Tuesday, March 05, 2013

`Still Brimming, Still Uncodified'

Houston is the Bayou City. So says the Chamber of Commerce. Before moving here nine years ago, a previously lifelong Northerner, I thought bayous were Gothic swamps inhabited by ’gators and found only in Louisiana. A bayou here is a modest, muddy stream except during a hurricane. The city was founded at the confluence of the White Oak and Buffalo Bayous, and is home to seventeen other streams bearing that name. The word also refers to the 2,500 miles of wide, concrete-lined ditches that facilitate drainage across the geometrically flat plain on which Houston is built. I drive over three on my way to work. They’re a handy gauge of rainfall, and fill and drain with remarkable rapidity. Without them, we’d be living in our own Gothic swamp. 

The Oxford English Dictionary identifies bayou as “American French,” from the Choctaw bayuk, and defines it as “the name given (chiefly in the southern States of N. America) to the marshy off-shoots and overflowings of lakes and rivers.” My favorite among the dictionary’s ten citations is drawn from A Narrative of the Life of David Crockett (1834), published by the frontiersman two years before his death at the Alamo: “A small byo, cross which there was a log.” The OED records Crockett’s spelling and these variants: bayoue, bayeau and the plural bayoux. 

Another Northerner, Amy Clampitt, wrote “Bayou Afternoon” (A Silence Opens, 1993). I assume she’s describing a scene in Louisiana, but nothing she includes is alien to Houston. All the bird species she catalogs I’ve seen here, fleetingly, but Clampitt’s poem is more than a travelogue or nature journal. From “Out of the imprecise,” she writes, comes “such / specificity.” She cites the spoonbill, “back from / a rim known as extinction.” Our species in Texas and Louisiana is the roseate spoonbill (Platalea ajaja), accurately described by Clampitt as “paintbox– / tinged pink and green.” We too live close to a rim, she reminds us: 

“…at the rim we
necessarily inhabit, a happenstance
still brimming, still uncodified.” 

Our rim is the boundary between worlds, the physical and what lies beyond, “the muck / of bright and dark.” We move in ignorance toward the “uncodified,” unequipped with binoculars and field guide, hoping for the best.

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