“The Legible Element”
EastOver Press, $19.99
Wooley Pond in North Sea remains the original muse for Ralph Sneeden and inspires his lucid recollections in his new book of essays, "The Legible Element." From his grandfather's cottage there, Mr. Sneeden begins his engagement with the coastal waters he loves. Boating, sailing, surfing, ice skating, and scuba diving all inspire him. Readers with a penchant for the outdoors will enjoy these essays too.
Mr. Sneeden demonstrates a mastery of the essay that complements his achievement with poetry. His poems have appeared in two books, including "Surface Fugue," and in numerous journals, including Poetry.
His attachment to coastal environments, especially on Long Island, fuels his return to coasts and into the realms of boyhood and his early devotion to the aquatic. He finds inspiration close to Wooley Pond and on the shores of New England, both north and south of Boston.
For readers with similar affinities, these essays will appear as freshening gifts. For readers of Mr. Sneeden's generation (he was born in 1960), his essays, so full of detail, offer recognition of the coastal elements and cultural icons of his era. These affinities tack toward the literary richness of his investigations, for his outdoor pursuits help illuminate the poetry of the 19th-century English poet William Wordsworth, among others he considers.
Mr. Sneeden begins Part I of "The Legible Element" with "Stepping Off: Confessions From the Littoral Zone." Littoral: "Relating to or situated on the shore of the sea or a lake," or having to do with "coastal waters." This is appropriate for these adventures, whether in summer or in winter.
He follows with "Looking for Ice," a meditation on ice skating and ice hockey that also considers a tragedy, the death of a teaching colleague on the frozen Exeter River in New Hampshire.
"The Legible Element" astounds with the memoir-like "Immersion Notes; or 'This Ain't Sea Hunt!' " Here Mr. Sneeden's adventures involving scuba diving, first off Bermuda, immerse readers. The ungrammatical quotation within the title reappears in the context of a deep dive, where it garners power and importance.
Later, as he dives near Marathon Key, over a pristine reef, he swims past sinister-looking, toothy barracuda amid the iridescent coral. His essay captures not only the opalescence of aquatic life, but also offers a Cousteau-like take on underwater life.
Mr. Sneeden's last essay of Part I, "Django: Elegies and Improvisations With Small Boats," explores the gamut of human experiences and emotions. Django, the name he bestows on his Beetle Cat sailboat, appears amid meditations on boating and sailing, as he ponders his life along the coast and sees his access to the world of his younger days limited or lost. He remains steadfast in raising questions that appear like subtle currents disturbing local waters.
In that essay, he visits the Parrish Art Museum, where he finds a mid-20th-century work by Nicolai Cikovsky, "The Inlet at Wooley Pond." This painting captures the pond, not all that far from the Shinnecock Canal, through which Mr. Sneeden's father sets out, despite the misgivings of his wife. The author's descriptions of Great Peconic Bay resonate as he extols the environment.
Adept with metaphor, he observes that his father "would take his two-week vacation" in North Sea, "where my grandparents owned a small cottage on a saltwater cove developed in the 1930s. Being on the inside of Long Island's South Fork, Wooley Pond is as protected a body of water as you'll find on the Atlantic seaboard, the final spartina-fringed increment in the Russian nesting doll structure of the open Atlantic, Block Island Sound, Gardiners Bay, and Little Peconic Bay."
"The Belarusian painter Nicolai Cikovsky seems to have composed 'The Inlet at Wooley Pond' from the kitchen window of that bungalow on Southampton Shores."
Mr. Sneeden captures the boating excitement as "my father took us on an excursion to the Shinnecock Canal," where with his mother and sisters they observe "the density of boat traffic. . . . Even our Labrador Retriever was nervous as the boat slowed at the menacing locks."
He clarifies: "In the cooler air of Shinnecock Bay, we pounded deeper into perspective toward the inlet, which my father approached as if he were at the helm of a tuna boat four times the size of what now seemed an overcrowded tub. Once I felt the subtle seismic shift of the ocean swells I knew it was not going to end well. Sleek sportfishing boats speared past the dark boulders of the jetties on either side, up and over the standing waves in the tidal current, then out into the open ocean, their privileged wakes fanning out like ermine cloaks."
He weaves in his mother's view as he remembers his father "remarking that the waves were not as big as they looked, my mother saying it still probably wasn't a good idea. But they were already upon us, the bow lifting almost vertically. . . . Then we were down into the next trough. . . ."
"We all screamed, even my father."
Also in "Django," he recalls from his boyhood other tumultuous waters. "When you're that small, choppy water seems Odyssean. . . . But when the time came, my father . . . put me on his shoulders, and took me out there himself, breasting the waves like a giant, an oceanic demigod, while I locked my arms under his chin, gazing down at the ineffectual wavelets. . . ."
As Mr. Sneeden swims ahead into adulthood, he circles back to his own aging Beetle Cat sailboat, re-shellacking the decaying craft in details anyone who has sailed an old wooden dinghy will recognize: "The deteriorating state of the brightwork . . . was muted under heavy coats of varnish, especially the oak mast hoops, stacked and glistening like dark, weathered vertebrae above the boom. In spots, the sail was thinned to translucence, crumbling and powdery like a moth's wings . . . because of 'sun rot' from almost forty summers. . . ."
At times, bathed in the past, "Django" reminds one of the best essays of E.B. White. The emotional heart of the book, it yields to others on surfing, the sport that inspires Mr. Sneeden to paddle forward on coasts both local and distant. It shapes his life and, ironically, grounds him as an escape from a mutable world and its ephemeral experiences.
In Part II, he investigates both life on the water and works by poets. In the title essay, "The Legible Element: On Hopkins, Surfers, and the Selves of Waves," he studies waves and poets' works on them, including poems by Robinson Jeffers and Basil Bunting, while considering Gerard Manley Hopkins's take: "His notes on waves are a field sketch, a quick plein air watercolor with words, but one with a restrained riptide of joy and connection."
In his penultimate essay, "Wave of the Day," he surfs during Indian summer and thinks about the death of a friend, which adds a somber weightiness to the author's brief buoyancy.
The final essay of "The Legible Element," "Memory and the First Coast: California Revisited," explores "the legible element" on a distant coast where he surfs with his now-grown son.
In final remarks in "Origin Stories, Thanks," Ralph Sneeden notes the Sagaponack writer Peter Matthiessen's "Men's Lives" as an inspiration.
Daniel Picker is the author of a book of poems, "Steep Stony Road," and his prose has appeared in Harvard Review, The Sewanee Review, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Middlebury magazine, among others.