Thirteen Ways of Talking About a Volcano

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When I was seven years old, I came home from school each day wanting to make a baking soda volcano out of a drained liter of soda. There were no liters of soda in my apartment, and there never would be. But I told my parents about the display I had seen in my classroom not to persuade them to permit me a forbidden liter of Mr. Pibb or Orange Fanta in the name of science, but to amaze them: the papier mache cone that cloaked the plastic bottle, ingenious, igneous artifice! And then, the accumulative, anticipatory hiss from deep within the structure, and the impossible quantity of all that lava, foamy and light, the stunning, rapid finale of each performance.


Learning of Pompeii a couple of years later was another revelation: the agony of that destruction, the gift of its preservation. The earth discovered how to stop time.


In Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson writes of the eruption produced by one life meeting another’s, like plates striking each other deep underground: “It did occur to me that if Louise were a volcano then I might be Pompeii.” Louise, Mt. Vesuvius, destroys with her love, and the narrator is left with a story. Pompeii preserves, because Pompeii is the writer, who records and makes sense of the destruction, who shapes the wild heart’s eruption into a kind of lasting form.

I’m reminded of Maggie Nelson’s discussion in Bluets of heartbreak as the kind of disaster that produces art. Before quoting a few lines from Billie Holiday’s “Lady Sings the Blues,” Nelson writes: “Of course one can have ‘the blues’ and stay alive, at least for a time. ‘Productive,’ even (the perennial consolation!).”


In the early 1990s, at the California Academy of Science in Golden Gate Park, there was a permanent exhibit of another geological phenomenon, one more locally relevant to my home than any volcano. Earthquakes, large and small, happened all the time in San Francisco. I recall standing on a platform before a television set, which was shrouded in funereal black cloth, and which played on loop a and which played on loop a talk given by a grave white-haired scientist in a lab coat. The screen was grainy in a way I discerned to be fake: each trawling black worm was evenly sized, evenly spaced on the screen. The actor playing the scientist would cough when the screen broke up, due to an untimely earthquake disrupting the calm of his lab; the cough gave him away as an actor. My suspicion that the scientist was an actor made the film in which he appeared no less terrifying to me, a sensitive child, a nervous child. Spliced into the interview were stills from the 1906 Earthquake (the crevasse of Market Street, the burning of Van Ness) and  images from the more recent 1989 earthquake, during which the Giants had played in the World Series, and one layer of the Bay Bridge had buckled and fallen onto the layer beneath it, crushing cars and tossing them into the sea–this was Pompeii, the dollhouse toppled over, all the toys drowned in the bathtub. And here, a map of the Ring of Fire, which extended down the Loma Prieta along the California coast to the tip of South America, and across the Pacific Ocean, putting our seismic disquiet in conversation with the volcanoes of the Philippines, Japan, Alaska. When a volcano in Indonesia erupted, we shook–perhaps? That was my logic at the time. I wanted this relationship explained by the scientist, but I remember nothing that explained potential causality, which might have been reassuring to little me. Only the map, playing across the screen for a moment before another fake big one.

Near the end of the film the scientist’s eyes seemed to pierce the screen with an urgency that transcended artifice. “It will happen again,” he said, “We must be prepared.” But how could we prepare? Even according to the scientist’s script, there was no way to predict an earthquake; not even seismologists could predict when exactly an earthquake would happen, only that it would. No one would give a five minute warning. The gallon of water, the flashlight, the first aid kit, the batteries, and the plastic radio that my mother kept in a red backpack in the hallway closet would be of no help to anyone if the apartment were split in half along the wrong lines. On the day the big one comes, the weather might be hazy and unusually warm, or perhaps that was just unscientific myth. After the film was over, and faded into the familiar canned fuzz of children’s programming at the time, the platform on which I stood gave a perfunctory shake at the end, signaling the end of my turn, and the appearance of the next child in line.

Just outside the earthquake exhibit was a planetarium, which assured me, as I leaned back in its movie theater seats, that my planet would continue to thrive at least a few more thousand years. We were afraid of the diminishing o-zone then, and global warming hadn’t made its way into the presentation of the universe given to children on field trips in that dark room. But even so, I wasn’t sure I was safe. At any moment, the earth might move. Every morning, think of an earthquake, and it won’t happen. Jinx it, don’t let it surprise you. I remember someone giving me this advice. Wearing a medal of St. Christopher, disqualified saint, around your neck, prevents death, for at least that day.


Anne Carson writes of volcanic creatures in “A Short Talk on Vicuñas” :

“A mythical animal, the vicuña fares well in the volcanic regions of northern Peru. Light thunders down on it, like Milton at his daughters. Hear that?–they are coming under their breath. When you take up your axe, listen. Hoofbeats. Wind.”

Listen for the air to change, see if you can predict the earth’s plates shifting, moment to moment. Take up your axe; don’t let it surprise you.


When I was eleven years old, a friend’s mother drove me, her daughter, and another girl, in a battered car that I recall as painted brown and overlaid with a purplish iridescence, across the Golden Gate Bridge, to go swimming on a day that was white-skied in the city, a high, dreamy blue, just north. The mother’s face was tough, wrinkled, and browned with years of sun and nicotine. At the end of the day, we sat in the backseat of the car, returning to the city south on the 101. We wore athletic shorts over our wet bathing suits, and the daughter of the mother who was driving the car received pages on a plastic beeper, from boys whose names I had heard whispered, but whose faces I had never seen. I sat in the middle, and the three of us exchanged confidences, fell asleep, braided and unbraided each other’s hair. Just before the bridge, the car screeched and bucked, and the mother driving the car draped her body over the wheel and gave a high-pitched sob. Her daughter put the pager on my knee and reached forward to pat her mother’s shaking shoulders. The traffic is real bad, my friend explained. She gets these attacks sometimes. Our other friend pretended to sleep.  If there was an earthquake, you know, we’d be trapped and fall.That’s what she’s afraid of. It wasn’t for me to decide what to do next. We sat there for a long time before the car moved again, and another long time after the car was moving, before the mother started speaking.

What I knew then is that the mother of the friend sitting to my left in the backseat of the car disapproved strongly of the mother who drove the car, and, on more than one occasion, she had called the driving mother’s daughter, the friend sitting to my right, a slut. Shy, small, and strange, I was liked by the mothers of both my friends in the car.


Jaime Suárez Quemain, Salvadoran poet, writes of a country of silenced volcanos:

“A Collective Shot”

In my country, sir,

men carry a padlock

on their mouths,

only when alone do they meditate,

shout and protest

because fear, sir,

is the gag

and the subtle padlock you control.

In my country, sir,

(I say mine because I want it to be mine)

even on the fence posts

you can see the longing

…they divide it, they rent it, they mortgage it,

they torture it, they kill it, they imprison it,

the newspapers declare there is total freedom, but

it’s only in the saying, sir, you know what I mean.

And it’s my country.

with its streets, its shadows, its volcanos

its high rises–dens of thieves–

whose children succeeded in escaping Malthus,

it’s my country, with its poets, its dreams and its roses

And my country, sir,

is nearly a cadaver, a solitary phantom of the night,

and it agonizes,

and you, sir,

so impassive.


And Anne Carson, again, writes of volcanic desire in Autobiography of Red:

Up high the air gets so hot it burns

the wings off birds–they just fall. Ancash stopped. He and Geryon were looking

straight into each other’s eyes.

At the word wings something passed between them like a vibration.

Ancash was fast-forwarding again,

About here–I think, yes–is the part from Japan. Listen it’s a tsunami–

a hundred kilometers from crest to crest

when it hit the beach. We saw fishing boats carried inland as far as the next village. 

Geryon listened to water destroying

a beach in Japan. Ancash was talking of continental plates. It’s worst at the edges

of ocean trenches, where one

continental plate sinks under another. Aftershocks can go on for years.

I know, said Geryon. Herakles’ gaze

on him was like a gold tongue. Magma rising. Beg your pardon? said Ancash.


In her novel The Volcano Lover, Susan Sontag describes a volcano as: “Something inert that becomes agitated, now and then.”

Fickle, sudden, total.


And Emily Dickinson:

A still—Volcano—Life—
That flickered in the night—
When it was dark enough to do
Without erasing sight—

A quiet—Earthquake Style—
Too subtle to suspect
By natures this side Naples—
The North cannot detect

The Solemn—Torrid—Symbol—
The lips that never lie—
Whose hissing Corals part—and shut—
And Cities—ooze away—


Dickinson’s volcano life destroys, wildly, creating its own logic. Quietly, still, beneath the darkness, cities ooze away. Other lives that create their own logic: art, fear, love.

I’m reminded of the willful, wild intelligence of Ukrainian-Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector, in books that assert their own forms of logic, their own diamond-hard, but, curious, shapes:

“In painting as in music and literature, what is called abstract so often seems to me the figurative of a more delicate and difficult reality, less visible to the naked eye,” Lispector writes in The Foreign Legion.

“Every book is blood,” Lispector writes in, A Breath of Life. “It’s pus, it’s excrement, it’s heart torn to shreds, it’s nerves cut to pieces, it’s electric shock, it’s coagulated blood running like boiling lava down the mountain.”


In her 1976 Parnassus Review essay on Dickinson, Adrienne Rich writes of the poet’s inner self as the location of a volcano, and what Lispector might term “the delicacy and difficulty of this reality.” How troubling it was for Rich as an ardent 16 year-old poet, to read in Dickinson’s lines the necessity of masking a wild heart. Rich calls this “Dickinson’s ‘little-girl’ strategy.” But, even masked, this power is “destructive.” Rich writes: “The woman who feels herself to be Vesuvius at home has need of a mask, at least, of innocuousness and of containment.”

Again, Dickinson:

On my volcano grows the Grass
A meditative spot—
An acre for a Bird to choose
Would be the General thought—

How red the Fire rocks below—
How insecure the sod
Did I disclose
Would populate with awe my solitude.



Say certain hearts are volcanos, or behave like volcanos. Clarice Lispector, in her strange, slender novel Near to the Wild Heart: “She felt a perfect animal inside of her, full of contradictions, of selfishness and vitality.” Something inside, something not entirely visible, even if acutely perceived. As in Sontag, the wild heart’s volcano is sometimes inert, sometimes agitated: “Why was she so burning and light, like the air that comes from a stove whose lid is lifted?”

On revising Near to the Wild Heart, Lispector writes, “When I reread what I’ve written, I feel like I’m swallowing my own vomit.”


Was the volcano on the bridge that day in California, or in the heart of my friend’s mother?

In her essay, “On the Imagination of Disaster,” Sontag writes of a relationship between nuclear panic and the science-fiction genre. “Disaster,” Sontag writes, “is one of the oldest subjects of art.” Is it boring or terrifying that science tells us that disaster can strike at any moment?

“Ours is indeed an age of extremity. For we live in the intimate threat of two equally fearful, but seemingly opposed destinies: unremitting banality and inconceivable terror. It is fantasy, served out in large rations by the popular arts, which allows most people to cope with these twin specters. For one job the fantasy can do is to lift us out of the unbearably humdrum and to distract us from terrors–real or anticipated–by an escape into exotic, dangerous situations which have last-minute happy endings. But another of the things that fantasy can do is to normalize what is psychologically unbearable, thereby inuring us to it. In one case, fantasy beautifies the world. In the other, it neutralizes it.”

It’s hot, traffic is slow, and the three little girls in the backseat of a car yawn and giggle contagiously, veering towards the kind of loopy, fevered sniping that usually only happens between tired siblings, when panic seizes at the driver. She is searching for an answer, but only has access to a series of questions: What if it happens now? What if it happens now? What if it happens now? Each passing moment accretes terror, thickens it. How to stop time? 

What the mother driving the car did then was make an illegal u-turn, drive us, tilted, the right-hand wheels of the car briefly elevated on a grassy stretch of curb, take us to the top of a hill, where we waited, only marginally safer from the shifting of plates, until the end of rush hour. She cried and rolled down the windows, smoked long menthol cigarette after long menthol cigarette. After thinking it over for some years, I’ve considered what I might do, if ever I find my own wild heart in the place of hers; maybe take us to a drive-in movie, which I suppose carries its own risks.

Image is from the cover art of Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God, New Directions, 1995. 


  1. Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red. Vintage, 1998.
  2. Carson, Anne. Short Talks. Brick Books, 1992.
  3. Lispector, Clarice. Água Viva. Translated and republished by New Directions, 2012.
  4. Lispector, Clarice. A Breath of Life. Translated and republished by New Directions, 2012.
  5. Lispector, Clarice. Near to the Wild Heart, Translated and republished by New Directions, 2012.
  6. Nelson, Maggie. Bluets. Wave, 2009.
  7. Quemain,  Jaime Suárez, “A Collective Shot,” from Volcán Anthology. City Lights Books, 1983.
  8. Rich, Adrienne. “Vesuvius at Home,” Parnassus Review, Vol. 5, No. 1, 1976.
  9. Sontag, Susan. “On the Imagination of Disaster,” from Against Interpretation. Picador, 1966.
  10. Sontag, Susan. The Volcano Lover. Picador, 1992. 
  11. Winterson, Jeanette. Written on the Body. Vintage, 1994.

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