A Man Named Light Blue
by Geoffrey D. Morrison
But think, Ingrate, when first you hither came,
How strange you look’d, how awkwardly you swam.
— William Diaper, Nereides
Prawn fantails waving at my face like I fainted from a too-tight corset at a Hapsburg opera house, like I needed the ministrations of my footmen, fantails and veined abdomens, the sea was the colour of dishwater gone cold but I was not dead and the prawns seemed to like it here, to minister to me despite my obvious lack of good breeding, I must be the favourite courtesan of someone with blue blood indeed to get this treatment and, yes, the blood in the veins of the jerking abdomens looked blue, there is in fact a reason for this, people have red blood because of iron and shellfish have blue blood because of copper, hemocyanin it is called, natural associative linkage to cyanide but this is a linkage of poetry and not chemistry, the poison is made out of carbon and nitrogen, not copper like prawn blood, all they have in common is being blue, kyanos is the Greek word, dark blue, as opposed to glaukos, light blue, never let anyone tell you the Greeks did not have words for blue, perhaps someone told you in a short article on a clickbait site for which they received $3, time was running out and they must get words down and if some of the words were wrong well then their employer got what they paid for, time was running out for me as well, I was not dead but as if recalling a light left on in another room after getting under the covers I remembered that I had to breathe, that I had been charged with doing so all my life, and so with an ease that surprised me I surfaced and the sea remained as if dishwater but frothing now, soapy, in the prime of its dishwashing life, and crashing with vigour against itself and perhaps also against a shore behind me somewhere and hidden by fog, I heard gulls above me too, that mournful creaking like a door being closed for the last time, and I was sure the shore must be close but I did not want to go to it, I was having my bath and content to stay in as long as possible, by rights I should be cold but I felt warmed as if by a decanter of red wine, plush almost like fabric, winedark sea by the way was what had turned people around on that question of Greeks and blue, Homer never calls it a blue sea or for that matter a blue sky, the water is oinops, literally wine-faced, natural associative linkage to shitfaced, and I suppose it is possible that Homer meant moreso a quality of the water than a colour, that the water had the rubber face of a drunk as it sagged and twitched and melted into itself on a night when Poseidon was getting ready to wreck Odysseus’s shit again, Odysseus and his poor sailors, they were the ones I felt worst for, the original redshirts, anyway it is probably also Homer’s fault that we so often think of the undersea world as a court, with Poseidon or if you prefer Neptune as its king, with merpeople as courtiers tee-heeing at the unlucky guest, the nonfish-into-water in their midst, in their starfish or clamshell bustiers, whose idea was that by the way, good lord that must be uncomfortable, seagirls Prufrock called them, while thinking of himself as a courtier but not so glamorous a one as they, he says he is one to whom they will not sing, he thinks of himself as a courtier who will give his word or two of sound council but in the end must play the fool, Osric in Hamlet we are meant to think, a people-pleaser who will contradict himself for you if you are important enough, if your blood is sufficiently blue, he will say it is cold just after saying it is hot and then go right back to saying it is hot again, you can bully him into putting on and taking off his hat, “This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head,” Horatio says when Osric leaves, he means he is as fresh as a new baby bird and it is funny if Osric has his hat on again when he says it, but the funnier thing is that Prufrock is Osric is shelled creature too, it is all one, he wishes he had been a pair of ragged claws, he is land courtier and sea courtier all the same, for in the great chain of being under the water the merpeople are followed by a martial caste of armoured ones, lobsters and crabs and sea turtles at arms, all squinting through eye-slits of chitin basinets at you who have no protection but your charm, you who bleed red from the iron inside of you, you are a prolapsed knight, metal held tight by soft flesh and not vice versa, and by the way when I say “you” I mean “me,” it is funny how easily we change places, but I did mean me, I was the one who had come to the court of the blue-bloods, who had to be winsome for Poseidon, for the merpeople, for the shellfish at arms, who had to scry the living heraldry of the tropical fish, two seahorses addorsed Or queued and crined Argent issuant from barry wavy Azure and Vert, two bullet hole clownfish naiant Gules stripes Argent spots Gules issuant from anemone Carnation, and speaking of clownfish I too had to play the fool just as much as I did the courtesan, they found my constant coming up for air amusing, like someone who drank too much and cannot stop rushing off to the toilet, only in my case I tried to drink as little as possible, the taste of the sea disagreed with me, it was nothing like wine but something like crying, even though I made them laugh, I used every cheap trick in the book of clowning, I tumbled, I capered, I juggled, I hopped, and I used the premium tricks too, I mixed up important people so badly that I was really at their mercy, if they had taken offense it would all have been over, but they liked my capers and my soft body and they liked this too, it was social commentary, and so I kept on, I found an empty turtle shell and put it on my head, yes, like a lapwing, and I began to march among the winding kelp columns of the royal gardens, and that the former occupant of this shell, a certain turtle colour sergeant, had died under hushed circumstances did not deter me, in fact it spurred me on, the brazen tactlessness of it all forced everyone to see it was a joke, no one could be so stupid, and so again they laughed and I was pleased, anything to keep this going, to stay in the bath, even risky things, in fact the riskier the better, it was like trying to stay awake, you need shocks, provocations, jolts to wrench yourself from the lovely dark currents tugging you under, and so it was here, only the opposite, and speaking of going under it was about time I surfaced again for air and so I did, and the sounds I remembered from last time greeted me topside, the smash of wave against wave like old concrete buildings falling to wrecking balls, the needling scansion of gullcry, thin prickles of bright sound over and between the muddy roars, and the sea still foamed like dishwater newly soaped but with a difference now, far off to what received meteorological wisdom told me must be the east a dish was rising newly cleaned at an idle pace, rising like the slow withdrawal of the upturned, water-filled bowl you discover how to play with as a child when you daydream at chores, you have invented a reverse diving bell and you take your time pulling it up from the hot water, the suction or the surface tension or whatever pulls back from below like a second set of hands, invisible, and the game becomes how far you can pull with your invisible partner until their grip fails and the bowl belches free into air-land again, and so of course slower and gentler is better, the links between bell-bowl and sea-land are tenuous, and so it was here with the bright clean bowl in the east, there are things that must be kept going with shocks and jolts and there are things that must be kept going with gentleness, only again it was somehow reversed, it was air-land’s hands that were invisible, not sea-land’s, I could not see who was slowly lifting it out, only that whoever they were they had done a wonderful job cleaning it, it shone like melting plastic of a colour that although I used this word already I must use again and call carnation, the colour of blue-bloods boiled, we take them out of their water and put them into another water and they come out with blood that is red like ours, anyway it shone, they had scrubbed it underwater with good tools until it threw buttered light everywhere, on the air and clouds above the water but also the water itself, which from this treatment had begun in places to blush a dark purple, and was this what Homer had meant by a winedark sea, this and not the slantwise and spitting mouth of the shitfaced? It could be, who knew, or both, there had been wild drunken seas and sunrise seas and sunset seas in his poems of the ships going out across the Aegean on errands of war and treachery and homecoming, all was possible, but it was a sunrise sea now, I allowed myself to say the word “sunrise” and not dance around it with cryptic talk of buttered light and upturned bowls, I had been avoiding it, it was a part of the gentleness required to stay in the bath that I do so, though there were shocks and jolts required too as I said already, but it was gentleness needed here, I must not move too quickly lest I slosh the warm water away over the sides, metaphorically speaking of course because the sea I floated in could slosh all it wanted and did, the smash of the waves and the keen of the gulls had not abated, but to say “sunrise,” to say “dawn,” was to give a name to something that must spell the end, I was sure of it, rosy-fingered dawn had been Homer’s figure of choice by the way, rosy-fingered implying a human and not a sea-dweller’s hand, implying too that blue bloods have nothing to do with such sunrises, invisible or not it was a human pair of hands lifting the pink buttered bowl into air-land, and if cut their invisible blood would bleed red, and there was the rub as the Prince who made fun of Osric would have put it, dawn was coming and it would mean the end of my tenure down there among the blue bloods, for all my charms and tricks I had never truly belonged there, I was being wrenched back into my own world, but if I filled my lungs just now and dove there would surely be time for one last star turn among the merpeople, something for them to remember me by, and so I gulped as much air as possible before I dove, but once under I knew the air hadn’t taken, I was hungry for more already, you know how it is, there are good breaths and bad breaths and I must make do with the bad, I was running on fumes, and even at Poseidon’s court all now was changed, they were packing up for the winter capital, the kelp columns untended, the unkempt leaves catching diamond spears of sunlight so that we seemed to be in a French disco at 5 am, only a few stragglers unwilling to go home and moving slow across the floor, if I were a DJ I would play “Porcelain” by Moby, another generation’s music of sadsack erotic frustration, practically kitsch now, so this is goodbye, drum loops that sound like spraybottles, in my dreams I’m dying all the time, dying or at least failing to finish what I started, and so I made my grand entrance, I tumbled, I capered, I pretended to blow my imaginary conch shell, but the stragglers barely noticed, they were too spread out across the floor, chitened or carageen-garlanded heads inclined one to the other, I must herd them, be sea-shepherd, I have a digression for that too by the way, “Oh no” I hear you saying, and I too know I am pushing my luck with this one, now that things are almost all over, but I swear it will make sense, will sound the theme, and so I tell you that a poet in the age of Swift wrote underwater pastorals, a poet by the unfortunate name of William Diaper, though I think they said it like “Die-upper,” anyway this man named after a shitbag had been admitted to Oxford as a pauper puer, a “poor scholar,” they would let in bright boys with nothing on the condition they served the rich boys at dinner, and bore their jokes, and pleased the blue-bloods, and this set the pattern of his life, having nothing but trying to please, and as a poet it was Swift and his circle he tried to, and did a certain ways, “Here is a young fellow has writ some Sea Eclogues,” Swift wrote to his dear friend Stella, “poems of Mermen, resembling pastorals of shepherds, and they are very pretty, and the thought is new,” and he wrote as well “His name is Diaper. P— on him! I must do something for him, and get him out of the way,” and in attempting to piss on this Diaper and do something for him and get him out of the way he sized him up as “a poor, little, short wretch,” and visited him “in a nasty garret very sick,” and gave him money, and wrangled him a curateship in the countryside, but whatever it was that ailed Diaper kept doing so, and soon Swift’s circle, all Tories, fell out of favour, and Diaper seems to have died from his sickness, perhaps something he caught from those years in the garret, Die-upper died from living on the uppermost floor, the boy who had nothing had died trying to please the partisans of the squirearchy with a poem no one had thought of before, and it seems to me just the kind of thing such a person would write, a willing servant to a world not his, that would never be his, and there is even an interloper in his poem, a poor fisherman named Glaucus, yes, from that glaukos, light blue, and it could be green as well, or grey, or yellow, any of these so long as they were light, anyway a word that had been used for the sea just as oinops had and even kyanos, by late, very late antiquity we have kyanos for the sea in Heschyius, in the fifth century AD by which time it was really all over, kyanos meant deep blue then, like lapis lazuli, it was not yet our “cyan” which would have been closer to glaukos, they changed places, this account is full of reversals, anyway Glaucus the fisherman, a man named light blue, was alien to the undersea until he ate a weed that made him a merman, it was surely quite the adjustment, he had to learn how to swim from the sea-nymph Cymothoe, or so says Diaper, who in writing of a stranger’s welcome by the wet shepherds was dreaming of a better court, in an upside-down world, the dream of the servant who can only imagine worse or better masters, rather than the dream of no courts at all anymore, and no masters, which is the purer dream, the more beautiful dream, and which I myself had not dreamed this time to my own shame, I should have, and yes I am calling it a dream, I am owning up to it, it had reached that sad and terminal stage when the dream is known as a dream and the consciousness starts to take part, I was trying to shepherd the stragglers together and knew I was doing it, and the water-dwellers were themselves as water to me now, water running through my hands, their faces blurred, and as so often when we try to refire a dying dream I brought back something from before, that old cracked turtle shell, shagged with algae now like a velvet green beret, and I put it on my head and marched around, they could bully me into taking it off if they wanted to, like Osric I would do anything to keep this going, but the lovely blurry faces under the carageen garlands spurned, the eyes in the chitin basinets narrowed and shrank from my sight like stars in the morning, it was last season’s joke and it strained the limits of hospitality even then and now I had finally taken it too far, they were packing up for the winter palace and no one wanted to be reminded of the mysterious death of the turtle colour sergeant, of the whims of Poseidon, of the king who could kill even loyal servants if they irked him, and that was everyone’s prevailing memory of that turtle, he had tried too hard, it had been embarrassing, as I was too, his servitude tied up somehow with mine, and save for me the floor was empty now, just me and the columns of kelp and the sound of the waves, the screech of the gulls, which did not make sense, I was below, but then I wasn’t, I rocketed topside like a cork, the waves and birds deafening, the pink-red bowl fully out of the water and cradled militantly by the invisible hands, the convex side against me like a shield, the buttered rays enough to blast my eyes open, and, well, yes, that is what it is supposed to do, that is why I had bought it, it is meant to counteract the darkness of early winter mornings at this latitude, and I must not sleep in on this day, I had appointments to keep, important ones, and so I had set it to play sea sounds. I thought it would be calming.
About the Author
Geoffrey D. Morrison is author of the poetry chapbook Blood-Brain Barrier (Frog Hollow Press, 2019) and, with Matthew Tomkinson, the experimental short fiction collection Archaic Torso of Gumby (Gordon Hill Press, 2020). His debut novel, Falling Hour, is forthcoming in February, 2023 with Coach House Books. He lives on unceded Squamish, Musqueam, and Tsleil-Waututh territory.
Detail from Despina Galani: Naoussa, Paros, Greece (Unsplash).