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  • Good Friday, 1989
  • Jennifer Atkinson (bio)

Bligh Reef off Valdez, Alaska

Equinoctial days, light winds: a short fetch and a shallow swell.

All day snow rots in sooty, rain-riddled mounds, snow bulldozed off the tarmac, the dock, all but the corners of the Valdez parking lots. Nights under the streetlights, the cloud-dulled moon, the snow heaps freeze over, the day shift sleeps.

Bligh Island light, the Coast Guard lights, the Alyeska office lights show up like moth holes in a woolen sky. In retrospect I'm tempted to call it tenebrous dark, for the rich mythic sound, the liturgical grandeur, the once and once onliness of the words,

But that March night was all so routine— a night run's insomniac boredom, a good drunk to numb it, See ya, a slip-up, another—as ordinary as a misplayed four of clubs.

And a single-hulled tanker rammed Bligh Reef.

It's hard to give up the illusion of once, of before, of primordial clean, a world, a sound, a single pristine cove untouched by human greed and grief, the smear of human fingers. Meanwhile, black ribbons and reams, bolts of satiny stuff unfold, unfurl into the water. Meanwhile, the spilled oil spreads, sheets, finds its own level breadth. The sheen congeals to a lid, like the bland skin on a pan of boiled milk, the paraffin seal on a jar of preserves. [End Page 12]

Meanwhile the wind picks up, the waves churn a greasy foam. Beach rock, sea stars, seals, fin fish, popweed, blue mussels, otters, kelp, ducks, plankton, alder, plover slick up and tar. Whole days pass, the spill's range widens. Meanwhile Easter's shipped-in lilies bloom in their pink and purple foil-wrapped pots. All over the Exxon-Alyeska company town the gorgeous, viscous scent of a greenhouse spring.

Meanwhile, money, media, and blame spill in, as the effort to hose things clean begins: more error to displace and efface error, to trace back the cause to a single man's fault, too many whiskeys, too much trust, badly maintained equipment.

And hot oil slides down the pipeline toward Valdez . . .

And a tanker plows though the swells off Las Palmas, Long Island, Galicia, the Niger delta …

Jennifer Atkinson

Jennifer Atkinson is the author of two books of poems, The Dogwood Tree and The Drowned City. She teaches creative writing at George Mason University.



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