Travellers from Home (by Cookieman)

A city by the ocean is a place to watch the clouds. To be with the people as they mix like currents and school like fish. This is to find peace in the port, to rest there, as goods pass through hands, as stories are told and poems are shared, to live the good life as it finds itself reflected in this state of the world. There are cities and there are oceans and there are clouds. And then there is one’s home that can be made when the spirit comes to rest in the enlightened moments of daily life as the breeze comes in off the sea and the birds fly overhead. This is to find oneself in the family of travellers and the always already there, to become the possible by sitting still, watching the breath turn to mist as the water rises and falls. To get lost in visions as the rain comes in. And to wait for the sun to set, praying for another day, and, for another ship to arrive.

We began in the water, and, we will go back there. The buildings will crumble and the statues will fall, and, we will be burnt to ash, scattered to the depths and floating like a dream to a distant continent’s shores. We will return to this, a past life, and be released from suffering, no longer coming back to haunt the ones that dwell on land. We are free when we become vapour, blood, sweat, tears and piss, when we pass into nothingness, when we lose our bodies to the crayfish. We see all this in a city by the ocean watching the clouds. Heaven is up there, but we belong down here, anchored to the reality that comes with water and salt. lightning and krill, with each other, stopping for a moment to witness this place in the here and now.

One city to another is as different as one ocean to all the others, as different as cumulus to nimbus. I have many cities that call me their own, cities I was born to, cities I have lived in, cities I am fond of, and, yet there is only one ocean that I can say I know. The Indian Ocean is my home. Perth, Singapore, Chennai, Kochi, Mumbai, Cape Town: these are places of memory, of resonance, of hope. It is the saltwater itself that binds them, that links one to the other, the laps on the feet as one walks on the beach picking up plastic and talking to strangers.

This is a book about that. I have written the past of the nation out of myself in my book History and the Poet, and, the present of the archipelago led me here from my book Suburbanism. This essay is about the future of water, about the rising tide that floats the cities’ boats. It is about the soul of the Indian Ocean. You can find this ocean in Herodotus, Pliny, Strabo, but what good is that to today’s people who make this their home? There is an older route, and, this is about reconnecting to our own voices to make it known that we want a say in tomorrow. We are speaking for ourselves, and, so we are oriented to the cities that connect us all with India as our central home. Why else is the Indian Ocean called so?

For me it has also meant a return to my motherland, to where I descend from, to the place that lingers in my body before I came to rest elsewhere, before I was born in Noongar country. I am a Malayali from Kerala, which rose up when the water returned an axe to a warrior. The Indian Ocean flows through my blood, deeper than any freshwater in any village well that connects one to land itself. Our country is different. Our country is saltwater alone. We know it in the monsoon. We know it in our bones.

And yet, if I knew I was Malayali, I also thought of myself as being from the west coast, having grown up in Perth. That was to take the national and the continental view however. When looked at from the ocean, I was east of here. To think that way, to see the world that way, looking east from Madagascar, changed my sense of self, changed my place. It made me realise how relative orientation was. To see from the perspective of the Indian Ocean, and, to do that as if it were a spiritual undertaking. Previously I have asked ‘what is Australian poetry?’, and, ‘how does a suburbanist think?’ The question I have followed here is ‘why can I express the spirit of this ocean?’ It is then, in some sense, to make a claim, to voice the ineffable. Not to stake one’s territory, but to sit in the sovereignty that comes from knowing oneself as a body of water, of seeing the soul of the world in a single drop, a single grain. To listen to the sounds in shells. It means understanding the universe right here, right now.

To do that I have turned to poets. There are other works that take the Indian Ocean as their content, not least Sanjeev Sanyal’s The Ocean of Churn, and, yet we need to create an aesthetic that comes into contact with all the people that belong here. This is not about kings or merchants or soldiers even as we share the world with them. This is about the dreamers and the storytellers and the ones trying to see a vision of fire on the waves of life itself. Let us look, read, listen to the shared expressions. Let us see if we can make a culture from such a fragmented whole. It is as much a work in progress as a hope. This is about the language of the ocean’s soul.

If I am from the ocean, I know that I need a guide to take me further into myself, a guide that helps me travel along the tides of time, into my past lives. That has been the lobster, swimming backwards, moving ever deeper, and, in and out of deep and shallow water, highs and lows. I have been one of a million eggs curled under the tail, on the journey with the great mother before I can take this one by myself. The lobster has taken me as far as I can go. It has taken me into poetry, into art, into the spirit that lives in nature and people. It also means looking out for death along the way, for toxins, for predators, for accidents. We live in a world of colonialism, climate change, capital. But the lobster is my guide to take me elsewhere, to take me home.

What is it to find home then? Is it where the heart is? Is it somewhere else entirely from the heel to the crown? Is home out of the body? The answer to those questions depends on the subject that is asking them. You might find home in the warmer waters near the equator or the rough and choppy seas near headlands where the Indian meets the Southern Ocean, or, further away where the fishermen do not go because it is such a distance from land. Home might be anywhere you find it, but it is a place of resonance, a place that makes sense for us, in the here and now, and beyond these shores to a place we know is worthing finding out about.

About the Author: Robert Denish Wood is interested in language, dream, place, meaning, and nature. His pen name is COOKIEMAN. He is the Creative Director for the Centre for Stories in Perth, Australia, and, the author of three books. Robert was a Benjamin Franklin Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and an Endeavour Research Fellow at Columbia University. He has been an Emerging Critic with the Sydney Review of Books, and, has edited for Cordite Poetry Review, Overland, and Peril. His work has been published widely, and, translated from English into Hindi, Marathi, Malayalam, Spanish, and Mandarin. Currently, he has a monthly interview series with Los Angeles Review of Books, which has included Ranjit Hoskote, Emily Wilson, and Ben Okri, amongst others. See more at: www.robertdwood.net
In terms of publications: I have 250 pieces of literary journalism to my credit, and, three books - History and the Poet: essays on Australian Poetry; Suburbanism: Poetics; and Concerning A Farm. I am also the editor of Wave After Wave: writers from the Indian Ocean. COOKIEMAN has written for Semaphore, Setu, Jalada, Softblow, and elsewhere.

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