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Heavy Waters: Waste and Atlantic Modernity


We cannot think of a time that is oceanlessOr of an ocean not littered with wastage—T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”A Poem that Renders the Sea as Pedagogical History, Lorna Goodison's “Arctic, Antarctic, Atlantic, Pacific, Indian Ocean” depicts Caribbean schoolchildren learning “the world's waters rolled into a chant.” After shivering through the “cold” Arctic and Antarctic, the class “suffered [a] sea change” in the destabilizing Atlantic, abandoning the terrestrial stability of their benches to enter an ocean in which only their voices orient them in time and space as they “call out across / the currents of hot air.” In fathoming what Derek Walcott has called “the sea [as] history,” their “small bodies” are “borrowed / by the long drowned” (Goodison). While colonial narratives of maritime expansion have long depicted the ocean as blank space to be traversed, these students enter Atlantic stasis, a place occupied by the wasted lives of Middle Passage modernity. This Atlantic is not aqua nullius, circumscribed and mapped by the student oceanographer, but rather a place where the haunting of the past overtakes the present subject. Édouard Glissant has described the Atlantic as a “beginning” for modernity, a space “whose time is marked by … balls and chains gone green” (Poetics 6): a sign of submarine history and its material decay. Thus, Atlantic modernity becomes legible through the sign of heavy water, an oceanic stasis that signals the dissolution of wasted lives. After the poem's irruptive consonance of the “bodies borrowed,” the vowels lengthen to mimic a “long drowned” history of the Atlantic, and the narrative is transformed. Reminding us that the Middle Passage “abyss is a tautology” that haunts ocean modernity (Glissant, Poetics 6), the poem traps the students (and readers) in the violent corporeal history of the Atlantic. Instead of moving on to the next ocean of the lesson, the class repeats the word “Atlantic, as if wooden pegs / were forced between our lips; Atlantic, as teacher's / strap whipped the rows on.” Only in the last two lines of the poem do we catch a glimpse of other oceans, trapped as we are in “learn[ing] this lesson: / Arctic, Antarctic, Atlantic, Pacific and then Indian.”

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