Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Surrendering Eros to the Sea of Ehn, O'Neill and Crane

Where icy and bright dungeons lift
Of swimmers their lost morning eyes
And ocean rivers, churning, shift
Green borders under stranger skies

Steadily as a shell secretes
Its beating leagues of monotone,
Or as many waters trough the sun's
Red kelson past the cape's wet stone;

O rivers mindling toward the sky
And harbor of the phoenix breast-
My eyes pressed black against the prow
-Thy derelict and blinded guest

Waiting afire, what name, unspoken,
I cannot claim: let thy waves rear
More savage than the death of kings,
Some splintered garland for the seer.

That is the twentieth century American poet Hart Crane writing on the ocean and its mysteries and power. Crane's poem Voyages is filled with images of the ocean's flowings and risings and the relocation and disorientation of swimmers. Like Sarah Kane's Psychosis 4:48 it is hard not to read Crane's poem as a suicide note. Crane threw himself from a ship into the ocean and died, and this is a circumstance that inspired a short play from Tennessee Williams, who considered Hart Crane a strong influence on his aesthetic.

Erik Ehn's Seal Skin, a short play done this past weekend at the FeverFest in Cambridge, is influenced heavily by the same imagery of Crane's visions. A short poem/play that consists only of text, Seal Skin is the experience of a young woman who prefers to lose herself in the sea rather than face the awkwardness of adolescence and who swims to escwew the shame and changes of the teenage years.

It is probably no coincidence that Hart Crane also penned an ode to Herman Melville's tomb. Melville is central to the canon of our poetic imagery. It is refreshing to hear the power of sea poetically conjured by Ehn, considering that natural imagery of this type is so rately approached by our leading dramatists.

Eugene O'neill visited this imagery in his earlier dramas and returned to it once again in the unforgettable monologue of Edmund in Long Day's Journey Into Night. Here Edmund recounts his experiences at sea:

"and for a moment, I lost myself - Actually lost my life. I was set free! I dissolved in the sea, became white sails and flying spray, became beauty and rythym, became moonlight and the ship and high dimmed sky! I belonged without a past or future, within the peace and unity and wild joy within the within something greater than my own, or the life of Man, to Life itself!...

And several other times in my life, when I was swimming far out or lying alone on the beach, I have had the same experience. Became the sun, the hot sand, green seaweed anchored to a rock, swaying in the tide. Like a saint's vision of beatitude. Like the veil of things seems drawn back by an unseen hand. For a second, you see...and seeing the secrect, you are the secret."

The girl of Ehn's piece seeks the same, desperately. The title refers to the myth of the Selkie, aquatic women who can come on land as human by shedding their seal skins. They can marry men and are said to make excellent wives, but they always can be found staring longingly to the sea.

The woman of Ehn's poem wishes to not surrender her skin to land or a husband, and she chooses instead to receive the sea as her beginning and end:

12 plus 6 at two AM swimming shell crushed by wave's finger the ocean has her celibacy. Red wisp, she follows blent. You do not take her, you relocate her, the celibate celibate sea. Otters are nuns and as long as she is in the water she is where her younger was, spiraling, capturing means.

Our desires to live so fully, to live so in the mysteries of the turbulent cosmos that we consume our death. For more on Eros and the tragedy of Eros, you should consult George Hunka's writings on the subject at Superfluities.
Tennessee Williams, fascinated with the subject, (and with Hart Crane,) weaved it into much of his drama. Hartford Stage in Connecticut will be opening Summer and Smoke, (Williams' meditation on body and soul,) this weekend. They have a pay what you can show on September 9th.

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