having been / driven here, like the rain is driven into things, into the / ground, beside the broken barns, by the railroad tracks, / beside the sea, I, Thucydides, having written this, having / grown up near the ocean. –Lisa Jarnot, The Bridge1
How big is the place you come from?
Roughly 1,000 square miles.
Add water and, like a capsule containing a coiled sponge seahorse, it grows. Tip it into the ocean and like an iceberg, it floats.I mean, how big is the place you come from, to you?
Today I think Rhode Island is barely a pause between syllables, a misplaced comma, an r—
But also: miles of shipyards, my whole childhood strapped to the rounded belly of a boat, one endless afternoon upon another, 2 long bus rides, end to end, Grandma’s whole life, the intricate circuitry of backroads, lawns and cemeteries, a long stretch of sadness, my hometown (by heart), a chasm, the mouth of the Narragansett, a suspension bridge, a low unrelenting fog, my own reflection on the surface of the water, larger than life.
And I recognize Rhode Island best where it dances in the East Bay with Massachusetts factory towns. The exit numbers starting over and over on I-95 east. Where I am assured I can keep leaving and keep coming back.
Welcome to Rhode Island, a sign says, Welcome to Massachusetts.
Rhode Island was named for the Greek Island Rhodes and the sea nymph goddess Rhode who lived there and whose husband, Helios, was transformed from a man into the Colossus. Subject to the shuffling of ancient kingdoms, Rhodes was recombinant and embattled. Lost and won and lost. Until it appeared centuries later in 1524 on the northeastern coast of America as a superimposition conjured by the Florentine explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano.
It is easy to mistake one thing for another. A place for a name. Rhode and Rhodes reduced to a single pronoun: Her. A figure crouched between rocks on a Mediterranean hillside. The arable interior of her. Pink hibiscus: rhoda. Her. Cyprus trees. Her. Orange groves.
Rhodes is shaped like an arrowhead and surrounded on four sides by water. Rhode Island isn’t an island and, with the exception of Aquidneck’s ragged glacial fray, is rectangular and looks nothing like Rhodes. Scholars have speculated that Verrazzano was referring to Block Island when he wrote in a letter to King Francis I, “we discovered a triangular-shaped island, ten leagues from the mainland, similar in size to the island of Rhodes.”2 The fact that Rhodes is more than 50 times the size of Block Island does not negate this comparison. Because on July 8, 1524, “the weather was unfavorable”3 and from here I can see Verrazzano with his spy glasses and memory full of holes, squinting.
Rhode, a Middle English variant of road, was an action undertaken on horses or ships before it was a path to ride along. Or alternatively from the Old English, rodu, a clearing.
It’s called Rhode Island, my mother told me when I was little, because we can drive to the beach and we can also take a boat there.
And from my father’s bowrider, where I am nine years old forever, Rhode Island is a universe of brackish water and sunburns and warm soda. But today, on NPR, Rhode Island is also a small piece of Alaska upon which tourists are stranded in a storm. When I try to picture this stormy, Alaskan Rhode Island, it becomes a dirty snow mound in the parking lot of the old Valueland on Metacom Avenue—a metaphor I can’t see the other half of.
I left Rhode Island ten years ago but it is still my original point of reference. I don’t remember the first time I heard someone use the phrase “the size of Rhode Island” but I’m sure my skin prickled as though someone had said my own name. Gradually, my Rhode Island has eroded into an invocation, hollow and vibrating along radio waves. Big-small and small-big things pile upon it. Remote landscapes and international catastrophes and fires and national parks. And Rhode Island becomes heavy with their burden.
Long Island? the man who owns the Bodega beneath my apartment asks. Rhode Island, I say again, it’s a state a little north of here.
Today, because I am tired, Rhode Island is shapeless and immense. An ache.
Rhode Island, I learn, is also the size of a portion of the Larsen Ice Shelf that collapsed and began to dissolve into the ocean in 2002.
The Larsen ice shelf was named by Hjalmar Riiser-Larsen who I’ve conflated with my own grandfather, Arthur Larsen. Who was a polar explorer, who served in the American Navy as a machinist, who was tall and had a cleft chin, who never visited Rhode Island, who had six children and a wife, who never married, who woke every morning at 4am, who left Rhode Island infrequently, who was given a military burial, who was exiled, who appears in Rhode Island’s archives as a notation, who persists as a geographic formation, who disappears a little more each year.
Repeat Rhode Island until it loses its meaning and it becomes a fathom: two empty arms outstretched.
It’s only 45 minutes to anywhere, I say at parties. Like the beginning of a riddle. As large as anything you can imagine.
The swatch of marshlands bordering the Warren River—elephant grass and cats tails, my first kiss at a house party, the long jagged coastline of Touisset Point, damp grass clotting in the mower, cigar paper, poison ivy, eighteen years, inside this shipyard, calla lilies, hollowed out factory buildings, on Cutler Street, this broken borrowed canoe, our dog at the fence, waiting, forever, on the Henderson Bridge, like a stone, in traffic, Rhode Island as far as the eye can see.
Or the small volcano in Yellowstone National Park, Los Angeles twice, the disappeared Colorado Wetlands, lunar craters, a sizable portion of Brazilian Rainforest, the Houston metro system, a devastating oil spill, hundreds of counties, not even Anchorage, not even Delaware, roughly Luxembourg, an exaggerated hat, and more than all of the New York boroughs strung together.
Hyperbolic and drenched. Rhode Island is a storm cloud, swirling around street names, old telephone numbers, the temperature of the swimming pool, the garden in late October, drowning. Recombinant and embattled. Ancient and misremembered and rewritten.
Today, in this seashell, Rhode Island is the sound the river makes.
1 Lisa Jarnot, “The Bridge” in Ring of Fire: Poems (Cambridge: Zoland Books, 2001).
2 Lawrence C. Wroth, “The Written Record of the Voyage of 1524 of Giovanni da Verrazano as recorded in a letter to Francis I, King of France, July 8th, 1524” in The Voyages of Giovanni Da Verrazzano, 1524-1528. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1970), 133-143.