Al Young title

Conyus: THE GREAT SANTA BARBARA OIL DISASTER

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  • To skip the run-up and go straight to the poem, scroll arrow-down-seagreen_benj_01.svg.thumb
  • The oil spill and the food web

    By Dan Brennan
    30 June 2010
    © World Socialist Web Site

    The ecological destruction of the oil disaster in the Gulf is perhaps most aptly embodied in the pictures of brown pelicans made lifeless by a thick coating of toxic sludge. However, the true toll may spread far beyond these dreadful images. Scientists warn that the gravest threat, including possible ecosystem collapse, is posed by the poisoning of organisms at the base of the food chain.
    Read the rest

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    Lessons learned from the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of January 1969

    spkr2 Listen

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    Ripples of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill

    L.A. Times | September 7, 2008

    oil-spill-latimes-7sept2008 © L.A. Times

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    ap-original-santa-barbara-oil-spill-1969.jpg

    © 1969 Associated Press

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    The Great Santa Barbara Oil Disaster, Or: A Diary

    a poem by Conyus

    Day one

    We ride down the coast hwy

    through the heavy rain

    to a beach that sits in a rocky cove

    hidden from the eye.

    I sit in the rear of the bus

    where the shadows pass

    over cold metal walls

    & window screens,

    looking through dirty glass

    at the somber scenery.

    A young Mexican girl stands in the muddy debris

    of her home, rummaging through the mud.

    The river flooded suddenly two days ago

    after a torrential rain & shifted the terrain.

    Overhead the clouds mount menacingly

    in small squalls, prostituting themselves again

    against the sky, & we turn left off the freeway

    into the spent community of Carpinteria

    like a funeral procession on a grey Saturday,

    heading to the bone yard in tandem.

    Beyond the border of thin sidewalks,

    sit bleached out houses on paper stilts

    with tattered venetian blinds & curtains

    barely moving on the stiff ocean breeze.

    We walk beneath the bleeding sky

    single file to the oily beach in perfect silence;

    everything around us is a chemical foundry.

    Day two

    The 1st. night

    we arrived,

    the college girls

    in the dormitory

    across from us

    paraded before

    their window in

    bras & panties,

    being friendly.

    The people

    came to watch us work,

    in hip boots & work gloves,

    cleaning oil & shoveling straw.

    Some said, “my! don’t they look almost human?”

    Others said, “a convict is a crime. don’t forget that!”

    Sometimes the children’s ball

    bounded in our area,

    & the Spanish inmates

    soccer kicked it back lightly.

    We all laughed

    & smiled a lot

    the first day.

    The sunset & the night

    came on slowly.

    From out of the night

    came gargoyles

    with church fathers

    & concerned parents

    to tell the children

    not to play

    within the border of red flags

    & the fence of thick cane around us.

    Because,

    the sky would fall

    & hell would follow,

    if they instilled

    licentious ambitions

    in our minds.

    & so

    we didn’t laugh

    anymore, or smile

    at all the second day.

    From that day forward,

    we just worked,

    hard & steady,

    with our heads

    low & our eyes

    to the ground,

    so the sky

    wouldn’t fall,

    & the people

    wouldn’t know,

    & the world

    wouldn’t burn.

    Day three

    All day we work behind the sea breaker

    in the black sand, shoveling straw

    & thick lumps of oil

    into the mouth of the skip loader,

    while the cat skinner rides high

    in the driver’s seat with a hole for his eye.

    On the beach,

    in the window

    of the Santa Barbara Yacht Club,

    Black servants watch us

    swing picks & shovels

    in the wet sand

    like machetes

    clearing a cane field

    on their small island

    in the Caribbean.

    On a concrete wall

    below this Diaspora

    i sit & swing my legs over the ice plants

    & puddles of oil where sand crabs,

    & small fish lie dead

    & stinking in the sun.

    Beneath my work jacket

    i touch the crushed sandwich

    of white bread & yellow cheese

    & think of the young Chinese girl

    in the pink hairnet with braces.

    After lunch we return with rakes & hip booths,

    wading through the constant tide

    of thick oil & grey foam,

    to gather balls of sticky oil

    stuck between rocks,

    & place them in yellow plastic bags.

    Along the beach

    the tide falls back out to sea,

    taking with it the trail of our feet

    that follows us like a shadow.

    I turn my back to the Santa Barbara Sound

    & pull the weather jacket tight

    to shield against the cold & damp air.

    Over my shoulder,

    past the far islands near the horizon,

    someone is singing a song,

    that i can barely hear,

    in a voice

    that i cannot recognize.


    santa-barbara-oil-spill-1969-mapped.jpg

    The 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill viewed by satellite

    Day four

    The children

    come down

    to the beach

    with their dogs

    barking happily

    at their feet.

    They watch us

    rake the debris

    in huge piles

    for the cat skinner

    to eat with his shovel.

    The surf around us

    is a gumbo of sludge, oil,

    & dead birds cooking in the sun

    & salt air.

    The children

    throw

    enormous

    blocks of blue ice

    into the ocean

    to cleanse our sins

    & methodically

    the night descends

    like a curtain.

    Day five

    The women of Santa Barbara

    watch us drag driftwood

    across the rocky beach

    to the gas chamber at San Quentin.

    They protest

    against the death sentence

    & the inhumanity,

    of humanity,

    then go home

    to husbands

    & kill babies

    in the morning

    with a small pill

    while we sleep.

    Day six

    Green toads

    croak

    on the black

    asphalt

    rain pond.

    Dawn opens

    with tenderness

    from the sky.

    A white gull

    floats face upward

    in the murky surf;

    i watch the tide

    push the gull

    against the rocks,

    again & again,

    & again & again.

    Day seven

    Pearl crack

    the dawning day

    is all about

    the tar marred

    beach.

    Favonian winds

    gently caresses

    a face beaten

    by sun & surf.

    Later,

    the sunset on the ocean

    & there wasn’t

    any confusion.

    Day eight

    The citizens

    of Santa Barbara

    brought rags

    for us to wipe

    our oily

    black hands on.

    They were in small

    woven baskets of tule reed

    & filled with rags & apples.

    I found a red one

    & wore it around my neck,

    to either

    love

    or eat

    when

    i

    was

    alone.

    Day nine

    Crickets

    in

    the vacant field

    across from us

    sing the loudest

    late at night

    when the oil slick

    devours the seacoast

    like

    a

    blanket

    of

    death

    in its murkiness

    of

    thick oil

    & caskets

    of

    beautiful

    Cadillac’s.

    Day ten

    (Poem to the girl seen walking

    below my window at 4:00 a.m.)

    I see you there

    walking

    on the freshly

    cut grass

    in bare feet.

    Uncertain

    about

    your decision

    to either

    avoid

    the

    dark

    shadows

    or run

    into

    the kerosene night.

    Day eleven

    for Kiyono

    All

    night

    i

    touched

    your

    breast,

    kissed

    your

    neck,

    letting

    the

    long

    black

    hair

    cover

    me

    thickly.

    &

    when

    i

    awoke,

    alone,

    with

    only

    a

    love

    stain

    on

    the

    sheet

    next

    to

    me,

    i

    fell

    in

    love

    with

    dreaming.

    sboilspillfromair.jpg

    Courtesy of Environmental Studies at UC Santa Barbara

    Day twelve

    All these men

    were standing

    on tiers of confession.

    Shouting at each other

    from above & below,

    across concrete & steel.

    About injustice,

    incarceration,

    lock-up & lock-down.

    For many years,

    for many many years;

    a lifetime of years,

    in fact.

    They stood

    it seemed

    forever,

    hiding & laughing,

    laughing & hiding,

    the hatred,

    the pain,

    the sorrow,

    the lament,

    beneath

    their chest.

    Young men,

    in cells

    so dark

    & lonely

    at midnight

    that the shadow

    cast against the wall

    from a bare bulb

    at the end of the hall

    is their only refuge

    from the moans

    & muffled cries

    that call out

    like beacons

    beckoning

    strangers.

    Day thirteen

    Wednesday

    the rain

    fell heavily

    & the beach

    is specked

    with piles

    of straw & driftwood.

    In the afternoon

    we throw cans

    of gasoline

    onto the piles

    & watch them

    evaporate

    like the happiest

    years of our life.

    Day fourteen

    We pick up the sky

    & move the oil slick

    like a giant anaconda’s

    head;

    they sit on the beach

    watching us.

    We place a hot badger’s claw

    in the cool ashes

    near the cat skinner.

    They watch & move their lips slowly.

    We part the tar-marred sand

    & bury ourselves

    in a canal of lilies & lilacs.

    They turn to face each other

    in bewilderment & awe

    pretending they don’t see us.

    Day fifteen

    Beneath

    the house

    shadows

    hide

    till

    dawn

    comes

    knocking

    with death

    on her arm

    putting out

    candles

    that burn

    too low.

    Day sixteen

    All night you can hear

    the ocean cough

    & spit-up oil,

    like a young child

    lying on its back

    with pneumonia.

    We clear as much phlegm

    & muck from its throat as we can,

    & mop his sweaty head

    with oily red rags.

    For thirty miles along the beach

    dead bodies of sea mammals

    float up & beach themselves like dominoes.

    We cut the larger ones up

    with chain saws & axes,

    & loaded them into the

    jaw of the skip loader for the cat skinner.

    The rest, left bloated & stinking,

    we burn with gasoline & torches

    to let the fire free them.

    High in the sky turkey vultures soar

    above the spiraling smoke

    of sweet crude oil clouds,

    looking for baby seals

    that have suffocated

    in the thick water.

    When night comes,

    walking like a gravedigger,

    & we have retired

    for the evening,

    the dead carcasses

    float back out to sea,

    & are torn apart

    by sharks,

    who die

    weeks later,

    from petroleum poison

    along the shore

    of Oregon,

    & Washington.

    Day seventeen

    The Chinese girl

    served us

    the insipid

    tasting food at 6:00 a.m.

    in plastic gloves

    & a pink hairnet

    across the stainless steel

    counter.

    The sky

    was just beginning

    to show traces Aurora

    in

    the east,

    & the country

    lowered

    its embattled head

    in Vietnam.

    Later,

    when the sun

    came up

    on the beach,

    & i was

    cleaning oil, tar

    & salt spume

    from the beach furniture

    at the yacht club.

    I ate the apple

    she had given me

    & thought of her

    in that Christian white uniform;

    so pure & sterile.

    Thought

    that she probably

    felt that she was ugly

    because she wasn’t

    Caucasian, light of skin,

    & had blue eyes.

    & so

    when i took

    another bowl of corn flakes

    & told her that

    i didn’t want the meat,

    do you think,

    she understood

    that I was

    a vegetarian?

    &

    that

    i

    loved her.

    photo-bob-duncan-sb-oil-cleanup.jpg

    Photo: Bob Duncan

    Day eighteen

    The fog is thick

    & cutting like a

    guard’s stare

    this Monday dawn.

    We board the bus

    in the grey light

    with backpacks,

    baloney sandwiches,

    & lasting memories.

    The young girls

    in the windows

    of the dormitory at UCSB

    wave goodbye to us in clothes

    with big smiles & sadness.

    We take seats

    next to a window

    or aisle, in total silence

    & head North out of Santa Barbara

    in the wake of working nine to fivers

    on a freeway that looked

    like a used car lot

    in Los Angeles,

    spotted with potholes

    & spilled oil.

    We pass through small towns

    on our way North

    where old men

    sit in bleached overalls

    on dusty porches

    beneath worn hats,

    & hard lives.

    Nondescript daughters

    in faded dresses

    hang work shirts

    & thick quilts

    in backyards to dry

    while old dogs

    watch us with regard.

    & we pass

    slowly

    like a full moon

    eclipse,

    before them.

    Day nineteen

    In Morgan Hill

    sitting next to

    a fence post

    with gray clouds

    clipping the mountain

    & hawks soaring

    above the crest,

    reminded me of freedom,

    reminded me of home.

    Free of oil,

    free of tar,

    & free.

    And so when i sat back

    & closed my eyes

    i felt like i was dreaming

    & i thought that i was free,

    & i thought that i was running

    & that we all were free.

    Day twenty

    We’re back

    at the work camp

    in the deep redwood forest.

    Behind us is the

    oil, thick tar,

    & stained beaches

    of Santa Barbara.

    All the young girls

    are already

    a distant memory

    & before we know it

    the days will become years

    & the years decades.

    We measure time

    in years here,

    not hours,

    nor months

    or visits.

    Some of us get stored

    in cardboard & canvas,

    others in cells

    & dungeons,

    until the next time,

    when the fires come,

    the earthquake hits,

    or the Great Santa Barbara Oil Disaster / Or:

    Conyus

    February 1969

    Santa Barbara, CA

    Copyright © 1970, 2009 and 2010 by Conyus

    conyus-at-kaz-tsuruta-studio-in-san-francisco.jpg Photo: Kaz Tsuruta

    This celebrated poem, praised by poet Philip Levine for its powerful narrative lyricism, has been newly revised by the author. Conyus, like Levine, is a native-born Detroiter emigrĂ© to California. “The Great Santa Barbara Oil Disaster” was anthologized in Abraham Chapman’s New Black Voices (New American Library, 1972) and Daniel Halpern’s The American Poetry Anthology: Poets Under 40 (Avon Books, 1975). Recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Creative Writing, Conyus — a former poetry editor at The Black Scholar and the Haight Ashbury Literary Journal — lives and works in San Francisco. “Wormwood,” his hilarious short story, appears in POW WOW: Charting the Fault Lines in the American Experience — Short Fiction from Then to Now, edited by Ishmael Reed and Carla Blank (Da Capo Press, 2009).

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    conyus-sf-pier2

    From McCovey’s Cove, a reflective Conyus takes in the scene at San Francisco’s now historic Pac Bell Stadium, circa 2000. | © Belle Tuten

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    3 Responses to “Conyus: THE GREAT SANTA BARBARA OIL DISASTER”

    1. John Jamil Brownson Says:

      what a great production from a writer’s writer & spiritual soul … & thanks especially for a tribute piece for Conyus … who was part of my California coming of age as a poet/artist circa early 1960s

    2. John Jamil Brownson Says:

      we all lost some of our coastal dream with that spill & Conyus penned a fitting memorial to nature’s beauty sullied … but not buried …

    3. Al Says:

      Thanks, Jon Jamil. I’ve passed your response on to Conyus himself. What a treat to hear from you. I’m fighting a grizzly cold, but still hanging in. Email me off the grid — wherever that might be these days.

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