The Gulf of Mourning and Memory

Deepwater Dirge by Dana Sherwood

April 20, 2011. It is a year to the day since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded, sending fire into the sky, oil into the seas, and death and destruction across space and time. It is a year since eleven workers were killed, some say murdered, by the `inevitable’ conditions of work on that rig.

Eleven workers died that day: Jason Anderson, Aaron Dale Burkeen, Donald Clark, Stephen Curtis, Gordon Jones, Roy Wyatt Kemp, Karl Dale Kleppinger, Blair Manuel, Dewey Revette, Shane Roshto, Adam Wiese.

Nine women became widows that day: Shelly Anderson, Rhonda Burkeen, Sheila Clark,  Nancy Curtis, Michelle Jones, Courtney Kemp, Tracy Kleppinger, Sherri Revette, Natalie Roshto. For a year, these women have mourned and grieved and organized. They continue to mourn, grieve, organize. They continue to take care of their daughters and sons and lives. The work of mourning and the work of survival are one. But for these women, and their children, and their loved ones and neighbors and communities, the work of memory has become critical.

And the work of memory is difficult, arduous even. Theresa Carpenter, Courtney Kemp’s mother, knows the men’s names are vanishing from the public conscience: “These men are all but forgotten except by their families.” Billy Anderson, Jason Anderson’s father, knows as well: “”Within seven or 10 days as far as the media’s concerned, those guys didn’t count for anything. They cared more about some oil-covered pelican or little bird, or something. It was like those 11 men’s lives didn’t mean anything.”

What is the meaning of these workers’ lives? What is the meaning of mourning? What is the meaning of grief? What is the meaning of memory? A year ago the sky blew up and the waters seized. Today, according to many, the situation is the same.  Ask the fisher folk, like Diane Wilson or Darla Rooks or Kim Chauvin or Rosina Philippe and her aunt Geraldine Philippe.

What is the meaning of memory if we continue to insist on forgetting? Twenty years ago, in 1991, Adrienne Rich’s collection, An Atlas of the Difficult World was published. The title poem, “An Atlas of the Difficult World”, has thirteen sections. The second section is entitled, “Here is a map of our country.”

“Here is a map of our country:
here is the Sea of Indifference, glazed with salt
This is the haunted river flowing from brow to groin
we dare not taste its water . . . .
This is the sea-town of myth and story             when the fishing fleets
went bankrupt    here is where the jobs were            on the pier
processing frozen fishsticks    hourly wages and no shares ….”

Here is a map of our country, twenty years ago, one year ago, today … and tomorrow? The Gulf of Mexico is a natural body of water. We, however, are the builders of the Gulf of Mourning and Memory. A year later the situation is still the same.


(Image Credit: Dana Sherwood




Welcome to `Haunts’, a new series about prisons, police, women.

A specter is haunting the world, or so one could believe from reports and blogs. Consider these:

My Great Recession: Economic Downturn? When Was It Ever Up?”, RaceWire, May 21, 2009:
“Economic downturn? When was it ever up? I have been dealing with poverty and economics since I was a child in Guatemala- now as a young adult in this country its even harder for me to find a job, get housing or go to school. It makes me feel empty like a ghost, because I feel I have a lot to offer. I have survived gangs, drugs and migration. Im not sure how I will survive this.”

Spooks haunt our democracy”, Mail & Guardian, May 22, 2009

And then there’s “Quarto”, a poem by Adrienne Rich, in The Nation, which begins:
Call me Sebastian, arrows sticking all over
The map of my battlefields. Marathon.
Wounded Knee. Vicksburg. Jericho.
Battle of the Overpass.
Victories turned inside out
But no surrender

Cemeteries of remorse
The beaten champion sobbing
Ghosts move in to shield his tears

There have been others in the past couple days. The world is indeed haunted by specters, ghosts, revenants (revenants means “literally that which comes back”), and for some, it was Jacques Derrida, in Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International, who drew attention to ghosts around us as part of the new world economic order. Derrida noted that the first noun of the Communist Manifesto is specter. We note that the first verb, the first action, is haunting.

The home of specters, of ghosts, of revenants is prison. The place where people are and are not, visibly invisible, a zone of hyper-monitored abandonment. Say `recidivism’ to anyone, and they’ll know you’re talking about prison, about prisoners.

There are more people in jails and prisons today, globally, than ever before. There are more people in jails, prisons, detention centers in the U.S. than ever imaginable. There is more money being made out of prison than was ever conceivable. Early prison designers thought conscript labor might pay the bill. Ha! They never thought about private prisons, about the surplus value emanating from prisoners’ bodies, the aura. And at the center of all this new world global prison? Women. The fastest growing prison population, thanks largely to so-called wars on drugs and their mandatory sentencing programs. Women, mostly low income, mostly defined as members of racial minority and oppressed communities. Women constitute the haunting ghost in the prison machine. Women are not only prisoners, they are partners, spouses, mothers, friends, sisters, daughters, aunts, grandmothers, correspondents, visitors, re-visitors. They are the revenants who sustain … what? Women haunt from within, women haunt from without.

What is haunt? It’s a verb, it’s a noun; it’s an action, it’s a thing. Haunting, even etymologically, is all mixed up and messy and confusing. It mixes action and place:

haunt: From the uncertainty of the derivation, it is not clear whether the earliest sense in F. and Eng. was to practise habitually (an action, etc.) or to frequent habitually (a place). The order here is therefore provisional.”

In Fifty Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship (Dial Press, 1948) Salvador Dali described a way in which prison haunts the eye:

“After the two months which I spent in prison during my adolescence I was able to realize the truth of the phenomenon of the so-called “flying bars” of which all prisoners speak. For a long time after their incarceration, in the most unexpected circumstances and places, they often see the bars of their prison window appear before their eyes, sometimes fixed but more often as if in flight, now standing out dark against a light background and again–more frequently–appearing as negatives, even against very light background, like the sky, for instance, on which I often observed the bars of my prison in Gerona, appearing in a blue tonality even more luminous than the sky itself. These apparitions, which lasted about three months after my liberation, made me give a good deal of thought to the persistence of retinal impressions….Thus you realize that what I am advising, good inquisitor that I am, is that you should surround yourself with a prison for your eye. For nothing is more harmful to it than the freedom to see everything, to attempt to embrace everything, to want to admire everything all at once. But the prison which I advise for your eye must be mobile, transparent, and its flying bars aerial and tiny.” (61, 62)

Surround yourself with a prison for your eye. To do so, try to focus on the women in and beyond the global prison. Ghosts move in to shield his tears. Adrienne Rich knows, the ghosts are women, but the women, haunting, are not ghosts.

(Photo Credit: Ai Weiwei / Mary Boone Gallery)