Al Young title

THE GREAT SANTA BARBARA OIL DISASTER, OR, A DIARY — A Poem by Conyus (Reissued)

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Santa Barbara, CA
May 2015

HuffPost APO SB Oil Cleanup PhotoPhoto © Associated Press

Devastating Photos Show How An Oil Spill Consumed Santa Barbara’s Coastline

 |  By Posted: Updated:

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.
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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.

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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, 2010 and 2015 by Conyus Calhoun

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

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