BABEL 2014: On the Beach

coverI’ve been dipping my toes into the disorienting and brilliant program for BABEL 2014 all weekend. The conference promises to be oceanic in scale, beachy in feel, coastal in location, and changeable in form. Just my sort of thing!

My salty eyes being perhaps bigger than my oceanic stomach, I’ve slotted myself to speak five (5!) times during the three-day event. That means either I’ll have more fun than anyone else or I’ll dissolve into a sandy puddle before I fly home. Or both.

The opening event will be the conference’s first Plenary session on Th 10/16 at 9:30 am. In collaboration with my glacier-hiking buddy Lowell Duckert, who’ll be talking about lagoons and lacunae, I’ll discuss “Bodysurfing” as a theoretical, physical, and ecological practice. Here’s the abstract from the conference program:

Bodysurfing (Mentz)

Treating Jane Bennet’s notion of “strategic anthropomorphism” as an enabling provocation transforms the sport of wave-riding into a physical and intellectual engagement with the substance of the ocean. Dispensing with surfboards entirely, this talk and the immersive practicum that precedes it [see below] examines three key moments in a bodysurfer’s ride: swimming into the wave, the instant of “the catch,” and many possible white-water aftermaths. Treating this three-part cycle as symbolic template and physical experience, the talk imagines the knowledge a wave-rider gains through immersion: swimming creates antithetical movements, the catch temporarily unifies those forces, and disorderly aftermaths cast them up on shore. Bodysurfing becomes, in a repeatable instant, a form of physical and intellectual sympathy with a post-equilibrium environment.

*Steve will take 12-18 persons bodysurfing with him at Hendry’s Beach [Arroyo Burro Beach Park] at 8:00am on the morning before this Plenary I session; wetsuits are optional but more than decent swimming expertise is a must. If you are interested in joining Steve for this venture, contact him at: 

We won't be using boards

We won’t be using boards

Please contact me if you want to come out early on Th morning to the beach! Cold Pacific surf is really the ideal way to start BABEL-ing.


Teaching Shakespeare and Marlowe by Liam Semler (Shakespeare Now)

SemlerI like to keep an eye on Bloomsbury’s Shakespeare Now! series, in which I published At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean in 2009. Co-editors Ewan Fernie and Simon Palfrey have built a wonderfully varied series, with eight books in the “first wave,” including mine, and five and counting in the still-cresting “Second Wave.” I picked up the latest one, Liam Semler’s Teaching Shakespeare and Marlowe: Learning versus the System when I was in Stratford last week. Who knew a book on education policy, among other things, could be so much fun?

Semler starts with two striking images of the pedagogical relationship: Hubert in Shakespeare’s King John, who’s given the task of putting out the eyes of Arthur, possible heir to the throne. That makes him a bad teacher, but perhaps also symptomatic. The second example is Marlowe’s Faustus, who wants to o’erleap all systems. I knew I was in good hands when the prose got aphoristic:

Education is a type of eye surgery (3).

Throughout the short book, certain phrases catch you sideways, unaware, with the suddenness of insight. A short review might work best just by glossing a few.

Formulae are systems’ teeth (13).

The book’s core argument explores an inevitable tension between “systems,” particularly educational / administrative systems that seek compliance and clarity, and the blazing surprises of humanist education. Semler doesn’t want to overturn the system entirely, just throw some aesthetic and stressful sand into its gears.

[T]he exam [too] may be beautiful (34).

He dreams and partly institutionalizes, inside and beyond particular classrooms at the U of Sydney, an “ardenspace” modeled on As You Like It that supplements and challenges administrative mastery.

Ardenspace is a type of dreaming (53).

It is also a type of dreaming that attracts ARC funding, at least for a while.

Semler builds new sub-systems because

The grinding sounds of system stress are what I live for (63).

My favorite part of the book comes when he re-imagines an upper-level Marlowe course with a more radical imperative:

It was time to burn it down (86).

In class in 2011 I declared Marlowe a vampire (117).

Shame is the big, silent brother of assessment (93).

Our language is always tainted by machine language (129).

There’s no final victory in a pedagogical war like this one, but Semler fights the good fight, and, I have no doubt, claims triumphs for his students and edu-landscape in Sydney.

It’s a smart, lively book, and I’m especially impressed by his creative engagement with the realities of the modern academic landscape. A book for all of us semi-experimental pedagogues!




A Swimmer’s Travels

I’m back after a month on the road to Iceland, France, and the United Kingdom. Lots to do at home, plus some more blogging about my travels. But first I want to sketch the story of my travels from swimming hole to swimming hole. Not quite as much long-distance swimming on this busy trip as I might have liked, but by my count six new places, a bit more than a dozen swims in all.

The family gets geo-thermal at the Blue Lagoon

The family gets geo-thermal at the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon, Keflavik, Iceland

Nothing like a little silica-infused geothermal plant waste water to process that jet lag. The water was warm, milky, and only about 3 feet deep. I dug my fingers deep into a bucket of silica mud and pasted it over my face.

Silfra, Thingvellir, Iceland

The rift between the continental plates is a swimmer’s paradise, deep blue and ethereal. I’ve blogged about it already, and it’s now my Facebook profile picture, but I still can’t quite believe I pulled this one off. Looking down, into emptiness, I saw sand and gravel, piled into the expanding void. The most transitory beach in the world?

Landmannalauger Hot Springs, Iceland 

Traveling around Iceland with a tri-generational family party meant no long hikes, but we did get a dip in the geothermal springs at the trailhead in Landmannalauger. I inched myself close to the spot where the hot water trickled into the pool, but could not get too close. When you reach down through the gravel to the rock floor of the pool, the rocks feel hot to the touch.

Diving between tectonic plates at Silfra

Diving between tectonic plates at Silfra

Sundhollen, Reykjavik

Iceland is famous for its public pools and hot-tubs, and in between conference panels and back-country adventures I got a few good morning swims in at Sundhollen pool on Baronsstiger, just on the other side of the big church from downtown. It was one of the warmest and deepest pools I’ve swum in; no one worries about the cost of heating the water, since it comes out of the ground hot. There were a few others there swimming for exercise in the early mornings, but no lanes, just lines on the bottom of the pool. With no way to orient myself, I gave up on doing backstroke at all. A really nice place to swim, and then soak in the blazing hot tubs outside under a cool rain.




Plage on the River Lot

Plage on the River Lot

The River Lot, St. Cirq-lapopie, France

We partly picked our French village based on its swimming beach, but what we didn’t quite realize was how far “below the village” could be. It was a beautiful beach on a bend in the River Lot, but probably a good kilometer or more down a steep rocky trail from our lovely medieval house, just inside the Porte de Rocamadour at the lower entrance to the village. (St-Cirq is gorgeous, but steep!) I loved swimming in the River: clear, cool water, a healthy current which made any long workout wonderfully asymmetrical, a one-lane auto bridge between which and the small rapids I could make about 1000m “laps.” I didn’t get down there every day — it was cool and foggy most mornings, and by afternoon we were sometimes busy — but I did get some great swims in. The kids swam with me all the way upstream to the bridge, which was great.

Gouffre de Padirac, France


Stratford Leisure Center

No swimming in this massive underground natural cavern in the limestone, but I can’t resist including the Gouffre’s pool in my list of new-to-me bodies of water. The water runs in over limestone formations and then away in an underground river, forming an eerie and inhuman pool. No art in this cave, but lots of beauty.

The Stratford Leisure Center, United Kingdom

My last few swims during my last week in Europe were at the Leisure Center in Stratford-upon-Avon. An excellent pool, though a bit busy during the 7 – 9 am “swim 4 fitness” time. Unusually configured at 33 1/3m, it’s a good place to process yesterday’s pints before morning lectures. I imagine I’ll be going back to this pool for many years to come. I might even shift my Stratford B&B to get closer to it. The Applegarth looks promising.


Henry IV Part 2 and Roaring Girl: Stratford 2014 (2 of 2)


Falstaff and his jug

Thursday was Henry IV Part 2 at the RST.

It seemed to me as I watched Henry IV Part 1 that the passion for clarity that is the RSC’s house style might work better the closer to the center of the canon you get. It also helped to have a real star, around which everyone can rotate.


Two old friends

Antony Sher’s Falstaff owned the stage at the RST on Thursday night. Both plump and stately, he spent the production straggling with threats to his hedonistic independence, both from assorted legal authorities including the Lord Chief Justice and finally more drastically from his one-time protege Prince Hal. Sher’s expansive, gorgeous voice and patient, generous stage presence, whether expounding his own wit or the manifold virtues of sherry, filled the not-very-full theater. I was glad to be there, especially when he was talking.

There can be something a bit sad about seeing a good production in a not-full theater, and that particular pathos was accented by the best of the episodes in the play, the rural scenes with Justices Shallow and Silence. Oliver Ford Davies’s Silence, especially, presented a moving mixture of nostalgia and false bluster. I found his entanglement with his old Inns of Court buddy Falstaff — each tries to swindle the other, but each is also caught up in his own nostalgia-addled delusions — oddly touching. Falstaff wants the judge’s money, and Shallow wants Falstaff’s presumed court connections. Both end up empty-handed, but Shallow’s awkwardness, his excitable bouncing knee when he recalled the exploits of the bona robas, and his muted affection for both the new friend Silence and the old Falstaff, communicated real human emotion, albeit governed by misprision.

I wasn’t as seduced by Elliot Johns-Worrel’s Prince Hal. This is the play in the sequence where the roguish boy grows up, but in this production that maturity mostly entailed withdrawal and emotional deadening. Only in his denunciation of Falstaff, featuring the last of a long series of fat jokes — “know the grave / Doth gape for thee thrice wider than for other men” — did some emotion threaten to spill out of this performance. Not anger, so much as deep sadness and regret that cannot be allowed to become visible. It was as if the prince, too, realized that Falstaff was the star of the show, and in banishing him he was dropping the curtain on a whole dramatic mode.


The Prince and his crown

It may be problem that we love Sher’s Falstaff too much. He was so charismatic and lovable that he wasn’t a tangible political threat, so Hal’s exiling him seemed unecessary. The fat knight was plenty corrupt, believing the laws of England to be at his commandment, but the harshest of his crimes — swindling Shallow and misusing his authority to press men into armed service — were mostly played for laughs.

I did hear a new thing in the final confrontation: when Falstaff desperately climbed the rhetorical ladder trying to get Hal’s attention — “My King, my Jove, I speak to thee, my heart!” — Sher hit the intimacy of the form of address, which is what gets the Prince to turn and denounce. Kings don’t often get called “thee,” even by knights.

In our disillusioned, democratic, and largely anti-martial world, we love Falstaff, probably more than the play does. The virtues of sherry, wit, and pleasure speak to us more directly than conques, order, and rectitude. As Falstaff dominated this play, however, I wonder about the distribution of stage charisma between prince and knight. Hal of course dominates the next play in the series — but I wonder what would happen if he really made a forceful attempt on this play also.


Friday was The Roaring Girl at the Swan.


Moll Cutpurse

Last was best, much to my surprise. I’d heard mixed-to-bad reviews of this production, and I even wondered if I would have been better off changing my seat to watch Henry IV Part 1 in the RST. I didn’t switch — I’d never seen The Roaring Girl before, though I used to teach it sometimes — and I’m glad. What a joyous, energetic, exciting production to waft me back over the Atlantic!

Lisa Dillon’s Moll Cutpurse was the star, and she played the part with charismatic flair, but she didn’t big-foot the other actors as Sher nearly did. I came away thinking about the joys of a real ensemble performance, in which every part, no matter what size, owns its moments on stage. Moll was the center of a complex mix of deceptions, seductions, and interlocking sex-and-money plots, but she didn’t cast her shadow over the other players. Opening and closing the play on stage alone, smoking, she facilitated and also stood apart from the city comedy love plots.

More than any of the four plays I saw this week, I felt the RSC’s mania for clarity really helped this production. It’s a sub-plot rich environment, with lots of swindling and deception, and the professional clarity was welcome. But unlike The White Devil, in which I felt the RSC actors were fighting as hard as they could just to get the plot out on stage, in Roaring Girl they danced all of it, with happy bounces in their collective steps. Maybe a satiric comedy is easier to play joyfully than a revenge tragedy, or maybe — as someone suggested to me at lunch — the White Devil cast is still in previews and hasn’t really gelled yet. In any case it was great to see a show that felt complete. It reminds you what theater can do at its best. Even among the grumpy professoriate, almost everyone walked out of the theater and over to the pub happy.


Roaring Girl dance party

My favorite scene was also probably the hardest to perform: Moll and Trapdoor’s dialogue in Thieves’ Cant (5.1), the possibly historical secret language of rogues and card-sharps in early modern London. (Way back in 2004, I worked on a project on Elizabethan criminals, and used to know this vocabulary pretty well.) It’s a linguistically difficult scene, even though Moll translates most of the cant terms, and I wondered if they could pull it off without confusing the house. In a wonderfully goofy move, they staged the cant exchange as an epic rap battle, and turned the scene into a dance party, which they also reprised at the close in a faux-Elizabethan disco jig.

Really a great way to end the week at Stratford!


Two Gents and The White Devil: Stratford 2014 (1 of 2)

Monday was Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Royal Shakespeare Theater.

TGVposterDuring  the interval, Andy Kesson, whom some suspect to be obsessed with a certain Elizabethan playwright, mentioned to me that some critics think Two Gents is early Shakespeare imitating Lyly, and he didn’t think that was right. That got me thinking about the play’s dizzying turns of loyalty, rhetoric, and generic identity, which the RSC actors were struggling so valiantly to clarify for the audience. Not exactly Lyly, I thought. More like Robert Greene.

Perhaps I’m just going to my own go-to Elizabethan also-ran, and I do have a tendency to see more Greene in early and late Shakespeare than many others do. But there’s something Greene-ish about the play’s mix of extreme melodrama — bandits! exile! kidnapping! attempted rape! — with rhetorical play and emotional opacity. The pay-off for Greene-lovers like me is a heightened attention to and awareness of rhetorical forms and generic flexibility. This linguistic density works against theatrical realism — and against the RSC’s house style — but produces a particularly literary effect. It’s twisty-turny, but I like it.TGVCrab

The question of this production for me, though, was wether the RSC’s passion for legibility could find a happy home in this uneven play. Maybe not — but I think the better answer in this case is, almost. When a cast has to work as hard as this one did to make the plot- and erotic-turns legible, it’s hard for them to do anything else.

The clowns were the best and most straightforward part of the play, esp Martin Bassindale as Speed and Roger Morlidge as Launce. As comic counterpoints, they played in a calm space beneath the turmoil of the love plots, and their clarity was welcome. Mossup as Crab the Dog stole the show with his keening whines, perfectly on cue. I also like Sarah MacRae’s Sylvia, in part because she was the prototypical Greene heroine: powerful, stable, physically passive, and rhetorically persuasive. As in Greene’s romances, she converts the wayward Valentine through sheer endurance. The play gains some emotional purchase when she arrives; she was a still point around which Proteus and Valentine circled.


Sylvia dancing

The perfect clarity of the RSC almost reached the family who sat next to me in the second deck. The dutiful mother seemed worried about her antsy 10-year old, who was not drawn into the show. But the magic worked on the older daughter, who leaned over the rail to catch every twist of the lovers’ words. Not for the first time, I was reminded that these productions are not just for us professors.

Tuesday was The White Devil at the Swan.

WhiteDevilposterWe were all excited to see this seldom-performed Webster play, which many of us (including me) had never seen before. I was perfectly happy to forgive the faux-Baz Luhrmann-meets-Lady Gaga set, but, really, if they were going to do a disco scene – shouldn’t they be better dancers?

The play is fiendishly intricate and impressively violent, with graphic poisonings, one administered through masks worn by wrestlers, killings, mostly mute but bloody  ghosts, and one spectacular coup d’theatre involving pistols that turn out not to be loaded. (This elaborate stage business is the triumph of the play, with the playwright manipulating a whole extended scene for Flaminio’s great line, after getting up from playing dead, “The pistols were not loaded!” Middleton never thought of that, crows Webster!)

Like Two Gents, it’s an exposition-heavy play, though what gets described could not be more different: lust and violence replace love and naivete. As with the previous night’s play, though, I could not help feeling that the production was running as fast as it could to stay in place, to communicate the story, to make sure we were all following each turn and tangle. I was looking for a clearer vision.

The production might have been better off, esp in the long, bloody second half of the show, cutting the text in order to focus the action. It’s hard to make sense of the Jacobean taste for ultra-violent revenge tragedies set in 16c Italy, and some parts of the anti-Catholic satire may be lost on a 21c audience. When I’ve seen productions of these plays that I’ve really enjoyed — the best one was Red Bull’s incandescent Women Beware Women in New York in 2008 — they played the gore as high-spirited pastiche, a kind of brutal, emotionally raw joy. Maybe it was the bad dancing — but this was not a joyous production.WDbook

Kristy Bushell as Vittoria was great, especially during the trial scene, where she powerfully faced down the corrupt Cardinal who was both her judge and her accuser. She played a semi-powerful heroine, partly trapped in webs of corruption, partly negotiating those perils. Casting Flaminio, her brother who arranges her first assignation with Bracciano and later performs assorted murders and intrigues, as a woman, Laura Elphinstone, was interesting but not fully developed: the masculine form of the name Flaminio was kept and no one could figure out any real conceptual reason for the casting switch. (I thought maybe it had to do with the 3 non-Shakespearean plays being pre-feminist “roaring girl” plays — but surely the powerful woman in the White Devil is Vittoria, who matches Moll Cutpurse and Alice Arden in Roaring Girl and Arden of Faversham?)

As with Two Gents, I am not sure the RSC house style worked for such a baroque death-nest of a play. So much energy was spent unravelling the plot that it was hard to do much else. Francisco, the eventually triumphant conspirator whose sister had been married to Bracciano, was played by one of my favorite actors, Simon Scardifeld, who played Hermione and Kate the Shrew in two of Propellor’s great all-male productions — and even though I knew he would be there, I barely noticed him.

For this show, I sat, again on the 2nd tier, with two English tourists who were eager to see something new. I’m not sure Webster quite won them over.

Tonight and Friday: 2 Henry IV, and the Roaring Girl!



Oulipo in the Abbey: Le Livre d’Alienor


Reading over her shoulder

What does she read, behind closed stones eyes gazing forever at a blank page?

That’s the question that the tomb effigy of Eleanor (Fr Alienor) of Acquitaine poses in Fontevraud l’Abbaye, and during the summer of 2014, the Oulipo is on the case. Their installation combines multiple media forms: a bilingual printed book of poetry, which they give away in the Abbey church, two large-format copies of the same book, for browing near the four tomb effigies, projected images of the poems superimposed over a view of the four effigies from above, and a website.


Le Livre d’Alienor

It’s an amazing assemblage of works historical and poetic. The scholars and poets who put it together examine four main contenders as representing Alienor’s stone book: the troubadour poetry that was more or less invented by her grandfather, William IX; a religious text such as a Psalter or Bible, which seems the most likely thing for a tomb reading; her own historical experience as wife of two kings and mother of two more; and the context of the three effigies around her, including her husband Henry II Plantagenet, her son Richard Coeur de Lion, and her daughter in law Isabella of Angouleme, who was married to her son John Lackland.

The Oulipo explain their project as an attempt to bring contemporary poetry into medieval history and also as a response to today’s “transitional period” of media technologies, in which the printed book “coexists with new digital media” (126).

In typical Oulipo fashion, the poets create constraints for their works, first imitating William IX’s famous poem about “just nothing” (134), and later creating a series of variations on the sestina, a poetic form invented by the Provencal troubadour poet Arnault Daniel in the 12th century.

2014-08-01 11.38.04 HDR copy

Closed eyes and a blank page

There are some gorgeous responses to Alienor’s book, which the exhibition highlights with flood lighting, as “both void and full” (211; “”Le rein, le plein” 96 — I’ll quote mostly from the English versions here, but sometimes the translation from the French abandons sense for form). There is one poem in English is both versions; it celebrates “A page that will not turn” (100, 214). Other poems playfully retell the history of this famous queen and cultural icon:

Bending over the ear of Eleanor of Acquitaine, William IX, the troubadour, said, “Grow. We’ll sing for you, little one (188).

A key thought experiment for the Oulipo explores the idea of Alienor “in the Avant-Garde” (171-87) of both the 11th and the 21c.  Marcel Benabou suggests that her book represents a crucial, usually invisible production in the cultural history of ideas of nothingness, the “poem of zero words” (186). This “precious conceptual tool” (186) illuminates medieval debates on the value and meaning of void, in which William IX’s lyric is so important but theological disputes have their places also. For the Oulipo, the blank book also speaks to contemporary poetics of emptiness via Blanchot, Francois Le Lionnais, and other 20c theorists. Alienor’s book thus becomes “an anthology of poems of zero words” (186), a visible, even tangible representation of what Wallace Stevens calls “nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”

posterIt’s an ingenious reading, and just the sort of combination of historical context and contemporary poetics that I love. But it’s not the heart of the matter, at least not for me.

I came to Fontevraud with my family, including my wife Alinor and her mother Molly Sterling. Molly has been there a few times before, and has been thinking about Alienor and the Abbey for a long time, to the point of adapting the spelling of her daughter’s name from the French Alienor. So, lucky me, I got to visit the place where my love’s name was born. I found it full of poetry.

William’s poems about nothing, after all, are also love poems, after a fashion:

 Nothing will be well accomplished

In love, without paying homage,

And being, to those far and near,


While giving to those at your court

Your fealty (145).

Alinor and Molly in the Abbey garden

Alinor and Molly in the Abbey garden

Walking the grounds of the Abbey, listening to a recorded performance of a hymn to earthly perfection in Racine’s Esther, reading about Jean Genet’s description of the lives of prisoners in the 1950s (though it’s not certain he was in Fontevraud itself) — it all assembles a small human place of perfection, as Balderic describes the foundation of the Abbey by Saint Robert of Arbrissel in the 11th century (154-59).

A brilliant and intricate more-than-sestina by Michele Audin (written in a form called a “Josephina,” in which the length of each stanza increases from one to twelve lines), laments to opacity of historical distance, in which all elements of everyday life were different and beyond recapture. One thing remains:

…all of the gestures were different

except those of love, of course, and those that lead up to it (198).

What else could be in that unreadable book of stone?2014-08-01 11.38.27 HDR copy


Dreams under Stone

St-Cirq Lapopie

St-Cirq Lapopie

I’ve been in St-Cirq Lapopie, le plus belle village du France, for a bit over a week now, and for the past several days I’ve been puzzling over a piece of conceptual art installed the center of the village. Made by South African artist Laura Emsley, it’s pretty close to invisible — or at least the only physical trace I’ve seen is the sign marking it. But it’s a great idea, and has me thinking about the history and meaning of this place in all kinds of ways.

2014-07-28 13.21.02

The sign and the rock face

She ripped out pages of The Interpretation of Dreams and stuffed them into fissures in the rock, on the Chemin des Artistes just below the Musee Rignault in the center of the village, just a bit below the church. Her primary interest appears to have been less undermining the church — though that may well be part of the allegory also — than thinking about the relationship between Freud and the village’s most famous 20c resident, Andre Breton, who arrived here in the 1950s and claimed never to want to leave again. He lived in a lovely house facing over the river, a bit up the hill and to one side of the Musee, also below the church but slightly at an angle to it.

Art is basically form plus allegory, right? So even if I can’t find the pages, I can comment on the allegorical structures they seem to create.

Allegory #1: Below the Church

Freud’s dream-pages in Emsley’s installation sit perhaps 50m below the towering mass of St-Cirq’s church, now lit at night as a tourist attraction, and no long sharing its imposing skyline with the 11th century fortifications above it that have long fallen into ruin. The restored and active church represents rock-hewn solidity, a buttress against disorder, square blocks set atop a 100m cliff at a bend in the river. At one time, St Cirq collected tolls from river traffic and from pilgrims heading for Compostela. Now it collects tourists, and artists. Beneath the massive stone form, dreams roil.

Allegory #2: Into the Cave

Emsley's Sign

Emsley’s Sign

The pages inhabit fissures in ancient limestone, opening into spaces in the rock not entirely unlike the nearby Grotte de Pech Merle, where 25,000 year old art is visible deep inside an ancient cave. Part of what I think about when I see (or don’t see) this installation is Freud’s words reaching down inside the rock toward the cave paintings. I wonder if the spotted horses, bison, aurochs, and the haunting wounded man emerge from the dreamwork of the Viennese doctor.

The Church

The Church

Allegory #3: Below Breton

Emsley isn’t only thinking about transforming the post-card view of St. Cirq into an allegory of dreams, stone, and French history. She’s also imagining one particular resident of the village, the surrealist poet Andre Breton, who came to St. Cirq in the 1950s and stayed off and on until his death in 1966. One project of Surrealism was to unloose the unconscious and give it flight. I wonder what Freud’s pages might mean, inside the porous rock on which sits Breton’s river-looking house: what’s destabilizing what? Do the poet’s fantasies rule the roost, or the doctor’s interpretive rules supply the fuel?

Breton's House

Breton’s House

This work, and a series of a dozen or so other conceptual artworks, are hosted by Maison Daura in St-Cirq. I believe they may be looking for artists in residence for next year.


Actually...I think this is Breton's House.

Actually…I think this is Breton’s House.


Three Phases of #NCS14 in Iceland

Me swimming between tectonic plates at Silfra

Diving between tectonic plates at Silfra

The panel was on ice, but the trip was surrounded by water in all phases. This post is mostly photos, with stops in gas, solid, and liquid.

Mist @ Guilfoss

Iceland teems with waterfalls, and once you’ve spent even a little time driving around the country it’s hard to work up the energy to stop for another one. But Guilfoss — the Golden Falls — is the best. It roars down off the central highlands a little northeast from Þingvellir, where the Icelandic Parliament has been meeting since 930, though only ceremonially in recent years.



The waterfall is really two falls, with a sharp turn in between them, and the second cascade disappearing into mist. It’s a place of raw elemental power, water surging within the rocky border it slowly erodes — but what I remember is the cold mist on my face and hands. Pulverized water in the air.

The island is built on magma and its economy runs on hot water, but in places like Guilfoss the force of water is visible, tangible, audible.

Ice @ Solheimajokull

"Hugh Willoughby Talks to the Seafarer about ice"

“Hugh Willoughby Talks to the Seafarer about ice”

The day before we’d been walking near Vatnajokull and had heard the glacier rumble, like thunder but intimate and hidden, tantalizingly close. We didn’t hear anything as we ice-scholars walked in a group up Solheimajokull but we could feel the ice living. Oddur Sigurdson, the glaciologist who accompanied us, told the history of science’s discovery that ice flows like other forms of water. He also explained the features of

The family gets geo-thermal at the Blue Lagoon

The family gets geo-thermal at the Blue Lagoon

the glacier as we walked up them, including cone-like formations covered with fine black volcanic ash and deadly moulin sink-holes, the edges of which we carefully avoided.

The ice was wet and covered in places with volcanic grit, twin testaments to forces working to minimize its presence: volcanic heat from below, and solar radiation from above. Oddur recalled that there will be no glaciers 200 years from now in Iceland, but to emphasize the mass of ice on our planet, he reported that if we assembled all the nuclear weapons on the planet and exploded them beneath the Antarctic ice shelf, only 1% of the total ice would be destroyed.

My paper for the next morning was partly about loving ice as it kills you, and while walking up the glacier I wanted to write it all over again, though I’m not sure what exactly I would have changed.

On the way down, I struck up a conversation with Jonno, our Malysian ice guide, who is a Himalayan climber who’s climbed on the Lhotze Face and trained with Rob Hall’s company, though he joined them after Hall’s death on Everest in 1996, as chronicled by Krakauer in Into Thin Air.

The ice panel on Solheimajokull

The ice panel on Solheimajokull

Water @ Silfra

The narrow canyons of Silfra, near Þingvellir, show the tectonic plates separating the American from the Eurasian continents. Their water is fed by the glacier above, and it takes 35 years for the melt to filter slowly downhill. The result is perfectly clear, cold (2 degrees C) water. It’s become a  destination site for scuba enthusiasts. I went for a snorkel with my son Ian and niece Maddie.

I’d never worn a dry suit before, and by far the hardest part of the adventure was getting into harness. The rubber gaskets at my wrists and neck chafed tight, and we also wore a quilted jump-suit underneath. But it kept us (mostly) warm and (mostly) dry, though my hands, in 7mm neoprene mittens, got cold, as did the

Ian thinking about (on) millennia old ice

Ian thinking about (on) millennia old ice

exposed skin of my face.

But the water in Silfra was a blue I’ve never seen through before.

It was an amazing thing to swim there, look down, and know that I was looking into no continent. There was a sandy and rocky bottom about 25m down, perfectly visible from the surface, but that was fill, growing wider each year by a couple cm, at least when more dramatic activity didn’t open up and change the rifts entirely.

The cold water is full of life: pale lime-colored algae and supposedly very small fish, though they are almost impossible to see.

It’s hard to get beneath the surface of the water in a drysuit with no weight belt, but I managed it, swimming hard with my arms until I could get my fins underwater to kick. I probably only went 10-12 feet under before heading back up, but for that moment, fighting my own buoyancy, in that clear cold blue, I thought about water. Alien and intimate water, all around me but barely wetting my skin. Water filling this a-continental space, and me inside it.

Troll attack!

Troll attack!

Iceland is like no other place I’ve been.


Fishing, from the Globe to Waterworld

Telegraph UKThe most joyous moment in this summer’s production of Antony and Cleopatra at the Globe in London involved fishing. One reason I’ve not posted a review of the show since I saw it on June 13 with my awesome onetime student Jaquon Heath is that after I got home I left immediately for a fishing trip in the waterworld of northern Saskatchewan, as part of my first multi-country trip of the summer.

Eve Best, who played a winning and funny Cleopatra, though perhaps just a touch shy of transcendence, reached down fairly early in the play to a young boy in the front of the standing area. Cupping his face, she rhapsodized about fishing with Antony:

Give me mine angle; we’ll to the river: there, 
My music playing far off, I will betray 
Tawny-finn’d fishes; my bended hook shall pierce 
Their slimy jaws; and, as I draw them up, 
I’ll think them every one an Antony, 
And say ‘Ah, ha! you’re caught (2.5).

Embracing the boy’s neck and kissing his forehead, she threatened to draw him up onstage to replace then-missing Antony. It was a classic Globe move, leveraging the intimacy of the replica theater and the feeling it creates of sharing a hidden space, between Thames outside and planes overhead, of theatrical privacy. For an instant, we were all right there with Cleopatra.Promo

There were some other fine moments in the production: a great drinking-and-dancing party on Pompey’s boat, an aggressive performance by Phillip Corella as Pompey, in what’s becoming my favorite part in this play, and some fast-paced battle scenes. Enobarbus as played by Phil Daniels was sharp but rather more sour than I like for the only Roman who dies of heartbreak.

This play thrives on its two stars, and I was only halfway won over. Eve Best was great fun, but the decision to enthrone her in death at the end spoke, it seemed to me, to a need to add regal stature to her performance. Clive Wood’s Antony was engaging and broad-shouldered, but not really convincing as a political player. I’d love to see him play Falstaff — but actually I have the feeling I already have seen much of that role in his Antony. It makes me wonder about an alternative version of the fat knight who’s not as physically ludicrous as he is usually played: what if Sir John has gone to seed, but you can still see the steel underneath? I’d be interested to see Wood play that part.Guardian

Fishing isn’t a bad metaphor for live theater: the project is, as Cleopatra says, to catch us and draw us up. I’ve never had a bad night at the Globe, though I’ve seen better productions there.

The key element of the play that this production didn’t quite capture, not even in Jolyon Coy’s razor-focused Caesar, was power politics. To become “sole sir o’ the world” (5.2) requires massive concentration, resourcefulness, and obsessive focus. Antony gives it all away, but I like a production that shows him able to grasp it first. Cleopatra’s parting shot, “Tis paltry to be Caesar” (5.2), works best if it’s clear that she understands power.

I kept thinking about power on my next trip, because in the Churchill River system in northern Saskatchewan I fished for the creature that teaches Wart about power in The Sword in the StoneThe pike teaches a simple lesson:

the Power of the body decides everything in the end, and only Might is Right.

The Churchill River from above

The Churchill River from above

T. H. White, about whom I’ve just read a fascinating mini-bio in Phillip Hoare’s The Sea Inside, doesn’t mean the pike’s lesson to be the final word in the eduction of young King Arthur, but there’s a lesson there nonetheless.

I thought about that while fishing for northern pike in the Churchill River.

We caught a few big ones, and released them back into the water. Some of the smaller ones we ate for lunch.

Lessons about Power

Lessons about Power



Two Red Things

Red towel in Short Beach

Red towel in Short Beach

Here’s a link to an essay on mine for Underwater New York’s Waterfronts series, co-published with LA-based magazine Trop.

Here’s a different link to the West Coast version in Trop.


A little splash of the text too –

The ocean has many colors. Whenever I look into its blue or green or gray or foaming white face, I think it’s telling a story. It’s remembering something, splashing together lost histories. What does froth murmur?

The Atlantic is childhood.

The Pacific is youth.

I grew up near the Jersey shore and spent many hours walking its uneven sands. That beach is still the landscape through which I read all waterfronts: a gently sloping expanse of gritty beige sand, punctuated by tar-stained wooden jetties that may or may not contain beach erosion. The water is warm in the summer, and the surf rolls on a human scale. Lots of kids start with boogie boards and graduate to surfing, but not me. I never rode the waves any way but on my belly, head down, hands knifing the water in front of me like the prow of a blind boat. If you catch the wave right, it carries you all the way up the beach and leaves you high and dry, face down, eating sand.