Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Collaboration, Oceanic New York, and Some Lunatic Letters

by J J Cohen

The past two years have offered a litany of fruitful collaborations: with Cary Howie on New Critical Modes; with Lowell Duckert on Ecomaterialism; with Stephanie Trigg on fire; with Lowell again on Elemental Ecocriticism (now at press); with Julian Yates on Object Oriented Environs (soon to be an edited collection). And these are just the collaborations that moved some projects to completion: most, though, were built around even bigger collaborations among many authors and contributors (so I will add Prismatic Ecology and The Future We Want to the list as well: working with those contributors was for the most part great, and mind-expanding). I've come to prefer such community-building intensifications of knowledge over more solitary scholarly endeavors. Stephanie put it best: "Collaboration makes you twice as smart." Notably, she was quoting her long time collaborator Tom Prendergast. Many of these projects have emerged from or have become friendships and moments of shared experience. Lowell and I were in Barcelona together when we thought up ecomateraliasm (and he is, at this point, a member of my family). Stephanie and I were at her beautiful house in Melbourne with our families when we realized we both have an interested in Old Icelandic fire stories. Julian and I came to appreciate how much we enjoy collaborating when we shared a hotel room at SAA (during which time he delighted in making me paranoid about mold in the coffee maker, bed bugs, ticks and accidentally cutting myself to death).

And I've just completed another collaboration, this time with the wonderful J. Allan Mitchell. He and I were paired together by Steve Mentz for the Oceanic New York project since our presentations there were already in dialogue with each other. I really enjoyed working with Allan: he pushed me to take many risks, and his writing inspired me to do better with my own prose. He's been an ideal partner. Here are the "lunatic letters" we devised as our collaborative commentary on maritime force.

Dear A,
I am landlocked and dreaming of the sea. 

Born near the coast, companioned by storms and swells, I've grown weary of summer thundershowers, puddles, brooks that purl, the mud under gutters, water without brine. I miss the ocean's tang, touch and din. The Atlantic has a language even cloudbursts cannot translate. Not knowing how else to capture something marine, this morning I added sea salt to a milk glass and filled it from the tap. Into my kitchen sea I dropped a stone and scallop shell. Speckled granite plaything of the waves, the rock is round like an egg. I am guessing that breakers rolled it longer than Maine's shores have known human trace. The shell is much younger, and in a few years would have been sand. Both are stones, really: it's just that one shows its creatureliness better. Both are intimates of pelagic tang, touch and din. I enclose with this message a dry picture. It conveys little of sense.

I've fucked up, I know. The sea is a force, not drops for glassware. Oceans cannot be domesticated, cannot become small. There's no life in my inland sea, no crash or tumult. Without my hand nothing moves. Its water came from a river swiftly making for a bay. I interrupted a seaward course and housebound an element. 

But I keep thinking that the glass is made of melted sand. The O of its rim initiates Okeanos, the embracing world sea, that marine ouroboros. The water the tumbler held has already vanished through the drain, is already headed for Potomac and Chesapeake, flowing towards estuary, salt expanse, dispersion, droplets perhaps for future hurricanes. This O, this ocean-word or ocean-ward, is vast, even in a milk glass: transport as well as fragment of an inhuman language.

I wonder if you would write to me, as you think about vast oceans, a story of the sea.

Respectfully yours,

*  *  *

Dear J,

Your experiment seems to have brought you to the edge, though nowhere more lunatic than the ocean itself. Let me try to identify the source of this maniacal thought I have. Even this may amount to no more than an amusing folly. 

I grew up in a pacific seaside city on a so-called Half Moon Bay, one of many strewn along these western shores, upon which is inscribed the deep sympathy of astronomical and aquatic elements. Up and down the coastline long crescent beaches are impressed with the gravity of the situation, geographic testament to the way otherwise discrete bodies crisscross one other, like the swash and backwash of waves sculpting the shore. Plutarch rehearsed the old line that the moon’s face is a mirror reflecting fleeting images of ocean (earthshine denotes the phenomenon today), but the moon seems to generate rather more enduring earthen images of its phases. Raising the tides, the moon effectively renders coastland lunulate.

Play with stone and seawater then. Are we not caught between those twin forces anyway? I harbor a crazy suspicion that we are in fact surrounded, and that there is no escaping the influences that (also, yes) elude capture. All our briny bodies are surely subject to the virtual pull, no matter how far removed. 

Ancient and medieval writers at least claim that the human -- moncynne according to the punning fourth Exeter Riddle -- is touched by the moon. All moonstruck. To one with monocular vision doubtless everything can seem oceanic. There is no vessel too small to register the monthly flux. Menstruum or moisture in the brain, for instance. Pliny thought our blood too ebbs and flows according to the phases of the moon. Your shell, he would have said, grew thanks to the power of the rocky overhead satellite. The moon is likewise supposed to be a distant cause of the generation of infants, newly grafted trees, seeds, honey, fish, and fowl. 

It would be loony to think everything conspired against our loneliness. All I know is that I’ve never been able to move far from the sea, having started out playing in sand and surf before coming to make a home, surrounded, on an island in the Pacific.


* * *

Dear A,

My sleep is restless when the moon is round -- troubled dreams, perhaps, or longing for the sea. Strange to feel such pull from dust. But you are right: other ages had a better vocabulary for celestial gravity, for the lunacy that pulls at oceans and blood. Gerald of Wales, dreaming of an island to conquer, wrote that as the moon waxes the seas swell, the vital fluids of every living creature surge, the sap that is the life of plants rises. All things are ruled by the moon, all things are lunatic, all things are full of roily ocean. Medieval words that arrive when I think of the Atlantic and the moon's traction: lunaticus, lunage, lunatique, lunetie, lunatyke.

I write this letter from the coast of Maine, in the December clarity of what I am told is called the "Cold" or "Long Night" Moon. My father’s family has lived here since the 1880s, when they fled European pogrom. I have been thinking therefore about convoys: the groups we form with others, united for a while in journeys, safety against elements. A convoy is odd fellowship, like and unlike, humans with objects, oceans as roads, machine for strange cargos, and also stowaways. If the sea is a conveyance device, if metaphor is a machine of transport, then through convoys we join with others in the hope of destination. Tempests, pirates, monsters of the depths, rogue waves, icebergs and icelock are the things of encounter that keep wanting to become allegories, but I think we should let them speak in their own tongues.

Sea is a space of story. Our letters are proof enough of that. But I've been wondering what happens when narrative becomes waterlogged, when brine stain or rainsoak wipe words from the page. Isn't that what happened to Beowulf, when a flood quenched the dragon transition and took some words of the poem to oblivion? Funny to think these letters -- these ones now, the ones I am writing on the Atlantic coast, snow at the waves, and yours from that other ocean -- these words will last the fifty years of electronic media, and perhaps twice that in paper form. Had they been inscribed on flayed sheep they might have attained the millennium. Skin as conveyance device, death the price for story's endurance. Or maybe rain or the sea would have taken the words all the same, and maybe the ocean swallows more than conveys.

These words are written late at night under lunar radiance in a place of family where, in days to come, we will not be known. I'd send them to you with sand, or with some trace of sea, but I do not think this cold Atlantic can know what happens at your coast. Your Half Moon Bays (how I envy them) seem calm and deep, your lives not so stormy.

Tide means time. What unforgivable redundancy to cliché those words together, time and tide. Oceans convey rhythmically, ebb and flow, catastrophe and flourishing, lunatic cyclicality. These words, no matter how oceanic, will not endure.


PS I enclose for your enjoyment a lunar postcard, from the moon-struck Isidore, who heard in words the noisy materiality of the things they named. The moon, he thought, takes its name [luna] from solar radiance [lux]. But he admitted that sometimes lunar intensity renders people lunaticus, making them believe inhuman forces impress themselves on bodies like moonlight.

Dear J,

A storied sea transports us, and yet as you also observe, sea stories are not all ours to tell. I too strain to hear things outside speak as if “in their own tongues.” You and I are moved to correspond over immense distances nonetheless, exchanging these letters and if mere words could navigate the passages.

Am I falling prey to a little allegory? Inevitably so perhaps, but let me start here in the hopes of ending up elsewhere.

Some will insist that aquatic allegories are poor human contrivances, fabricated accounts that correspond to nothing external. So I have been thinking lately of the way Hesiod for one depicts the moon-goddess Selene, “having bathed her lovely body in the waters of the Ocean,” newly cleansed and clarified by the so-called monthly ablution. An oceanic event is transformed into hydromythic hymnody. Has an encounter between moon and earth been displaced and domesticated in the process? What remains of orbiting celestial bodies, moonshine, and brine? I’m just mad enough to think some more-than-human influence comes streaming through, and cling to the thought that a poet’s verses convey the erotic charge of interpenetrating light, space, force, and fluid. 

Isidore’s encyclopedic account of moon phases is another site of possible correspondence, and I have been dwelling on your postcard ever since it arrived. It leads me to consider whether even our most technical and instrumental interventions in the world (those of parchment book, astrological chart, quadrant, or digital image) can ever compass the rhythms outside. There is a conventional idea that technology alienates, but I wonder how lucid that thought really is, especially as machines facilitate the ease of our back-and-forth just now. I think of how Chaucer’s Treatise on the Astrolabe sets out the procedure by which the “label shall than declare . . . at what houre of the day or of the night shall be flode . . . flode or ebbe, or halfe flode.” Turning the dial to the right place on the device, intertidal activity practically becomes manifest on a circular metal plate. It is no small marvel. Spatiotemporal ebb and flow are indexed on a gadget that could be said to fix the flood but rather encourages a new sort of fluency.

The right words are hard enough to come by when we ignore our surroundings, discounting everything from birdsong to the chirrup of electronic devices as mere noise. For both of us, in these exchanges, the question is whether and how we can we attend better to more local phenomena. Let’s acknowledge that all the human faculties (not just those associated with art and science, but also those required in everyday trade and technology) can and do discourse with things exterior to themselves. For do we not have many ways of “overhearing" the oceans? Various means of telling “stories” of the seas? There is no guarantee that our technical interfaces and conveyances (scientific or literary) will not end up fouling the waters. Many do. But more-than-human texts and technologies (conveniences that risk petrocidal ruin) are orientation devices, and there is an urgent need to recognize that orientation necessitates exposure. 

This still sounds abstract and figurative perhaps, but what I think I’m saying in consonance with you is that we cannot always be sure where metaphors -- abstracted figures like that stone and shell with which you began -- begin and end. Can we ever know more? And where do we go from here?


Mary Kate Hurley said...

This is fascinating. Do you think something emerges in letter-writing that otherwise might not be possible? It seems like such an archaic form -- like the formal constraints writers use to hone their craft, almost.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I am dedicated to the revival of archaic forms, and was so happy Allan agreed to the epistolary form. I do think form matters -- and that we should not lose this superseded ones, but reinvent them!