Clouds over the atlantic ocean

The ocean in us

Week four of Pacific Eco-Poetics focuses on our relationship to the Ocean.

Craig Santos Perez

Right before eco-poetics class last week, I received this email from my university alert system: “A tsunami watch has been issued for the state of Hawaii. Estimated possible wave heights are 0.3 to 1 meters above the tide level. Estimated wave arrival time is 3:06 a.m., Sept. 17. Please follow the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center, other government agencies and local media for the latest news.” This tsunami watch was triggered by an 8.3 magnitude earthquake off the coast of Chile.

Our topic for class was, appropriately, the Pacific Ocean (oceans being an important theme in eco-poetics). We discussed the essay, “The Ocean in Us” (1998), by Tongan scholar Epeli Hauʻofa, which insists that the “sea is as real as you and I, that it shapes the character of this planet, that it is a major source of our sustenance, that it is something that we all share in common wherever we are in Oceania.”

Alongside Hauʻofa’s essay, we read the poem, “Ocean Birth” (2005), by Māori poet Robert Sullivan. This poem is a chant-like ocean pastoral, lyrically calling forth the currents, the sea creatures, the names of Polynesian islands, and the bodies of Pacific Islanders to all sing their songs of birth. The poem ends: “Every wave carries us here— // every song to remind us— / we are skin of the ocean.” Hauʻofa and Sullivan represent a Native Pacific perspective on the ocean, in which the ocean is our source, our origin, our common inheritance.

We also read and discussed two texts that speak to a Trans-Pacific perspective. First: “Oceania as Peril and Promise: Towards Theorizing a Worlded Vision of Trans-Pacific Ecopoetics” (2012) by American poet Rob Wilson. This essay foregrounds the ocean as a theoretical network of global flow, “liquid modernity,” and “postmodern fluidity,” as well as a material network of capitalist shipping lanes and airfreights, military bases and testing sites, and marine territorializations and exclusive economic zones—all routing across the west coast of the American continent, the Pacific Islands, and Asia. Thus, the ocean represents both peril and promise. Peril in the sense that the ocean is in danger from us (plastic, overfishing, nuclear testing, warming etc.) and that it can be a danger to us (rising tides, tsunamis, hurricanes, etc.). The ocean also represents promise in the sense that it offers a vision of “transnational belonging, ecological confederation, and trans-racial solidarity.”

Lastly, we read and performed the poem “Pacific Ocean” (2009), by American poet Brenda Hillman. This poem views the Pacific from California, where the poet touches the coastal waters and launches into a meditation on the vastness and complexity of the ocean. As such, the poem flows in fragmented waves and currents of perception, swirling with flotsam and jetsam, memory and information, plastic and prayers, of spice and maritime routes, dreams and drownings. Or, as Hillman puts it: “a fertile dread…mixed with ecstasy.”

Every culture—and even every person—has a different relationship to, and understanding of, the the vastness and complexity of the ocean. And even though every poet represents the ocean in different ways, it has always been a space and place of deep symbolism and meaning. As Hauʻofa wrote: “The sea is our pathway to each other and to everyone else, the sea is our endless saga, the sea is our most powerful metaphor, the ocean is in us.”

For this week, students wrote about the ocean (6 poems, 1 prose piece: 15 minutes of reading time). We welcome your comments on the poems. If you are inspired, we encourage you to write your own poems reflecting on what the ocean means to you.


siblings in church (a border series)
by Lee Kava

There is a border
between air and deep water –
in English, they call her

There is a border
between stillness and rooted land –
in English, he is called

Their mother and father
teaches the siblings to live
connected with one another in
every way, even when they argue
to weather their limits, they respect
the nature of vastness,
the power of distance
and they guard against the danger
of forgetfulness, nurturing
connection, even as borders born
of the sea.

But Ocean’s body has been changing –
sister and brother, Surface and Wind
find their parents’ minds
far away
dealing with ailing bodies –
breaking limbs, broken waves
from so much swelling
over islands
in their seas –

and in the distracted stress of Ocean,
Wind and Surface find themselves
made to sit
in the pews
of a church.

The congregation –
of United Globalization –
insists that Wind and Surface always sit
in the back
of its holy mindedness,
while priests of corporate and academia
preach the doctrine
of “borderless

what happens if they take
our nature?
whispers a worried Wind
to his sister –
perhaps these priests
don’t need water
to walk on anymore
Surface answers back –

cries the congregation
who feel the siblings rumbling
in the back
of their minds –

what will happen to our cousins,
the land? and the people they care for?
thinks Wind
to his sister –
Surface shifts
her body slightly,
letting her brother know
she has heard him –

scream the priests
who frantically turn back the windblown
pages of their fiscal sermon –

Silently, the siblings squirm
in their seats, worrying the body
of their mother and father
over which the church sits
like dominion, the reach of its walls
infinite –

The drone of the congregation deafens
even Wind’s ears, scratches over Surface’s skin -
the members recounting
the small accounts
of airplane travel,
capacities of cargo ship holds,
and the blessed logistics
of holy global capital


Mother Ocean
by Jessie Lathrop

Humans come from the earth but
Earth comprises mostly of ocean.
Humans, then, are less soil, more sea –

Salt in your arteries,
Water on your pores,
Whispering along
The underside of your skin,
Slipping by your bones,
Pulsing out on the highways
Of your veins and back
Into the thoroughfares
Of the world.

The ocean in me
Calls to the
Ocean in you,
Rocking one shore to another,
Steady-washing heartbeat.

Crash your heart on my currents
And memorize their contours and swirls.
When the ocean is home your house moves –
Tides migrate and circle back
Like flocks of birds.
They change, they adapt to the world
And they adapt the world to them,
They tiptoe across the planet following the moon –
For like the ocean we will twist up into the air
And return tumbling to the sea,
And come back –
Again –
Water nomad.


by Darlene Rodrigues

Spell of our experience
away from
how can a promise
brimming opportunity
at once
lola said

the spell of the ocean sings us away

springs the water
ub ub
ug ug
fetch the water sweet
and flowing
down the stream to the ocean it
ug ug ub ub
where the dagat and yuta meet

shore to shore
wave on wave
fix the broken thread
of blood and heart
unlanded soul
charred tongues of our apo
ngihib does not inhabit the caves of their mouths
lawod laps unevenly at their lips

sulog of pagkakaron has taken us away
on a bangka
pagkakaron we know not inside of wood and sail
the american sulog has washed it away
singapore hongkong

layag/to sail
she craves pasayan
to pass the time
in hawaii
a way of soroysoroy
passage in the land of the puti


after Yeats’ The Second Coming
by Chase Wiggins

Round and down as in a drain unplugged;
The whales cannot hear each other sing;
Things fall apart; the levees cannot hold;
Wrathful Atlantis is loosed upon the land,
The ever-rising tide is loosed, and everywhere
Those closest to the Ocean prepare to drown;
The best hold small hope of recourse, while the worst
Are still peddling beach front properties.

Surely some apocalypse is at hand;
Surely the Second Flooding is at hand.
The Second Flooding! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Gaia’s Unconscious
Troubles my sight: an expanse of ruined ocean;
A shape with kraken body and arms grasping capital,
A gaze blank and pitiless as market forces,
Is sliding across a shelf of human debris, while all about it
Indignant priests cry out about promises misunderstood.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty-one centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by nuclear disaster.
And what desperate beast, its reckoning come round at last,
Rockets towards Kepler 452b* to be born again?

*An exoplanet currently being touted as “Earth 2.0” by NASA scientists.


by Elan Stopnitzky

It’s easy to forget where
I am
when space is cut up
by edges

my feet tread
euclidean pavement
and the whole universe seems
in the mind of a honeybee

but I can look over the coast
read the curves of the sandbank-
tides forming
the handprints of
a moon

submerge this body

the slowing of my heart, automatic
to preserve air because
time is long and
our skin has learned
the sensation of water

turn to the stars
we used to find our way
over this ocean delivered
to the earth
in the snow of asteroids

their ancient light
laps my eyes
like caravans of waves
at the shore

And I am here


by Brian Leung

That of which defines us—me—has unsavory definitions.
I am—insignificant
I am—a murderer
I am—a divider
I am—a burden
The mirror is placed before us—me—and the sea reflects
Trouble to/trouble from
We are—insignificant
We are—murderers
We are—dividers
We are—burdens
We; unity
results from ocean and
I; diversity

Unity is recognizing the history
Unity is recognizing our belonging to
what makes our indispensability possible.


The Ocean Embassy
by Henry Wei Leung

The following was reported to me by a woman who has asked to remain anonymous, and who herself was introduced to “The Embassy” by a group of the initiated who, as we know, are rendered anonymous by the very nature of their activity. While I cannot betray her confidence or credentials, I can offer my own as the most minimal vouchsafing of the credibility of my words and, thereby, of hers. I am a California-born graduate of Oxford (Brasenose College, where indeed the Queen once came to dine with us at Hall and, though I myself was not invited, I was later told that she had sat in the seat directly adjacent to my habitual seat), and subsequently of Princeton. I have no history of activism, much less of environmental activism. My visits to the Pacific Islands (the small ones so called) have been limited to highways, coastlines, one disastrous instance of snorkeling, and large gatherings during which the natives on a stage explained their culture amidst great thundering festivities. I offer this as assurance, first, against any gullibility or naivete on my part, and second, against the likelihood or capacity to invent the following story given my limited personal contact with the subjects in question. I am an agent of the government (in largely clerical work) and the following views and statements in no way reflect or represent those of the U.S. Department of State.

The Embassy exists just below water level in the belly of the Lēʻahi crater, which serves as a ventilation window into the core of a network of volcanoes, on the annexed island of Oʻahu. It is said that The Embassy made itself known to the human population shortly after the formation of a Mars encampment on the northern slope of the Mauna Loa volcano, where astronauts had begun an extended period of training in a geodesic dome to simulate a long-term stay on the planet of Mars. The woman, who is the main character—but not the protagonist—of our story, has suggested that The Embassy had recognized in this the advent of a galactic human exodus, and so at just such a time decided to begin negotiations on various fronts.

Admission to The Embassy is bureaucratically determined but, naturally, no paperwork is involved. The woman was invited by a principle of longing greater than her own desire, a compulsion beyond language to the base of the crater called Lēʻahi. She found behind dry brush a crevasse into the volcanic rock with a vertical mouth barely the width of her body, on the southeast side. It was a descent into darkness and smoother and smoother surfaces of stone. The duration, seen from outside, might have been days, as the gravity drew her close and the pull on her body’s time made her heavy. For her, the duration was approximately an hour. Meanwhile, a swimmer disappeared in Hanauma Bay.

The legends are incorrect. The lizard of rock does not awaken from the ridge of Hanauma Bay to take a sacrifice of swimmers once a year, just as the volcanic tuff of Lēʻahi is not intended to resemble a dorsal fin. Associative anthropomorphism is a human pastime and a failure to imagine the Other. The swimmer disappeared into a perpetual maelstrom hidden at the bottom of the ocean. He, too, lost time in the depth and dispersal of a great gravity. His cells were pulled apart and recombined with water until the water came to know him. He was a fractal of the human species and the human story. The ocean interviewed the woman by unconstructing the man. She passed. (And years passed as the data of his cells was scattered up to land to find its way to new bodies as a salt wind, as a revelation of sound.)

The woman found herself in the belly of the crater under water level where an ancient source of lava still sloshed like wine at the bottom of a gourd. [. . .]