For most of the time since I’ve been in Melbourne, I’ve lived near the sea. Whenever I have moved closer to town, I have missed the cleaner air and the instant sweep of a cool change. Most of all, I like that heart-expanding sense of a horizon clean of buildings, which persists even when you can’t see the water.
I’m far from being a beach person. I don’t even own a swimsuit. But most mornings (well, many mornings) I walk to the beach and stare out over the bay. I am always struck afresh by the sea’s infinite variations, from black-green to the silver dazzle of an early sun. Sometimes I can see the You Yangs jutting up in the distance and the heads of Port Phillip Bay. Sometimes I can’t see anything but a hazy horizon.
I always find it profoundly calming. Although I know that climate change is raising the ocean’s temperature, and that human pollution infects even its deepest trenches, the sea is still a constant. It will outlast us, even if we kill everything in it. And, somehow, just standing beside it is an invitation to be larger.
When my oldest son was a toddler, we would walk to the beach in Elwood and he would open out his arms out and say, ‘My sea!’ (Mind you, everything was his at that point.) But I feel the same sense of … not ownership, that is the wrong word … of relationship. That somehow the sea is mine, as a child might be mine: endlessly mysterious and unknowable, always escaping my perceptions, but always, even in its absence, present in my mind.
Maybe this sense of relationship isn’t merely poetic allusion: the composition of an adult human is more than half water. Even our bones are almost a third, and the brain itself is 73 per cent. The sense that the self expands near a large body of water might not be so much a symptom of human hubris as an instinctive awareness that our individual pulses beat in time with a vast rhythm that is beyond our puny perceptions.
Dryness, after all, is death. In her Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich described her vision of the death of Christ:
It was a sorry business to see him change as he progressively died. His nostrils … shrivelled and dried before my eyes, and his dear body became black and brown as it dried up in death; it was no longer its own fair, living colour.
Julian of Norwich was being slyly subversive. Throughout her visions, dryness is characterised as deathly: her Christ is fluid, damp, even lactating. In Julian’s time, mediaeval theorists associated water with the feminine humours, which were invariably dubious. In this they followed Aristotle, who famously said, ‘Women are incomplete males: like undercooked bread, female bodies never achieved the heat, dryness or impermeability that make up healthy bodies.’
Water is obviously not a sexed entity, but its properties – fluidity, permeability – remain profoundly gendered. I’ve noticed how much these properties inform my attitude to language. Is it because I am a woman? I don’t believe so, but sometimes I wonder.
Some writers, like the poet Basil Bunting, think of writing as if it’s a kind of masonry. ‘Words! / Pens are too light. / Take a chisel to write.’ Something in me admires that manly confidence, the assumption that, once written, the word is there forever. Another part of me feels that it’s an understanding of language that diminishes its power, the equivalent of taking a live butterfly and pinning it to a board.
Perhaps this is why I feel at home on Twitter, where the evanescent thoughts of millions of people (and even more millions of bots that are, nevertheless, programmed by people) slip past in a turbulent Heraclitan stream. Like the sea, Twitter is full of pollution. But at least I can filter it.
Words for me are the opposite of stone, even when they are carved into granite. Meanings change as contexts change: the grand imperial statement – ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings! / Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ – becomes an irony and then a crime. Words are palate, breath, tongue, fingers: the watery, impure body shaping a medium that is all refraction and ambiguity, subject to the infinite vagaries of each present moment.
Water turns up all the time in my poems, literally and figuratively. One of my most vivid dreams was about language: I was floating in a sparkling azure ocean, surrounded by shimmering golden fish. In my dream, the fish were words. I could see into and through them, all the way back to Babylon.
But language also permits us to lie, to mislead others. It allows us to reshape reality to our own purposes. This is why writers love to shape it, of course, but it has darker implications. The present fake news panic isn’t about anything new – the powerful have always been able to manipulate us, using whichever media they have to hand.
The sea is dangerous as well as beautiful, after all. It’s wise to approach it cautiously.
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