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Bitumen

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One might understand Turner, you said, in North Atlantic sky
east-southeast from Newfoundland toward Hibernia.
Cloud darker than cloud cast doubt upon muttering, pacing water, even
backlit by a devouring glare that whitened its edges,
bent the bars. Waters apart from society by choice, their living room
the aftermath of accident or crime. When the storm comes,
we will see into it, there will be no near and no far. In sixty-five-foot 
seas
for the Ocean Ranger, green turned to black then white as molecules
changed places in the Jeanne d’Arc Basin, the way wood passes into
flame, and communication errors into catastrophic failure
for the Piper Alpha offshore from Aberdeen.

It burned freely. If I don’t come home, is my house in order?
Big fear travels in the Sikorsky. Twelve-hour shifts travel with them,
the deluge system, aqueous foam. Machinery’s one note
hammering the heart, identity compressed with intentions, drenched,
the tired body performs delicately timed, brutal tasks no training
adequately represents and which consume the perceivable world.
In beds on the drilling platform in suspended disbelief,
identified by the unlovely sea’s aggression, no sleep aids,
should a directive come. Underwater welders deeply unconscious.
Survival suits profane in lockers. By dreams of marine flares
and inflatables, buoyant smoke, percolating fret,
one is weakened. Violence enters the imagination.

Clouds previously unrecorded. Unlocked, the gates of light
and technology of capture in bitumen oozing from fractures
in the earth or afloat like other fatty bodies, condensed
by sun and internal salts, harassing snakes with its fumes.
Light-sensitive bitumen of Judea upon which Joseph-Nicéphore Niépce
recorded the view from his bedroom. It looked nice. A new kind
of evidence developed from the camera obscura of experience
and memory, love-object to dote on and ignore. Collectible
photochrome postcards. Storm surge as weather segment,
tornados on YouTube relieve us of our boredom. In the rain, 
drizzle, intermittent showers, unseasonable hurricane threatening
our flight plans, against a sea heaving photogenically,
straining at its chains like a monster in the flashbulbs, on wet stones
astonishingly slick, we take selfies, post them, and can’t undo it.

Meaning takes place in time. By elevated circumstance
of Burtynsky’s drone helicopters, revolutionary lenses
pester Alberta’s tar sands, sulphur ponds’ rhapsodic upturned faces,
photographs that happen in our name and in the name
of composition. Foreground entered at distance, the eye surveils
the McMurray Formation’s freestanding ruin mid-aspect
to an infinity of abstraction. A physical symptom assails
our vocabulary and things acquire a literal feeling from which
one does not recover. Mineral dissolution, complete. Accommodation space, 
low. Confinement, relatively broad, extremely complex stratigraphy, 
reservoirs stacked and composite. An area roughly the size
of England stripped of boreal forest and muskeg, unburdened
by hydraulic rope shovels of its overburden. Humiliated,
blinded, walking in circles. Cycle of soak and dry and residue.

The will creates effects no will can overturn, and that seem,
with the passage of time, necessary, as the past assumes a pattern.
Thought approaches the future and the future,
like a heavy unconventional oil, advances. Hello infrastructure,
Dodge Ram 1500, no one else wants to get killed on Highway 63,
the all-weather road by the Wandering River where earthmovers remain
unmoved by our schedules. White crosses in the ditches,
white crosses in the glove box. The west stands for relocation, the east 
for lost causes. Would you conspire to serve tourists in a fish restaurant
the rest of your life? I thought not. Drinks are on us bushpigs now, 
though this camp is no place for a tradesman. Devon’s Jackfish is five-star, 
an obvious exception. But Mackenzie, Voyageur, Millennium, Borealis —
years ago we would have burned them to the ground. Suncor Firebag 

has Wi-Fi, but will track usage. Guard towers and turnstiles at Wapasu —
we’re guests, after all, not prisoners, right? 
Efficiently squalid, briskly producing raw sewage, black mold,
botulism, fleas, remorse, madness, lethargy, mud, it’s not
a spiritual home, this bleach taste in the waterglass, layered garments, 
fried food, bitter complaint in plywood drop-ceiling bedrooms strung out
on whatever and general offense and why doesn’t anyone smoke
anymore. Dealers and prostitutes cultivate their terms
organically, as demand matures. The Athabasca River’s color isn’t good.
Should we not encourage a healthy dread of the wild places?
Consider the operator crushed by a slab of ice, our electrician mauled 
by a bear at the front lines of project expansion
into the inhumane forest. Fear not, we are worth more than many sparrows.
They pay for insignificance with their lives. It’s the structure.

Jackpine Mine photographs beautifully on the shoulders of the day,
in the minutes before sunset it’s still legal to hunt. One might,
like Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer, at a certain remove
from principal events, cut a sensitive figure in the presence
of the sublime. Except you can smell it down here. Corrosive
vapors unexpectedly distributed, caustic particulate infiltrates
your mood. As does the tar sands beetle whose bite scars, from whom
grown men run. Attracted by the same sorrowful chemical compound
emitted by damaged trees on which it feeds, its aural signature
approximates the rasp of causatum rubbing its parts together.
The only other living thing in situ, in the open pit where swims 
the bitumen, extra brilliant, dense, massive, in the Greek asphaltos,
“to make stable,” “to secure.” Pharmacist’s earth that resists decay,
resolves and attenuates, cleanses wounds. Once used to burn
the houses of our enemies, upgraded now to refinery-ready feedstock,
raw crude flowing through channels of production and distribution. 
Combustion is our style. It steers all things from the black grave
of Athabasca-Wabiskaw. Cold Lake. Rail lines of

Lac-Mégantic. The optics are bad. We’re all downstream now.
Action resembles waiting for a decision made
on our behalf, then despair after the fact. Despair which,
like bitumen itself, applied to render darker tones or an emphatic
tenebrism, imparts a velvety lustrous disposition,
but eventually discolors to a black treacle that degrades
any pigment it contacts. Details in sections of Raft of the Medusa
can no longer be discerned. In 1816, the Medusa’s captain,
in a spasm of flamboyant incompetence, ran aground
on the African coast, and fearing the ire of his constituents,
refused to sacrifice the cannons. They turned on each other,
147 low souls herded onto a makeshift raft cut loose from lifeboats
of the wealthy and well-connected. The signs were there,

risk/reward coefficient alive in the wind, the locomotive,
small tragic towns left for work, where the only thing manufactured
is the need for work. Foreshortening and a receding horizon
include the viewer in the scene, should the viewer wish
to be included in the scene. One can’t be sure if the brig, Argus,
is racing to the rescue or departing. It hesitates in the distance,
in its nimbus of fairer weather, the courage and compassion
of a new age onboard. Géricault’s pyramidical composition —
dead and dying in the foreground from which the strong succeed upward
toward an emotional peak —
an influence for Turner’s Disaster at Sea, the vortex structure of
The Slave Ship: all those abandoned, where is thy market now?

It’s difficult to imagine everyone saved, it’s unaffordable. Waves
disproportionate, organized in depth, panic modulating
the speaking voice. The situation so harshly primary and not beautiful
when you don’t go to visit the seaside, but the seaside visits you,
rudely, breaks in through the basement, ascends stairs
to your bedroom, you can’t think of it generally then. The 
constitution
of things is accustomed to hiding. Rearrangement will not suit us.
Certain low-lying river deltas. Island states, coastal regions —
floodwaters receding in measures like all we haven’t seen the last of
reveal in stagnancies and bloat what’s altered, as avernal exhalations
of mines and flares are altered but don’t disappear. Still,
iceberg season is spectacular this year, worth the trip
to photograph in evening ourselves before the abundance when, aflame
in light that dissolves what it illuminates, water climbs
its own red walls, vermilion in the furnaces.

“Bitumen” is excerpted from The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out by Karen Solie, published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in the US and House of Anansi Press in Canada. Copyright © 2015 by Karen Solie.
Source: Poetry (May 2015)
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Bitumen

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