Some years ago, I published “The Sentinel,” an essay about Florida environmentalist Charles Torrey Simpson and a pair of shells I found washed onto a Texas beach.
The shells, a deep, rich purple, are known in scientific circles as Janthina janthina. Elegant, tiny sea snails, they form great rafts, then float around the world. When Simpson found such a raft in the Florida Keys, he chronicled his experience, and through his notebook entry I was able to identify my own bits of purple.
Soon after I posted about Simpson, one of my readers offered a request. Her love of all things purple had been stirred by the piece, and she wanted a “purple poem.” At the time, I didn’t think of myself as a poet, and demurred. As it turned out, she did think of me as a poet, and was convinced I could produce some verse for her.
We went back and forth, teasing one another about it for days, until she finally became insistent. “Please do give me that poem,” she said. “I know it’s in there, and I can’t wait till you spit it out.” Wanting to be polite, I said, “The poem, she is a-percolating. Or should I say, “a-purple-ating”?
When I heard nothing more, I assumed our discussion had ended. Then, this note arrived:
Can you see my right foot a-tappin’?
Bet you know why.
I’ll give you a hint. It’s small and shiny and purple and yearns to be heard (or read). I cannot wait to hear its voice.
I felt like an over-scheduled fresco artist with the Medici breathing down my neck. I tried to put her off, saying:
“My dear ~ you can’t force the creative process. Poems have to come in their own good time.
However: in the spirit of things, I can report that the phrase “amethyst breezes” is on the clipboard. Nice, huh? And, just for you, a little ditty to tide you over, like an apple before dinner.
“There once was a small purple shell
that traveled the ocean’s deep swell.
It floated and blew
across seas green and blue,
in a hurry its story to tell.”
And that, it seemed, was that. On the other hand, while my friend stopped talking about the poem, I didn’t stop thinking about it. The phrase “amethyst breezes” brought to mind Georgia O’Keefe and her vibrant colors. I began pondering her relationship with Steiglitz, intrigued by the way “color” and “black and white” related to one another. I started fiddling a bit with the poem.
But Hurricane Dolly came along, threatening the Texas coast with storm surge. I forgot the poem through all the surges yet to come — Gustav, Rita and Ike — until one day, looking at photographs of hurricane destruction, and reminded again of what happens when a hurricane coats the world with layers of ghastly gray mud, I began to compare the vibrant colors of the natural world with the monochromatic tones of a storm.
One phrase came, then another, until at last the poem was complete. No longer a generic “purple poem,” it had become a celebration of color in the midst of a gray and dingy world.
Left to their own devices,
oceans sigh away the sunset,
strip horizons bare
and leave their swells to mutter
beneath the bruising dark.
Fearful, the frozen moon
ascends the ratlines of the stars,
and disappears from view.
Scaled by the wind’s cold knife
clouds release their torrents across the flying spume —
bits of stinging darkness
tumbling to the sea.
Bereft of fuchsias,
emptied of limes,
heaven’s palette drips gunmetal,
smeared by unwashed foam
and streaks of mud-tinged spray.
Beaneath the surging water
earth herself dissolves away,
flowing into silence
to dream a dancer’s dream —
cerulean tangos beneath tangerine clouds,
and goldenrod skies.