Why We Have Otters

Just now, in the middle of a nineteenth email from OTL about Kaltura and their systems-training videos to help us “begin immediately transitioning” to teaching all our classes via teleconference . . . by the way, there’s an old story about this, pretty much exactly; it’s called “The Machine Stops,” by E.M. Forster, way back in 1909; here’s the link: https://www.ele.uri.edu/faculty/vetter/Other-stuff/The-Machine-Stops.pdf . . . anyhow, while my school was berserking me with messages and blah blah blah, the YouGottaBeKiddingMe-in-Chief comes on TV (Where’s the damn mute button?) and starts blaming, I’m not kidding, President Obama for the corona virus and stock market swan-dive, and somehow—just like I’m demo-ing here—I was both manic and bored simultaneously. 

Which sucks. 

And my real mind knew it, since our brains are full of connections. It sent me a different thing to think about, this new thought, sort of like a river flowing blue, and specifically to songs. Not even whole songs either, just thoughts about the opening notes, and also this question: What’s the most iconic one ever, the best first note, where you instantly know what the song is before your ears can hear?

This probably has to do with Modest Mouse. Eight days ago—so March 4th—I was sitting with my friend Nano at The Grind in Cedar City. There were the usual coffee shop noises: brrrrr-gkkkkkk from the espresso machine, people’s conversations, ice-tea pouring into glasses from a pitcher, and traffic passing on the street out front, when somehow I heard it anyway, coming through the speakers, and I said, “Good song,” just from hearing the opening fermata noise. It’s not even a note, not really. But it’s singular, it’s distinct, and it lets you know that in a second or two the rest of it is coming, the cool rhythm, the cool melody; yes, “Float On.”

I don’t think it’s the most iconic one though. And probably not AC/DC either, though it only takes one guitar strum to say it’s “Shook Me All Night Long.” That note is close, you betcha. It’s recognizable, big-time. And the rockin’ out that starts a few seconds later is as good a contrast as anyone can ask for. But I’d have to say The Clash beats AC/DC: those scratchy first guitar licks: “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” A tough question, but I think I’ll go because even The Clash runs a distant second so long as Buffalo Springfield is in the world. The opening note of “For What It’s Worth.” I think we were born knowing that sound. Like it’s one of our ear bones. 

So connections, but also disconnections, and those are just a few in my own head this morning. Think of economic systems. Now add global bans on travel. Think of ecosystems. And now melt away the snowpack.

Or if you’re fed up with bleakness already, then think about this since Good Is Still Possible. I couldn’t write if I didn’t believe that. There’d be no point in working, revising, and looking up how to spell “fermata”: 

Why We Have Otters

We have otters to thin out the urchins
before the urchins mow through the kelp, that kelp 

like forests on the sea floor, eating sun,
eating carbon from the air and ocean. 

And those kelp beds are home 
for the littler fish, and those littler fish 

feed the salmon, 
and sometimes—

maybe a Saturday, 
the first warm day of summer—

the salmon feed us. 
There’s a boy and his parents; 

the condensation on the glasses cold and wet;
a sun-deck restaurant. And the girl says, 

“The air smells older here, more muddy 
like the seagulls like it.” And the boy smiles,

watching the otters. . . how they float on their backs. . .
how they eat something purple.

Rob Carney

Rob Carney is originally from Washington state. He is the author of six collections, including 88 Maps (Lost Horse Press 2015), which was named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award, and Weather Report (Somondoco Press 2006), which won the Utah Book Award for Poetry, and his latest book, Fact + Figures (Hoot 'n' Waddle 2020). His work has appeared in Cave Wall, Columbia Journal, Sugar House Review, Terrain: A Journal of the Built and Natural Environments, and dozens of others, as well as the Norton anthology Flash Fiction Forward (2006). In 2014 he received the Robinson Jeffers/Tor House Foundation Award for seven of the poems included in The Book of Sharks (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). He is a Professor of English and Literature at Utah Valley University and lives in Salt Lake City.

Read an interview with Rob Carney about Facts + Figures.

Read a book review of Rob Carney's Facts + Figures.

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