Nothing was going to seem very
Strange after that extraordinary
Drive down to the beach in the back
Of a jeep, the road snaking
Through huge cross-sections of jungle even
Denser than what we’d seen before,
Uppermost fronds a dazzling, rich
White-bronze in that tropical sun, gray
Those further down, and nearly black
The warring undergrowth in which
Windfall coconuts lay
Like so many old, flaking
Helmets from that other War;

So that, when we found everyone
On the beach standing right
At the water’s edge, watching the sea,
We fell in unquestioningly,
Gazes drifting until we too
Spotted in the distance, where
The sea was whitecapped, a pair
Of bobbing swimmers. They
Were drowning. A simple truth—but one
We couldn’t grasp at first, nor quite
Grasp that the only thing to do
Was to stand and wait. A radio
Call had gone out; help was on the way.

Help, at last, took the splendid,
Hearteningly larger-than-life form
Of a helicopter ripping across
The sky to come to a high, suspended
Clattering halt and release a fine
Rope ladder that landed just outside
The swimmers’ reach. Now commenced
That clumsy, exacting process—so
Brutally, so agonizingly slow—
Of attempts at linkage; each new toss
Of the ladder falling wide,
As the fading swimmers flailed against
The pull of their local storm,

Until somehow, as we stood there
Watching, that deep, tortuous bond between
Man the maker and his machine
Was pared to a dangling thread,
And right before our eyes a half-dead
Body like a fish was hoisted through
The glittering, naked air
To the copter’s belly—leaving two
All but disembodied arms to thrash
In the sunny scatter and smash,
The stunned smash and scatter of the sea.
Now horrifying, hypnotizing As this was, it was, finally,

Unreal as well, as though
We were watching a film-clip, some
Snippet of the evening news . . .
The entire ordeal—the bare
Line dropped again, then again, and then
That second swimmer delivered from
His gasping burial—at once so
Stirring, and so unreal:
Even as we yelled, whistled, clapped
Our hands, somehow still to feel,
As in a moviehouse, that we’d been
Played on by a drama whose
Performers were never there.

The rubber feet pinch,
the window of the mask is scratched. Easing
out of my element, I inch
down the aluminum ladder

on the side of the boat,
legs trailing loose in the warm sea,
let go, drop and turn and float
successfully on my stomach. I send a blast

of air up the snorkel, spouting a crown
of salty water that, after
a looping pause, comes down
sweetly on my back, and begin, flush

with the reserved, lazing
powers of my new frog’s feet, to coast
upon the surface. Under this blazing
noon sun the sea’s so calm it can scarcely be

the medium in which, just three days ago,
those two swimmers I keep thinking about
were nearly drowned. The water’s so
tranquil today you could swim out

for miles, it seems, letting it hold
you high like a child, aloft and kicking
in a parent’s upraised arms. Assorted spilled
pastels, dissolved of all

material commitments, flicker and glide
in the bay’s upper reaches;
today the sea’s wide-
open and the sun goes clear

to the rolling coral stone-
garden, some forty feet below, where
three divers in black wet-suits, two men
and the boyishly slighter

figure of a woman, drift to and fro,
poking about, exchanging
sweeping, emphatic messages by way
of hand signals. As enticing

as that sea-floor looks, still
more so—a grace to place
against any anemone’s—are those tall
wavering columns of bubbles

rising from the divers’ air tanks;
while risibly like the thought-balloons
one meets in comic books
and animated cartoons, they possess

a lissomeness, a vine-like
elevating loveliness that pulls me
closer. And when I flutter-kick
over to where the bubbles break

the surface, nosing my mask right
into that climbing line of hundreds
and hundreds of spirited white
beads of light

something marvelous transpires: I am—again—
reminded of film, the colorless
televisions of my boyhood, that endless run
of laugh-tracked comedies in which

with some low-budget hocus-pocus
(the camera, to the strum of a harp,
slipping out of focus,
or a panning swing toward the center

of a painted target- or pin-
wheel-shape that would then
begin to spin)
one was forever being promoted

to those selective sectors
where cumulus banks are firm enough
for walking, a white sheet is every actor’s
home- and office-apparel alike, and one finds

each humble face laughably
unaltered—bespectacled or buck-toothed,
bald or bulbous-nosed as the case may be, but happy,
for this is Heaven . . . And to this vision

while I floated simply
in the upsurge of a stranger’s
exhalations, body limply
open to the sea’s slight suggestive nudging,

came another, of which the first, for all
its silliness, was a kind of clue, a parody
whose unsullied original
might be obliquely

glanced at, indeed
had been glimpsed already,
for there was a sense of having peered
before into one of these

miraculous pristine

passages that wait beside you
always, if only it were known which
floorboard to take the crowbar to,
which stone uproot on the hillside, if only

you dared to; this tunnel, here, into a breath-
taking incandescence so intense the
body is as nothing in the path
of its streaming, weightless and homeless and

helpless, hopeful and afraid.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 4 Number 1, on page 42
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