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.

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