Clouds reflected in the sheen
Of surf transpose to green,
The evening film of ocean
Captured in the gelatin
That water stamps on land,
Focused by the camera of sand
On glossy tidepools where
Grains of liquid earth and air
From the flame of beach acquire
Inklings of a primal fire,
Shadows of the solar glow
Printed on the sheet below.
Now the picture where we live
Is inverted like a negative,
And our sunny slides at first
Are darkened, then reversed,
To develop in the setting sea
Their original transparency,
Whirling in the wash like terns
As the eddy of the day returns
At dusk to copy on a beach
Distant flashes of the world's long reach.
Cathy had pointed out to me one summer sunset the green backwash of the ocean where the paper-thin water mirrored the sky even more accurately than the deeper sea. In trying to decide what that might mean, I let words do the work, meaning coming only later.
I recorded at the time the process by which images translated into meaning, and in retrospect it seems vaguely instructive, if somewhat dull. People ask me, though, how poems form in my mind, and here is one answer.
In trying to imitate with sound the emotion Cathy’s idea had created in me, I began with a description. The gloss of a wave's aftermath seemed to be a "sheen," the color of the wash was "green," and so the first phrases were dictated by their endings, which happened to rhyme, thus forming a couplet. I rarely wrote in couplets at that time.
The third line I wrote to make sense of the first two haphazard lines, not thinking what the fourth line would be until I had said what needed to be said. That line ended with "sand." Since photographic imagery had somehow intruded itself into the third line, the (Edwin) Land camera, which came to mind as rhyming with "sand," suggested, when I inverted it, that land itself might be a camera.
The idea of sky being translated through sun onto water was a color reversal. A color reversal is also a photographic slide, and so I thought initially of the way a negative is reversed by film into a positive image. I am a great fan of positive images. "Reverse" made me think of "verse" (too easy), “turn,” and "return" as possibilities. The homonym "tern," similar to a seagull, was suggested by the dozens of terns flying around me as I wrote on the beach.
Widening gyres are the eternal bystanders of Yeatsian seas. The water was wheeling in the light like birds, so the changing mirrors of ocean light, swirling eddies, flashes of dying day, remind you the image of setting sun in the tidal streams on the beach is actually a reflection, making this my earliest reflection poem.
This is a small section from a very long poem on the lives of clouds, which I began in Nantucket in the summer of 1982 and am still expanding. Our house then was somewhat removed, on the outlying reaches of beach near Sheep’s Pond. Clouds and waves were our only neighbors. This fragment came a few years later, when we lived at Surfside.
Since I was 17, lying on my back, a dazzled American tourist on the vast grasses of Dorset staring at sheeplike clouds, I have spent an indecent part of my time imagining what it must feel like to drift aimlessly, reform, billow, pile up, shadow, undercut, and generally act like a circus of accumulated nimble cumuli.
Here is the third version of this particular fragment, redone August 31st, 2003.