Can't you hear those drops, that melancholy?
-- Ruben Dario
I look at the Pacific Ocean as it crashes against the shoreline in Nicaragua, and I think that I don't know anyone who has ever drowned in it. The pacific ocean. But the Atlantic, off the coast of Brazil, those treacherous eastern waves, those tides pounding the shoreline and producing a kind of agitated foam in Argentina that an exiled Pablo Neruda once called poetry... those waves claimed the life of a very young friend of mine. And so her presence has been bleached from my life, her ghost still as white as the raging whitecaps.
My Jewish-Mexican compadre wants to swim in the ocean in Nicaragua, and I sit alone in a white plastic chair, on a white concrete patio, bathed in the bright white glare of the tropical sun in January. My pale skin and my white, white bones beneath it are now supple and completely warm despite my age -- and I find myself wondering how well my new friend can really swim. I hope, if all else fails, that perhaps the ebullient buoyancy of his well-developed mind will keep him afloat. Can you drown if you are full of words? Well, Emma Howell did.
"Soon we'll go down to the water / to salt ourselves clean," Emma wrote before she drowned. My Venezuelan friend, who knows what it means to have lost something in which she had invested the power of her love, and who has so generously filled part of the hueco in her life with her concern for the sadness she perceives in me, is wearing a long white skirt today that reflects the light and barely conceals her incredibly long legs with which she had, only a day or two before, tried to teach me to dance to the rhythms of cumbia. And I think I came close to drowning in the wide, enveloping, carefully woven net of her reborn joy. She is the heiress of a fortune based on the sale of rum, which she now hates with a passion, and has set herself up as a fisher of men. "If you go to the concert in Managua," she tells me, "do not remain in your seat." And later, "I am so glad you enjoyed yourself and left the old you in Nicaragua, to become a new person, I am sure you feel different."
I went to the concert in Managua, performed by the inimitable Carlos Mejia Godoy, and drank rum and Coca-Cola, and danced in my heart with Marianna from Venezuela. I danced with my dear lost Emma, and Emily, her friend, and Karen and Carlos, and Ilan and the goddess Isis, I even danced with Jorge Eduardo. I danced until I couldn't move, I danced with every tablecloth and empty glass of rum and fish skeleton in the club. And I think that is something like the way Emma must have felt too, on the day she died, yes, tonight I am sure of it in my inner place, the seat of my quiet sorrow, that she fearlessly struck out for the coast of Africa, thinking she was waterproof like one of the giant seed pods of the Ceiba tree of Brazil, which some prescient Africans discovered with reverence and wonder on a beach, carried to them by the Gulf Stream, and immediately took back into their village, carefully dried out, and found a place for in the dusty soil of their land.
I believe in reincarnation. I believe we are alive because we are slaves of the inescapable nostalgia of having lived at least once before, and partaken of the fruits of the earth. I believe Emma has been reborn somewhere in Africa, in a dusty little town that no one has ever heard of before, on the beach, beneath a giant Ceiba tree, cooled by the gentle evening breeze, or a fan waved by one of her sisters. A child, baby Emma, Emma reborn, lifting her face to the stars as she listens to some celestial harmony, as she closes her eyes and sees exotic fir trees, a powerful North American river and mist, cold rain and mist. And she is quietly preparing herself to write a poem, on a distant day when she will have learned how to write a poem, that will be about poetry, and ocean waves, and bleach.
For Emma Howell, Karen Checkoway & Chris Howell
Leon, Nicaragua 1.19.06 - Portland, Oregon 1.29.06