Sunday, May 15, 2011


by Hank Kalet
“Almost overnight, the quiet farming region changed in much the same manner as the gold rush towns of the Wild West. The flats in the narrow valley of Oil Creek, averaging only around 330 m (~1000 feet) wide were quickly leased, and hastily constructed derricks erected. Towns sprang up out of nowhere with people coming from all over looking to make their fortunes. This once quiet area suddenly became louder than anyone could have imagined, with steam engines and other types of machinery necessary to run the hundreds of wells that sprang up in the valley in the first couple of years. And the mud was fast becoming legendary. Horses were the main means of transporting machines and oil in these early days. As soon as a trail became too muddy to travel, the trail was simply widened. Soon, the width of the trails stretched from the stream to the foot of the hills, with the entire area having been transformed into mud. Horses, which were worked to beyond exhaustion, would often sink up to their bellies in the stuff.”[i]

Plume of spreading petroleum
sucking oxygen from ocean,
like a tick sucks blood
buried at the hairline
on the neck
or deep in the dog’s fur,
massive underwater slick,
a bubble of toxic ooze,
growing, expanding, its outline
in the aerial photo
on TV morning news looking
so much like the blood stain
on New Road spreading from the carcass
of the dead rabbit I saw,
the one that must have been hit
just minutes before I passed.

The Gulf is slowly dying,
ocean, too,
like the creek along my house,
nothing here but liquor bottles
and empty cans, a rusted shopping cart
stolen from the Stop & Shop
to cart home the tan plastic bags
that blow
from trash cans and catch in trees
like flags placed on conquered ground.

Decay and degradation,
the slow dissolve of life
across the millennia, settling,
mixing with sediment,
the sandy mud and pudding-like peat
that line the sea floor,
plankton and sea weed,
the small feeder fish
that died in the past-time
before memory,
layer and layer and layer
deep into the core of the Earth,
shale and rock
that burn bright in the flame,
that smolder and glow
with the ignition
of internal combustion.

“Sure, you know oil and natural gas fuel transportation and comfort, but I bet you didn’t know oil and natural gas fuel American jobs, 9.2 million of them. And that’s fuel for our economy.” – television advertisement from the American Petroleum Institute.

“They put us out of work,
and now
we’re cleaning up their mess,”
he told the paper[ii],
fishing boat surfing along
soft swells,
dropping booms
instead of oyster nets,
a lifetime of fish,
a life really,
drowning in oil.

Remember the movie gushers,
oil spurting up, falling
like a Florida rain
soaking all in black,
wild-catter coated
like a mud-slicked pig.

Pelican or southern gull
or maybe some primordial beast,
brown, rocklike, spawned
from a biblical mind,
oil slicked, choked off
from flight, suffocating
in the oozing, spreading plume.

haze of gas fumes
like the heat playing tricks on the eyes,
rises, hovers
from the fuel nozzle,
a barely visible cloud
that stinks of decay
and chemical process –
nothing else gives off
the same sour stench

I like the smell she says
and she also likes
the Turnpike’s terrible toxic stink
and Staten Island landfills
in the summer

and all I can think of
is Robert Duvall,
yes, it smells
like victory

even along this interior coast,
the massive drums and
refineries exhaling black
and acrid smoke,
visible from the Turnpike
and New York bridges,
industrial menace,
engines of modernity,
straight lines and cold steel
made hot in the generation
of power, the breaking down
of matter into motion,
cloud of soot and stink,
the byproduct floating up
mixing with cumulus
and stratus,
a fog of grays covering the sky,
obscuring sun.

Energy in equals
energy out –
that’s what we learned in chemistry,
the black brown goo burning
into power, propelling
Plymouths and aging Pontiacs
north toward Newark Airport,
past Port Elizabeth
and the Parkway,
pedal pressed to push the pace,
my Toyota and all the rest
pushing eighty,
exhausts exhaling
the useless byproduct
of internal combustion

humidity hugging the hazy gas
of evaporating fuel,
the sickly sweet smell,
souring the stomach,
and I can only imagine what those workers feel
deep in their guts
slick of oil spreading
like our national malaise,
the plume leeching into wetlands
suffocating plants and plankton,
shrimp and catfish
as though we’ve tie
a plastic bag over their heads
cutting off air
choking the life from life
with a violent lurch

globules like puss,
the black brown bilge,
like blood coagulating,
tarballs of oil, crude
buds of a viscous brew,
like snotballs
the diver said on the news
an image as ugly as it sounds

“Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’” – Genesis 1:26, New International Version, 1995

Is this what dominion means,
to use and abuse
and burn it all away?
God in the bible
blows life into Adam,
molded from
dust and dirt,
first man shaped
from tiniest speck
of dried ground,
water and dust,
and given dominion,
as the believers say.
To what end, though,
Residue of tail pipes,
exhaust fumes from burned fuel,
the slicks from leaks,
antifreeze, engine oil,
and dead cigarette butts
and fast-food orange drinks
tossed from open windows,
running off macadam in the rain,
hazy rivulets,
streaks of light
catching like rainbows,
as colors swirl
and leech into the aquifer.

Decay, degradation, dissolution,
a dead zone
of suffocation,
oil coating the seagrass
and underwater plants
that breath oxygen
into the Gulf,
That’s the irony, oil sucking oxygen
from Gulf waters suffocating
coral and grasses and the bottom-feeding fish,
the shrimp and mollusks and mussels
and with them years of trawling.

Oil slick still there
two years after lawn mower’s
rusted oil pan leaked
on cement floor,
after bag of cat litter
and straw helped
sop some up,
after dish soap
dispersed slick some,
but still that stain remains
and always will.

Thick smoke disgorges from
narrow stacks spitting flame,
black, heavy, waste from years of re-creation,
of casting thick ooze into
heat and energy
to power four-cylinder Toyota
through Turnpike’s slow-moving traffic
on way to airport,
an exhalation
like a cough choked out from
too many cigarettes,
too many years of menthol
and nicotine,
the emphysematic wheeze
of our addiction.

[i]The Story of Oil in Pennsylvania,” History of Oil/Petroleum Education, The Paleontological Research Institute website,
[ii] Fisherman Donny Campo, speaking with columnist Bob Herbert, New York Times, May 21, 2010

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