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Plastic Sea (a poem on the Alster)

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Doing some research about the Alster, I ran across a poem written by Mirko Bonné for Weather Stations, an international project exploring literary responses to climate change. It is quite long and can be read in its integrity here.  But here are some excerpts, to get the flavour of it; do please go to the original.

If you need a theme, it can be said to be about the plastic pollution of the oceans – but it’s much more than that.  I’ve been walking up and down different reaches of the river – maybe that’s why I find it unexpectedly moving, as I slowly connect history, water, and environment.  Read on, you’ll see what I mean.

The thin ribbon of water that flows
down to Hamburg beneath
locusts and ash trees, but mainly
old birches, where ducks live and coots
that dart off mutely, smelling of the swamps
in the quiet old woods of Stormarn and Holstein,
is called the Alster, and is and always was
a river. It was made into two lakes in the middle
of the great Hanseatic city only when Adolf
III returned to the city from the crusade
in the Holy Land and ordered a miller
to dam the stream with mighty dikes
that would have stopped even the Elbe’s
flow. Then a northern sea spread out
amidst the wooden town; all the Holstein waters
of the Wöddelbek, Rönne, Wischbeck and Lankau,
the Sielbek and the Tangstedter Mühlenbach
flowed and could not drain; within weeks
the relentless element, flowing
on and on, grew vaster and
broader, grimly unstoppable,
until first the Outer, then the Inner
Alster (not cut off until much later), became
two lakes, turquoise green today and turquoise
blue tomorrow, and almost always roughened by
the west winds, hemmed by belts of dense reeds and
by now beloved for more than eight hundred years.

…I saw three plastic
canisters and pictured a raft
you could build with them.
High water, said the stunned
neighbor. Floods. They’d always
happened, summer or winter,
in the fall or especially in the spring,
as soon as the snowmelt descended on Stormarn.
But this here, the black water masses, such
a draggled park, never, really, no.

Forced into stone embankments, the Alster
flows past the Rödingsmarkt and the Herrlichkeit
and joins the Elbe between Hamburger Neustadt and
the Portugiesenviertel. Six hours it takes for steamers,
freighters and tankers to reach the sea along the
deep-dredged channel. The three canisters,
a raft that will never be built, since I am
not Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn
and my favorite river is not the Mississippi, but
a stream by which I often linger to gaze at the water
and reflect on the meaning of poetry, these three
pathetic empty plastic containers drift for
weeks from the railway bridge into the
brackish Elbe between St. Pauli,
Finkenwerder and Glückstadt.
Their plastic, cast, molded,
punched and glued in a factory in,
let’s say, Hangzhou, before being shipped to
Hamburg along with millions of identical milky white
canisters, requires, unless it’s ground to bits,
around 850 years to decompose and
vanish from the earth, as long a span of time
as the two Alster lakes have existed in the middle
of Hamburg. Though no doubt what is true
of the soul is true of plastic. Never,
never does it vanish for good.

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Written by enviropaul

September 16, 2015 at 11:07 am

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