In the middle of the disaster nothing bad had happened to me

by Emily Bludworth de Barrios

In the middle of the disaster     nothing bad had happened to me

What do Cairo, Houston, and Caracas have in common?

I was like a plastic nougat     petrochemicals smeared all over me

Cheerful fires off-gassing     Cheerful plumes of smoke pumping up

in the atmosphere     Don’t laugh     The mall was like a diamond

I don’t care if you believe me     Back then we believed in the

power of our perfect money     The sound of the word dollar was like

a lollipop lolling around in our mouths     Can’t you feel it, too?

First my father     then my husband     using machinery to extract

oil up from the earth     Come out come out     Up from the ocean shelf

The Permian Basin     The North Sea     Off the shore of     And off the shore of

And on the shores of the world’s deepest lake     In Russia Alaska Australia

Venezuela Louisiana Egypt     In one part of the Sahara is an ancient graveyard

filled with fossilized bones of ancient whales     Architecture of ribs     Architecture

of ancient life you can stand inside     (But you can never be a slab of ancient

whale gliding through a pure ocean)     (Ancient ocean encrusted with mussels

as if with diamonds)     In the Texas Hill Country     100 million years ago

an ocean sifted gently     Another ancient dried-up ocean     Hiking I found

a stone mollusk     And a second mollusk     Then a mollusk as big as my hand     Dizzy

in a column of 100 million years     100 million years is a long tall column     What lasts?

In March, 36 thousand gallons of drilling fluid were leaked into the rock formation

underneath the Blanco River     “Oops”     The Trinity Aquifer     Well-water

thick as milk, and brown with slurry     The shores of time     The ocean erodes time

Gently sloshing     First my grandfathers     Then my father     Then

my husband     Tending the machines that convert one form of petroleum

to another     Off-gassing a torch into the night sky

Towing a chemical barge into the Ship Channel     That grim gray

city-like stretch of pipes and points and pure-white domes     How do you build

an oil pipeline across the ocean floor?     I don’t know, but my father knows

(Once in 1994 he brought home a tape of film from the sea floor . . . . . . . .

the mouth of the pump . . . . . . artificial light in the complete dark . . . . . .

nothing . . . . . nothing . . . . . a large fish . . . . . . particles . . . . . . vastly salty, empty, and wet

And the machinery and the secret filth spilling out . . . . )     The mall was like a diamond

Ritualistically on our 13th birthdays our mothers took us to the manicure salon

Hold my hand     Massage my fingers     Moisten clip sand lacquer

The special chemicals made in the vats     (nail polish remover made from toluene)

(the same chemical that burned in the ITC chemical fire)     (a dark plume that lasts for days)

(alerts the public to their secret filth)     On our 13th birthdays     And biweekly thereafter

Clear gloss     A crescent moon     Off-white ends     “A French manicure” is what I typically picked

Or a clear colorful varnish which shone like a rainbow in the light     (like oil in a puddle)

(I think of the firemen who don special suits to enter the chemical fires)     

(I think of the women who work in a boxy room     in a strip mall breathing solvents     

Scrubbing solvents from their skin     after dipping each of my fingers into a small white vat)

The mall was like a diamond     An atrium of glass     Like a well-appointed cage

The stores trafficked in the most convincing lies . . . . . . .     Here you will be an explorer . . . .

Here an apothecary . . . . . .      Sail down the Amazon River and shake a rain stick . . . .

Shake a rain stick . . . .      What is that exactly?     Nobody knows     Didn’t you love

The Bombay Company?     Almost black, lacquered look of expensive mahogany wood

Unapologetically     in those gushing years     we wanted to look expensive and correct

It wasn’t a fashion of goodness, morality, fairness, or justice     The stores

were like plotlines of a book     We were the main characters     It was as if

we were in the midst of doing glamorous things     or emotional things

We were imagining ourselves characters     living some meaningful lives

What we wanted then was glamour     campy glamour, or a glamourized version

of our ordinary lives     Nowadays people have more particular tastes

All the time humankind growing more wise and less wise     A length of string

manipulated into different shapes     Back then we believed in the power

of our perfect money and the veracity of our perfect lives

What do Cairo, Houston, and Caracas have in common?     Looking around you now

What can you touch that does not contain oil?     

They say     oil is the remains of ancient organisms     They say oil is the fault of big companies

or maybe we should recycle better, and more     The government fingers its unwritten regulations

like a terrible moral failing     Seeds the future with microscopic particles of plastic

In the middle of a disaster     nothing bad had happened to me

The mall was like a diamond     What can I touch that does not contain oil?

First my grandfathers     Then my father     Then my husband     with phone calls

casting invisible strings across the world     casting lines between the numbers

in this bank and the numbers in that bank     Lines     pumps     drill bits     sunk costs

fixed costs     acreage     The geologist who loves deep time     manipulates the program

makes a map and a graph and shows the investors where to use the new technology

“Fracturing bedrock formations”     Like a terrible moral failing     Whose?

Published on March 3, 2022