Henry 4 at St Ann’s

Press image

Two years ago I saw Phyllida Lloyd’s great all-female production of Julius Caesar at the old St. Ann’s in DUMBO. Set in a women’s prison with Caesar sitting in first row of the audience when she was assassinated, the show was brilliant, visceral, and exhilarating. Last night I saw the same director and (mostly) same cast take on both parts of Henry 4 at the gorgeous new St. Ann’s near the carousel under Brooklyn Bridge. I had thought that it would be hard to top the last one but — wow! I drove home through November darkness in a whirl of emotion.

Clare Dunne's Hall on top of Jade Anouka's Hotspure (NYT)

Clare Dunne’s Hall on top of Jade Anouka’s Hotspure (NYT)

The blazing core of this production was Jade Anouka’s boxing Hotspur, who danced around the stage and dominated every scene she was in. I’ve never seen a better performance of this part, never seen a Hotspur so thoroughly convince me that the kingdom belonged to her. Like Ben Brantley in the Times, I enjoyed Harriet Walter’s melancholy King Henry, but for me it became Hotspur’s play. Continually in training, she punched a big bag, ran through sit-ups, dips, and push-ups with her fellow rebel commanders, and, whether mocking a courtier-knight or the sword-and-buckler Prince of Wales, flamed out the fiery knight’s language.

Hotspur’s best scene, however, may have been the most domestic. Ready to join the rebel forces, the commander wrapped his hands in blood-red tape, called for his horse, and lashed out at his wife, played with powerful authority by Sharon Rooney. The visual contrast between the small, fit, dark-skinned Anouka in her athletic gear with her hair dyed red and the large, pale-skinned Rooney in a bathrobe with jet black hair and an Irish accent made the marriage seem mis-matched. But when Lady Percy mirrored her husband’s anger back to him — “Do you not love me? … / Well, do not, then, for since you love me not / I will not love myself” (2.3) — the warrior froze and almost broke. He must go to war, he can’t go to war. In that moment of stillness I almost fell out of my seat.

Sophie Stanton as Falstaff (NYT)

Sophie Stanton as Falstaff (NYT)

He couldn’t stay frozen forever, but the force of that moment recast the non-sequitur-ish following lines about his horse:

Come, wilt thou see me ride?

And when I am a horseback I will swear

I love thee infinitely.

The horse, that symbol of chivalric prowess and physical strength, gave Hotspur a vehicle through which to bear the emotions that were running him down. Infinite love can only ride, not walk, as he felt it. Rooney’s Lady Percy would also appear later in the first scene of Henry IV, Part 2 (this production runs through both parts in an intermissionless 2:15, though at the cost of cutting most of Part 2) to lament her husband’s body alongside her father. As she mourned Hotspur, it was hard not to feel that some of the fire had gone out of the play.

"The king hath many [boxing] in his coats."

“The king hath many [boxing] in his coats.”

The other unexpectedly great performance was Jenny Jules as Worcester, Hotspur’s uncle and the shrewdest of the rebel generals. Jules had stolen the show as Cassius back in 2013, but even so I wasn’t prepared for how central she made this character to the play. Worcester’s bitter speech to King Henry the night before the battle — “For you my staff of office did I break / In Richard’s time, and posted day and night / To meet you on the way and kiss your hand” (5.1) — became the smartest and most painful political declaration in the play. It’s amazing what brilliant actors can do to re-orient a play I’ve taught and seen so many times!

Though slightly overshadowed by the charisma of these rebels, the central figures of Hal and Falstaff did not disappoint. Clare Dunne, who had played a brilliant Portia in Julius Caesar, flavored Hal with teenage bitterness; sitting silent during his royal father’s first counsel scene (1.3) with Beats headphones covering his ears, this prince showed exactly what he thought of Daddy’s day job. In wrestling with Hotspur, Hal punctuated her completion of the dying knights final lines — Hotspur said, “No, Percy, thou art dust / And food for — ” and Hal jumped in to finish, “For worms, brave Percy” (5.4) — with a brutal and sadistic twist of the knife in her opponent’s belly. I don’t know if this cast will play Henry V, but this king would make a frightening opponent. On this of all nights — the night of the horrific attacks in Paris on 13 November 2015 — it was hard to watch him win.

Inside the new St. Ann's

Inside the new St. Ann’s

Sophie Stanton’s Falstaff clowned brilliantly, especially when she inverted a red footstool on her head to play the King. Clearly performing for friends, she didn’t seem to care very much when the lies of buckram men or missing trinket rings were exposed. In such bravura moments as the catechism on honor (5.1), which by luck of the seating draw (the audience surrounded the stage on all four sides, and sometimes the actors mounted the risers for speeches) was performed about one foot in front of me, she seemed conscious of having the best lines in the play.

But Falstaff also brought feminist depth that cracked the frame of this hyper-masculine play. Along with Lady Percy and Zainab Hasan’s Hostess, who broke character and stormed offstage when the banter of 3.3 devolved into a series of non-Shakespearean misogynistic jokes, Falstaff reminded the audience that these were women’s bodies playing macho parts. “Stick with the Shakespeare,” said Harriet Walter, out of character, after bringing the Hostess back on stage to restart 3.3. As if the Shakespeare were less brutal!

[Spoiler alert: you might not want to read the next bit about the ending if you’re going to see the play.]

The final coup de theatre featured the new King Henry V atop a ladder, denouncing his fat friend in the last scene of Henry IV, Part 2: “I know thee not, old man.” Sophie Stanton took off the red wool cap that had marked Falstaff as the lead clown, and listened to her denouncement with long hair flowing onto her shoulders. The emotional cruelty of the new king became too much, and she broke character and tried to climb up the ladder to him, shouting out the play’s final and non-Shakespearean line of dialogue:

You’re not going to fucking leave me! Don’t fucking leave me!

Sirens blared. The house lights came up. Blue-uniformed police guards occupied the stage, twisted Falstaff’s arm into a painful behind-the-back hold, and marched her off stage. The other prisoner-actors were ordered to line up with hands on their heads. They were marched offstage, and the house went black.

The standing ovation couldn’t quite fill the void.

View from DUMBO

View from DUMBO

Go see this show before Dec 6 if you’re in NYC! I’m fiddling with my schedule to see if I can get back.





Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit 2015

main_banner_gimp_format_yess6An interloping literature professor among entrepreneurs, CEOs, scientists, and environmental regulators, I spent most of yesterday at the Yale Environmental Sustainability Summit, jointly hosted by the School of Management and the School of Forestry and Ecological Sciences. I came away amazed by the energy, imagination, and expertise on display, and perhaps a little less pessimistic about some eco-challenges. (Though I did skip the panel about the upcoming summit in Paris and its political challenges.) I also came away thinking that all the stories went in the same direction. The future-that-is-sustainability transforms the present by making it faster and smarter, with less waste and smoother politics. It’s hard not to love this future. It’s also hard to believe we’ll really get all the way there.

My eco-totems are Lear in the storm, Marina born at sea, and Odysseus in the surf, and it’s hard to interweave those painful visions with triumphant technofutures and elaborate regulatory schemes. Sitting in the audience as “rock star” venture capitalist Nancy Pfund spooled out new business models for energy storage and microgrids, big data and “ag-tech,” a privatized Space Age and secondary markets that transform goods into services, I thought about how transformative her vision has been in recent years — she’s helped give us Tesla and Pandora and SolarCity. I also wondered how dependent this vision is on optimism and faith in human ingenuity.

“I believe that working together,” she summarized, “we’ve got this.”

No everyone was quite so sanguine, especially not people working more closely with political realities, but my overwhelming impression from YESS was of possibilities. Dan Etsy, from Yale’s Center of Environmental Law and Policy, described how a 21c environmentalism will be built on public-private risk-sharing rather than centralized regulation. The Yale Sustainability Office’s vision of “engaged research” wants to put academic expertise to work with local and global communities. Nancy Pfund’s utopian and optimistic plenary talk about a “no-sacrifice” ticket to the future was, I suppose, the sort of sales pitch you might make to investors — but the sense that things were possible was overwhelming from the academics and regulators as well as the venture capitalists.

Probably the most compelling panel I saw was “Sea Change: Unifying Narratives for Action,” organized by Paul Lussier of Me2You Media, who’s teaching courses on environmentalist story-making at FES and Yale College. He started by suggesting that environmentalism has trusted too much in the ontological power of scientific knowledge and instead needs to tell better and more compelling stories. His panelists included activists, writers, and the founder of the in-progress Climate Musuem, which aims to put climate at the center of public life. It was a great panel, building from the shared assumption that “words matter” and full of specific detailed depictions of how to create coalitions and action. Michelle Wyman’s story of convincing the conservative mayor of Arlington TX to work on environmental issues by approaching the question through the lens of public health and the mayor’s desire to promote his legacy was a deft mixing of human tactics and political maneuvers.  I was struck also by how many speakers used the model of private success — Chipotle and Sweet Greens were the corporate examples — to suggest that business leaders need to be shown that sustainability isn’t just virtuous but profitable.

Amid the happy talk and inspiration, I was thinking that many of our most emotionally powerful stories about humans and nature are stories of loss or disruption: the expulsion from Eden, Achilles fighting the river, the passing of a Golden Age, the Flood, global warming, the Anthropocene. There are counter-stories of abundance and Promised Lands, but they are often historically and ecologically suspect.

Sometimes I think one reason conservative voices are so powerful in our era of rapid and disorienting economic, cultural, and geophysical change is that they rely on shared stories of loss, and it is around such painful stories that human communities form. Enviro-utopians offer stories about a possible future. Sometimes I think that risk-averse humans feel sustained losses, even losses of paradises we never really had, more intensely that we anticipate future harmonies we have never known.

I don’t want the perspective of an interloping humanist to seem a downer, but I wonder about how to harness the emotional power of tragedy in eco-narrative. I think about tragedy because it’s part of my literary field of study, and because everything ecological I’ve written comes on some level out of thinking about King Lear, but also because anthropogenic climate change is tragic, even in the utterly implausible event that we emit no more greenhouse gases beyond what are in the atmosphere in 2015. There’s no way back to climactic innocence.

Adopting a long historical perspective on human impacts on climate itself has problems; if we’ve been changing the climate since the start of large-scale agricultural burning ten thousand years ago, how can we undo it in the twenty-first century? A humanist perspective on the stories humans tell about ecological catastrophes, floods and fires, earthquakes and storms, might well suggest that dreams of escape will remain ungraspable. I would not want to give comfort to powerful forces always arrayed in favor of the status quo.

My hope is for narratives of ecological embeddedness that are neither fatalistic nor techno-utopian. Swimmer poetics recognizes that any stability is provisional and limited, and the ocean swimmer — a tiny body in a vast sea — represents something much less triumphalist than sustainable economic growth.

I’ve been dissatisfied with the term sustainability for some time, which strikes me as too static to represent the primary model of ecological health in our age of catastrophe. In a post-equilibrium model, I prefer swimmers to sailors, oceans to land, and resilience to sustainability.

I do wonder, though, about how the literary humanist’s ironic and at least partly tragic perspective — the wisdom of King Lear and Emily Dickinson — might engage with the utopianism I saw at YESS. I wouldn’t want anyone to stop making new companies or building models of water resources in California or producing Global Environmental Performance Indexes. But what might happen if amid the rush to craft new stories, more attention were given to way stories about humans and nonhuman nature always engage with disruption, loss, and limitations?

Or does my desire to return to that perspective just remind us why the literary humanities aren’t always invited to the entrepreneurial parties?

So much of what I heard yesterday spoke in the voice of Dickinson’s embarking soul —

Exaltation is the going

Of an inland soul to sea…

I wonder also about the distance she imagines between what we love and what we can endure:

Bred as we, among the mountains,

Can the sailor understand,

The divine intoxication

Of the first league out from land?

I take the poet’s insight to be that we can’t understand oceanic intoxication, and that we embark in ignorance as well as exaltation. That ironic perspective is not what I want from regulators, investment advisors, or activists, I suppose, and probably it’s not dominant in successful entrepreneurs. But it strikes me as at the heart of how humans have and will continue to engage emotionally and physically with the more-than-human world that surrounds us.

I’ve been incredibly impressed with the FES whenever I’ve been there, and being at the SOM yesterday was equally impressive. Such a pleasure to think alongside so many smart people!


Oceanic New York: the Party!

Chalk art by Chris Piuma

Chalk art by Chris Piuma

[being a chronological account of the hours surrounding this festive event, held on Th 5 Nov., 2015, in the Melville Gallery at South Street Seaport, New York]

[For more pictures, go to Underwater New York’s album.]

8 am: A week of golden sunshine gives way to damp, drizzly November. #ishmaelweather

4 pm: Walking over to the Seaport, I note the Peking and the Titanic Memorial Lighthouse. Good company.

The view under the FDR

The view under the FDR

6 pm: After buying ice and seltzer, I meet Nicole Haroutunian and Nicki Pombier-Berger, two of the three founders of Underwater New York, who brought Black Seal rum and ginger beer. Clearly they’ve thrown parties like this before.

6:30 pm: Chris Piuma arrives with books and chalk art.

7 pm: The party starts, in the shadow of the Duke of Wellington. The figurehead was made for the ship of the line HMS Waterloo, built in 1833 to celebrate Napoleon’s defeat and burned by angry cadets after it was refitted as a training vessel in 1918. It’s not clear how the figurehead arrived in New York City.

Both sides of the party card

Both sides of the party card

The Duke

The Duke

7:15 pm: I spend the first part of the party handing out square cards and squeezing hands.

7:30 pm: I meet Eric Hellman, whose open-source project promoted Oceanic New York as the ebook of the day yesterday.

7:50 pm: The show starts with Nicki and Nicole from UNY. They introduce me with a generous reading of “Asymmetrical Kicking,” the poem from which I cribbed a line for the party cards. “Air feels empty after so much water.”

8 pm: I thank people and institutions, and then try to explain why after fitting Ocean and City inside a Book I wanted to go one step smaller with the little square cards.

8:05 pm: Elizabeth Albert tells a wonderful tall tale about Herman Melville in Staten Island, fictionalizing omnibus schedules and dreaming of white whales.

8:15 pm: Chris Piuma speaks about Punctum Books and its utopian projects.

2015-11-05 17.53.188:25 pm: Matt Zazzarino, after head-faking the crowd by claiming not to like reading his work in public, has us rolling in the aisles with “Super Ocean 64.”

8:35 pm: Dean Kritikos lays down New York seas as he navigates the asphalt with his buddy Jean-Paul Sartre in “New York, Oceanic City.”

8:45 pm: I give the masthead philosopher the last words in describing our Oceanic evening:

And thus, surrounded by circle upon circle of consternations and affrights, did these inscrutable creatures at the centre freely and fearlessly indulge in all peaceful concernments: yea, serenely reveled in dalliance and delight. But even so, amid the tornadoed Atlantic of my being do I myself still for ever centrally disport me in mute calm, and while ponderous planets of unwaning woe revolve round me, deep down and deep inland there I still bathe in eternal mildness of joy. (87: 303).

10 pm: Many of us shift the scene to Fresh Salt on Beekman Street. timthumb

12 am: Amazingly, the bar and kitchen are still open. Most of the grad students are still going strong. My old college buddy Sherif Wahba, in from Dubai, shows up and starts ordering scotch.

1:30 am: The bar’s still open, but I’m not there anymore.

Thanks to all who came, and all who followed from afar! Please read and circulate Oceanic New York, and while you’re at it support Punctum Books and open-access publishing!

Rum soaked coasters

Rum soaked coasters



Oceanic New York: the Party!

ONY full cover 20150812bCome to a book party on Nov 5! I’m so pleased that with the help of Underwater New York we managed to book the Melville Gallery at the South Street Seaport Museum. A perfect place to wash the damp, drizzly Novembers from our souls…

We’ll be celebrating Oceanic New York, which began as a symposium at St. John’s in the fall of 2013 and has recently appeared as an open-source book. (Follow the link for a free ebook download or order a reasonably priced paperback copy — and support Punctum Books and open-access publishing if you can!)

The book features the brilliant writings and artwork of eighteen of my favorite oceanic people. The contributors walk the shores of many waters, from the Pacific Ocean to the Irish Sea, and speak of many cities. Not all eighteen can make it to our insular city of the Manhattoes, but we’ll be together in spirit.

The party will be held in the Melville Gallery at the South Street Seaport Museum, 213 Water Street, Manhattan, from 7 – 9 pm. The event is supported by St. John’s English department and by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Our co-hosts are Underwater New York, a wonderfully salty online literary magazine.

Please come to celebrate with us!

Here is a link to the ONY Party Flyer for the event, which you should also see around St. John’s in the coming weeks.

Feel free to contact me with any questions or just to let me know that you’re coming!



Absent at #babel15

2015-10-09 11.58.23It’s strange to hear an imaginative and inviting triplet of opening plenaries with the reservation for your ride to the airport just a few hours away. Was I even at #babel15?

For not that many hours during the first quarter (generously) of the conference, I was “on” and “off” the books with this merry crowd of scholar-players. As I sit now on Fri afternoon in a crowded Pearson Airport watching the delays build for my flight back to JFK, it’s hard to believe any of it it. BABEL is one of the most reliable TAZs — Temporary Autonomous Zones — that I know, and that’s why I put myself through the international wringer for such a quick trip. Even a short sip at the fountain refreshes. I’m now exiled from the conference’s “sixty bokes” paradise, unless maybe writing these airport-words still connects me to the insistent imperatives of now! and why not?  percolating through the event. 2015-10-09 11.58.16

My contribution to the feast was A Book of Absent Whales, a collaborative project that I hope to have some time to blog about soon. I worked with Patrick Mahon, a visual and conceptual artist based at Western University in London, Ontario. Together we assembled a display this morning — it’s still there in the Great Hall of the Centre for Medieval Studies as I type this — containing several different things: a case full of beluga whale and caribou bones that Patrick was given in an Inuit community in northern Canada; a scattering of blue and transparent glass sculptures that Patrick made in the same shapes as the bones; a looped video of Patrick’s hand repeatedly writing, in what he calls “schoolteacher’s cursive,” a line from Melville; and a book of poems I wrote under the same title as the whole project. At the last minute I snuck in a copy of Oceanic New York, which carries on its watery back another seventeen collaborators, several of whom are BABEL-ing now.

Absent Whales: I knew when I was thinking about what to bring to #babel15 that I wouldn’t be able to stay long. 2015-10-02 09.10.42

The triplet plenary was worth the trip even if I hadn’t been bringing whales. After a series of moving introductions from Suzanne Conklin Akbari (whom I was pleased to meet in a non-virtual context), Liza Blake, Eileen Joy, and Cat Criger, who gave us a First Nations invocation, Alex Gillespie began the first talk with a fast, funny, and acute reconsideration of what we know (or don’t) about Chaucer’s books. Alex, one of several people at the conference who I know only through their How We Write essays, reminded me of what I loved about book history when I started grad school back in the mid-90s: she gave us a tour of premodern books at once demystifying, unsentimental, and powerfully attuned to what makes books meaningful, in both figurative and material terms.

The next speaker, Random Cloud, he of many names and pseudonyms, also returned me to my heady first scholarly forays in the byways of Book History. He gave what’s in some ways seems like the ideal form of a certain mode of book history lecture, demonstrating that he’d learned to read the blank pages of 16c books. The tricks involved double offset printing practices and “conversations” between pages within and between early modern books — but I must admit I’m not completely sure I could explain the process cogently. There’s magic in the archive: that much I’m sure of.

Last up was Whitney Trettien, who foregrounded connections between DH maker culture, ‘zine / craft culture, and the historical practices of book makers in assorted times and places. She connected a series of video “project projects” she co-produced in Durham when she was a grad student with cut-and-paste (the literal kind, with real paste) work done by a descendent on the biography of  Nicholas Ferrar, founder of the Little Gidding religious community in the 1630s near Cambridge. I have trouble thinking about Little Gidding without T.S. Eliot’s sonorous canonicity ringing in my ears: “We only live, only suspire / Consumed by either fire or fire.” Might the new tools Whitney and others at and beyond BABEL are building endure those familiar but still blazing flames? Or elude them?

No fire is more BABEL-icious that the spirit of what Eileen and others call “radical conviviality,” and I felt warmed by those flames over the past not quite twenty-four hours. Was #babel15 a place that even welcomed absence?

Which brings me to one last anecdote that I can’t resist telling. I ate lunch alone, a cardiac-threatening dish of poutine at the bar next to the Holiday Inn while listening to the pregame of the Blue Jays v Texas Rangers. I’d spent my post-plenary milling-around time trying to touch too many bases, saying hello to far-flung BABEListi many of whom I’m not likely to see for too long. Not paying attention to that most basic of all conference skills, assembling a lunch party, I eventually came out of the washroom [sic] to an empty hall. I got turned around getting out of the building and by that time everyone had dispersed.

2015-10-02 15.28.55It was fine. The poutine wasn’t quite up to Quebec standards. I sat and wrote and thought about Absent Whales, the slippery promise of collective identities, and my daughter’s 13th birthday, toward which my delayed flight to New York will deliver me later tonight.

Looking forward to #babel17 already!






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



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.