“Forty years ago, Muynak was a busy fishing port … Today the waters have receded so much that there is not a drop as far as the eye can see. … Cancers, lung disease and infant mortality are 30 times higher than they used to be … The children of Muynak have made a playground out of the wrecks of ships …” -BBC News, March 16, 2000
Was it the rush of words in that language
we understood only when we cocked our heads,
speaking on the slant, slurring our way
through the grammar of another way of life?
Was it the whirr of metal shards the ragged
children hucked at our heads
the way they delivered their greeting
obscenity blunted by effervescence but
still bearing that cutting edge?
Was it the slow groan of the abandoned barges
that sheltered them, crumbling through
geologic time, salted and sharp-jointed
like the people living among them
–their desiccated hope?
Or the whoosh of power as we hurled
words back at them in their own language,
mouths stretching and puckering to make
the sounds they sang? Our speech waxed formal
and the children
armed to their rotten teeth with the remnants
of a fishing industry–brandishing scythes torn
from the rotten hulls–laughed at the village accents
we’d worked so hard to own.
Maybe it was knowing
they were doomed
to die from the inside out,
that their empty sea was brimming with
what had already killed them.
Maybe it was the shimmer in the distance,
the heat shining like water, mocking us
with what we had come to see, mocking us
with what we would never learn to see.
-Jaime Lee Jarvis
Used by permission.
Jaime Lee Jarvis is a professional editor, trained technical writer, and environmental activist. She visited the ship graveyard in the town of Muynak in 1999, when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in Uzbekistan. A decade later, news about the ongoing ecological disaster and human tragedy surrounding the shrinking Aral Sea has largely disappeared from public view.
Jarvis was volunteer coordinator for the first Split This Rock Poetry Festival in 2008, and now serves on Split This Rock’s board.