“The Abyss”Essay

from Water’s Edge magazine, July 1999. 

©1999 David Poyer.

I first saw the sea at seventeen.  I was carrying a cheap green suitcase down West Street, the long downhill from the Annapolis Trailways station, when I had to stop and shade my eyes.  Knowing even then that it was like the first sight of a beloved, or of one’s justborn child; or, perhaps, the first glimpse of Hell.

My eyes were so accustomed to land then — to mountains that closed off half the sky, eclipsed half the sun’s light — that I could hardly make out what lay at the end of the cobblestones.  Just as a kitten raised in an experimental creche of vertical stripes cannot perceive a horizontal one, my bewildered sight grappled with this blue vastness, hazy yet crisp, hovered over by gulls like flecks of foam clipped off and tossed into the air.  I stared down at it for almost a minute, hardly a thought in my mind, before I bent again for my luggage and headed downhill, for my induction into the Naval Academy.

Since then I have never lived out of sight of salt water.  And even when I’m not sailing, or diving, I sit at my desk attempting again and again to reproduce its overwhelming reality, in my fiction.

In the years since that first enraptured glimpse I have known the sea in many moods and shapes.  I’ve seen it in the rage of a hurricane, sweeping the teak foredecks of a light cruiser.  Seen it in the arctic night, lightless and viscid as used motor oil.  I felt its power in mid-Atlantic, when on what had been a routine passage back from the Med up to then, a rogue sea nearly capsized my frigate.  I’ve faced its rage in the cockpit of a sailboat, hundred-knot wind driving spray into my face like bits of broken glass.  And in gentler moods: off Anastasia Island under sail, my beloved asleep below and the dawn rose and gold above water so polished smooth my own face stared back when I leaned over the side.  I have seen it from above — and from below, staring up at that silvery mirror every diver knows, sometimes doubting whether I’d live to surface.  I’ve crawled submerged wrecks in the chill night blackness that is what the abyss must be like, the realm no light ever penetrates.  And at a depth so extreme it is still classified, I have entered that region too; have watched with other silent men as the pressure hull of a submarine slowly compressed around us, high yield steel groaning in torment under the enormous weight of the deep.

I am no creature of the shore.  The verge holds no charms for me.  As all seamen know, the land may spell refreshment and resupply, but it also means danger.  Only when it drops from sight astern are we truly in our element.

As much as one person may, then, I have known the sea.  But when I ask myself her meaning, she seashell-mutters in my ear with so many murmurous voices, so many memories and messages and warnings that my hand floats restless and uncertain above keys worn smooth as sea-glass.

Nevertheless, I will attempt it.  To thrust myself out where no word waits for certain, only a few bits of flotsam one hopes to swim from, one to another, until some unknown shore heaves into sight.  From spar to timber, then, I strike out, hoping one will bob up as another falls away.

Certainly, to me the sea at first meant freedom.  To be liberated from what I then was seemed to me as desirable as the Buddhist’s nirvanic liberation from self.  And this the sea gave me, or at least its seeming; a canceling of identity, a world unbounded and unconstricted by my family, my circumstances, and my previous life.

To me the sea means solitude.  One goes to sea, in the last analysis, alone, or in a small company of shipmates one comes to know better, in some ways, than we know ourselves.

To me the sea means discipline; for without discipline, resolution, self-mastery, one can face neither fire, nor combat, nor the sea itself.  And it also means technique.  Without oar and lateen, line and spar, steam and oil, electricity and data, we cannot face the sea.  We humans can be defined as the animal that builds ships.  No other land creature goes to sea, nor could we without our hands and brains and our abilities to communicate, to work together, to build culture — everything that make us human.
But after all of these, the sea remains unexplained, unplumbed, unmeasured.  For so far, my groping divinations derive not from the essence of the thing, but from our responses to it.  And so I cast away the last drifting handhold and strike out, into the blue.

What does the sea mean, itself?

Surrounding us as the unfeeling universe surrounds each human being, the sea is first of all a huge physical phenomenon.  Today’s carrier or merchant-ship sailor, especially in the engineering departments, may go for days without coming on deck.  The submariner may not glimpse the smallest corner of the natural world for months. But seen or unseen, the sea is there, whispering just outside the steel walls.  You have to deal with it at some level,  take some attitude toward it, because it surrounds you.
 But what IS it that’s there?  Is it an empty structure, a metaphor, a symbol, or something else?For we are not merely physical creatures; we also exist in the realm of the metaphorical, and beyond that, in the domain of the divine.  To us who go to her again and again, the sea becomes more than a manifestation of physical reality.  In the Odyssey, the stormy ocean is literally divine: Poseidon is personally angry at Odysseus.  If you’re a mystic, as I am, the sea takes on another role, one more difficult to define, more than symbol, less than god, but with a yearning and a significance I suspect most sailors feel.  As witness the conversation on the bridge between Dan Lenson and Alan Evlin in The Circle, probably the best sea novel I’ve managed yet, as the Arctic Ocean is tearing the old Reynolds Ryan apart one night north of the Greenland-Iceland-U.K. Gap:

“So what did you mean, about the sea?”    

“About the sea?”    

“One night — before the storm — remember, we were having a kind of philosophical discussion.  You told me to look out at the sea, and think about it.”    

“Oh.  I remember now.  And did you?”    

The grin felt strange on his face.  He’d wanted to ask Evlin this for a long time. 

“I’ve done a lot of looking, but I’ve been too scared to think.” 

A messman clattered down bread, peanut butter and jelly, butter in plastic tubs, sugar cookies. 

“Soup in the galley.  Drink it out of cups, you want some.”    

“Thank you,” said Evlin.    

“Anyway, what did you mean?”    

“I’d rather have you tell me what you thought I meant.”    

Dan said slowly, “If I get you right — you were comparing our individual lives to the waves.  Not as separate, but a . . . conceptual subset, like in Boolean algebra.” 

He paused, but Evlin kept silently impastoing bread with peanut butter.  “

And . . . so that even though each wave looks different from the rest, and it seems sometimes they die and the sea’s calm, really nothing’s created, and nothing dies . . . it’s just the sea, always changing, but always still the same.”    

The ops officer took a bite. 

“Chunky.  I prefer smooth.”    

“And that our existence is like that,” Dan said.  He felt silly, but at the same time very clear, as if this was what he was supposed to be talking about right now, right here, in this crowded, careening space, with this man.    

“I never said that.  Nothing is like anything else.  Language forces us to think in similes.  It works when you’re discussing things in terms of other things.  But when you’re talking about areas outside everyday experience — particle physics, for example — you can’t use words at all, not and have it mean anything corresponding to reality.”     “But it makes sense, somehow.  It’s true in terms of matter and energy.  They don’t vanish.  They just change forms.”    

“But are the spiritual and physical worlds separate?  The medieval Christians thought all of Nature was a book revealing the intent of God.”    

Dan said slowly, keeping his voice below the hum of other voices, “But what good does it do you to believe that, Al?”    

“What good.  Well, how would people act if they really thought everyone else was part of himself?  That his neighbor’s not only like him, the Golden Rule, but actually another, separate self, looking out through other eyes?”    

“It would make you a lot more tolerant.”  He thought about it.  “And maybe, kinder.”     “And if you believed you’d be back?”    

“It would make you care more about a lot of things, stuff you just shrug about now, because you figure it’ll be somebody else’s problem.”
“It would change the world,” Evlin said.

But if you’re not a mystic, or religious, if you don’t believe in God at all, then the sea becomes what Crane sees it as in “The Open Boat” — as a divine absence, a divine uncaring; or as Conrad called it, “the immense indifference of things.”  He (J.C.) says of the sea, it has “no compassion, no faith, no law, no memory…nothing can touch the bitterness of its heart.”

This points to another way those who have gone to her long enough come to feel about her.   The sea has no heart, no mercy, no shame, and no misgiving.  She will receive your body with the same equanimity as she receives a bullet, a stone, or a ship.  Afterward her face will smile as serenely in the tropic moonlight as it has for a billion years; and the only tears she will shed will the salt and bitter drops that fly from each cresting wave.  For the sea is made of tears, and blood, and semen; as we are made of the sea; we are bubbles on her restless surface; and death, to her, is only the return of a wandering child into her eternal arms.

All these are true. Terror, and awe; freedom, and solitude, and discipline; these all bob and float about on the surface of my feelings about the immense and faithless goddess whose devotee I have become, whose gray-green caste-mark I have myself thumbed upon my forehead.  But words have no end, and I have no final answer.  In the end my response to the sea is the same as my response to life itself.  Not to death; but to the physical and mental challenge of this singular and single ocean, no matter how many channels and seas we divide it into, that touches both the beginning and the end of our voyage.

More than halfway across that ocean, now, I look to the bar of an oncoming storm.  The sea sighs in gathering darkness.

Nothing I write on the water will survive.  No word I speak will endure through the coming hurricane.  But clinging to the rail, I stare ahead.  The course is set, and so far, the captain, mysterious and unseen as he removes himself from our sight, has earned my trust.

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