I have always been fascinated by the almost magical display of oil on the surface of still water. Chris Murray used this image to great effect in her recent poem River Six. I also ran across it in some back issues of Lilliput Review that I was browsing through recently. Much has been made of the dichotomy between the beauty and the poison. But what fascinates me, what really makes oil on water something special, is the worlds that one can see when looking in it deeply enough.

As a boy, I was enamored (as many young boys are, I think) with gutters. Not the rain gutters running around the roof of the house, but the more accessible and more lively gutters at the edge of the street. I was blessed to live by street with very active gutters, a microcosm within themselves. When the first drops of rain would begin to musically announce themselves on the tin roof of the shed in our backyard, I would be off like a shot to watch as the sand and gravel which congregated in ever-shifting mounds within the gutter would amazingly yield forth their hidden life, angleworms poking their heads–or bottoms who knows which–above the surface of the sand seeking air and safety from drowning. Never could they be caught when sought outside of the rain. Many times we emptied the gutters of their sedimentary layer, when imminent fishing trips pressed the need upon us, but shovels would avail a young man nothing. It was something of a miracle then that they could be picked up from the surface with no trouble at all within minutes after the start of the rain. But we were careful to return them to the gutter before the rain ended, afraid of breaking whatever spell allowed them to so spectacularly emerge with each shower.

If the rain was long enough or hard enough, the magic of the worms was soon subsumed by an even greater phenomenon. Paper boats were quickly made as the currents began to come into being. Soon I was a master of shipping for a multi-house corporation, sending my Anglish captain on voyages that (if the rain was significant) might last minutes. I was a micromanager, not content to trust the captain with my ship’s safety; I would run along beside it, ready to pluck it from the water at the first sign of a treacherous stick. Or if in a more contemplative mood, I might examine the flow for its own sake, perhaps experimenting to see what changes this or that arrangement of pebbles, sand or sticks might have on the visible marks of its movement that appeared on its surface. I would attempt to predict in advance what shapes and shifts would occur, and though my success rate hovered at near zero, I never tired of experimenting.

It was only when the rainstorm lasted long enough to exceed the capacity of the drains that the most miraculous mirage of them all would occur. Relatively still, the water would allow the oil, collected from the mechanical passers by to creep to its surface and congregate into larger and larger villages, towns, cities, countries, worlds. Oil creates, when spread thinly enough, a world that has depths that are unrelated to the impositions of mere physics. It appears to have a texture that extends further than the tenuously clinging molecules that stretch for each other across the surface, occasionally losing their hold on one another and allowing black holes to mar their perfection. It appears to extend beyond the water itself and into some other space and time. Mandelbrot could not create it. It is fluid. It is changing. It is evolving and devolving synchronously. And it has inhabitants, not real creatures crossing its surface, plodding water-bugs and foolish mosquitoes, but super-real creatures that live within the images, within the motion, within the lucidity of the imagination, and then with a SpLaSh, hand or foot, chemically or mechanically, sooner or later, the universe is destroyed, only to recreate itself with the same vigor and purpose as before.

4 thoughts on “Oil on the Water

  1. This is a cool essay. I actually have more memories of the gutters as clubhouses during dry weather, but I guess that was just John and me. I think you and David may have been beyond clubhouses by the time we started doing that.

  2. Gutters as clubhouses? You must tell me more. If you’ll write an essay on gutters as clubhouses, I’ll give you contributing author status on my blog and publish it here. (Since it’s you, I know it’ll be good). I can’t even picture it. For me it was the bushes that were the clubhouses (again only in dry weather), while the gutters were the play area of choice during rain storms. Rain, I think, should be experienced in the open. Rain in tight spaces becomes irritating, but dancing in the rain in an open yard is exhilarating. I may have to write a whole essay just on the rain.
    If you are willing to write the essay, e-mail me at webmaster@allaluthors.com and let me know.

  3. Robert,
    Thanks for your kind words about my poem, “River Six” (Issue 15, xStream.com). Thoughts about that nice opposition that motor oil on wet asphalt or floating on top of a puddle has, between the beautiful and the banal or downright ugly, comes, for me, sideways out of early readings in Elizabeth Bishop. Her poem, “The Bight,” nicely brings up questions in kind.
    “Click, Click goes the dredge…”
    Chris M

  4. oops. I see that middle sentence above is, indeed, very sideways. please try to ignore that it was posted by someone who should know better.

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