Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Sea is a Conveyance-Machine II

south coast of Maine, looking towards Wells
by J J Cohen

I recently posted the opening to my short piece for Steve Mentz's forthcoming collection Oceanic New York. Yesterday Jonathan posted his utterly beautiful contribution to the same project. I cursed him on Facebook for scooping me on bibliography (though that also allowed me to cut some of mine) and for creating something much better than I have.

Oh well. It stinks to have a brilliant colleague.

Below, please find the draft of the rest of my piece. I'm not 100% happy with it yet, but it's getting there. You'll notice I tried to give an undulating quality through the frequent repetition of a few key terms, and the bobbing along the surface of some key oceanic texts ...

II. Confluence
“I say to you, Put wax in your ears rather against the hungry sea / it is not our home!”[i] When currents convey storms and savage waves as well as ships and savage tropes, the sea devours. Abyssal depths are silence and forgetting. Of marine hazard Steve Mentz writes eloquently:
[The sea] is the place on earth that remains inimical to human life … The most fundamental feature of the ocean, for poets, scientists, fishermen, and swimmers alike, is neither its immutable form nor its vastness but its inhospitality.[ii]
The sea is hostile to human life, and yet (hazardous provision and sublime excess) a trigger to human thriving. No less spurred to poetry than William Carlos Williams, Mentz limns his fine description of saltwater inhospitality with the quiet work of those who take from the hungry deep their sustenance, “poets, scientists, fishermen, and swimmers.” The ocean wrecks, engulfs, pulls to cold oblivion. To navigate you must like the sailors who companioned Odysseus stop your ears against its invitation to swim, to swallow, to cease. But the ocean also fosters: a bounty of cod, crustaceans, shellfish, stories, transport, lyric, metaphor. Esurient, unaccommodating, nothing like a home, the ocean allures, buoys, preserves, saturates. Its shanties trace the littoral between prosperity and despair, sustenance and starvation, song and silence. Appositional gyres.
Peregrine Horden and Nicholas Purcell map how the Mediterranean has over the millennia gathered long coasts, small islands, and heterogeneous microclimates into human unity, a space for fluctuating mobilities and enduring transport, military and commercial.[iii] What we persist in labeling “the Earth’s Middle” [medius + terra], that omphalos of an ocean, centers shifting terrain.[iv] Its tumult of languages provide durable vocabulary for navigating waters and narratives.[v] Deluge, deforestation, earthquake, ash, and landslide are so constant as to be unremarkable, so that to the Mediterranean belongs “an environmental history without catastrophe” (Corrupting Sea 338). Whether human or ecological, “little or nothing is permanent” (339). Perhaps when poet-voyagers like Isaac Aboab sailed to Atlantic shores (Amsterdam, Brazil, New York) they conveyed the imprint of diurnal catastrophe, a language of sea-swallow, wreck and story’s ruin released on less bounded shores.[vi]
Barry Cunliffe collects the seaboard sweeps of the Atlantic and the roiling of its cold waters into a similarly turbulent community.[vii] This ocean likewise fosters contact (war and trade), desire (for voyage, for distant goods and bodies), communication (stories, shanties, poems, a saltwater lingua franca to resound across small and landed dialects). Resisting the scholarly habit of isolating geographies into linguistic differences and brief chronological spans, Cunliffe maps how the shared experience of dwelling at a marine verge sustained vast, connective flows over long durations. But an ocean is more than a medium for human collectivity, more than a force for fashioning some universal pidgin of whorls. Aqueous matter is history rich metaphor, a marine-poetic transport mechanism that runs in many directions at once, sometimes in perilous cascade. Across spiraling planes (current, conveyance) as well as through vertical engulfment (drowning, oblivion), the ocean is transport and catastrophe.
All scatt'red in the bottom of the sea. Hazard the waters as you will, plumb the depths with fervor, and nothing static responds. What dreadful noise of waters in mine ears. A dream of death by drowning, a sounding of poetry on seafloor.

III. Who by water
The long Jewish history of New York begins with the community Isaac Aboab abandoned. They reached the Hudson without him. It is a chronicle of troubled sea voyage, and a chronicle of seas of trouble. A few weeks before I spoke a version of what you now read to a gathering of fellow navigators in Queens, Jews throughout the world gathered in synagogues and twice recited Unetanneh Tokef, a litany of catastrophes to come:
Who shall perish by water and who by fire?
Who by tremor and who in plague?
Who by suffocation and who by stone?
Who shall have rest? Who shall wander?
Unetanneh Tokef humbles me, and not because I believe in God; this world offers sufficient seas of trouble. But in a time of anthropogenic climate change and superstorms that obliterate, of death by fire and death by water, any poem of apocalypse rings true. Yet I like Leonard Cohen’s 1974 version of the piyyut better. His song is cheeky in its secularity, poignant in its wonder, heavy in metaphoric transports:
Who in these realms of love, who by something blunt,
And who by avalanche, who by powder,
Who for his greed, who for his hunger,
And who shall I say is calling?
The telephone of that insouciant last line brings to present interrogation a distant voice. A transatlantic call? A trans-temporal message conveyed through the soon to be lost technology of a landline? Or a failure of communication, story not transported, a wrong number, try again?[viii]
            “I say to you, Put wax in your ears rather against the hungry sea / it is not our home!” But even if you fail to stop your ears against the sea’s hungry song, even if your shanties cannot drown the pull, know that to be swallowed by waves is not always an oblivion. The sirens fashion their drums from the ribs and stretched skin of the drowned. Bones to coral, eyes to pearls. You may suffocate in the brine. You may sink to depths beyond recovery. But you may also become a material-historic conveyance device for the resounding of maritime tropes, metaphors, poetry, songs and stories – the literal become littoral.[ix] An intermingling or material-linguistic crosscurrent. The anthropologist Alphonso Lingis describes an organism as a failure of solitude, “a dense and self-maintaining plenum” that takes energies from its environment, to transform and release as forces and passions.[x] This flux far surpasses the bare requirements of survival, so that every creature is an apparatus for the production of excess. Organisms in this way imitate their environments, which are themselves
full of free and nonteleological energies—trade winds and storms, oceans streaming over three-fourths of the planet, drifting continental plates, cordilleras of the deep that erupt in volcanic explosions, and miles-deep glaciers piled up on Antarctica that flow into the sea and break off in bobbling icemountains” (2).
Lingis composes these lines on Easter Island, not New York. They suggest, however, that every organism conveys littorally: takes water, air, minerals into itself and releases its own vitality, sometimes as art or story. But as the New York’s confluences make clear, some organisms release the toxic leavings of landed things: chemical detritus, a flow of poison the sea swallows but cannot obliterate. Stories are easier to liquidate than refuse.
Despite tempests, rogue waves, massacre and extermination, despite long stretches of hungry sea, some stories convey. Isaac Aboab left a poem to link Portugal, Brazil, Manhattan, Europe, a vector of water-clasp. But what of the Lenape, people who held New York before Europeans and their bacterial companions arrived? Lenape voices are more difficult to hear in oceanic New York, but sometimes they resound. The Hudson was Muhheakunnuk, a river that flows in two directions, a coming that is a going.[xi] Back farther now still. The lower Hudson is a material text inscribed by twelve thousand years of human habitation, long thriving at the land’s verge. Estuaries and shorelines convey bodies, connect buildings, engender lasting flows, matter-device for story. Some tales are the recovery of archeology, others a diligence for linguists. Most are swallowed. Some linger as wake.
            Convoys transport more than humans. What of animals, timber, trade goods, parasites, stowaways, ballast and anchors? What of oceans not made of brine?
IV. Stone is slow water
The earliest humans in what is for the moment called New York hunted mastodons, timber wolves, and giant beavers. They knew the grate of glaciers, water solidified into hard conveyance. Wander Central Park and eventually you’ll arrive at ancient grey stone, bare mounds around which the landscape arranges. These are outcroppings of Manhattan Schist, 450 million years old. The grooves cut deep into their surface are glacial inscription, watery text etched when ice slid their surface. Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth call what unfolds in such moments of encounter “geopoetry,” the meeting of story-obsessed witness with a “repository of mineral intelligence.”[xii] Unfractioned idiom, that writing of stones.
Panta rhei. Glacial text on New York’s stone do not announce that rock rests immobile while even solid water flows. Manhattan Schist dates from the formation of Pangaea, perhaps the sixth supercontinent to have formed and dispersed. Oceanic New York becomes a geologic New York, and continents become conveyance-machines of their own. Earth and water together demand an elemental New York. Matter and metaphor mix. We are mineral and aqueous excrescences, airy breath and fiery heat, a transport device for the fourfold elements in their wandering. Earth, air, fire and water are matter makers, story triggers, an ebb and a flow and a vanishing.
            And obscure as that heaven of the Jews / Thy guerdon. Or at least your shanty’s end.

[i] William Carlos William, Paterson (New York: New Directions, 1992), p. 200.
[ii] See At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (London: Continuum, 2009) 5. Mentz’s formulation of a “blue cultural studies” and a “swimmer’s poetics” here and in his capacious scholarship has been essential to my own work.
[iii] The Corrupting Sea: A Study of Mediterranean History (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000). Horden and Purcell aim to extend the work of Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Phillip II, trans. Sian Reynolds, 2 vols. (New York: Harper & Row, 1976). See the thorough appraisal and detailed explication their ongoing project in Suzanne Conklin Akbari, “The Persistence of Philology: Language and Connectivity in the Mediterranean,” A Sea of Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History, ed. Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Karla Mallette (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013) 3-22.
[iv] Through a comparative analysis David Abulafia foregrounds the sea as a mechanism for cultural intermixture in a way that Horden and Purcell do not in his essay “Mediterraneans,” Rethinking the Mediterranean, ed. W. V. Harris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005) 64-93. His emphasis on ocean as a kind of verb resonates with Stuart Elden’s recent work on territory as process, “made and remade, shaped and shaping, active and reactive” (The Birth of Territory [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013]), 17.
[v] I am thinking especially here of Jonathan Hsy’s work on the ocean as linguistic connective space in Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2013) and Sebastian Sobecki on the sea as a connective space across which tropes slide from one genre to another in The Sea and Medieval English Literature (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 2008).
[vi] Amsterdam would be part of the “Mediterranean of the North,” a designation used by Robert S. Lopez, The Commercial Revolution of the Middle Ages, 950– 1350 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976) to link Scandinavia, Britain, Germany, and Flanders with the Baltic. “Mediterranean Atlantic” could describe Brazil’s situation, and is from Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Before Columbus: Exploration and Colonization from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic, 1229-1492 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1987). Such multiple Mediterraneans are at the heart of Abulafia’s argument, which emphasizes dynamic interconnection of a kind that can render even a desert a kind of ocean (“Mediterraneans”). Oceanic space is, in his account, always unbounded.
[vii] Barry Cunliffe, Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000BC–AD 1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001). Cunliffe has also written on the fluidity enabled through a multi-ocean nexus in Europe Between the Oceans: Themes and Variations, 9000 BC – AD 1000 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008). I have examined Cunliffe’s work previously in my introduction to Cultural Diversity in the British Middle Ages: Archipelago, Island, England, ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) 4.
[viii] This series of questions is inspired by the brilliant work of Richard Burt and Julian Yates in What’s the Worst Thing You Can Do to Shakespeare? (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), especially 17-45.
[ix] On the soundings that enable such littoral transport see Allen Mitchell’s contribution to this volume.
[x] Dangerous Emotions (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) 2
[xi] See Lowell Duckert and Jonathan Hsy’s contributions to this volume.
[xii] Jamie Kruse and Elizabeth Ellsworth, Geologic City: A Field Guide to the GeoArchitecture of New York (New York: smudge studio, 2011), sites 7 and 8.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Watery Metaphor: Much-Belated Meditations on Oceanic New York


In this blog post, I’m trying out some ideas in response to Oceanic New York. See an excerpt from JEFFREY’s contribution to (what is now) a book project HERE and this recent update/meditation by Steve Mentz, the “Prime Mover” of the event and related book project (see HERE). [NOTE: The images and captions only impressionistically relate to the text.]

One of most compelling aspects of Oceanic New York was how its varied presentations aimed to explore and rethink metaphors of connectivity. The ocean is a conveyance-machine, a life-sustaining environment and agentive force in its own right, a dynamic medium/mode of transport that enacts the flow of matter, languages, and cultures. Emerging as another theme across the presentations was the idea that ocean invites us to adopt fluid modes of temporality as well. As I listened to the presentations, it became increasingly clear that thinking about the ocean requires a capacity to sustain different notions of scale concurrently. In a blog posting soon after the event (see HERE) Steve recalls “Nancy Nowacek’s direct statement that we must live in more than one temporal register at the same time.” Indeed, these presentations moved into multitemporal registers through a variety of approaches: eco-theoretical, linguistic-poetic, philosophical-scientific, aesthetic-artistic, architectural-communal. As Mentz observes: “There’s no way to capture the fluid dynamism of the event itself  but formal play and poetic experiments can gesture toward that multiplicity in different media.” What I hope to offer in my response is a more deliberate consideration of the “fluid dynamism” of the event, exploring my current (pun intended?) thoughts on its multiplicity and play.

[Above: Oceanic New York, St. John's University, Sep. 26, 2013.  EILEEN, displaying her love of #disasterporn, shows an image of a sublime green wave overtaking New York City.]

Linguistic Registers

A certain delight in wordplay and poetic experimentation with metaphor characterized many of the Oceanic New York presentations. In his etymological wordplay, JEFFREY (read THIS) evinces a transtemporal oceanic contact zone, and he does so in a writing style appropriate for relating the dispersal of peoples across time and thinking about the watery spaces they traverse.

Jeffrey’s multitemporal experimentation with etymology and near-puns implying motion and polyglot vessels of transport (“convoy, convey, convoke”) makes me ask how transportable different oceanic theories of connectivity become when they are expressed through poetic tropes (i.e., wordplay or metaphors). The transportability of oceanic paradigms (the question of whether a way of thinking about the ocean that derives from one context can carry over to another) is something that premodern scholars have contended with for some time. Indeed, it would appear that there is now a "critical mass" of different connectivity paradigms in play that are each to some extent unmoored from the specific oceanic spaces that generated them. I'm thinking of Sebastian Sobecki’s (2007) work on South Pacific connectivity and its (admittedly cautious) application to a networked medieval Irish Sea and North Atlantic (The Sea and Medieval English Literature14-15); or Jeffrey's previous work (2008), where archipelagic modes of thought migrate from the Caribbean to the British Isles; or explorations of connectivity informing the British archipelago to emerge in a forthcoming (2016) issue of postmedieval issue ed. by Sobecki and Matthew Boyd Goldie. Very recently, Suzanne Conklin Akbari and Karla Malette’s wonderful co-edited collection A Sea of Languages: Rethinking the Arabic Role in Medieval Literary History (2013) has helped Anglophone readers to revisit connectivity via the profoundly intertwined literary histories of languages and cultures throughout the medieval Mediterranean.

Akbari engages with recent work by David Abulafia (2011) on the longue durée history of the Mediterranean and Horden and Purcell’s seminal The Corrupting Sea (among others) to break out of constraining monolingual approaches to literary history; she finds in the medieval past a more expansive mode of (re-)de-territorializing discrete linguistic, literary, and national traditions. Most importantly for this discussion, Akbari also entertains how theories of connectivity that derive from this particular sea’s “enclosed” quality and movement of currents might actually transfer to other landed medieval “Mediterraneans”— such as the vast Sahara, or diverse terrain of the Silk Road (4). If there is a single global ocean (as this issue of PMLA posits and Steve Mentz entertains HERE in his article on blue cultural studies) then an “Oceanic New York” just happens to be one locality among many in a contiguous terraqueous globe. Rather than perpetuating a rigid distinction between land and sea, “both/and” orientations take connectivity as a feature traversing all spaces (a point I suggest in a different way in my own work – see footnote if you're interested).[1]

[Stone marks former site of glacial pond. St. John's University, Sep. 26, 2013.]

Watery Motion

In A Sea of Languages, Karla Mallette pinpoints an excellent linguistic metaphor to suggest new ways of thinking across different scales of time concurrently. In “Boustrephedon: Toward a Literary Theory of the Mediterranean,” Mallette puts Classical writing and reading practices in conversation with the medieval Mediterranean Sea for the benefit of modern-day readers. “Boustrophedon,” she notes, is a Greek adverb denoting “turning as the ox plows,” and insofar as the adverb denotes motion it provides a model for conceiving the back-and-forth transit of texts, languages, and ideas. As Mallette states, a “tidal rhythm of ebb and flow” implicates “our contemporary entanglement with the Arab world to the medieval Mediterranean,” a globe where Arab and European worlds implicate one another (260). This back-and-forth mode of thought registers — however unexpectedly — with Lowell Duckert’s presentation on “glacial erratics” and the flow of ice, and the Iroquois name for the Hudson (entity of water) as the “river that flows both ways.”

I love what these models of back-and-forth-transit achieve and would add that the materiality of the “boustrophedon” metaphor warrants further consideration, as it weirdly enacts an amphibious leap across land to water. That is, “boustrophedon” originally refers to the motion of a yoked ox in a profoundly landed, agricultural context— and it is being extended by analogy to a sea and the fluid modes of conveyance it enables. The landedness of the “boustrophedon” metaphor renders it simultaneously alien to and appropriate for limning the surfaces of an enclosed sea.[2]
As we test the flexibility of oceanic metaphors to structure thought, we are eventually faced with Heather Blum’s dictum: “The sea is not a metaphor” (670).[3] Or rather (as Steve suggested in his presentation) the sea is not only a metaphor. Adopting a spatial metaphor that thinks not in terms of back-and-forth surface motion but plumbs the ocean’s watery depths, Blum observes: “Oceanic studies calls for a reorientation of critical perception, one that rhymes with the kind of perspectival and methodological shifts ... seen [in] influential conception[s] of history from the bottom up” (671). In this shift to a vertical/horizontal orientation, Blum cannot help but wax poetic with a metaphor of her own: the conceit that one critical orientation “rhymes” with another.

[Moments in time: Spencer Finch's The River That Flows Both Ways (2009) documents a single day's journey along the Hudson through snippets of color. Finch photographed the changing colors of the Hudson once every minute. This combination of two photos was taken at the High Line on Sep. 28, 2013.] 

Waves (Sound and Water)

Blum’s use of “rhyme” to indicate critical orientations that resemble one another brings me ultimately to one physical, kinetic feature of the ocean: waves. And here I mean waves of water and of sound. Each of these presentations (in its own way) manipulated sonic phenomena to suggest the materiality of oceanic metaphors and watery poetics. Wordplay and the poetic effects of cadence and rhyme not only help transmit to ideas but they also implicate sound as a key mode of idea-conveyance. Sound, to adopt modern scientific discourse, is a vibration that propels itself as waves through a medium (be it water or air). It might not be surprising, then, that we can resort to stylized patterning of sound-waves to convey how we — terrestrial, air-breathing creatures — conceive transit through a water-filled environment. To communicate some sense of transit through waves and currents of water, we create verbal and linguistic “waves” (in medieval acoustic theory, sound breaking air) to enact analogous motion. As Patricia Yaeger observes, a contemporary “rush of aqueous metaphors [across oceanic studies] lends materiality to a world that becomes more ethereal every day, to a discourse that has taken to the air, that threats iPhones like oxygen saps, as if our very lungs and sinews could be extruded into cyberspace” (523).[4] I might tweak this observation slightly to say that attending to the materiality of metaphor and sound exposes how the ocean facilitates thought in a global (literary, linguistic, temporal) scale.

Oceanic New York has helped me to think more carefully about materiality of metaphor, or — to put it another way — to confront the physicality of thought. Sonic patterns and verbal tropes are one strategy for making ideas perceptible to the senses, so it is fitting that thinking about the ocean and diverse watery environments would provoke such varied concurrent modes of expression. These presentations in the original “event” of their oral-aural-sonic delivery and in their printed manifestation in graphic form cover a range of topics, but collectively they achieve a shared effect: they seek to embody varied modes of transit through space and time. (By the way, such embodied linguistic mimicry is not limited to sound: H-Dirksen Bauman’s work on Deaf literary theory notes the ASL gesture for the verb FLOW manually enacts a downward motion resembling water, enacting a “kinetic model of the world.”[5])

These acts of watery thinking in all their variety instill an attentiveness to the terraqueous worlds we inhabit. These concurrent critical modes — and ludic exploration of metaphor and language — reveal the manifold functions of the ocean and attend to the perpetual motion of all that participates in it, with it, and through it.

[1] In my own work on polyglot spaces, I’ve encouraged a similar “both/and” orientation toward the transit of tongues and people: a critical mode that attends simultaneously to landlocked (local, grounded) conditions of literary production as well as oceanic connective trajectories; see Trading Tongues: Merchants, Multilingualism, and Medieval Literature (Ohio State UP, 2013), especially chapter 2 and the coda.
[2] The capacity of “boustrephedon” to connote concurrent temporal registers is a feature of fictive realms too. The constructed Antlatean language, which re-creates a proto-Proto-Indo-European language with non-PIE elements, is written in boustrophedon to evoke “back-and-forth movement, like water” (says the creator Marc Okrand, who also happens to be the creator of extraterrestrial Klingon).
[3] Hester Blum, “The Prospect of Oceanic Studies,” PMLA 125.3 (May 2010): 670-677.
[4] Patricia Yaeger, “Editor’s Column: Sea Trash, Dark Pools, and the Tragedy of the Commons,” PMLA 125.3 (May 2010): 523-545.
[5] H-Dirksen Bauman, “On the Disconstruction of (Sign) Language in the Western Tradition: A Deaf Reading of Plato’s Cratylus.” In Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking, ed. H-Dirksen Bauman (U Minnesota P, 2008), 127-145, at 141.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

An Early Modern Child's Drawing, in Melusine


While looking for a suitable illustration to help teach Geoffrey of Auxerre's version of the Melusine story (n35 here for more), I ran across this, in Jean d'Arras' prose Roman de Melusine, BnF fr. 1485:

That's GREAT. I'm pretty sure this drawing's escaped (for now) the attention of Erik Kwakkel, that indefatigable emissary for medieval manuscripts, though he has blogged on doodles, and even children's doodles

Please let me know if you've seen this before, and where. Google searches for child drawing Melusine or l'enfant dessin Melusine get me nothing useful. For now, we'll just observe that this drawing, dating from, I guess, the late 16th or early 17th century, is all too appropriate in a story so concerned with lineage. 

And, uh, dinosaurs and maces.

(parenthetically, because I'm far outside my expertise here, but I've been asked to explain why I think this is a child's drawing. My stupid response is just that it looks like one. More considered, and even less expertly, I'd say that the elongation of limbs coupled with the enlargement of areas to accommodate detail (in this case, in clothing) that can't be rendered finely with a child's typically gross motor skills coupled (tripled?) with the complete indifference to the image's interaction with the text just says child to me. But it could be Paul Klee too! If this touches on your field, hazard a guess in comments, please.)

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Susan Crane, Animal Encounters

by J J Cohen

A highlight of this year's MLA Convention in Chicago was being included in a session on Susan Crane's new book Animal Encounters: Contacts and Concepts in Medieval Britain. The panel was jointly sponsored by two divisions, "Medieval French" and "Middle English excluding Chaucer." Sarah Kay presided, and the panelists also included Peggy McCracken and Robert Mills. Susan Crane responded to our papers and a lively conversation followed, with lively audience participation.

Here's my piece. Let me know what you think.

             The allegorization of animals is deeply medieval. Bestiaries, romances and even scientific works transform them into human foibles, Christian virtues, and pedagogical injunctions. Susan Crane’s Animal Encounters refuses to discern in the beasts of medieval texts only anthropomorphism, only tropes for human stories. In the bestiary account of the stag (cervus), we are offered a potent sign for the good Christian. But Crane also demonstrates how we likewise behold the trace of a living deer that makes its way through dense woods, instructs its children, and retreats into its own wondrous world. She describes such moments of encounter and enmeshment as “embodied scenes of imaginative production" (1). Aside from brief glimpses of modern analogues and the anchoring of her argument in critical animal studies, her project is not explicitly tied to present-day concerns -- yet within the human-animal intimacies she investigates inhere new ways of forging relations between ecologies past and present. I taught Susan’s book alongside Mick Smith’s Against Ecological Sovereignty this fall in a graduate seminar on “Contact Ecologies,” and that juxtaposition emphasized for me how much the project of Animal Encounters, even if directed towards the medieval past, intimates new modes of environmental enmeshment and a densely cross-temporal ethics of encounter.
            The texts and topics examined in this capacious book include: the ravens, cats and wolves of early saints’ lives and monastic lyric as experiments in environmental cohabitation; Marie de France's charismatic werewolf Bisclavret as indeterminate creature, a challenging compound of wonder and adventure, extending an invitation to follow the animal to new realms; the taxonomic ardor of the bestiary tradition as a method of making knowable the spiritual unity of creation that also reveals continuities among its collected creatures, discovering in foxes, apes, and dogs qualities which are supposed to distinguish humans but instead render them humanely adjacent; hunting manuals for an aristocratic audience that simultaneously buttress the privilege of a select group of humans and sonically intermix them with the hounds they accompany through the woods; kindness capable of crossing the species barrier in Chaucer's Squires Tale, enabling a princess and a bird to construct, however contingently, a mode of compassionate co-dwelling; and the mutuality of relation between knight and horse in chivalric romance. Animal Encounters is learned, lucid, and cogent, yet another contribution to rethinking the Middle Ages from a scholar renowned for her ability to analyze polyglot and diverse materials in ways that profoundly change their critical estimation. This book opens up possibilities, and deserves enthusiastic celebration – prolonged, and with lots of champagne.
            Among the volume’s strengths is its insistence that Christianity is not monolithic, that the medieval theological record is diverse (too many scholars collapse medieval theology into a harmonized version of the Patrologia Latina). The materials examined here are in Latin, Old Irish, Middle English and medieval French, emphasizing the complicated multilingualism of the British archipelago (a polyglot world that extends in the book through hunting cries even to animal companions). What would the “Medieval Britain” of the book’s subtitle become, though, if the implicitly Christian ambit of its “Medieval” were widened? How might cohabitation change by following the pigs, owls, and hyenas that trace a liminal region between the book’s Christian authors and Jews, their English urban neighbors from just after the Norman Conquest until the Expulsion of 1290? As Karl Steel has shown, thinking the Jew and thinking the animal often went hand in hand. What would the subtitle’s “Britain” become if “Celtic” peoples were granted coevalness with the book’s late as well as early English materials? Could the Welsh and the Irish who appear in the first chapter as monks and saints also appear as late medieval writers? The tales collected as the Mabinogion are full of animals, sparse in monks, and with their Anglo-Norman traces certainly part of the contact zone that was medieval Britain. The twelfth-century discourse of race was also a discourse of species. We’re not talking abstract figuration here, but “embodied scenes of imaginative production.” To push this farther: what happens to taxonomy when humans and animals mate, engendering viable offspring? Gerald of Wales is provocative on this topic, especially as he describes the people of Ireland cross-breeding with their own cattle. He also asks questions like: what happens when a monkey mates with a dog? And we could add: what, outside of Augustine’s simplification of the issue, is the function of the species-blurring monster?
Not all humans were equally human, nor will what constitutes an animal always be clear. Some animals hovered between the organic and the inorganic, such as coral and oysters (the bestiaries describe oysters as “living rocks”). Many bestiaries are bound with lapidaries, and it is not difficult to see why: the rocks of the lapidary tradition, romance, and travel narrative are as lively and assertive as anything contained in zoological compendia. The travel narrative published under the name of John Mandeville describes diamonds that come in two forms, male and female. Erotic inclination brings the gems into union. Diamonds undertake slow lithic coitus that within its own geologic time creates ever more glistening and libidinous rocks, little baby diamonds:
They grow together male and female and they feed on the dew from Heaven, and they conceive and beget and make their little children beside them that multiply and grow every year. I have many times demonstrated that if they are kept with a little of the rock, and not separated from their root, and wet often with May dew, they grow visibly every year, and small ones become quite big.[i]
These gems that grow and multiply, eat and thrive, are also susceptible to human domestication, true pet rocks. The Mandeville narrative quietly suggests that these gems are creaturely, that they belong with organisms that prowl the world, reproduce, ingest, desire.
Many bestiaries contain an entry for lapides igniferi [fire-bearing stones], defined as “igneous rocks of the masculine and feminine gender.” Kept at a distance the two forms remain inert. Should the male rock approach the female, however, “fire breaks forth and consumes all.” These combustive stones appear in the good company of the phoenix, elephants, panthers, beavers, dragons. In the Aberdeen Bestiary (one of the second-family bestiaries, the manuscript group examined by Susan Crane), the firestones are fully humanizedas a nude man and woman, aflame in a garden perhaps meant to recall Eden (93v); since humans are also made from earth and water, such representations make good biblical sense.[ii] Yet this bestiary balances its lithic representations. Upon flipping the page the reader is met by a depiction of a lone rock atop a still, green hill (f 94r). This stone is adamas, the diamond, most impenetrable of materials, its solitariness a rebuke to the blazing gregariousness of its siblings. On a placid summit, removed from story and from time, the Aberdeen adamas dwells indifferent to human relation and fiery futurity.[iii]
Depictions of fire rocks are almost never content to leave stone to seclusion, to add nothing of human story. Yet a surprisingly nonanthropomorphic, nonnarrative representation appears in the bestiary of Harley 3244 (at f. 60). Igneous red mixed with blazing orange, these five stones shine like embers on a grassy mountain slope. They are uniformly partitioned from each other, serene in their glow.[iv] The Harley fire rocks glimmer with vitality, but they have not yet ignited into cataclysmic story, unperturbed in their vibrant materiality. They hold themselves off from encounter (even while participating in visual contact). Other depictions of fire rocks are jarringly hybrid. Another bestiary [Gonville and Caius College] illustrates firestones as two dark rocks, petal-like extensions framing the human faces at their centers, uneasily eying each other. They seem keenly to apprehend that something is about to arrive, but do not know enough to regard that fatal advent with anything but puzzlement.
Rock is anthropomorphized not to become more knowable, not to be assimilated into the human or the creaturely, but to remove stone from that constrictive familiarity which prevents full realization of its challenge, even queerness. What might such animated objects have to say to the kinds of encounter and contact Susan Crane explores in their medieval diversity? What happens to “creaturely relationship constituted in compassion” (Animal Encounters 170) when the creature involved is not “the living animal” (171), but a lively thing, a stone? Might the “problem of animality” (4) be related more widely to problems of environmentality, including “how bodies, minds, and affects interpenetrate” not only “within and across species,” (9) but within and across ecomaterialities? What happens when animal encounter becomes environmental encounter, and grows to include the vastness of the material world with all its forces, organic and inorganic?
            Reading Susan Crane’s rich book provoked many such questions, and deeply inspired my own writing and research. What better gift can a volume bestow than the catalysis of new work, new thought? Animal Encounters is Susan Crane at her best, and that is really saying something.   

[i] I quote from the lively translation of Ian McLeod Higgins, 99. For the French see Jean de Mandeville, Les Livre des Merveilles du Monde, ed. Christiane Deluz 306. The Latin commandment from Genesis will be quoted on the island of Lamory, 332.
[ii] Kellie Robertson acutely observes “These anthropomorphizing accounts of fire-producing stones suggest a natural world motivated by recognizably human desires and behaviors. The habit of moralizing rocks in this way seems to reduce the inanimate object to a screen on which the human is projected in grainy but recognizable form” (‘Exemplary Rocks” 93). Robertson argues against such reductive reading (rocks are more than humans in “petric drag”) by pointing out that “this allegorized world is one of mutual, rather than unidirectional, influence” (94): both rocks and humans are changed by their proximity and relations.
[iii] Adamas introduces a lapidary bound with the bestiary. Vellum quality changes at this point and the lapidary section is not well illustrated. The adamas portrait may be unfinished.
[iv] Debra Hassig describes the peaceful illustration as almost a landscape portrait: Medieval Bestiaries 117.