We hit the ground running from Rochester to Rockport, Massachusetts, where we are meeting my parents and my brother and sister-in-law and their three kids for a trip that Mom and Dad have given us for Christmas. Mom has been going to Rockport for painting workshops since the early 1980’s. My only impression of it is a watercolor she made of Motif No. 1, the iconic red lobster shack that overlooks the harbor, an image of paradoxically enduring fragility. Rockport is a special place for my mother, and it doesn’t take us an hour to figure out why. It has attracted artists like mom for years for good reason: the light is other-worldly, a particular manifestation of that maritime light that seems to bring out the essences of things.
Setting out on them high seas
Feels just like being born
By the time we drive up Yankee Division Highway onto Cape Ann, Sturgill Simpson is on the main deck, but I am starting to hear another voice from the deep, hauntingly encircling the Landcraft: Herman Melville. I recall indistinctly the opening paragraph of Moby-Dick, about how the sea holds both unfathomable mystery, terror, and solace all at once.
“Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an underhand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feeling towards the ocean with me.”
Rereading these lines not a hundred yards from the Atlantic Ocean, I am struck by how much darker they are than I remember. I’ve taught Moby-Dick several times, but in trying to read it like a professor, I missed so much: the existential urgency, the grim despair and near-suicidal impulses that only the encounter with the sea can draw down. I don’t share Ishmael’s chronic despair, necessarily, but in this spot especially, I understand what he means. An experience at the shoreline is not just a witness of something sublime and majestic; it is a confrontation–with eternity, with death, with nothingness, with oneself. The sea is, Melville writes, “the image of the ungraspable phantom of life; and this is the key to it all.”
As I’m standing exposed to the winds at the sea’s edge, suddenly this doesn’t feel so academic anymore.
Nor do other voices that once felt so safe in the classroom. T S Eliot spent summers in Gloucester as a boy, and he titled the third of his Four Quartets after a rock formation just offshore of Rockport called The Dry Salvages. The poem is shaped by the region far more than I realized, and reading it with these very rocks just over my shoulder, it hits me the same way Melville does.
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.
Rockport is just north of Gloucester, the first seaport in the country, and long a storied terminus for countless successful fishing expeditions and almost as many failed ones. Gloucester was the final landfall for thousands of men who left looking for a big score—cod, swordfish, lobster—and never returned. In Gloucester, mom points out to me a “widow’s walk” that she painted thirty years ago, and I realize it’s not just a metaphor. Anticipation is written into the cityscape of Gloucester, in its architecture of grief, of expectation, of hope against hope. Maybe nowhere so poignantly as atop Our Lady of Good Hope, a Catholic parish built by Portuguese fisherman in 1892. In between two blue-capped spires, a statue of the Virgin Mary looks out over the harbor. In the crook of her left arm she cradles a fishing boat like her own little boy.
Closer to shore, along South Stacy Boulevard, a wind-beaten fisherman at helm looks out in a similar way. The centerpiece of a haunting memorial to the lost fishermen of Gloucester, “The Man at the Wheel” is suspiciously reminiscent of the logo for Gloucester-based Gorton’s Seafood, a stark reminder of the price really paid for fish sticks. The pedestal beneath him is inscribed with a passage from Psalm 107: “They That Go Down to the Sea in Ships,” and around him a series of bronze plaques record the names of over 5,000 fishermen who were lost at sea. The real figure is probably twice that.
It is staggering.
Later, on Old Garden Beach in Rockport, my boys play with their cousins on one of Eliot’s “losses:” a fragment of blue foam washed up on the beach, which they repurpose into a sailing vessel or boogie board. They clamber up the rocks, and to each of the mounds of granite reaching into the sea they give a name: Mount Henry, Candler Peak, Mount Marion, Port Charles, Mount Wannahockaloogie.
They do not know Melville or Eliot—or Sturgill, really—but they seem to intuitively sense what each of them—and all of us—feel. An urge to give our own names to things, a desire to secure ourselves fast to solid rock against the vast, forgetful deep. A wish to be remembered, to play at the edge of time.