Bodysurfing considered as a historical practice

What a piece of work is a wave!

Last Wednesday in golden afternoon light, I spent a perfect hour bodysurfing the Jersey shore with my daughter. We’d swim into the curl and plunge down the face into white water that would carry us over the elongated beach of low tide. Sometimes — if we stayed with the wave til its end — we’d be brought up short by a final thump into broken shells and a more steeply slanting beach. We’d laugh, flip ourselves over, and head back out for the next wave.

My father taught me to bodysurf the beaches of Bay Head, NJ, when I was younger than Olivia is now. I’ve been splashing over the same sand since the 1970s, though this past week was my first trip back there since my prophetic parents sold the beach house two years before Hurricane Sandy tore up the shore.

End of the ride

Bodysurfing memories are mostly physical: the vast shudder with which the wave lifts you into itself, a sudden plunge down the face, the pressure on my hands when I hold them together in front of me, knifing through the white water. To keep from scraping my belly, I end each ride by jamming the heels of my hands down into the sand, arching myself up as the last inch of water surges past.

I’m a head-down bodysurfer, in a New Jersey style that almost broke my neck when I tried it at my college room-mate’s home in La Jolla, CA, in 1989.

Heading back out

“You hold your hands together in front of you,” I told Olivia last week, as my Dad told me four decades ago. “Your hands work like the prow of a boat. They hold you in the wave, while the wave pushes you forward. Between the two, you can ride all the way up to the beach.”

I’ve bodysurfed lots of other places. Coogee Beach in Sydney, in the last few months of 1989. Venice and Point Mugu on either side of LA, in the early ’90s. Carpenteria, CA. Jacksonville, FL, where my parents live now. Rhode Island. Portugal. I unlocked peak academic ocean-nerdiness one early morning at Hendry’s Beach in Santa Barbara, when I lured a bunch of professors and grad students into wetsuits for a pre-plenary bodysurfing session at BABEL 2014. One especially memorable afternoon in  July 1996 I bodysurfed the usually too-cold waters of Muir Beach, CA, the day before I got married.

But for me, and to my great good fortune also for Alinor and our two now-teenage kids, there’s no place that combines surf and history quite like the Jersey Shore.

What kind of human histories can waves tell? Stories that overflow with patterns and changes, without solidity, reforming themselves at each tide yet recognizable, familiar, even early in the season when the water is still cold.

On Saturday morning we needed to be out of our rental by 11 am, and two days of ocean breeze had churned up a surf a little bit, so I was the only one of the family to join the many surfers in the morning swell. I didn’t go all the way out for the bigger waves with the board-riders, but I caught a few nice ones.

I must be underwater somewhere

My favorite image — the first one in this post — shows me in the lower left walking slowing back out into the surf, through waist-high chop toward one small swell, a bigger one beyond it, and into currents of grey-green blending with fog and sky. I love the scale and density of this image. As somebody almost said, What a piece of work is a wave!

Photo credits Alinor Sterling 6/17/17

I can’t see my face, but I must be trying to read something.




A Maiden Knight at Kalamazoo

Mishigami, the "great water"

Mishigami, the “great water”

(Cross-posted at In the Middle)

When you dive into cold water, it pushes the wind out of you. The icy shock holds you still, just for an instant. You slide beneath the waves into water’s slippery grip, and then lurch back up onto unsteady feet. Now everything’s different. The air bites exposed skin, but it isn’t just the cold or even the wind raking the lake into ragged swells. Something else. Your breath comes in near-frantic wrenches, and you can nearly feel some hidden motions inside your body, some awakened fire, constricted now inside loose ropes of cold. The lakewater has encircled your body, taken you whole – that’s what immersion means – but after you stand up it gradually sloughs itself away. Second by second your breathing reasserts its rhythm. You plunge under a second time, and the cold comes back, but nothing like the first shock.

Early Saturday morning, before my first-ever presentation at Kalamazoo, Lowell Duckert and I went swimming in Lake Michigan. As I usually am, I was seeking meaning. Does it make sense to read frigid immersion as allegory, to say that my scant thirty hours at the Medieval Congress, perhaps five of which were spent sleeping, embody the same impulse as plunging into the cold waters of the Third Coast?

A maiden knight arrives

Lowell, post-immersion

Lowell, post-immersion

As an early modernist who’d never been there, I was curious about Kalamazoo. It shouldn’t have been all that exotic – the gap between the periods isn’t that wide, and anyway I’m close to the Sidney and Spenser Kzoo sub-cultures via my first book on romance. Plus the elemental hospitality of the BABEL/ITM/MEMSI/etc flowed through every hour. To paraphrase Jeffrey’s introductory remarks from “The Future We Want,” medievalists and early modernists are better served by seeing each other as alternate sympathies than rival claimants to a pre-modern throne.  He sees a chasm between the sub-fields that needs to be bridged, and I’m also tempted to imagine a border across which sorties can sally and trade flourish, but in any case it seems more fun to be on both sides.

Even so, I felt vaguely alien upon arriving at the Congress. The sense that everyone else knew where they were going was part of it. Navigating the foreign WMU campus Friday afternoon to get to my first session seemed Spenserian and allegorical. (Should I say Dantesque instead? Romain de la Rose-like? Spenser is my go-to allegorical marker, but not the only one.) The ground was charged with meanings. The first living creature I encountered on campus was a goose. Symbol of fun? Or the need to extend our circle of attention beyond human actors? Of seasonal migrations? It was raining, and I hadn’t packed an umbrella or raincoat. The first human I recognized was Jeffrey Cohen, driving his rental car slowly down a campus drive. He rolled down his window, spoke my name, smiled, and drove off, leaving me in the rain. Meaning…what, exactly?

A symbolic object?

A symbolic object?

Because allegories must be interpreted (via Chris Piuma & Jonathan Hsy)

Allegories must be interpreted!
(via Chris Piuma & Jonathan Hsy)

During a busy spring of many conferences, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between individuality and community. The productive tension between the one and the many has been on my mind for a long time, and thinking back on my trip to Michigan, I have the sense that Kzoo might enable a slightly different response to this endless conundrum. Unlike the annual conferences I regularly go to – SAA, MLA, less often RSA – it’s always in the same place. To my fellow conference goers, many of whom happily rattled off their Kzoo numbers – 12 years straight! 13! 5! 20! – it clearly felt like home.

Like a first-time reader of an over-abundant text, Malory or Dante or Chaucer, I searched for ways into the overwhelming numbers & flavors & ideas on diplay. The goose started things off, and then it wasn’t long before I’d spotted a few grad school friends and eased into the familiar pattern of academic conferences: found the registration table, looped a badge around my neck, arbitrarily narrowed my list of four intriguing sessions down to one.

I ended up choosing what felt like the most Kalamazoo-ish panel, La Belle Compagnie’s “How Shall a Man be Armed?” a live demonstration and modeling of English armoring practices during the Hundred Years War. My BABEL-y and theoretical friends wondered if I was poking fun at medievalism by choosing that panel. And perhaps I was a little, as I retold the story at happy hour, but the truth is I love experiential learning and the pressure living bodies put on ancient structures. I really can’t get enough of that stuff – which is one reason I love teaching with live theater and also why I launched my maritime scholarship by learning to climb the rigging and set the sails on the tall ships at Mystic Seaport back in 2006. The Armor panel was wonderfully dense and awash in technical details, including the influence of Italian and French fashions on English armor designs. (I thought it was good evidence for the claim that modern men’s fashions evolved out of armor.) The panel featured, in the four stalwart men gradually being dressed from foot to helm, a full helping of bodily presence, the force of “now” infiltrating historical expertise. Plus some good jokes, intentional or not: one knight’s beaver kept falling down and interrupting the presenter. It showcased the sometimes awkward fit of scholarly technical precision and fan-boy enjoyment. I could only get to one session as a audience member, but it was a good one.

How Shall a Man Be Armed?

How Shall a Man Be Armed?


As at NCS last summer, the communal virtue I wanted to think through at Kzoo was fellowship. I’d done my homework and read a little David Wallace, and I was interested in testing the rough assumption that, compared to my home waters at SAA, Kzoo was more fellowship-full, less hierarchical, more interdisciplinary, and extended across different kinds of intellectual space. That’s a caricature of SAA, but an interesting fantasy about Kzoo.

In many ways, unsurprisingly, the two conferences are more alike than not. I was struck, though here I might be reading from my own private Kzoo, driven by BABEL, MEMSI, etc., by a deep attention to social organization and institutionalization beyond the panels. After seeing men armed, I went from BABEL happy hour -> MEMSI dinner -> BABEL party at Bell’s Brewery. I’ve seldom felt so well taken care of at a conference or so thoroughly awash with fellow-feeling. (At SAA I sometimes consciously shift between different sub-discourses, which I didn’t at all at Kzoo.)

My favorite moments at dinner were watching Jeffrey move from insisting, as drinks were served, that it would be “impossible” to put together another set of MEMSI panels for next year’s Kzoo, because he was out of ideas, to watching him assemble, before dessert, a twenty-speaker mega-panel on “The Impossible.” (My word, supplied by Lowell, is “dry.” Impossible & undesirable, but something we covet and value. Though I now wonder if “memory” has already been taken?)

Bell’s is definitely a place to which I’d like to return. The logistics of the pre-panel swim the next morning trimmed the wind from my sails Fri night, but it’s an excellent spot. 

The Future We Want

The Future We Want

The Cormorant and the Future

The panel I’d come to speak on, “The Future We Want,” dealt out six pairs and a wild card. The 10:00 am time was perfect for a pre-talk lake swim, a quick 60 miles west, before fiddling with flash drives and slideshows.

It was odd that none of the other panelists took up our offer to join us for a dip. Maybe they were waiting in a different hotel lobby at 6 am?

The talks rolled over us like so many cars in a freight train, roaring westbound, peering through fog, monkey at the wheel. I’ll sprint through them in an early modernist spirit of competitive evaluation:

  1. The best presentation came first, Anne Harris and Karen Overby’s gorgeous meditation on optical lushness and the gifts of Art. I craned my neck backward to stare at the slides.
  2. Better than all the rest was Arayne Fradenburg and Eilleen Joy’s rich evocation of institutional freedoms and futures. No one was surprised when they admitted their talks had been ghost written by frozen kobolds held deep underground, where they spend their dark days digging for possibilities.
  3. My favorite was by Alan Mitchell and Will Stockton, who wasn’t really there. They brought the devil to the party and showed what happens when times and modes change.
  4. Lowell Duckert and I may not have had the prettiest pictures, but we were the only ones to sing during our presentation.
  5. None of the talks was better than Chris Piuma and Jonathan Hsy’s brilliant poetic meditation on containers and overflowing meanings.
  6. I could not believe it when Julian Yates and Julie Orlemanski actually came to blows over the dynamic meanings of The Battle of Maldon. There was no way to top that level of commitment, so it’s good that they anchored our relay.

Actually the best part may have been the introductions. Wild-card Jeffrey likened each of us to a different literary genre, then sat in the front row with eyes blazing. Greedy glutton of imagination, lapping it up after lashing us all to the mast!

Cormorant sees the future

Cormorant sees the future

I see now, but didn’t yet realize as I wrote the talk, that the “various” I was celebrating via Milton’s fallen angel-bird was the difference I’d come to Michigan seeking, the fellowship poured into glasses and spread across campus lawns, the screech of newness in my ears. As usual with acts of discovery, what you find is mostly what you bring. But what I like about new conferences is the slight reshuffling of times and voices, the partially off-balance feeling created by available novelty, and the opening up of new ways.

In maritime historical circles, the idea of the Great Lakes as the Third Coast aims to supplement familiar narratives of “Atlantic history” and Pacific globalization with a different American story, one that enters slightly askew, via the St. Lawrence diagonally out of the northeast. This narrative connects the landlocked center of the continent to a distinctively northern maritime economy, trading furs and timber rather than cotton or sugar. This coast even — quelle horreur! — speaks more French than English, or at least it used to. Adding these fresh-water coastlines to our maritime narratives provides new trajectories for waterborne thinking.

That’s also what I like most about an early spring dip in great waters.


103.61 miles

That’s my yearly total in the water, according to my flog (fitness log), courtesy of the US Master’s Swim Program. Probably more than I’ve swum since high school, I think.

Best month was June = 17.65 miles

Worst was September = 3.94

My Progress for Go The Distance 2012

Month Total Distance
Jan 6.45 miles (=11,350 yards, =10,378 meters)
Feb 12.02 miles (=21,150 yards, =19,340 meters)
Mar 6.42 miles (=11,300 yards, =10,333 meters)
Apr 8.75 miles (=15,400 yards, =14,082 meters)
May 15.28 miles (=26,900 yards, =24,597 meters)
Jun 17.65 miles (=31,072 yards, =28,412 meters)
Jul 7.36 miles (=12,950 yards, =11,841 meters)
Sep 3.94 miles (=6,930 yards, =6,337 meters)
Oct 7.90 miles (=13,900 yards, =12,710 meters)
Nov 7.73 miles (=13,600 yards, =12,436 meters)
Dec 10.11 miles (=17,800 yards, =16,276 meters)
Total 103.61 miles (=182,352 yards, =166,743 meters)

Other swimming highlights —

Best swimming hole was in the Peneda National Park in Portugal, courtesy of Luis Barros.

PGNP swimming hold



Best long-distance swim was 4.4 miles across the Chesapeake Bay in early June.


Next year I’m thinking about some of the NYC Swim events, including the Little Red Lighthouse 10 k or maybe the Governor’s Island swim.


Swimmer Poetics

Here’s the opening couple paragraphs of my ecology piece for O-Zone, which thinks eco-literary thoughts while narrating the Great Chesapeake Bay race last June.

Into the warm salt water splashed the six hundred. Not all of us knew we were diving into a theoretical paradigm.


We crowded up to the water’s edge like figures in a Robert Frost poem. Or whale-killing philosophers in Battery Park. We were swimmers, come to Chesapeake Bay in June 2012 to race four-point-four miles from western to eastern shore. Covering that distance in the water carves out a nice block of time, a discrete chronology to feel fluid dislocation on an intimate level. I wasn’t there to win. I wanted to think some things through.


My hope, then and now, is that swimming can model or inspire a dynamic ecological poetics for our age of crisis. The prolonged experience of immersion, its difficulties and pleasures, parallels how we must learn to live today. Being in the water forces the physical realities of this terraqueous globe onto your skin, adding urgency to the need to move beyond comforting green eco-visions.  The blue world ocean, as literary culture has long taught us, is unstable, dynamic, and inhospitable. But the gray-green silty waters of Chesapeake Bay proved survivable, even pleasurable. Dare I say philosophical?


Scenes from Portugal

The view from our villa

I arrived in Lisbon airport around 4 pm on Saturday Aug 11, which gave me an afternoon and evening on my own before Alinor and the kids arrived the next morning. After checking into my airport hotel and making sure the rental car was all set for the next day, I took the slow local bus to the Praça Marquess Pombal near the center of town. I love seeing new cities by public transportation. The bus took me through the empty-feeling outskirts of Lisbon, filled with graffiti and young people walking slowly down broad avenues through the heat. I had the feeling I wasn’t in England any more.

Dinner in the Baixa.

At the statue of the Marquess Pombal, the Prime Minister who rebuilt the city after the 1755 earthquake, producing the first urban grid in the Western world, I switched to the fast new Metro and zipped down to the banks of the Tagus. After buying a pair of sunglasses at a kiosk for 5 Euros, I walked uphill through the steep maze of the Alfama, past the Sé (cathedral) to the Castello San Jorge. I didn’t pay for entrance, but I looked from the castle walls over the city toward the Ponte de 25 April, which looks just like the Golden Gate. First of many visions of northern California on this trip.

Dinner that night in the Baixa, where the long avenue are closed to cars and filled with small tables for the cafes. Sitting down to a glass of vinho verde and a  plate of fish-and-potato, I thought about how much fun it was to start by knowing nothing about Lisbon, just four hours earlier, and suddenly to have a sense of neighborhoods, public transit, the hills and wide river Tagus that dominates and orients the city. The last few days of the family trip we all stayed in Belem, about 6km west down the river, the port from which the great naus sailed to Africa, India, and Brazil, so we barely got back to the Baixa, and made only one trip to the Castello. Lisbon is a city to come back to.

The Roman bridge in Ponte de Lima

After getting Alinor and the kids on Sun morning, we drove our Renault Clio (“the muse of history”) north on the A1, one of Portugal’s great highways, built recently, presumably with EU credit. After almost three hours north to Porto we picked up the coast road that leads north into the Minho region, then turned east up the Lima River valley to the exit for Calheiros, just a few km short of Ponte de Lima and its Roman bridge. Then the fun began: the drive to our villa in upper Calheiros was maybe 5 km from the highway exit, but we drove up and around and up some more. The roads were all paved, but they kept getting smaller and the stone houses and walls closer together. We followed signs – including a great sign for the village of “Portal” with an arrow pointing both ways, the door being always open in Portugal – and drove through one-lane stretches that felt as if they were sunk into small culverts between the ancient stone walls that terraced the hillside for farming.

When we got to the villa we found a traffic jam. Our host Diana was there, the owner of the villa was there, and then we pulled up behind both of them in a narrow alley surrounded by stone houses. The housekeeper had locked gate of the carport, and no one had the key.  Portuguese was spoken, and the key was found.

The villa felt, and was, quite remote – the market to which we could walk was 1.5 km away, but along a paved road & besides it only featured old produce and Portuguese men drinking at all hours of the day or night. But the place itself was gorgeous. A small pool, a bit of flat lawn, an engineering feat on the steep hillside, a large deck, and a view across the Lima valley. The car port had table grapes growing in fat clusters, which we ate. The inside was Euro-new, complete with an electric stovetop that took us days to master, but the building also incorporated much older stonework in its construction.

Festival day in Viana de Castello

3. The first few days were quiet as the kids and Alinor processed jet lag. We drove into Ponte de Lima for the big biweekly market on Monday, but it was huge and crowded and we didn’t stay. I found a supermarket & brought in enough food so that we didn’t have to eat all our meals down the hill. Slowly I mastered the mountain driving, and gradually figured out the lay of the land in and around Ponte de Lima. The story goes that Decimus Brutus’s legions at first refused to cross the river, thinking it was the Lethe & if they crossed they would forget their families and homes. So the commander crossed first and called his own name back to the men, after which they followed him north.

Monday night we met Sonja, a Portuguese women who drove up from Viana de Castello on the coast to cook arroz mariscos for us – a somewhat wetter version of paella with lots of mussels, calamari, pieces of fish, octopus, and huge prawns. We communicated with her mostly in French, which many people spoke more easily than English — it seems that during the depressed 70s a lot of residents of the Minho emigrated to France, and there are lots of connections that remain. We saw lots of EU cars with the letter “F” on the license plate, more than any other foreign country. That meal started a trend in Portuguese food: the seafood was great. We also liked the national pastry, pastel de nata, which are little custard tarts. The best ones are made in a mid-19c bakery in Belem right next to the hotel we stayed a when we were in Lisbon.

Tuesday it poured rain all day and we stayed in the villa, but Wednesday we drove over the mountains to Valença on the Spanish border to see the great fortress. Traffic was bad and the “shopping fortress” was filled with Spanish tourists snapping up Portuguese linens.

Luis and Alinor after our hike in the Sierra de Peneda

4. Thursday was the turning point of the trip: we drove up to Arcos de Valdevez to ride horses at Carlos Orlando’s Quinto do Fijo, which the villa’s office had suggested. Olivia got nervous about riding English saddles up steep mountain trails, but Alinor & Ian rode through the steep alleys and dirt paths, getting a local’s eye view of the network of roads and byways of the hills above Arcos. Olivia & I swam at the river beach on the Vez in town.

But the best of all was being put in touch with Carolos’s friend Luis Barros, who runs AktivaNatura, a kayaking/hiking/biking/etc outfit based in Ponte de Barca who became our guide for two of our remaining four days in the Minho. On Friday we met him near his office in Ponte de Barca & he drove us in his van into the Sierra Peneda, the northern valley of Portugal’s largest National Park. It’s a huge, high, stone-rimmed valley, almost entirely cut off on both sides until the Portuguese government put in a paved road in the 1970s. The driving is slow and sometimes frightening, with sheer drops, endless views, and free-ranging longhorn cattle and wild horses. We were only supposed to hike until around 7pm, according to the plans we’d made via Facebook with Luis, but he ended up giving us the full tour: a trip to the park entrance and its visitor center, to see the espagerras or stone granaries in Soajo, to a fantastic “fresh” (ie, cold) swimming hole just a bit past Soajo, and finally, after hours of driving & Olivia getting a bit carsick, as good a bit of hiking as I’ve ever done, over granite pathways and glacier-carved valleys, past  live oaks and wild horses down to the town of Peneda, with its three-star hotel, famous church, and pilgrimage site. We made it to the hotel restaurant just before the kitchen closed at 9:30 pm. There we had local wine – vinho verde, but the red variety this time, which tasted a bit underaged, which is to say, like grape juice – veal steaks, and the only good chocolate mouse we found in Portugal.

Luis himself was as friendly and interested as you could wish. He runs Aktiva in part b/c of an ecological commitment to nature, as near as I can tell, partly inspired (I think) by his eco-themed reading of science fiction as a boy. We had a great conversation about E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensmen series after the sun went down and he was driving us back to Ponte de Barca through dark mountain roads. We made plans to go kayaking with him on Sunday. It was a festival night in Ponte de Barca when we go there, so all the cafes were still full at 12:30 am, but Olivia had been sleeping in the car for hours. A long day for her.

The Hotel de Peneda, last stop on our hike.

Saturday Luis had a big group of kayakers & we went to Braga, the largest city in the Minho and a religious center. Alinor & Olivia went to see an 18c Baroque palace, and Ian and I went to the amazing 16c Sé and the Roman baths. It was a fantastic cathedral, fill of many different styles of art and decoration. Ian lit a candle for Grandpa Charlie & talked eloquently about that strange feeling you get inside sacred places even if you’re not all that religious. Olivia bought cute sandals on the pedestrian avenues, where the two groups at lunch at separate cafes within a few hundred meters of each other. The salada de polvo (octopus) was the best thing any of us ate in Braga.

Sunday Olivia was feeling tired plus didn’t really want to kayak, so Ian & I went with Luis for 6 km of white water on the Vez. We met him in the Aquario, a café overlooking the river beach where Olivia & I had swam on Th. Luis pulled up in his trailer, we dropped his mini-motorbike – only 60 kilos! – so that he could drive back to get the boat trailer after we finished, he outfitted us both in lightweight shorty wetsuits, and away we went. The Vez was low, but not so low we couldn’t get through the 6 sets of rapids. Ian did great; he floated a little higher in the water than I did, so he could bounce off the rocks more easily. Luis also let him work things out for himself if he got a little bit stuck. It was great to see him figure out how to get his kayak pointed the right way in the white water.

I didn’t float quite as high as Ian – too  many pasteles de nata? – and got dumped a couple of times. But the river was good for swimming too, and we all stopped at a rope swim on a calm section. Plus Luis gave us careful instruction in the right way to use a kayak paddle for maximum splashing.

We invited Luis to come back to our villa for dinner that night, and bought the best local vinho verde on his suggestions – Quito Mendalhes, I think was the name? We served a simple meal of pasta and tomato sauce, partly b/c we had not been shopping that day & also b/c that’s what Olivia liked eating. She was not as ready as I was for grilled sardines or fried baby mackerel, which really are the things to eat in Portugal.

Monday was meant to be our last full day in the villa, and we had a lovely slow morning around the pool. Alinor & I took a long walk up the road for about 45 minutes, but could not quite get to the rocky peaks above the village. After lunch, we were feeling restless, so we decided to go to Lisbon a day early. Fortunately our great hotel – Jeronimos 8 in Belem – could take us a day early, so off we went. Highway driving was easy, and though we arrived in Lisbon after dark, we navigated by the monastery and found our hotel without too much trouble. Not many people seem to live in Belem, though it’s flooded with tourists during the day, so street parking was easy.

Lisbon is a very different sort of place: full of people where the Minho was empty, crowded, with better food and more chaos. The next morning we snaked our way through the single-file turret up the Torre de Belem, saw the late 20c fascist monument to the Portuguese descobradores, and walked through the monastery, built with the wealth generated by the careirra de India. The highlight for me was the great maritime museum, one of the best I’ve ever seen.

It’s hard to believe the trip is over! I may have more to say about Pessoa and other matters. Plus for the dedicated who’ve read this far, here’s a link to our almost 400 photos.



Swimming the Chesapeake

For just a bit under 3 hours yesterday, between the spans of the Bay Bridge, I was Aquaman, Cap’n Metis, and Mr. Nemo. Just me, the water, and about 600 other swimmers.

Like all long swims, it was an attempt, partly successful, to maintain form inside formlessness. Not to impose my form on the moving water — no chance of that — but to insert my form-creating body into the Bay, finding my way through the repetitive churn of stroke after stroke, breathing mostly on the left but also on the right, kicking just enough to keep my body streamlined in the water. When the chop hits you in the mouth, or your stroke misses, it’s hard to return to form, but it’s only through form that you can make your way through the water.

I spent a lot of time thinking about currents. The swim started at 11:15 toward the end of the flood, which means I swam into the tide to get between the shadows of the bridge towers before turning across its current to start swimming east. At the end of the swim, when I ducked outside the bridge for the final 1/3 mile onto the Eastern Shore, the ebb pulled me hard southwards. To get out from under the shadow of the eastbound span, I just floated for 10 seconds and let the tide carry me.

I thought about literature, as I always do. Two lines in particular. First, Shakespeare:

 whilst this machine is to him (Hamlet, 2.2)

That’s what I thought about myself as I noticed how automatic my stroke became, how little my mind seemed to control arms and legs. Breathing was a bit less mechanic; I had to chose to breath left or right, trying to balance in the sometimes choppy water and also judge my position by the bridge towers. “This machine” is the phrase the prince uses for his body in his love-letter to Ophelia; it’s what I felt like in the water.

Also —

mobilis in mobili (Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea)

I thought about Nemo’s motto, moving inside mobility, and its paradoxes, esp late in the swim when I had to fight the current to keep myself inside the bridges. 

Highlights of the course included two deep shipping channels, the larger of which I swam through at slack tide before I was too tired, at about mile two; two anchored paint barges the stuck their sterns into the course so that we had to detour around their anchor chains; and the sickly warmth of the last 500 yards in shallow, sheltered water leading up to the marina: it made me realize how much cleaner the moving water in the center channel had been. Plus by then I just wanted to get out.

Looking up at the bridge spans from the water made me think of Thoreau hearing the railroad whistle from Walden Pond (Ch 4). No separation from made-things even in the water. The Bay is still in many ways like it’s always been, but bridges and boats and hundreds of churning human bodies mark the water, even if the imprints don’t last.

My arms hurt and my back is sunburned — but what a great way to spend a Sunday in June!



The Great Chesapeake Bay Swim


Heading to Annapolis right now..



Audiences, Oceans, Avery Point

It was a great evening under a full moon last night at Avery Point, talking “Swimmer Poetics.”  I always enjoy speaking to a mixed audience; Avery Point is a maritime studies campus, with an emphasis on marine science and public policy as well as a growing but still modest humanities presence.  I was introduced by my old friend Mary K. Bercaw-Edwads, a blue-water sailor and Melville scholar, but there weren’t many other literary types around.

What everyone shared, though, was a deep personal commitment to the ocean.  One of the really great questions I got after the talk was about how differently a less-ocean focused audience might reaction to the idea that swimming and poetry are essentially ecological practices and ideas.  It’s a question I might revisit at SAA, though my Oceanic Shakespeares seminar will be filled with dual-focus types like me, interested in poetry and the sea, wanting to use the one to get at or into the other.

Early in the talk I rehearsed something that I wrote in the first few pages of At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean, the claim that the sea is receding from our cultural imagination.  I still basically believe this, having taken the point in part from Robert Foulke, but I also think it needs refining.  The sailor and the sailing ship have been receding in our imagination since Conrad, whose novels comprise a kind of requiem.  Perhaps maritime shipping and the ship as such are as well, with the exception of the cruse ship.    But the beach is our public property, and ocean swimming has, almost certainly, become much more common in the past few generations than ever before.

The distinction between sailors and swimmers, between being “on it” or “in it,” was the refrain of my gallery talk at the Folger back in June 2010, and I wonder now if I should go back to that frame as a way of separating out two different versions of the human-sea relationship.

The other great question I got after the talk, asked by a former competitive swimmer who’s recently started coaching a high school swim team, was about the morality of swimming.  As I was thinking through it during my answer, I tried to lay out a distinction between the ship, which has been an emblem for social bonds and political order since antiquity — Plato’s Republic uses it, and I think Antigone also — and the solitary swimmer, head down underwater, who, to paraphrase Frost, cannot see out far and cannot see in deep.  I’m pretty focused on the wisdom of the swimmer, the knowledge that comes from living in an inhuman and untenable environment — but what’s the social politics associated with this practice?  What’s the morality?

The best thing about bringing new work somewhere is getting unexpected feedback.  The shipwreck book, which is nearly done — I’ll be able to use some of the material about Donne’s “The Storm” that I talked about last night in the chapter on the lyric, and an expanded version of the Crusoe in the surf bit also in the “Castaways” chapter, and those are the last two that I need to write — is feeling more and more like a hinge book, a way into the water where I’ll be swimming for a while.

Swimmer Poetics isn’t a bad book title, I suppose.  I’m going to use it for a short talk at a Maritime conference in Cape Cod in April, and also for an eco-theory piece for O-Zone.  Unless I decide I need to save that phrase.


Swimmer Poetics

A couple paragraphs out of the talk I’m giving tonight at U Conn Avery Point, as part of the Coastal Perspectives lectures series

It happens in three stages.  First, immersion.  The sudden shock of getting into the water.  It’s a phase change, really, a transition from being in the air, which, depending on location and temperature, contains quite a bit of water vapor, into heavier, viscous liquid water.  You’re out, then you’re in. Nothing quite like it.  After that, buoyancy.  Our bodies need just a little help to pop up to the surface.  We can relax and float, for a little while.  This is the hopeful moment.  Last, exertion.  Moving our arms and legs in practiced patterns, we stay at the surface, even move around from place to place.  Nothing lasts forever, but there is short-term stability and pleasure, for a while.

And a little later —

Swimming matters because humans can learn how to do it, even do it very well, but it’s always dangerous.  Eventually you need to get out of deep water.  A minor character in Conrad’s Lord Jim emphasizes that swimming is, at bottom, futile:

Very funny this terrible thing is.  A man that is born falls into a dream like a man who falls into the sea.  If he tries to climb out into the air as inexperienced people endeavor to do, he drowns….No!  I tell you!  The way is to the destructive element submit yourself, and with the exertions of your hands and feet in the water make the deep, deep, sea keep you up.


The “exertions of your hands and feet” provide a bleak a vision of human insufficiency, but it puts off drowning.  Conrad’s character is a native German speaker, and his jumbled syntax parallels the awkwardness of human swimming itself.  As Conrad knows, as all swimmers and sailors know, there is no long-term survival plan for swimmers in the deep ocean.  But the immersive experience, being in the “destructive element,” is precisely what poetry helps us understand.  Poetry is good at imagining radical change, and good at making readers enjoy it.  Literary criticism has a name for this technique: the poetic sublime, which I’ll explain shortly.  My focus tonight is on the way that poetic forms provide models for enduring inside a hostile environment.  The world after global warming is not the future – it’s the present – and making sense of that present requires a poetic, oceanic imagination.


Three Rulin’s for 2012

Abbreviating the spirit of Woody, I’ve got three things this year: write, cook, and swim.

The first — “Work more and better” — wants a renewed focus on prose style.  When I wrote At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean in 2009, playing with my  academic style meant no footnotes, prose-poem interludes, a half-dozen different ways of interpolating modern writers from Melville to Walcott to Glissant, and working through sentences every day in the warm waters of Long Island Sound.  In 2010, writing case labels and brochures and website text for “Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550 – 1750” meant writing for a new audience: clear, brief, lucid prose, plus more imaginative moments in two talks in the theatre.  This past year had me writing for various outlets — a couple journals, introductions for two essay collections, the still-looming shipwreck book — and trying to figure out how much of the churn and froth of Shakespeare’s Ocean I can keep as I return to footnote-landia.  In 2012, the answer will be: all of it, and more.  It’ll be fun.

Second — “Eat good — fruit — vegetables” –digs into cooking and eating.  No farmer’s markets here in CT during the winter, but replacing Stop’n’Shop with Bishop’s Orchard helps a lot.  Though I think our wine won’t come from CT…

Last — “Keep hoping machine running” — I want to build on 2011’s rediscovery of swim racing, which took me to Bermuda for a 10km open water race in October.  It’s great to have an athletic focus that doesn’t pound my lower body — though I’d also like to keep running on days I can’t get to the pool.  Not sure what the long swims will be in 2012: I’m waiting to hear about the Chesapeake Bay Swim, the lottery for which gets decided in a few days.  There are also a few fun NYC swims, including two in the Hudson and two in the Bay.  The Little Red Lighthouse is a current-assisted 10km in September that looks like fun.  The Hellespont looms, but not in 2012.

I’m also considering some races in the pool, for the first time since the mid-80s.

A good line-up of academic events too, including chairing seminars at the SAA in Boston and the ISA in Stratford, giving a “Coastal Perspectives” Lecture at UConn Avery Point and a talk at CUNY, plus heading west and slightly out of field for the New Chaucer Society in Portland in July.  The big family trip to Europe will follow the Stratford conference, though we’re still working out the details.  France or Greece?