A Flood of Words – The Seriousness of Things Beyond our Understanding – A Poem by Al Purdy

An image from Houston during Hurricane Harvey, August 2017


People have told us we built too near the lake
“The flood plain is dangerous they said
and no doubt they know more about it than we do
— but here wind pressed down on new-formed ice
trembles it like some just-invented musical instrument
and that shrieking obligato to winter
sounds like the tension in a stretched worm
when the robin has it hauled halfway out of the lawn
I stand outside 
between house and outhouse
feeling my body stiffen in fossilized rigor mortis
and listening
this is the reason we built on the flood plain
damn right
the seriousness of things beyond your understanding

Al Purdy (1918 – 2000) from The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, Harbor Publishing, 2000

Oh my. How real the devastation is to me in Texas and especially Houston from Hurricane Harvey, not just from the images, like the one above, but because of all my friends I have made in the past nine years in Lake Jackson and Houston from my poetry retreats who have been effected by this catastrophic event. Especially my dear friends who first invited me to Texas, Liz Welch Parker and Andy Parker. They were evacuated from their home in Houston last night after being stranded by floodwaters for days. I am so glad they and my other friends are safe. And I acknowledge those not so fortunate, those whose lives have been lost, those who have lost their homes or face massive restorations in the coming months.

As I do at moments like this I looked for a poem that could capture something of the impact of this natural disaster, its meaning. And it was then I remember the surprising poem by celebrated Canadian poet Al Purdy. His poem ON THE FLOOD PLAIN. Yes, it is set in a colder setting, in Canada in winter, but the message rings true for flooded Houston as well.  And how startled I was once again when I read his defiant lines:

this is the reason we built on the flood plain
damn right
the seriousness of things beyond your understanding

What the heck! To embrace disaster or at least its potential? I am quite sure the residents of Houston, my friends in Texas, especially Liz and Andy, quite rightly, aren’t feeling this right now! But then, through Purdy’s words, I begin to see the bigger picture. This: that in some sense for all humans we are living on a flood plain and that flood, our deaths, will come. What I hear Purdy say is we must face this unflinchingly. We must look this reality face to face. Live with that awareness. dare to be that alive. To be that vulnerable to life – its joys and sorrows.

And Purdy goes even further,  especially in the last stanza of the poem. As the ice forms around him, as the stars shine on the lake and the ice, as he is aware of this liminal place he stands on, a flood plain, he dares to see, to feel, its beauty.  The beauty I can dare to see in the picture above, taken a few days ago in Houston, the beauty of this white man holding a brown skinned mother and her sleeping child in his arms.

From On the Flood Plain

Whatever I have not discovered and enjoyed
is still waiting for me
and there will be time
but now are these floating stars on the freezing lake
and music fills the darkness
holds me there listening
—it’s a matter of separating these instants from others
that have no significance
so that they keep reflecting each other
a way to live and contain eternity
in which the moment is altered and expanded
my consciousness hung like a great silver metronome
suspended between stars
on the dark lake
and time pours itself into my cupped hands shimmering

Al Purdy, ibid

In no way do I want to seem to be sugarcoating the appalling devastation that Harvey has wreaked on Texas and now Louisiana. But I am trying to remind myself how life demands we pay attention. To see even in its most devastating moments, how fleeting this life is, how much our lives, matter. How even in excruciating moments life is asking us to live fully. To face the the seriousness of things beyond your understanding. And to face death and destruction with the fierce faith of Purdy:

Whatever I have not discovered and enjoyed
is still waiting for me
and there will be time

(Thanks to Roger Hutchison, from Palmer Episcopal Church where Liz Parker works, who shared Alex Varky’s post that featured the image of the man rescuing the mother and child. This image is even more poignant because Alex knew this woman. She is a pharmacist in one of the downtown Houston hospitals.)

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