Anne Rouse


… black bituminous gurge Boils out from under ground…

Milton, Paradise Lost xii 41-2


All at once, to a bystander’s shuddering cry, the oil arrives in waves: evangelical, incessant, welling up through a valley of bone, or a rig’s rhythmic stain; flooding from every vat and line.

Gasoline, kerosene, naptha, phosphates, a continent of plastic swill, adrift in the Pacific doldrums, motor oil, acetone, ethanol, jet fuel—the pungent banners stream or toil

from engines framed around oil’s pitchy burn, ancient Kowloon flamepits drying salt, rainproofed walls of Babylon, tarry graves of mastodon and elk; our daemon, bent on speed and sway,

arrives, and arrives. The ocean gives up its dark load, like a cat that tenders a mole on the stair. The parched fields, too, will increase. In the back streets, encountering hunger, you will find it curiously attentive.

Our wishes are laid mines.


In an arc-lit glare, the white ship’s crew are burning off thin tranches of the spill.

“When alarmed it may eject a cloud of ink”:
an octopus trails, alarmed,
the ink obscured

by denser crude. Flowing
unstoppered perfume,
this, of Araby.
(“Hell is murky.”)

A clutch of sea crabs
teem in a Babel of smoke,
their turbulence
signalling for miles.


Quiet in the undergroves
with its original attendants,
mercury, arsenic, water, salt;
a black slur, pulsing

over the sands and the declivities
to the mansion of the rocks,
relinquishing its upstart powers
to the sun and wind;

sublime in the cells and corridors,
a fifth element, descending
to the circumnavigating mind,
unfurled in a wordless sleep;

we overheard the perturbations of oil
guttering within the emphatic city:
turbines macadam airstrips tarshacks
in worlds made, broken, and made again.