Quite some time ago, I said that I would post sections of this plastic book as I’m writing it. I haven’t done that, so now I thought I would. This section refers to Heidegger, the philosopher, who recurs throughout the book, and to the poet Dana Ward, who in a recent essay referred to objects as Horcruxes — the items in the Harry Potter series that the evil lord Voldemort stored his soul inside in order to resurrect himself later. Dana implies that everything is a Horcrux, containing bits of the souls of the living beings entangled in each object’s existence.
The albatross hardly appears in the poem by Coleridge. He names the bird seven times in six hundred lines: when it first appears to the ship, flying through fog; when it follows the ship for nine days eating human scraps; when the sailor shoots it with his cross-bow. At no time does Coleridge describe the bird or give any sense of its physical presence, not even on mention number four when the others hang the albatross around the sailor’s neck. The dead bird, lying against his heart, must have been an awkward weight; it must have stunk as it decayed, but Coleridge remains silent on these points.
It is the sea serpents that burst to life inside the poem. The sailor recoiled from them at first — monstrous, slimy things. Now, alone with them in his curse, the only breathing beings in a world plunged into death, he looks close:
Beyond the shadow of the ship,
I watched the water snakes:
They moved in tracks of shining white,
And when they reared, the elfish light
Fell off in hoary flakes.
Within the shadow of the ship
I watched their rich attire:
Blue, glossy green, and velvet black,
They coiled and swam; and every track
Was a flash of golden fire.
There follows a gush: a copious or sudden emission of fluid; a rush (of water, blood, tears).
It is not the poem’s first. The first aborts. It dries up. The sailor, surrounded by bodies on a rotting ship on a rotting sea, tries to pray: “But or ever a prayer had gushed, / A wicked whisper came, and made / My heart as dry as dust.”
Heidegger also has a gush. In his meditation on the clay jug, he writes that the jug’s character consists in holding in and pouring out. The pouring is a giving, he says, sometimes for people and sometimes in honor of a god:
“The consecrated libation is what our word for a strong outpouring flow, ‘gush,’ really designates: gift and sacrifice. ‘Gush,’ Middle English guschen, gosshen … is the Greek cheein, the Indoeuropean ghu. It means to offer in sacrifice. To pour a gush, when it is achieved in its essence, thought through with sufficient generosity, and genuinely uttered, is to donate, to offer in sacrifice, and hence to give.”
The Oxford English Dictionary gives gush a less noble origin: “As the word is wanting in Old English and the other Germanic languages, there is nothing to forbid the supposition that it originated onomatopoetically in Middle English” — for the sound the stomach makes, the serpentine tube of digestion. Pulsing and pink inside the vault-ribbed dark, it churns its monstrous want, a force impossible to resist. It drives the albatross ten thousand miles over water and stands the mariner on his feet amidst the corpses: O
happy living things! No tongue
Their beauty might declare:
A spring of love gushed from my heart,
And I blessed them unaware:
And I blessed them unaware.
The mariner finds himself able to pray, and the albatross falls from his neck and disappears into the ocean. It is not a burden. It never was in the poem; it never had that physical heft. The bird around the neck is a mark of guilt.
Another image of an albatross has etched its shape inside my brain. This one comes from the scientist Carl Safina’s book about the bird. He traveled to Midway Atoll to see the world’s largest Laysan albatross colony – 300,000 breeding pairs. He watches an adult glide in from the ocean, pick out its chick among the crying and begging thousands, and open its bill to deliver food into the thrusting, open mouth. “The adult hunches forward, neck stretching, retching,” he writes. It delivers several chunks of “semi-liquefied squid and purplish fish eggs.”
The adult continues to retch and the chick to batter its beak for more, but nothing comes. Then Safina sees the tip of a green toothbrush emerge in the bird’s throat. The bird tries several times to get the toothbrush out with no success. It gives up and wanders off.
Albatross chicks have to grow very fast. The need to mature enough in just a few months to fledge and spend several years in flight without touching land, hunting their own food. The digestive coil inside torments them without ceasing. The parents hear it also, it pushes them out over the ocean and draws them back. They switch off feeding, making constant calculations about how long to leave the nest, how far to fly and in what direction to find enough food to fill the ravenous hole.
Albatross evolved over twenty-five million years into finely honed gliding beings with bills curved to hook prey. The Laysan albatross mostly spears squid, but it also collects floating chunks of pumice and wood with fatty, nutritious flying fish eggs attached. Bits of plastic gather in currents along with stone and wood, and the albatross picks them up.
Like other birds, the albatross regurgitates indigestibles. Before it fledges, the chick sheds weight by coughing up a cigar-shaped lump called a bolus filled with squid beaks, stones and other bits. The photographer Susan Middleton saw many of these on the islands, and she says all of them contained plastic – cigarette lighters, fishing line, toothbrushes also. But plastic doesn’t wear smooth in the waves. It retains its shape or breaks into shards, and sometimes the bird can’t get it out.
An albatross can live for fifty years. A plastic toothbrush can last – no one knows how long. Five hundred years? A thousand? How long can an albatross live with a green toothbrush stuck in its gullet?
At the dentist, when I am offered the free toothbrush, I pick the green one. I like to say green is my favorite color because it means life. It comes from the ancient IndoEuropean root word for “growth.”
Because of the strange way the brain works, hiding things from itself, it doesn’t strike me what I have done until I get home and see the object sitting there in its holder. Just like the mariner, wielding his weapon over and over.
As you know, creating a Horcrux requires murder. As you know, as you know.