Lowcountry proverb: The Ashley and Cooper Rivers meet at the city of Charleston to form the Atlantic Ocean.
The river is within us, the sea is all about us; / The sea is the land’s edge also, the granite, / Into which it reaches, the beaches where it tosses / Its hints of earlier and other creation: / The starfish, the horseshoe crab, the whale’s backbone; / The pools where it offers to our curiosity / The more delicate algae and the sea anemone. / It tosses up our losses, the torn seine, / The shattered lobsterpot, the broken oar / And the gear of foreign dead men. The sea has many voices, / Many gods and many voices.
The river may be a brown god, but it’s a god whose existence we can forget, as we create technologies to manage its power and overcome its challenges. The river is within us, the poet tells us. Its natural rhythms are part of who we are. In “Burnt Norton” the poet spoke of “the trilling wire in the blood”; in “East Coker,” of the primordial dance: “The time of the coupling of man and woman / And that of beasts. Feet rising and falling. / Eating and drinking. Dung and death.” The river belongs to this world. It is within us.
The river does not contain its own telos: it flows into the sea.
The ocean, the sea … that is a power of an infinitely greater magnitude. It is all about us—the transcendent edge of our existence, yet but also penetrating into the granite-hardness of our givens. I stand on the beach and watch the waves roll in and out—each time leaving something behind; each time taking something away. The ocean fills me with awe, mystery, delight, fear. I have only been on one ocean cruise, from Baltimore to Bermuda. I was twelve years old. I remember the rough seas as we rounded Cape Hatteras. I remember the dolphins chasing the ship. I remember being surrounded by ocean, only ocean. I remember getting my sea-legs. I remember exploring the ship with my friend Jerry Starbuck. We ignored a “no access” sign and eventually found ourselves at the bridge. The officer invited us in, showed us around, and gave us each an opportunity to steer the M. S. Riviera. Hollywood does not often make movies about river boats, but it still makes movies about sailing ships. Master and Commander remains one of my all-time favorites.
“A contrapuntal balance exists between sea and river,” explains Kenneth Kramer, “which suggests the intersection between the life blood of nature’s cycles bound up in time, and the boundless expanse of the sea’s timelessness” (Redeeming Time, p. 108).
The sea encircles the land, as eternity encircles temporality. In “Burnt Norton” we were given a static picture of eternity—a Chinese jar, moving perpetually in its stillness. But here is a different vision of eternity. The sea takes us back to the tohu wa bohu of Genesis 1, when the Spirit of God swept over the waters. Here is boundless power, fecundity, chaos, life, death.
The poet stands on the shore and surveys the debris from earlier creations, reaching back through the eons to the beginning of time. Living beings die. Human projects fail. But the sea remains in its ceaseless flux and primal tides. It has many voices and many gods.