the singer, starving herself in response to grief. What could be a self-lacerating song, a depressing lament, is lifted by the strings, the joined-up shouts, the catharsis of those candid lyrics and the way they break into chorus, so loud:
And all you can hear is the sound of your own heart
And all you can feel is your lungs flood and the blood course
But oh I can see five hundred years dead set ahead of me
Five hundred behind, a thousand years in perfect symmetry
The song swirls with the clutter of contemporary culture, our fraught politics and virtual addictions; but it draws towards the deep time of the sea, the abyssal possibilities fringing Britain with mist and grey. What could be a desolate song of dwindling spirit, bursts into that thumping, rousing chorus and the release in that, the release so strong. Waves crashing ahead of you, the splash-backs spitting your face with salt tears so that just to stand there is to have a conversation with the sea, with what hurts in the Earth and might hurt forever in you, but that’s okay. An inhuman empathy; the human washed out of language.
Why is it we need the sea to look ‘just like the edge of the world’? Why is we need the horizon of apocalypse ahead of us? Does love always require the threat of the ending; does death have us thinking of forever beginnings? There is the question of translation. Are we all, like Charlotte Smith’s ‘lunatic’ (she must be forgiven for her eighteenth-century lack of political correctness) just muttering in our pain to the sea? Who will hear us? In Emily Berry’s poem, ‘Picnic’, communing with the sea is like the kinds of communication you do in therapy. Trying to pick out the pieces that make up the story of the sea, the pieces that make up the story of grief, then ‘polish’ those uncertain feelings before ‘a man in a room’, whose ahhs and mhms are perhaps no coherent than the whispers of the sea. Sometimes we just need someone—something—to listen. Sometimes we just need to listen.
Susurrations of the tongue and throat, the vowel sound sweetening eeeee. Sea, sea, sea.
At the brink of most existential crises in my life, I revisit the sea. Summer 2016, I got a train to Cardross then walked a couple miles along a busy road, wildflowers growing in the verges past a cemetery, to Ardmore Point. The smell of the brine was like a drug: this vague area where the River Clyde becomes Firth and innumerable fragments of quartz are washed up on shore, residue of the sea’s mysterious industry. I looked across the water and I suppose I saw Greenock. There is so much of the jagged geography of westerly Scotland unfamiliar to me. The northness of names I have loved since childhood, the west coast forever of fishing villages, port towns, places of old time and tiny ruin: Luss, Arisaig, Applecross, Ullapool, Stornoway, Uist, Portree. A new indulgence in studying maps, mostly for a vague sense of where blue meets green. I have started to worry about sea levels. I keep a vague memory of my mother’s old home in Twickenham, where there are plaques to mark places where the river burst and flooded as high as the houses. The fields near my father’s house in Ayrshire become so easily sodden with water, a sunken valley where sheep sometimes drown. A favourite childhood memory is the single night we camped in Arisaig, and I’m sitting on a rock snapping fizzy laces between my teeth and watching a lurid strawberry sunset. Still I am filled with such sugary imaginings. The sand was so smooth, in the last light it seemed almost a mirror. It didn’t matter that we woke to torrential rain, with that sunset still within me.
I open my sky-blue edition of W.S. Graham’s (Greenock-born) New Collected Poems and find ‘Falling into the Sea’: ‘Breathing water is easy / If you put your mind to it’. I think it is maybe a poem about dying, about the changes in the body, scary at first, a metamorphosis you adjust to: ‘Breathe / Deeply and you will go down / Blowing your silver worlds’. It is a plunge through new emotions, learning how to float in the bubbling eternity you have blown for yourself. Is this a dream? Is this a survival guide for the drowned? When you arrive on the ‘sea / Floor’, Graham suggests, you will encounter a ‘lady’ from ‘the Great Kelp Wood’ who offers you good British hospitality then ‘asks you / If you come here often’. How many times do we pretend we are mermaids as children, harbouring some hope of adoption by the elements. I spread my dreams on the sea like butter on a scone, the way they glimmer in the light then go. Are we recalling some anthropogenic trauma, deep embedded blue and sea green in our genes? In every deja vu there is a song, a half-remembered line with a context long forgotten: ‘Go down to the sea / And tell me what it is that you wanna be’ (Swim Deep). The sea is possibility, maybe; summertimes and sweet jangly, insouciant indie. Singing the greys, the blues, the self in crisis. The backdrop to so many of our deepest conversations, the murmurings melodic. The backdrop to perfect silence. When things went wrong in our house, we’d drive out and take long walks along Maybole Shore. We often didn’t talk; it was the wind in our ears and the kicking up sand and the smell of the salt that cleared the air, that did the work of unspoken feelings. There was the night two friends and I took vodka down Prestwick Beach and talked our lives out and embraced in the drunken rain, the spray of the water. It was so cold it burned the blood from our fingers, but we didn’t care. We were so fucking pure.
Ten minutes listening to Drexciya in your living room and already I feel subaquatic again, 8am on a Sunday. Remember, we came from the sea. Our bodies are so much water and salt; we can hardly process any more of it. Crisping the lisp between here and there and what might drown. I was still a teenager when I sat by the harbour and twisted pink thrift into the plaits of my hair. I’d weave this space into a novel someday, the pain of the land sloshed up in geologic process; again the erosion, the sense of two worlds coming apart as a gaggle of teenagers stand lost in the waves, on the rocks and in water. It would all come to an end this way. I guess the bad techno thudded through every staccato chapter, the fault-lines of pointless dialogue. On a whim, I titled the whole thing West Coast Forever. Its universe was jagged, familiar and strange at once, self-destructive to the point of indulgence. I wrote it because I missed the sea, its harshness. I gave my twin protagonists eyes of green; two halves of what could be. I wanted to think about all the ways we are wild once, to try not to forget it. The sea is a lore we pass onto our children. The rocks we are not supposed to swim beyond, the orange buoys that mark the danger. The lives lost and loves found, the glitchy repetitions; the sand that thickens our mouths like overripe fruit, our words purpling and furring.
Then there are gentler lagoons, bays which float out and away into grander blues. Clear and liquid lyrics, drizzling like moonlight or syrup over some wide and distant surface, the panoramic sea. The finger-plucked acoustic soothes and tells us what to do in its melancholic verse. Cat Power’s ‘Sea of Love’, Julie Byrne’s ‘Sea As It Glides’. I am obsessed with how these songs might sound, crackling and passed down to us over a ship radio, the edges worn away. The uncertain rasp of tuning in. I think of ‘Above the road (Skies of Blue)’ by Fionn Regan, or Johnny Flynn’s ‘Heart Sunk Hank’: antique and between times; recordings on a Voice-o-Graph; all white noise and sparseness, the yearning words. When I was twelve, I spent four days on a little fishing boat, bobbing up and down the Sound of Mull, between Oban and Tobermory. I lived off a Pepsi cup full of pick’n’mix sweets for the most of it, my sugar levels spiking like the rise and fall of the tide around us. Back then, I rarely noticed the wax or wane of silver and night, flesh and bone, blood and milk; I was only just learning to treat my body in cycles. There were very little times in the journey when we couldn’t see land, but Oh the loneliness when it went away.
When the mist came and there was only the greys. I used to play this game as a child, embracing my Pisces moon, thrashing through the waves and swimming out so far that someone on the sand would be shouting me back, roaring my name. I rarely cried; I dealt with my emotions that way. I liked that fort-da play of presence and absence, testing boundaries; the idea that I might disappear and become something other. The running against what resisted. I liked the way the waves licked my arms and thighs and stung me, the sand in my pores still flaking away later when I stood in the shower. The body catches a taste for the other world. It unravels.
All weekend I’ve been listening to Frightened Rabbit, ‘Swim Until You Can’t See Land’, trying to heal the torn-apart strings of my heart. Ways we deal with loss, chasing the source. Some kinds of plunge are stilling, others sweep you up again and you’re back to before and the shock of it. You think you are okay but then again the sting behind your eyes, like somehow you let the sea in. This song will always feel new to me, a tune coming fresh out of hurt and to burst into something else altogether. There’s the rolling bass and energetic strums and the way the mood changes easy as weather between brilliant and bleak. I watch a YouTube video of Scott Hutchison singing an acoustic version in some courtyard; you can tell it’s spring from the two fire tulips that grow beside his bench. It’s spring like it is now, spring before the sunshine and colour felt wrong. There’s a helicopter flying overhead, so you know the world goes on and there are other bodies drifting into distance. And I miss him. I miss him.
And the water is taller than me
And the land is a marker line
All I have is a body adrift in water, salt and sky
Collapse again and again on the anaphora, the swirling, thirsty water. Who gets to wash up, who is vomiting their life and drying out on the sand and who presses a cool palm to their raging forehead? Why do we have these fantasies of saving someone from the sea? Is it a primitive fear: that we will lose everything we know that way; our life’s loves and possessions dragged away, river to firth to sound to sea. I flick through my Instagram stories this very morning, and my brother is filming the sea with his phone: an hour ago, ten seconds of grey-licking waves. He’s somewhere far away, I don’t remember—Bali, maybe. The sea is a trip-hop ballad, a rippling distance in which the ambient sounds don’t save me from thinking. The sea a great wash of the late 1990s, a millennial curve at the turn of distance. I think I think too much. Didn’t they worry, before 2000 came, that every system would collapse on zero? Didn’t Emily Berry describe the sea’s wee ripples as glitches? I long for the tidal flats and the drag of scavenging gulls in the skies above, howling some song that would save me. What are they hungry for, the circling birds? Arthur Russell is telling me to jump off the platform again; in the glimmer of that cello I can hear the echoes of a seascape blurred, pixelated to grey but alluring still. I plug myself in, deep in the chasms of sonic escape; here it is all wave and wave of shoegaze. The sea glows red before I sleep.
We need to break the waves, we need to break our minds. There’s a cleaving in there, hard as a diamond but liquid if you breathe deep enough the cold salt grey. It’s the saddest summer of my life and where was that aeroplane when I needed it, soft and sweet. Then neutral, oh so neutral; in all oceanic tang the lingering metallic taste. Do you miss me. I miss this. How blue the sea was from the air, so clear! One of maybe five songs I can play on guitar, the simple chord progression kills me still. How close his vocals are to the mic, that loudness an unabashed roar, a unified sound. My guitar strings are so old they sag like kelp strung across rocks deep below and in that looseness there’s a release, a new feeling. A lyric embrace which is the voice rising from platitude in earnest acrobatics and disappearing in a brass solo. The sway of the rhythm, I’m realising now, is a bit like the buoyed-up feeling of being on a boat, or watching the waves side-to-side from the land and finding your body a little seduced by the back and forth. Who is there on the shoreline, who waits? Before it gets dark, when we are still the sweet notes and the swaying trees. Little cross rhythms, a minor key and so far apart in our shadows and secrets. Ocean rain. I won’t say the name, I won’t say anything.
The sea is a darkness we hold under our tongues. Sometimes when I think of it too much, I see myself as a siren. But Oh the cost of screaming in the night. Elizabeth Fraser in ‘Song to the Siren’, haunting and flawless: ‘Here I am / Here I am’. The way her voice curls and shimmers, like a whirlpool coming into itself upon shipless waters, swallowing those foolish enough to break their bodies on the sea—‘Oh my heart / Shies from the sorrow’. In what lick of tide may we assert ourselves. I flip up the lid of my laptop, see the screen, and all is a glorious ersatz blue. A whole thalassic core of thought.
Berry again: ‘If a person standing still watched another person minutely moving would it / seem after a while as if they were watching the sea?’ How do we hold who we love in our vision, crawling at the brink of distance, disappearance? Why do they always become the sea? Why is there ever this scattering, and can that alone be the work of elegy—the between the between, the breezy, the needing?
Let go, for eternity
is too much with us
with us yet.