Midsummer at the Pearl Theater


In Titania’s Bower (Photo: WSJ)

What if everyone was always bringing in a wall? All together all the time!

It’s one of the meta-dramatic paradoxes of Midsummer, which I’m not sure I’ve seen this joyfully performed since the glorious early-00s Donkey Show days of disco Shakespeare at El Flamenco in Chelsea. If the play calls for “wall” but you have just actors and no set, how do you stage the wall? The answer, as told in two-voices by the double-bodied male-and-female Snug the Joiner in Eric Tucker’s stunning production, is for actors to play wall — to entwine and tangle and make walls from human bodies, which turn out to be able to fashion themselves into almost anything. 2015-10-02 19.39.36

Five actors with essentially blank black and white costumes played all the play’s parts, often — as in the opening moments — passing the roles around, so that everyone got to play some version of Duke Theseus and his buskin’d bride. I heard someone complaining at intermission that the action was hard to follow, but the house last night was mostly students, from St. John’s and Baruch College and I think some Manhattan junior high school. The kids liked it, or at least I think they did. I liked it too.

What I mean about always bringing in a wall is that the cast played almost entirely as a collective, all five using their bodies together to provide each other with everything from scenery to props. Some of the bits were easy to interpret, the flapping hands behind the backside that signaled Puck’s fairy wings, the undulating arms of the Faerie Queen, the clopping pointed hands that were Bottom’s ass hoofs. Others were gorgeously random — the Jeopardy theme and Girl from Ipanema hummed as transitions, Demetrius speaking maybe a third of his lines in Spanish, the slow and painful not-in-unison movements of  Snug the Joiner, whose two bodies got my vote as best performance of the night, despite the hard work and brilliance of Jason O’Connell as Bottom and Puck, and many other roles besides. His Brando-as-Stanley Kowalski Pyramus pleased the crowd, but I’ll especially remember the coup de theatre that ended the play: he buzzed into being the mosquito through which he’d previously indicated the invisible presence of Puck, grabbed the bug between his fingers, squeezed, popped it into his mouth, snapped his fingers, and just like that – play’s done! star

To always bring in a wall the five players lumped themselves into one mass, shoulder to shoulder or smushed in a pile or sprawled out across Titania’s bower. They made themselves into everything that was not there. All the actors handled the language well, but the heart of the performance was physical. I’ve seen a lot of productions that play up Shakespeare’s obscene puns on the wall’s “chink” by having the lovers kiss through another actor’s legs, but I’d never before seen actors double-activate the puns by thrusting first a female then a male crotch forward. When Thisbe lamented to her lover, “I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all,” the multibodied wall fell on top of her and — well, I think you get the idea.

I wondered during intermission if they could possibly keep up the pace. Each new scene redoubled the physical jokes and tricks, and it’s hard to keep pulling off such things for a full 2 and 1/2 hours. The second half turned more overtly sexual, including a five-way tryst in Titania’s bower that I suspect embarrassed the junior high kids. The flash-cuts between the players and the aristocrats during the closing on-stage performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe” — all five actors played in both groups, so the shifts were communicated just by posture and changes in accent — were fun, but perhaps a bit more obvious than some earlier moves.

My favorite moment in the play, and one of my favorite speeches in Shakespeare, is Bottom’s description of his dream of loving the Faerie Queen. O’Connell didn’t botch it at all, but I’m not sure he got all the way to the heights. It’s a speech about error that teems with errors, a lyric vision in prose, and a hymn to the power of art spoken artlessly. Like so much of this play, it’s forgiving in performance but also very hard to strike dead on:

Methought I was, — and methought I had, — but man is but a patched fool, if he will offer to say what methought I had. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was. I will get Peter Quince to write a ballad of this dream: it shall be called Bottom’s Dream, because it hath no bottom. (4.1)

Maybe the slight lack I felt at this moment opened up because it’s a solo, and this production’s best bits required all five players playing. Bottom played all the parts, Egeus, Puck, and the Weaver too, but what he relied on wasn’t unobtainable faith but super-charged flesh — Titania’s shout for joy at loving an ass, Hippolyta’s rage, lovers running through human woods.

I wish I could go back tonight! Get to the Pearl before the run ends on Halloween! 2015-10-03 11.03.46



Free Books!: How We Write and Oceanic New York

How-We-Write-cover-E-216x346[Now that I’ve got your attention I might remind you that books are never free, just as they are never singular: they are always collective products with both visible and invisible costs, benefits, and consequences in the world. In other words — support open-access publishing!]

I’ve been meaning to write more about both of these projects, but until I do that, here’s a quick note  about two new open-access books recently published by the mad geniuses at Punctum Books. I’m pleased and proud to be part of both, and hope that they find lots of happy readers!

How We Write is a collaborative book edited by U. of Toronto medievalist Suzanne Conklin Akbari. It features thirteen essays by academics of many different stages in the profession, from grad students to senior professors, admitting to the real truths of their writing experiences. It’s not a book of advice but an experiment in shared exposure. Writing is a messy process, and this book shares the mess. ONY full cover 20150812b

Oceanic New York, which I edited, started back in October 2013 as a symposium at St. John’s. The book is a collaboration between eighteen writers and artists who think together about the relationship between the Ocean and New York City. It features many wonderful experimental voices and images. I especially love the cover, designed for the book by artist Marina Zurkow, which may or may not represent on some symbolic level my commute to campus

Download both for free, or order inexpensive paperbacks, and while you’re at it support open-access publishing and Punctum Books.

Screenshot from How We Write. Photo credit: Olivia Mentz


Notes toward a Migrancy Syllabus

DriftJonathan Hsy’s rich post on Medievalists and the Global Refugee Crisis has me thinking. The poetics of exile and migrancy overflow premodern literary culture. What are Odysseus and Aeneas but violently displaced migrants who eventually make it to old or new homes?

[updated with thanks to Karl Steel and Justin Kolb]

No time before class this morning to elaborate on the refugee experience in premodern literature — except perhaps to gesture toward a future syllabus, not for this semester, but perhaps for spring 2016:

  1. “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer”
  2. Caroline Bergvall’s Drift (which combines bits of the Seafarer with the story of the Left-to-Die boat full of Algerian refugees in 2011)

  3. The Man of Law’s Tale (with Jonathan’s book and the 2003 BBC adaptation!)

  4. Pericles (conveniently playing at Theater for a New Audience in  winter 2016)

  5. As You Like It


6. Paradise Lost

7.  Poetry of exile: Mary Sidney’s Psalms, Amelia Lanyer, Marvell, Donne

8. [if early modern] A Christian Turned Turk, The Renegado, Coryate’s walk to India

9. [if Shakespeare} Othello and Leo Africanus; Eliz I’s letter expelling the “moors”

10. [if larger timespan] Candide / Oroonooko / Robinson Crusoe / Equiano

Depending on whether it’s a Shakespeare class or a more general / multiperiod class there could be much more — the opening books of the Aeneid or wandering sections of the OdysseyTimon of Athens, Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveler, etc. I’d introduce the class with some hard-to-watch materials from this past week’s news. Possible also Derrida’s Of Hospitality or this great post from Teju Cole that uses The Gift of Death to think about our duty to displaced people.

Now, back to my already planned course on Shakespeare and Empire! Today’s the epic/counter-epic teaser, via Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage and David Hadbawnik’s translation of the Aeneid.


Plans for 2015-16

MentzOn this gorgeous weekend I’m taking in the festivities of Short Beach Days and peering over the knife’s edge of the new semester. Actually I lost my balance and plunged in already — even taught a class this past Friday morning — but I still think the semester can’t begin in full force until after Labor Day.

It’s going to be a busy year, for me and for the St. John’s English Department. On the SJU front, we’ve officially opened our PhD program in English, which will replace our DA program. We’ll be celebrating and publicizing this with a series of events over the course of the academic year. Details on the St John’s English blog!

I’ve also got two books coming out. The edited collection Oceanic New York should be out sometime before BABEL 2015 in Toronto on Oct 9-11. My latest monograph, Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550 – 1719, will be out sometime later in the fall, probably around Dec 1. Both are labors of love and concealed hoards of time passed. I can barely wait to hear what everyone thinks of them! Writing and editing are such chronologically jumbled processes: these books contain slices and fragments from many different parts of the last decade or so of my life, coming together into physical forms this fall.

Partly because it’s great fun to be on the road with new books out or in the offing, I’m also planning several trips and events this year. Here’s the current round-up. Hope to see some of you at some of them! ONY full cover 20150812b

September 14, Rutgers University, seminar on “Early Modern Studies: State of the Art,” at which I’m co-presenting with David Glimp of UC Boulder. My materials, which will circulate in advance, comprise a works-in-progress series that I’ve gathered under the title “Error, Nature, and the Early Modern Anthropocene.”

September 30, Penn University, Medieval and Early Modern studies Seminar. I’m presenting on “#RisingWaters, Pirate Utopias, Antony and Cleopatra.”

October 9, BABEL 2015, Toronto: I’ll be the co-creator with the artist Patrick Mahon of A Book of Absent Whales, a multi-media assemblage that entangles whale bones, video feeds, poetry, Moby-Dick, and other things. It’ll be on display for all three days of BABEL 2015, though I’ll only be there on the Friday.

January 8-9, MLA, Austin TX: I’ll be on two panels. The first opening roundtable of the new MLA Ecocriticism and the Environmental Humanities Forum; the panel’s title is “Energy, Matter, Force” and my title is “Error.” I’ll also be on an Elemental Ecologies special session organized by Jeffrey Cohen, where I’ll speak about “Phlogiston” and probably also about metaphor as an ecological concept.

February 4-6, College of Charleston, SC: I’ll be talking about human and nonhuman networks that emerge through shipwreck on remote Atlantic islands in the early modern period at a small conference on “Marronage and Marooning in the early modern Atlantic world.”

March 23-26, SAA, New Orleans, LA: I’ll be co-leading with Matt Kozusko a Shakespeare Association seminar on “Shakespearean Communities.”

May 12-14, Kalamazoo, MI: I’m not positive this is firm yet, but I think I’ll be on a roundtable about “Play” sponsored by GWMEMSI, with many great people. If I’m not too exhausted by mid-May!

That list doesn’t include two semi-local events that I’d very much like to pop in on in nearby Boston: the ACLA from March 17-20, at which my friends Tobias Menley and Jesse Oak Taylor are putting together a great panel/roundtable on “Reading in the Anthropocene” that I’ll join if I possible can; and RSA from March 31-April 3, also in Boston. Spring is looking busy already but…

I’m also planning a party for Oceanic New York, hopefully on Th 11/5. Details to follow!


“Something”: An Oceanic Splash toward the Ending of Inherent Vice

[A bloggy present for my summer grad students, laboring away this lovely weekend on papers for our class, “Pynchon’s California and the Promise of Theory”]

The foggy ending of Inherent Vice is a favorite California dreamscape for Pynchonistas, but this time through I spotted an internal echo I hadn’t seen before. At novel’s end, Doc like Oedipa in Lot 49 awaits revelation:

Something like the photo in St Flip's pad

Something like the photo in St Flip’s pad

For the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead. (369)

There are plenty of candidates for that “something else,” from the Golden Fang to Shasta Fay (who’s actually there with Doc in the chickenshit romance version of the scene in the movie), but the phrasing also reaches back to another minor savant in the novel, Sauncho Smilax, the maritime lawyer who plays Skipper to Doc’s Gilligan and knows all about inherent vice. His gorgeous “sea of time” speech (341) may, it’s true, only be in Doc’s dream or the movie’s voice-over, but when the two hopeful desperadoes sail out after the good ship Golden Fang / Preserved, they discover, at a typically Pynchonian angle to reality, another kind of ending. Here is what they see:

“Something,” Sauncho said.

“Good.” (357)

Their short boat trip takes them to a place from which Doc’s beach town looks different, smaller, and less threatening:

Gordita Beach emerged from the haze, gently flaking away in the salt breezes, the ramshackle town in a spill of weather-beaten colors, like paint chips at some out-of-the-way hardware store, and the hillside up to Dunecrest, which Doc had always thought of, especially after nights of excess, as steep, a grade everybody sooner or later wiped their clutch trying to get up and out of town on, looking from out here strangely flat, hardly there at all. (354)

In the otherworld of Ocean, flatland problems look, well, flat. At first only surfers float alongside Doc and Sauncho, “bobbing up and down, like Easter Island in reverse” (355). It’s a brief trip outside History, punctuated by a vision of a fleet young hippie outrunning a lumbering CHP motorcycle cop on the sand.

Coming around the corner of Palos Verdes Point and into the domain of uber-baddie Crocker Fenway reveals the promised treasure, Sauncho’s nautical obsession, and the boat that may hold all the novel’s secrets:

…there in the distance, out from San Pedro with all her staysails and jibs set, blooming like a cubist rose, came the schooner. The look on Sauncho’s face was of pure unrequited love. (355-56)inherent-vice

Fantasy is always pursued by History in Pynchon (or is it the other way around?), so it’s not surprising to see a Coast Guard cutter and DOJ vessel chasing the ship. Three shadowy figures — members of the Tristero? Coy, Hope, and Amethyst? some Trinity or other? — flee before the ship is impounded, but the crucial encounter isn’t with the Man but with the Wave:

Doc put the sets rolling in at them from the northwest at thirty and maybe even thirty-five feet from crest to trough — curling massively, flaring in the sun, breaking in repeated explosion….It was St. Flip of Lawndale’s mythical break, also known to old-timers as Death’s Doorstill. (357-58).

St Flip of Lawndale, one of my favorite characters in the novel who didn’t make it into the movie, is also the Gordita Beach-er whose flit to Maui opened up a place for Shasta to crash upon re-entry, which wave-decorated pad also hosts her strange reunion scene with Doc in a day outside of History. With his piece of the True Board and surfer’s understanding of what it means to walk on water, St Flip might represent a happy if opaque to Doc engagement with the watery half of beachy Gordita. To Doc, the wavespray inhibits vision, makes it hard to see the revelation he craves:

Something [sic] was also happening to the light, as if the air ahead of them were thickening with unknown weather. Even with binoculars it was hard to keep the schooner in view. (357)

It doesn’t last. It never does. The Coast Guard takes the ship. But smiling Sauncho has one last trick to play, the possibility of a “legal marine policy” (359) which, if no shadowy owners come into the light to claim the Fang/Preserved for a year and a day, might pass the beloved ship to a devoted owner. “If there’s litigation,” Saunch sez, “I’ll be in on it” (359).

Maybe that’s the best we can hope for?


Wet Work for How We Write



I’m very excited to be joining Suzanne Conklin Akbari’s fast-moving project, How We Write: Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blank Page. The project asks a variety of academic writers from assorted professional levels and disciplines, to write about how we (really) get words onto pages.

I wrote about what I usually write about:

What if we think of writing as an encounter with all the alien environments outside us? When I think about writing as process, metaphorically and physically, I return to the central obsession of my recent work, the human encounter with an alien globe best represented (to me, anyway) by the ocean. But the wet work of writing also includes encounters with an infant’s scream or an indecipherable manuscript. There’s no “right” way to pursue this encounter and make words from it, only a series of techniques through which we can put off being overwhelmed. Writing emerges from putting little bodies in contact with vast seas. If we try too hard to stay in control we’re treating language as a mere tool, something we can master. Words are the best machines humans have constructed, but they are also perhaps our least ready to hand, most mystifying and frustrating. Wet work: it’s through our efforts to employ language that we’re reminded most insistently of the limits of body and mind.

Freestyle looking up

Freestyle looking up

Writing is like fishing in that it involves flashing a lure into the unknown and hoping that something bites. It also resembles fishing in that there’s a wanton cruelty to dragging living meanings up to the surface so that we can see them. Sometimes it feels as if they should stay in the water.

Writing like swimming requires a naked encounter with unimaginable seas. I started writing about the sea by way of Northrop Frye and James Cameron: an odd combination. The great Canadian professor joked that shipwreck was the “standard means of transportation” in Greek romances and their early modern imitators (Sidney, Greene, Lodge, Nashe) about whom I wrote my dissertation and first book. The American filmmaker’s sugar-sweet movie about the great ship going down showed me that shipwreck retains its potency even inside melodrama, not secret so much as unspoken, because it doesn’t require words.

            Writing as swimming floats in the cold water where Leo goes down. It treads water happily, patiently, knowingly, waiting for insight. It’s not comfortable and it can’t last. We’re not in control.

This essay also has more baseball in it than usual:

For this child of the New Jersey suburbs, sports still has the best metaphors. Here’s one I start with:

Flying away

Flying away

Writing Maxim #1: “Swing hard, in case you hit the ball.”

The baseball metaphor highlights chance and difficulty: some key parts of the writing process, as I semi-understand it, remain out of the author’s control. The maxim encourages getting comfortable with failure, because that’s what happens most of the time. So much of writing feels like chance and failure – you practice and practice, get your swing just right, hope for contact, and most of the time you miss the ball. Writing isn’t about control, no matter how hard we work at it. “You can’t aim the baseball,” intones the sonorous announcer’s voice that accompanies me on my evening commute from April to (if we’re lucky) October. It takes all your skill just to make contact, and then hope something good happens. If not, take another swing.

And more combat academic parenting:

I’ve got a picture, somewhere, that must have been taken in February 2001. I’m drafting a paper for the Shakespeare Association of America conference about economic thinking in The Merchant of Venice. (You can find a later version of it in the 2003 collection Money and the Age of Shakespeare, edited by Linda Woodbridge.) In the picture, I’m sitting in a chair with a paperback open to Launcelot Gobbo’s great speech about the pleasures of being an unscrupulous middle-man: “The fiend gives the more friendly counsel, I will run, fiend, my heels are at your commandment” (2.2.1-32). On my shoulder is my month-old son, red-faced and screaming. A colicky infant, he gave us about three or four hours of high-volume serenade each day for his first year or so. I was reading my paper to him – I’d started with The Odyssey in the hospital, sentimentalist that I am – and writing it at the same time. Surely some of his rage and force found its way into my sentences. I thought I was writing about the “new economic criticism,” about which I didn’t really know that much, except what I’d just started reading. But the picture shows that I was writing with and to him. In other words: rage and love, along with money and exchange.

      It’d be easy to look at that picture and say I was distracted, and to think that the only responsible and professional way to write a “real” SAA paper would be in a quiet space, preferably a library carrel or a child-free office. But I don’t think that would have birthed a better paper, even if I had been able to find such a place that noisy winter. The shock of fatherhood was so new to me then – he’s fourteen now, but it still feels new – that there’s no way I could have not been writing about it, through it, with it. I remember being frustrated that the paper wasn’t as polished as I could have wished – I didn’t really know at that point about the multiple drafts and revisions between conference paper and published article; another practical secret I could have benefitted from hearing earlier. But now I think of that paper as a transition, the first writing I did as a parent, an introduction to the distracted and emotional way I’ve been writing and living ever since.

I have two favorite parts. I like the pictures posted here that my daughter Olivia took of me today, in my summer writing office.

Headless freestyle

Headless freestyle

This paragraph is my other favorite part:

Here’s the thing: you can only write what you’re ready to write, in a moment, in the encounter. You can’t aim the baseball. You can prepare yourself – block off time, face the page or keyboard, assemble notes and outlines, sit pinioned in a too-small airplane seat – but you can’t control what happens in the writing moment. I don’t know what’s happening in this moment, now, not entirely. That’s the good news: it’s through writing that humanists create new knowledge. It’s good to surprise ourselves, when we can.


Stone, Fire, Water, Smoke, Fish

The Churchill River from above

The Churchill River from above

I’m back from the Churchill River lake country northwest of Lac La Ronge Provincial Park in Saskatchewan, from a week of fishing & family. On the flight home I finished Jeffrey Cohen’s new book Stone, a gorgeous lovesong to lithic form, narrative endurance, and the urgent need to connect. A great match of place and book!

My favorite thing about Stone is its sinuous form. It’s more slippery than it looks, or than we might generally expect a book (mostly) about medieval literary culture to be. Authors, texts, and intimations swirl into view, vanish, and then return: Isidore’s Etymologies, Albertus Magnus’s Book of Minerals, the history-romance-travel narratives of Geoffrey of Monmouth, John Mandeville, and many others, including the wayward hero Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, whose itineraries take him from Bordeaux to Paris, Scotland, Berlin, and finally Iceland. He’s a good traveling companion, and he travels with good companions.

Stone’s slipperiness came home to me last Thursday morning, on our second day of fishing, when my father, braving the north woods in, I’m sorry to report, not quite the right shoes, slipped on a sloping rock getting out of the boat. I grabbed him before he could slide into the deep pool, but it was a treacherous moment: we expect stone to be solid, except when it’s not. Water makes it slick. Stone betrays, sometimes.

Black Bear at Black Bear Lake

Black Bear at Black Bear Lake

Academics reading Stone will notice the informal “Excursus” interchapters, which narrate the Cohen family travels to various stoney sites. Stonehenge recurs in each substantial chapter, until the too-familiar stones, which I confess I cannot see in my mind’s eye without hearing a Spinal Tap soundtrack, seem old friends. The careful movement from textual analysis to material ecotheory to family story makes Stone a deeply personal book, and a moving one to read. Early on, Cohen quotes one of my favorite lines from ecotheorist Stacy Alaimo. “If nature is to matter,” he quotes, “we need more potent, more complex understandings of materiality” (6-7). I think something similar emerges as the enduring gambit of this book: if we want academic books to matter (and we should), we need more potent and more personal understandings of our critical projects. More experimental books, please!

Not fifteen minutes after fishing my Dad off the slippery rock, I felt a hard thwack on the crown of my head, followed by a sharp tugging pain. I’d been hooked! An errant back-cast in a small boat re-routed my afternoon away from the lake to a lodge-bound portage, fortuitously-timed float plane, and rural Emergency Room in La Ronge, SK. No big deal, said the doctor. We pull hooks out of fishermen about once a week in the summer. He showed me a cork board in the tiny hospital where last year’s hooks were proudly displayed, with names and home towns of the anglers. Connecticut would soon make an appearance.

Fishing, like stone, abounds with allegories.

Distant fires

Distant fires

Perhaps my favorite section of Stone imagines a “zoe-egalatarian ethics” (228), which would reframe Bruno Latour’s “Parliament of Things” to include not just “bare or animal life but a force (call it life, wildness, desire, vibrancy, creatureliness) that is materiality in action” (228). Lithic formations, both those shaped by humans and those unwrought, serve in Cohen’s telling as limit cases that prompt and repay intense thinking: do all stones crave and create stories, as the not-always-hidden former title of this book, “Stories of Stone,” suggests? Or is the case of stone an extreme example of human eagerness to populate the material universe with meanings? In the Stone <–> Story equation, which direction does the arrow point first?

The waterworld of the Churchill River system, which the local Cree people, including our fishing guides, call Missinipe or Big Water, is full of exposed glacial stone, big shallow lakes, and waterfalls, but last week we saw the moving force of fire. Unseasonably hot weather two weeks earlier had been followed by thunderstorms and a lightning fire that burned hundreds of acres, including maybe a half-dozen unoccupied cabins. (Many were winter trapping cabins, unoccupied in the summer, our guides said.) The day we started fishing the fires were out. It was raining and cold, maybe 50 degrees, but on Thursday afternoon the sun peeked through and the temperature started to climb. When I flew back to La Ronge to have my head de-hooked that afternoon, I spotted maybe three or four places where the smoldering blaze had re-erupted, sending tendrils of smoke high into the hazy sky.

After two more sunny days of fishing, we flew home through clouds of smoke. The water level was down maybe two feet below last year. The fire was back — but such fires, we were told, were common in the summer.

Smoke on the return flight

Smoke on the return flight

Stone exists, in Cohen’s telling, as an “intimate alien” (249), deeply prized and fundamentally opaque. Like the forms of materiality we misname “nature,” stone abides at an angle to human desires, receptive, resilient, and, alas, not always fully responsive. What was the smoke we flew through but a thin layer of rock, a dispersed grit pushed aloft by heat and wind?

Finishing the book on the plane into Connecticut Sunday night, I thought about curiosity as an ecological force: fire’s desire to know the forest all the way to the shoreline; a black bear’s desire to know what we were doing, floating in the middle of the lake in a shiny tub; the fish’s desire, which fixes the hook in its mouth; the academic’s unrelenting curiosity, the slow patient unfolding of meanings and connections. Plus of course my own peculiar curiosities, the hooks I flash into so many waters, the smoke and fire and water through which I splash.

Humans, formed of clay, are on a basic level “mobile rocks” (222) as St. Augustine reminds us via Jeffrey Cohen. Books are wooden (or digital) versions of engraved stones, passed from hand to hand. “Every stone desires” (239), and even “catastrophe is entanglement” (65). This book teems with lists, questions, speculations, assertions, engagements, flows, collaborators, “appositives” (8) (!), histories, fictions, and emotions.

Ian with his fish

Ian with his fish

It’s also, more than any other academic study I can think of, a book about family. Every time Wendy, Katherine, and Alex appear — mostly, but not only, in the personal “Excursus” sections that punctuate and structure the volume — they seem to the reader welcome friends and standing stones, mobile but stable, spinning and moving and dancing. If Stone is about family, it also includes the vast imaginative families that Jeffrey Cohen and his many collaborators have gathered together at In the Middle, BABEL, punctum books, GW-MEMSI, and other venues, permanent or provisional. For the past five years or so, I’m been privileged and inspired to be a wandering early modernist among these mostly-medieval pilgrims. Like northern Saskatchewan, it’s a good place to be.

Ian and me in the boat

Ian and me in the boat


At its core, Stone seems to me a book that risks following metaphor all the way into materiality and seeing what comes out the other side. That’s an eco-critical project I’m also invested in, and one that I think needs pursuing in our age of ecological instability and change.

Putting my hand to the stitch in my scalp where the hook bit a few days ago, I wonder about comparable projects about fishing or swimming or writing. Academic imagination seeks and finds matter all around us, in a swirl of ecological curiosity and analytical pressure. Empedocles’s answer is still the best one: all things in this world, stones and families and fish and words and ideas, come together and part through Love and Strife.


The Anthrobscene by Jussi Parikka

2015-06-12 08.03.48This short book, one of U. Minnesota P’s new “Forerunners” series, is a great little one-nighter for those of us weighing Anthropocene thoughts. The Press blurb tells it — “This is gray literature publishing: where intense thinking, change, and speculation take place in scholarship.”

Jussi Parikka teaches aesthetic theory and technological culture at the Winchester School of Art in Southampton. His play on the age of Anthropos emphasizes the obscene nature of despoiling wild spaces:

To call it “anthrobscene” is just to emphasize what we knew but perhaps shied away from acting on: a horrific human-caused drive toward a sixth mass extinction of species (6).

It’s a book about media cultures and geology, with special attention to the history of resource extraction through mining. The best part is the careful layering and sedimentation of different modes: high theory, material history, literary responses. For Parikka, “deep time” functions “both as temporality and as geological materiality” (29).

He emphasizes the wide reach and complexity of contemporary geologic extraction:

We have shifted from being a society that until mid-twentieth century was based on a very restricted list of materials (wood, brick, iron, copper, gold, silver, and a few plastics) to one in which a computer chip is composed of 60 different elements (15).

Perhaps more pointedly:  iPhones are

“geological extracts,” drawing across the globe earth resources and supported by a multiplicity of infrastructures. The bits of earth you carry around … include material from the Red Dog pit mine in Alaska (zinc ores) which are then refined into indium in Trail, Canada (37).

He turns Pynchon-y at the end, with a conclusion about technologies of light in Against the Day (2007). Pynchon reads modernity as the amalgamation of alchemy + money: “Maybe capitalism decided it didn’t need the old magic anymore” (55; Against the Day 88).

Nice closing lines too:

Data mining might be a leading hype term for our digital age of the moment but it is enabled only by the sort of mining that we associate with the ground and its ungrounding. Digital culture starts in the depths and deep times of the planet. Sadly, the story is most often more obscene than something to be celebrated with awe. (56)


McElroy Shakespeare Celebration

Me speaking before the show

Me speaking before the show

It’s been almost a month since the McElroy Shakespeare Celebration at Loyola University in Chicago, and I’ve still got it buzzing in my head. Seeing a brilliant cast of six students, two professional actors, student techs, and a faculty director bring my blue and green eco-theories about The Winter’s Tale to a live stage was the sort of thing that happens seldom in an academic career.


The bear


The cast takes a bow




Statue scene

This post is partly a photo gallery, featuring images taken by Loyola grad student Lydia Craig.


Sheep-shearing scene

In putting my contrast between green pastoral stasis and blue oceanic dynamism into practice, the actors reminded me how much stage choices get expressed through human bodies, rather than — or perhaps in addition to — language. We professors have a habit of digging down into words, while actors use bodies. It’s another reason we should work together sometimes.

I saw the difference performance makes most clearly in the staging of the famous “great creating Nature” exchange between Perdita and Florizel. In the second, “blue” and disruptive version of the scene, I asked the actors to look for ways to move past harmony into dynamism. They responded with two great performance choices that I’ll think about each time I return to this scene. When Perdita offered Polixenes “flowers of middle summer” (4.4.107) after he has bullied her into agreeing with his homily about Art and Nature, he refused to accept them. The visible lack of harmony between the two actors accented the lack of intellectual agreement in their argument. A few lines later, a leering Camillo grabbed Perdita’s arm and held her close to him when he spoke of leaving off “grazing” and living “only by gazing” (4.4.129-30), were he of her flock. I could feel the threat in my front-row seat.

The performed exchange emphasized the unsolved conflict between Perdita’s vision of youthful promise and the older aristocrats’ insistence on artistic and political control.

I’m left feeling unsettled about the core exchange itself. Perdita’s refusal to hybridize flowers seems like an intellectual mistake; Polixenes’s argument for an “art / Which does mend Nature — change it rather — but / The art itself is Nature” (4.4.95-97) makes a strong rational case. But the play’s sympathies are overwhelmingly with the young lovers. Polixenes uses logic and poetry, but the play casts its lot with Perdita’s feeling.

She’s the “Queen of curds and cream” (4.4.161), but perhaps also, as Florizel describes her, a blue creature of the Bohemian coast:

When you do dance, I wish you

A wave o’th’sea, that you might ever do

Nothing but that, move still, still on,

And own no other function. (4.4.140-43)


Cast takes a bow

At some point I’ll try to untangle this play’s engagement with blue and green, error and Nature, logic and love. When I do, I’ll credit the McElroy Shakespeare Celebration for helping me.

The Clown rescues Perdita

The Clown rescues Perdita


Tis Pity by Red Bull at the Duke

PosterThe bloody half of my semester’s-end theater treat was Red Bull’s Tis Pity last night, back in the company’s old haunts at the Duke Theater on 42nd Street. Nothing like a high-spirited incest tragedy to send me off onto dark highways heading home. I’m feeling a bit sentimental, not to mention tired, today. Classes are over, spring and all is here – heart on my sleeve, perhaps, or on a knife’s point, take your pick…

The Red Bull Theater, one of my favorite local NYC companies, is dedicated to bringing (mostly) non-Shakespearean 17c plays to modern stages. John Ford’s gruesome send-up of Romeo and Juliet — let’s see what happens if we make them brother and sister?! — plays to the company’s strengths: clarity, forcefulness, a dazzlingly consistent and brilliant cast.  It’s hard not to have a special appreciation for Everett Quinton, a stage veteran who was a mainstay at Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company. In this show he played the oily Signor Donado, whose foppish son Bergetto, gleefully camped up by Ryan Garbayo, has no chance of getting the girl. But really the entire cast was fantastic. The assembled suitors of the lovely Annabella (Amelia Pedlow) were each distinct types: dashing Lord Soranzo (Clifton Duncan), foolish Bergetto, the violent soldier Grimaldi (Tramell Tillman).

Brother and sister

Brother and sister

The bloody heart of any production of this play is the incestuous couple, and here I was struck by the difference between Red Bull’s show and an excellent version of the play by London-based Cheek by Jowl that I saw at BAM in 2012. In the 2012 version, the set was all interior: we spent the night in Annabella’s bedroom. In Red Bull’s version, we were outside on the street, surrounded by corruption. The bed appeared from behind a stage recess for only two scenes: the couple’s first night together, and the scene in which Giovanni kills his sister before cutting out her heart and carrying with him on a bloody dagger up to the play’s end. Red Bull always works in and as a company, distributing our attention almost evenly around the busy stage. Their focus wasn’t only on the lovers.

That’s not to say that Amelia Pedlow’s Annabella and Matthew Amendt’s Giovanni weren’t compelling and disturbing. But for many scenes, especially early in the play, the central pair stood off to the side while Ford’s cartoonish Italy displayed its decadent wares. Giovanni especially seemed slightly less stage-filling than his rival suitors, though that’s perhaps because he only needed to woo for a few early scenes.

Cheek by Jowl’s production ended with Annabella’s ghost holding her brother’s hand, but that level of sentimental sympathy wasn’t the point in Red Bull’s version. A brilliant small-part turn by Rocco Sisto as the corrupt Cardinal who eagerly hoovered up money for the Pope’s coffers provided this production’s center. This  play’s theatrical Italy was a social maze of greed and predation that chewed up any and all lovers. The Cardinal gleefully closed the play by pronouncing judgment on Annabella’s corpse:

Annabella's marriage

Annabella’s marriage

Of one so young, so rich in nature’s store,

Who could not say, ‘tis pity she’s a whore?

Listening to Ford’s language, I kept hearing the special charge on certain words: heart, fate, lust, love. I was even more impressed this time around by the play itself, a dark meditation on and extension of Romeo and Juliet.

My favorite line was from Bergetto, with just the right mix of philosophy and farce

Time’s a blockhead. (3.5)

Soranzo and Annabella

Soranzo and Annabella

Go see it before it closes on May 16!