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One summer after another, I come back to swim in the Mediterranean. I throw my arms over my head, swimming backstoke, my face to the air. I push with my feet and I’m off.

I come back to rinse off my tongue, teeth, and gums with a sip or two. I breathe some water in through my nose and smell its odor, down in my throat.

It's not the same sea, no longer itself. It’s not the sea that shipwrecked Jonah, Ulysses, Aeneas, Paul the Apostle, and Shelley. Back then the sea would warn sailors, who heard its message and sought shelter.

Now it’s a sea that drowns without tempests. It can’t warn with clouds or the flight of seagulls. Now ships pass by the shipwrecked and, impassive, continue their journey. Never before has cowardice shown itself so brazenly.

Now the piracy off the Libyan coast waves a Coast Guard flag, rounding up fugitives to lead them back into slavery, into the chains of commercial transactions.

Paul Valéry wrote a long poem, “The Graveyard by the Sea”. One line reads, “upon my tombs, the sleeping, faithful sea.”[1] It was 1920, ninety-nine years ago. He saw another sea, with names carved onto memorials. Today it is a mass grave, its floor scattered everywhere with the drowned.

Decades after Valéry, Pablo Neruda wrote: “Sometimes I see alone / coffins under sail, / embarking with the pale dead”.[2] The passage from boats to coffins was seen ahead of time.

Now a boy writes his mother’s name on his T-shirt, so if he fails to arrive, someone might report back to her.

Today the bodies of young lives without baggage or names are undone in uniform plankton, traveling through the food chain. They become coral, algae, medusae.

Today a boat pulls up to help people with their bodies already half underwater—a manifest miracle, the slash of some Zorro snipping the rope of a hanged man. Then the most brutish government we’ve had so far writes in ink made from bile, ordering them to stay offshore.

One hundred years after Valéry, it’s time for a poet to describe the sea we have now, calm in its expanse, like a shroud.

I swim on my back, floating with my face up, with the privilege of having the coast where I came from at arm’s length. I’ve never been seasick. For the seasickness I feel now, there are no pills to take.

ERRI DE LUCA is a novelist, essayist, translator, poet, and one of Europe's best-known writers. His most recent novel is La Natura Esposta (Feltrinelli, 2016).

[1] Paul Valéry, “The Graveyard by the Sea.” Trans. David Pollard. Brooklyn Rail, May, 2017.

[2] Pablo Neruda, “Nothing but Death.” Trans. Robert Bly. Neruda & Vallejo. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.


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