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Getting Specific about #mla18

MLA ice-geometry: Can you fit it together?

Around six pm on Saturday night, turning into the home stretch of #mla18, I left after a blazingly powerful session on Approaching 1492 from the Middle Ages that left the submerged resonance of the year 1000 pinballing around my imagination — the date of the Vinland settlement and also the start, according to Callum Roberts’s magisterial Unnatural History of the Sea, of a decline in fresh-water fish in continental Europe that drove fisherman out onto the salt flood. Walking out of the Hilton, I picked up around ten increasingly urgent text and voice messages: my family’s voyage home from San Francisco that day, already jostled by Delta’s canceling of their early flight into JFK, had encountered stomach flu over the Rockies. It wasn’t clear if they’d be allowed to board the connection into Hartford, or even if that connection would go. After some confused consultation, I rush-packed and taxi-ed to Grand Central, emailing myself out of dinner plans & hoping Metro North would get me home in time to help whoever made it to CT. It was a long cold return: all three of them made it, but not until after 1 am, by which time the temp dipped down to 2 degrees below zero. The three travelers were sick, exhausted, and cold. It was good to be able to welcome them to a warmed-up house and to offer food that no stomach wanted.

That intrusion of reality wasn’t quite the end of my #mla18. While travelers slept on Pacific time the next morning, I drove back to midtown for the Site Specifics panel that closed us out at noon on Sunday. But my disorienting shift out of the MLA’s intellectual flow and into the embodied intensity of parenting sick kids whiplashed me into thinking differently about the conference, its demands and pleasures, and the pressure we put on ourselves and those around us in order to make MLA possible. I usually think about the ethics of MLA in terms of the way it tortures grad students and job seekers, which horrors are being partly transformed by the innovation of first-round Skype interviews, now pretty common, and I hope fast becoming the new norm. After this year’s storm-and-freeze, I’m thinking also about what we’re asking of ourselves.

Last panel of the conference

Central Park in the storm

If we decouple the conference from hotel-room-job-interviews, what is MLA for? Can we reimagine and remake it into something new? What would that new thing be?

I’m not sure I have answers to these questions, but they are the things I’m thinking about as I mull MLA during this week’s slow thaw.

I went to ten brilliant panels in four days:

Thursday: s17: Early Modern Biopolitics; s84 Anthropocene Reading

Friday: s254 Tyranny ; s437 Early English Consent

Sat: s472 Marlowe’s Aesthetics; s507 Precarious Bonds in Shakespeare; s564 Weak Environmentalism; s614 Texts and Localities in Early Modern England; s702 Approaching 1492 from the Middle Ages

Sun: s821: Site Specifics

I hauled back ten books that have no places on my overflowing bookshelves:

Kellie Robertson, Nature Speaks (Penn)

Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Duke)

Dexter Zavalaza Hough-Snee and Alexander Sotelo Eastman, eds., The Critical Surf Studies Reader (Duke)

Heidi Brayman, Jesse Lander, Zachary Lesser, eds., The Book in History, The Book as History (Yale)

Two Object Lessons (Bloomsbury): Bill Germano, Eye Chart & Paul Josephson, Traffic 

MLA footwear

Four Forerunners (Minnesota): Andrew Culp, Dark Deleuze, William Connelly, Aspirational Fascism, John Hartigan, Jr. Aesop’s Anthropology, Davide Panagia, Ten Theses for an Aesthetics of Politics

But that pair of tens doesn’t capture the swirling riches of midtown in deep freeze, muffled in snow and academic discourses.

I’ll unravel three bread-crumb threads from my circuitous #mla18:

Sixteenth-Century English Literature

I’m on my second of five years as a member of the 16c English Literature Forum, and we supported three great panels this year. I chaired a session on Tyranny with papers from Henry Turner, Stephanie Elsky, and Drew Daniel that was so thrilling and painfully apt that we’re going to reprise it at #RSA18 in NOLA in a few months. We co-sponsored a panel on Early English Consent with the Chaucer group; that session lost its paper on Measure for Measure and its feminist theoretical respondent to the bomb cyclone, but the remaining papers, William Quinn on Chaucer and Maggie Solberg on late medieval Mariolotry, were really strong. The last session on Texts and Localities featured Vim Pasupathi’s brilliant archival work on military musters on and off English stages and Eric Weiskott’s excavation of prophetic texts from the 13th to 16th centuries. Over our dinner meeting, the Forum board talked mostly about the panels we want to sponsor, but we also speculated a bit about the shape(s) of the field. My fantasy-future MLA will have more field-shaping.

St. John’s English PhD Happy Hour!

The most joyous event of the weekend — which I nearly neglected in my zeal to write about all the academic panels before they vanished into non-memory — was the Happy Hour on Friday night for the St. John’s English PhD. The event, which gathered together about two dozen grad students and a hearty cadre of maybe ten faculty in a repurposed conference room in the Sheraton, celebrated our efforts, over the past dozen or so years, to reimagine and recreate the English graduate program at St. John’s. Building our case for many different audiences, from the SJU administration and Board of Trustees to a pair of eagle-eyed academic reviewers and eventually New York State’s Board of Ed, we relied on consistently on the same refrain: we have brilliant students. I had to skip out of the Happy Hour mid-bash to get to my 16c English forum dinner, but throughout the conference I was deeply impressed by the insights and dedication of the SJU students that I saw and heard speak at panels, roundtables, and other events. Plus — in an event sure to warm the heart of any ex-DGS — it was a treat to talk with one SJU student negotiating a job offer in mid-MLA!

Ecocrit and the Environmental Humanities

I also followed, as I usually do, the raft of Environmental Humanities panels. On Th afternoon we filled an overheated Hilton ballroom for a roundtable on the new book Anthropocene Reading, which featured seven of the contributors but, alas, neither Tobias Menely nor Jesse Oak Taylor, our brilliant West-coast editors. I’ve really loved being in this collection, and short talks about Emily Dickinson, indigenous writing traditions, J. M. Coetzee, and semi-randomized Anthropocene pedagogy gave me lots to think with. The high moment of the panel was Dana Luciano’s stunning “Dear Anthropocene” epistolary performance, in which she voiced her powerful ambivalence about this increasingly dominant term in the eco-humanities. Saturday noon featured an all-star lineup for Weak Environmentalism, featuring Jane Bennett, Jeffrey Cohen, Wai Chee Dimock, Paul Saint-Amour, and Susan Wolfson. What is the relationship between weakness and strength?

The last panel of the conference, Site Specifics, about eco-crit in post-industrial New York, was my favorite event of the weekend and a highlight of over two decades of MLAs. Katie Hogan started us off with a shrewd and persuasive reading of urban-rural hybridity via Fun Home. Caroline Holland entangled Mayor Bloomberg’s Million Trees Campaign with John Ashberry’s lyric vision. Anthony Lloi asked us to image rats as undercitizens, oysters as infracitizens, and imaginary creatures as ur-citizens of the metropolis. Kathleen Coyne Kelly presented on speculative futures of Manhattan, via both sci-fi and architectural design competitions. I revealed my obsession with Newtown Creek. Orchid Tierney closed us out with a brilliant reading of Fresh Kills in Staten Island as a subject of Anthropocene poetry and as itself a more-than-human artwork.

Alas, no walking in Newtown Creek this MLA

I can’t remember enjoying a session more, or feeling more part of something brilliant, new, and generative coming into being as at that final panel, in which the on-stage party of seven (six presenters plus Byron Caminero-Santangelo as chair) more than doubled our three hardy audience members, who themselves contributed great and searching questions in our too-short time frame. Site Specifics represents the future I want for MLA: a short time of intense and speculative sharing, working across time periods and methodologies, willing new things into being through conversation and imagination. Give me excess of it, as the lovesick Duke says in Twelfth Night!

Here’s hoping for more of this delightful speculative food in Chicago at #mla19! 

 

 

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Bookfish in 2017

See what the Public printed on our group tix!

Some year-end gathering on a cold morning.

Last year one resolve was to write more for public venues, such as the Glasgow Review of Books, Stanford’s Arcade, and Hypocrite Reader. I didn’t keep at it as resolutely as I might have — 2017 was for me a year of not-finishing things and getting lost in the middle — but here are some beginnings —

He Must See Ghosts: Richard III, Trump, and the Future in Hypocrite Reader (Dec 2016)

Reads of 2016 (Jan) in the Glasgow Review: Irina Dumitrescu’s Roomba under Fire, Jeremy Davies Birth of the Anthropocene, Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems.

Motion Sickness for Stanford Arcade (Jan)

The Two Anachronisms for the Glasgow Review (Feb)

The Neologismcene for Stanford Arcade (April)

Sailing without Ahab for the Glasgow Review (April)

Reads of 2017 for the Glasgow Review (December): Joseph North Literary Criticism, James Scott Against the Grain, Jeff Goodell, The Water Will Come

I also kept up my flow of a dozen blog-review of theater & musical productions —

The Tempest at St Ann’s / Donmar Warehouse

Jersey Shore in June

Happy Days (Tfana) and Venus (Signature Theater)

Slices from Dylan’s Nobel Lecture (a kind of performance?)

Dylan on Father’s Day 2017 (Wallingford)

Passions of Bloom: Arts & Ideas Festival

Macbeth (Shakespeare on the Sound)

Hamlet (at the Public Theater)

Measure for Measure (Public Theater / Elevator Repair Service)

Richard III (Queens Theater)

A second response to Measure (Public / ERS)

Twelfth Night (Fiasco / Classic Stage Co)

Pericles (Hunger & Thirst Theater / Guerrilla Shakespeare Project)

I’ve already summarized four long posts on Newtown Creek, which I’ve been obsessed with all fall.

At the Folger (with Jenny Richards)

Other stats: 32 posts (same as 2016!), most in June (8) and Dec (6); least in May (0). 10,481 page views & 5900 users — a bit down from 2016. Maybe people aren’t reading blogs anymore? (Some of my web-writing has migrated to places like Glasgow Review and Arcade.)

During the messy middle of 2017, I lost track of my swimming progress, which means it’ll be the first year since 2012 that I’ve not hit my annual mileage goal. I estimate that I swam just a bit under 150 miles this year, well below the 250 I swam in 2016 and 225 in 2015, though still more than the 100-ish that I managed 2012-2014. I’m planning to start my weekly FLOG (Fitness log) again in 2018, aiming for at least 200 miles in the water.

Olivia outside the Public

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Newtown Creek: Six walks in 2017

Swimming in the Creek

The first day I planned to visit the Newtown Creek Nature Walk was July 16. I was hoping to convince my daughter to join me for a walk-through after spending the afternoon in the company of a certain roguish Rebel pilot’s version of Hamlet. She opted instead for Dylan’s Candy Bar.

I finally made it there on October 14, in the company of three of my very favorite people.

One strange thing: I kept thinking about beauty, and about design. I always think clear water is beautiful, no matter what’s beneath the surface. The plastic floatable bears a semi-translucent charm. What do we want beauty to do for us?

I went back on Nov 7 (Election Day!) and again on Nov 17. I thought different things on the different days.

17 November: Plastic debris hugged the shoreline of Whale Creek like a vision of our shared future. In the company of plastic — that’s the world we’re moving into. In chilly sunshine, the bright colors looked just a bit inviting.

Or not

7 November: On this visit I read the description of the Nature Walk on a sign that presumably had been written by George Trakas, who designed the space  in 2007. The area was meant to represent a “vibrant intersection where multiple histories, cultural identities, and geologic epochs coexist.” I like that capacious vision  in which multiplicity and uneasiness together create ecological art. Shivering a little on this wet afternoon, I wondered about coexistence and its difficult durations.

A fourth trip on a gloriously warm Dec 1.

December 1, 2017, was a glorious spring afternoon in the anti-climate. For the first time since I brought some of my favorite people with me in October, I wasn’t alone in post-Nature. Coming back to Newtown Creek was like coming into community with entities that I don’t yet know well.

It took me two tries to get inside the Walk on Dec 14-15, because on the first day the gate was closed due to snow.

What wise words does the silent Creek speak about transition? What’s changing, in and under and near that toxic water?

Heading back on Jan 5th with a crew of MLA-ers!

Water with colors (17 Nov)

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Encounters by the Creek (Post-Nature 4: Dec 1)

The honey locust out of bloom

December 1, 2017, was a glorious spring afternoon in the anti-climate. For the first time since I brought some of my favorite people with me in October, I wasn’t alone in post-Nature. Coming back to Newtown Creek was like coming into community with entities that I don’t yet know well.

For this trip I walked with words, as I had not during my two November visits. I listened carefully during each stage of the walk to the audio tour recorded by the FSDE (Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies). I’ll use the thirteen tracks on the audio tour as a running narrative of the day’s encounters. (Here’s the NYC Parks flyer that also describes the space.)

TK1: The Rock

The tour starts with a boulder on the corner of Paidge and Provost Streets in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. The voice asks you to put your hand on the ancient stone. “The boundary of human time can be porous,” the tour intones in the words of John McPhee.

TK2: Paige Avenue

Next you walk down Paidge toward the stairs that lead up into the Walk proper. “This neighborhood has harbored industry for almost two centuries,” the voice continues. “Nature has never been natural,” it explains, paraphrasing and idea from the philosopher Graham Harman.

Preparing yourself to enter the Walk, you feel “some mixture of expectancy and revulsion.” It’s a form of anticipation. I usually walk this part quickly.

TK3: The Vessel

The first section of the walk is shaped long and narrow like a boat, with portholes on the right side looking onto an industrial landscape.

TK4: The Creek

Even on my fourth trip this fall, my steps quicken as I near the edge. Here’s one of my favorite things: the honey locust tree that was ablaze in orange in early November.

No yellow leaves left in December. The honey locust marks the Creek’s edge, as the glacial erratic marks the edge of the Nature Walk itself. As winter nears, the tree seems as bare as the rock.

“Naming,” the tour continues, “has a Biblical power.” In my November blog, I forgot the name of the honey locust tree.

Fragments from a green waterworld?

At the water’s edge you can’t avoid thinking about things below the surface that you can’t see. “The shit will be here until we transform it again,” the voice intones, “or it transforms us.”

TK5: The Steps

“I’d like to tell you to enter the water here, but I won’t.”

“Consider the poetry of sewage water, in a city where you are one of the shitters.”

Submerged Floatable

Just then a change of light

My first companion on this not-wintry December day was a mostly submerged plastic floatable. I watched it swim just below the surface of the clear cold water I would not enter. It was gorgeous, fluid, florid. I stared at it for a long time. I took several pictures.

TK6: The Watershed Bollard

The table is shaped like a shipping bollard, “a cylindrical post used to secure ships in port.” On top of the stone surface is a map of the watershed as it was before European contact. “The etching has a slight gradient, so falling raindrops can replicate the journey of the Creek’s own, original waters, albeit on a much smaller scale. A small, brass pin on the shore indicates your position on the watershed map.”

Is it swimming away?

“A suggestion floats by,”  from the Floating Studio voice: “if we could name everything in this Creek, maybe we could master it.”

TK7: The Digester Eggs

“What do we do with the biosolids?” asks the audio tour, but I’ve already seen the answer, all 150-feet of steel simplicity: the Sludge Barge Rockaway.

She’s a big beauty, an industrial powerhouse that hauls away the biosolid cakes that are all that’s left after the Digester Eggs have done their work. I walk alongside the ship for around 20 minutes, taking pictures and marveling at the massive vessel. Big ships like these have small crews in the automated age, but I did see a crewmember come out on deck for a little while, to smoke a cigarette in the afternoon sun.

Sludge Barge Rockaway

Plastic in water

The sludge barge almost filled up Whale Creek; if I’d taken a running start, I might have been able to jump from shore to her deck rail. After that I could have walked across the deck to the far side. This afternoon, the Creek was almost crossable.

TK8: The Garden

This day, the garden space at the end of Whale Creek sits in the shadow of the big barge.”You might notice that it’s cooler here,” says the Floating Studio voice.

Documentary Filmmakers

I chatted for a few minutes with a pair of documentary filmmakers, who were working on a project for NYU Journalism school on industrial composting in New York City. They wanted to know if I could get them closer to the Digester Eggs. I didn’t have any good ideas, though we looked at the maps etched into stone tables. The maps made it look as if the Nature Walk may expand in the future, and the extended path might lead closer to the Eggs.

TK9: The Fountain

Rockaway in the sun

“Take a drink. Trust me,” says the voice. But the water fountain in the garden isn’t working right now.

TK10: A Return

Walking out of the Nature Walk and returning to the outside world means seeing a postcard view of the Empire State Building and also wondering if any part of that unsettling mixture of smell, toxic unease, and beauty will travel back out with you.

TK11: Everythingness

The Floating Studio asks us to leave with some questions. Here’s my favorite:

“How large would the placard need to be to include all the things you can name here?”

TK12: Exeunt

I’ll give the last two tracks over to the voice of the Floating Studio —

Stone and City
Photo 11/30/17

“If Newtown Creek had a voice, what would it say to you as you are leaving?…Will it miss you? And will you miss it?”

“Can you carry out some of the everythingness?”

“All roads lead back to Manhattan.”

Exiting the Nature Walk Photo 10/14/17

TK13: The Fragrance Garden

“Here is the end…the Nature Walk at its most awkward.”

“Imagination is vital to restoration.””We have to hold the refuse and the labor and the wildlife all together. Can you hear the pungent, salvageable poetry of Newtown Creek composed to a meter both human and nonhuman?”

More coming!

 

 

 

 

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Pericles: Born in a Tempest

[A delayed blog-review: I saw this show on Nov 17, just before the first round of holiday madness. It’s now long since closed, but the performance was inventive and moving enough for me to want to keep an eye on these two companies going forward.]

One good reason to keep seeing 400-year-old plays is because they speak to human needs. I don’t believe in timeless genius, but I like 21st-century productions of Shakespeare that eschew false authenticity in order to build something distinctive.

In a little upper West Side theater space upstairs in a church on W. 86th, Hunger & Thirst Theater and the Guerrilla Shakespeare Project played a wonderfully inverted and compressed Pericles, with a cast of only five and an elaborate frame narrative. I walked out of the small space abuzz with feeling, and humming the homeward bound shanty, Leave Her Johnny, traditionally sung by sailors being paid off after a long voyage:

For the voyage is done, and the winds don’t blow

Fishermen

And it’s time for us to leave her

The opening scene

The song’s melancholy doesn’t capture the same feeling of redemption that the reunions of Pericles with long-lost daughter and wife generate at the play’s end — but this production wasn’t really after redemption, at least not the wish-fulfillment part of it, and besides they cut the return of Thaisa. Instead, the modern-dress frame tale explored the death of an old sea captain named John Gower on the same stormy night when his grand-daughter was born. Going through the old man’s things, his daughter and son-in-law find a journal which provides them a script for the story of Pericles, “a song that old was sung.” The force of the inset performance of (most of) Shakespeare’s play reconciled the family to loss and birth, instead of substituting the miraculous return of “the voice of dead Thaisa” (5.3).

I liked the twist, and I liked the company: they were funny in the right places, a compelling mix of goofy and dramatic during the storms, and tender throughout.

My favorite staging-element was the repetition of the opening scene: old man John Gower opened the play in a wheelchair grumping at his daughter. That same scene was reprised in the inset narrative, when Marina found Pericles on board his ship. While the “real” daughter had not been able to reach her dying father in the opeing, the “fictional” Marina coaxed language out of Pericles with music.

I’ll keep an eye on these performers. And I’ll think more about how the fantasy-endings of romance, in which so many lost things return, might speak to human losses beyond the stage.

 

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Fiasco’s Twelfth Night (Classic Stage Co.)

Shakespeare and sea shanties are two of my favorite things, so when Fiasco Theater’s production of Twelfth Night opened with a rendition of the old clipper ship song “Marco Polo,” I was feeling pretty good about my evening. The cast sang all together as they staged the voyage interrupted by shipwreck that preceded the play’s opening scene. Crooning about “the fastest ship in all the world” — the Marco Polo was a three-masted clipper ship that sailed for the Black Ball Line in the 1850s and later wrecked off Prince Edward Island in 1883 — the cast sounded wonderfully cohesive. Sitting on one side of the thrust stage with a dozen St. John’s students, looking across at a dozen or so who’d made the trip downtown from Columbia U., we all felt in good hands.

For the first half of the production nearly every scene change was marked by a new shantey; I didn’t recognize all the songs, though I did catch the homeward bound capstan shantey, “Leave her, Johnny,” one of my favorites. Shanteys have a place in popular music today, but during the Age of Sail they were working songs, designed in their rhythm to help mariners bring their laboring bodies into unity. Certain songs matched certain tasks: a capstan shantey kept time while the crew hauled up a long anchor chain, and other songs were for furling, bunting, etc. Music served as a form of labor: a pretty good match for Twelfth Night, it seems to me, particularly in a production co-directed by Ben Steinfeld, the Fiasco regular who also played Feste and who in that role led the evening’s final song.

Ben-Steinfeld as Feste. Photo by Sheiva Rezvani

Fiasco Theater, one of several local companies made up in part of graduates of the fantastic MFA program at Brown / Trinity Rep in Providence, has been producing excellent Shakespearean and other plays since around 2012. I missed their much-praised Cymbeline, but enjoyed both Two Gentlemen of Verona and the uncharacteristically sympathetic Measure for Measure, both of which I saw in 2015.

Stand out performances in Twelfth Night included Andy Grotelueschen as a wonderfully disordered Sir Toby and Ben Steinfeld’s empathetic Feste. Especially in the comic sub-plot, I was struck by how affectionate the characters were with each other: in this version, Maria and Toby in particular seemed very much in accord and planning their marriage from their first scene together. The revelation of that marriage at the play’s end, which in Shakespeare’s text is given to Fabian, was re-assigned to Maria herself, and her evident pleasure in the announcement suggested that matrimony had been their plan all along. Malvolio’s torment felt excessive, but not haunting or mean-spirited. Even Feste’s melancholy songs, “Come away, death” and “The rain it raineth every day,” created a happy choral unity.

The most striking note of suffering in the play came early: Emily Young’s Viola spit out a mouthful of water as the “Marco Polo” chorus broke down into shipwreck. The brief emission of water from her mouth, just a splash really, lingered in my mind as she waited for time, not her, to untangle the complex plot of loss and reunification. The physical cost of salt water on human flesh?

Lots of other fun things in the production, including Paul Coffey’s intense Malvolio, which reminded me of his earlier portrayal of the Duke in Measure, and co-director Noah Brody’s winningly self-regarding Orsino.

Go see this one at the Classic Stage Company before it closes on Jan 6!

Andy Grostelueschen’s Sir Toby chasing Paul Coffey’s Malvolio

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Back to Post-Nature: Nov 7 and Nov 17

A new sign (Nov 17)

After my first visit to Newtown Creek on Oct 14, I walked through Post-Nature again twice in November.

On a cold rainy afternoon on Election Day no one else walked with me.

On a crisp sunny Friday ten days later, I saw two boats zip through the Creek’s still water. The first was a fast outboard cruiser, with its pilot snug inside a small cabin. The second was an open zodiac with two men in dark winter body-suits, put-putting along slowly. Neither looked toward me as I stood on the concrete steps with my iphone taking their picture.

7 November: The most striking thing on that wet early November day was the fire-orange of the first tree I encountered on the way in. It sits by itself surrounded by stones when you first emerge near the water’s edge. Its year-end colors blazed amid the granite like a promise that you suspect won’t be kept. I spent a little while looking closely at the veins on its leaves as the rain fell on my shoulders and wool hat.

The picture doesn’t really capture the color (Nov 7)

17 November: When I came back to that spot ten days later, most of the leaves were down in the water. I gave in to my occupation’s hazard and mumbled a few favorite lines of poetry —

That time of year thou mayst in me behold,

When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

Upon those boughs that shake against the cold,

Bare ruined choirs, where yet the sweet birds sang. (Sonnet #73)

Nature catches human emotions. The poet’s words snare those reflected feelings in an effort to peer back into himself. What happens when we stare at yellow leaves inside a Nature that echoes with humming freeways rather than sweet birdsong? Can we sing verses to the invisible black mayonnaise beneath the water?

7 November: During my first November visit, it was wet and cold on the slippery epochal steps. I could imagine falling into time and toxicity. In October, on a warm dry day, I had felt tempted to wet my fingers, but not this time. I stopped two steps above the waterline.

17 November: On a cold dry day, the water found its beauty again. It became crowded, with the two boats but also with the last leaves of fall and more floatables (to borrow Marina Zurkow’s term for surface trash) than I’d seen the last time. But even with these things in it, the water was still, clear, transparent, alluring.

Water with colors (17 Nov)

7 November: Election Day has cast an anxious shadow most of my adult life, all the more so now, this close to the horror of 2016. Walking through post-Nature and the ravages of industrialization while our national and local democratic wills walked into election booths made me think about the Anthropos in Anthropocene. Who is the debilitated old Man whose century-old excess made all this mess? How can we find him, touch him, hold him to account? Will he listen to us?

Steps leading down (Nov 7)

17 November: Plastic debris hugged the shoreline of Whale Creek like a vision of our shared future. In the company of plastic — that’s the world we’re moving into. In chilly sunshine, the bright colors looked just a bit inviting.

7 November: On this visit I read the description of the Nature Walk on a sign that presumably had been written by George Trakas, who designed the space  in 2007. The area was meant to represent a “vibrant intersection where multiple histories, cultural identities, and geologic epochs coexist.” I like that capacious vision  in which multiplicity and uneasiness together create ecological art. Shivering a little on this wet afternoon, I wondered about coexistence and its difficult durations.

17 November: The creek boasted a new sign today, from DEP: “No swimming or wading.” Good advice.

I’ll be back on December 1 and again on January 2. At least those two days.

Signs of speed (Nov 17)

 

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Another Measure, in the storm

See what the Public printed on our group tix!

[I started this post on 11/8 and left it unfinished for a week or so. As the news continues from Weinstein to Moore to Franken, Measure seems more and more the play of our moment.]

On a stormy election night in downtown Manhattan, I watched Elevator Repair Services Measure for Measure for a second time, in the company of the few straggling students who made it out in the rain. The first time I saw the show it was at the end of its previews on Sept 29, almost six weeks earlier. I blogged then about experimental acting and textualizing the stage, about the intermission-less breakneck pace, about time and emotion, and about clowning. Six weeks later — after the six weeks that began with this Times story about Harvey Weinstein — all I could see on stage was sexual aggression.

The word consent appears three times in the play. The last of the three echoed in my head as I piloted the good ship Subaru north through rainy highways. “I will not consent to die this day,” says the murderer Barnadine. His jailers listen to him. White male privilege works even among condemned criminals. Why can’t anyone else withhold consent in Barnadine’s imperious and impervious way?

Angelo had previously sexualized the word in order to sharpen his assault on Isabella. “Fit thy consent to my sharp appetite,” he commands. She resists — but the Duke-Friar, and the play, require that she collude with and eventually reward his aggression.

The word’s third appearance comes in the mouth of the Duke-Friar, asking and manipulating Mariana into taking Isabella’s place in Angelo’s bed: “It is not my consent, but my entreaty too.”

All three times consent appears in male mouths, voicing Barnadine’s resistance, Angelo’s assault, and the Duke machinations. Isabella never offers her consent, though the men in the play do nothing but ask her to comply with their various desires. It’s not just bad men like Angelo or ambivalent ones like Lucio who bully her; the Duke does too, and so does her condemned brother. “Sweet sister, let me live,” Claudio implores. I’ve never heard so clearly as during this performance that her reply is a response to yet another attempt to dominate her: “Is’t not a kind of incest, to take life / From thine own sister’s shame?”

Isabella’s silence after the Duke’s last-minute proposal is a famous theatrical crux; I’ve seen it played with a full range of emotions, from ecstasy to defiance to horror. In Elevator Repair Service’s rendition, Isabella seemed mystified as the Duke ran off stage alone.

Is there a legible resistance in her silence? If not, can we build or imagine one? We need resisting Isabellas. Not to mention morally conscious Dukes.

 

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Richard III @ Queens Theatre

This play is always a star vehicle, and Lloyd Mulvey’s Richard put everyone else into shadow. He smiled, limped, cringed, and gamboled his way across center stage. A faint conspiratorial grin shadowed his face throughout the whole play, even lingering when he bellowed for his horse in the final battle. He hooked his audience early and reeled us in all night. More comic than terrible and more devious than tyrannous, he played the evil king as nihilistic trickster. No, it didn’t remind me of anyone. Besides we saw the show several days before Indictment Monday.

One of the textual changes Titan Theatre made was opening with a few lines from Queen Margaret’s curse before shifting to Richard’s winter of discontent. The curses, growled out with power, dignity, and supporting stage lighting by Angela Iannone as Margaret, formed a narrative backbone around which Richard twined his plots, speeches, and assassinations. By foregrounding Iannone’s Margaret, and later emphasizing that nearly every one of Richard’s victims remembered her curse before dying, the production emphasized a battle of the sexes topos, in which victimized women resisted Richard, at first ineffectively but finally decisively.

Lloyd Mulvey as Richard

The most powerful scene of the production for me was the seduction of Lady Anne (1.2). Watching Richard bully and cajole her is always painful, but in post-Weinstein America certain elements of the scene stood out. Maggie Wetzel’s Anne emphasized youth, beauty, and a kind of naiveté, so that her line, “I would I knew thy heart,” felt oddly moving and revealing of her vulnerability. She started fierce, defending a casket that in this production contained the body of her dead husband (killed by Richard) instead of her father-in-law and former monarch (also killed by Richard). In addition to offering her his breast to stab, Richard in this staging grabbed Anne hard by the wrist and held her, thus performing a physical domination that was shocking and, in my memory of past productions, not always so explicit. Richard would repeat the grab later (4.4) when negotiating with Queen Elizabeth, whose sons he had just murdered, for the hand of her daughter. In the latter scene, Richard punctuated his not-seduction with a forceful and painfully non-consensual kiss on Elizabeth’s lips. I often read the second attempted seduction as a failure and an index that Richard in act 4 has lost some of the sinister charisma the drove his schemes in act 1. The forced kiss in this production suggested otherwise, at least in terms of his aggression.

Richard grabs Anne

After the brutal wooing of Anne, Richard in soliloquy solicited the audience for approval. “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?” he cackled to the front row of the small theater. “Was ever woman in this humor won?” The audience laughed with him, as he wanted us to. I felt ashamed that we did. The patriarchal culture that values “winning” over consent isn’t just a matter of Hollywood studios or, let’s say, New York real estate moguls with politics in their futures. It’s part of our literary and dramatic heritage, and Shakespeare knew well how hard it is to resist.

Last year in early November, just before the world turned orange, I saw a brilliant and searing performance of Richard by the Dutch actor Hans Kesting that showed how irresistible narcissism and unbounded need can be. On our way out of the BAM opera house that night, my buddy Erik turned to me in admiration and said, “Well, I guess I don’t ever need to see Richard III again.” I felt the same way at that moment, that Kesting had hit the part so hard that it felt like a definitive Richard for the looming Age of Trump. (Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker later called that show “The First Great Theatrical Work of the Trump Era.“)

But of course I eagerly took students to this much less Trump-centered production by Titan at the Queens Theatre last Friday. There can be no final or absolute Richard, only a spool of performances of the iconic villain of Shakespearean politics, who fascinates by betraying his family and his audiences with painful pleasure.

King Edward and doomed family

In the Titan production, each time Richard killed someone or had someone killed, he painted a red vertical stripe on the back wall of the stage. Three vertical red strips present at the opening also marked the “III” of his royal name. The wall grew messy and full of red paint over the two hours traffic of the stage, bearing witness to the bodies that sit behind the theatrical pain we love to watch.

Especially in a world in which fairy-tale Richmond / Henry VII’s are hard to discern on the horizon, Richard III feels like a hard but necessary play. 

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Dark Ecology of Newtown Creek (visit 10/14/17)

Steps into creek

There seem to me two essential questions about what to do with this post-Nature nature:

  1. Will it hurt us?
  2. Can we love it?

The answer to both questions seems to be yes.

Walking the Newtown Creek Nature Walk on the border of Queens and Brooklyn with the Field Guide provided by the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies reminds you that moving past “nature” will be disorienting. We need to do it, but it won’t be easy. Some parts of post-naturing seem clear enough: I’m ready to move beyond the pure Romantic green that constructs the nonhuman environment as passive background to human striving and a resource to be exploited. But what are we supposed to do about the brown post-industrial spaces left behind after the end of the green? How do they make us feel? Might they still participate in the great goddess Natura’s creating magic?

Toxic Water

The image that’s stuck with me after my first walk through non-Nature nature was the water. On a warm October afternoon, standing on stone steps that dropped down into the edge of the creek so that the bottom step was covered by three inches of water, I stared down and saw — nothing. The water, famously toxic, lapped the granite steps in transparent placidness. It didn’t look like anything at all. Nothing unnatural to see here.

Even if I’m not going to swim, I like to put my fingers into bodies of water, to get the touch, the smell, sometimes a little taste, especially in a brackish estuary like Newtown Creek. I was careful not to do that this time.

Epochal step

Black mayonnaise

I’m not sure how deep Newtown Creek is at the junction of Whale Creek near the “digester eggs” that process New York’s sewage. But everyone knows what’s on the bottom of these creeks. “Black mayonnaise.” The sludgy remains of decades of coal and oil-fired industry, including in this case the discharge of the 1978 Greenpoint Oil spill, which released into the confined waters of the creek three times as much oil as was released in the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989. Back in the summer of ’89 I was a vagabond college graduate who traveled to Alaska to shovel tar and oil off a beach about 400 miles southwest of the initial site of the spill. In Greenpoint, three times as much oil as would later foul 1300 miles of Alaskan coastline was contained inside two tiny sluggish creeks Little Leaguers could play catch over. There’s a lotta mayo down beneath. The Field Guide says there is a “15-25 feet layer lining Newtown Creek’s bottom…a toxic admixture the consistency of mayonnaise. Oil, arsenic, polychlorinated biphenyls, and incinerated ash are some of the organic and inorganic pollutants that the EPA is quantifying in their Superfund assessment” (5).

I remember the gas station smell of the beach in Windy Bay, Alaska, when we shoveled oil residue into industrial plastic bags in the summer of ’89. I couldn’t smell anything like that on the steps in Newtown Creek. Just a faint salt tinge, carried by a breeze that barely made the surface flutter.

Epochal steps

The steps leading down to the creek fan out like a small amphitheater, asking you to face the creek as if to watch a performance whose dark center you can’t see. Each step has a name inscribed on it. Some are geological epochs: “Jurassic.” Others name local plant species: “Angiosperm.” “Tracheophyta.” These names were inscribed according to the design of environmental sculptor George Trakas when the Nature Walk was built in 2007. Walking down to the water feels like walking down into time, though I suppose it’s more like walking into a post-nature future. What would have happened if I had taken one more wet step?

Looking toward midtown

Hellmouth 

The audio tour calls it the hellmouth. The sign above the opening reads: “CAUTION. Wet weather discharge point.” The smell made it clear what was coming out of that mouth into the creek, even though we visited on a dry afternoon.

Fishing

One of the questions the Floating Studio for Dark Ecologies asks of people who have walked through the Creek with their audio tour is, “What did you not expect to see?” There was plenty of life in the post-Nature, including spartina grass and many other healthy-looking plant species. There was plenty of post-natural debris, what the Floating Studio calls “floatables.” We joked that at one point that we thought we saw a dog swimming, but it turned out to be plastic. But the thing we didn’t expect, certainly, was a fisherman.

He was a young hipster-ish local presumably from Greenpoint, casting his line for the same striped bass that my neighbors fish for off the CT shoreline in mid-October. He said he often caught bass in Whale Creek. We watched him cast a few times, with the sci-fi digester eggs visible over his shoulder. I didn’t get a good picture. He didn’t get a fish.

Underwater step

Plastic you can see through

My favorite bit of floating debris was a sheet of semi-translucent plastic that floated on Whale Creek’s still water like a pane of fragile glass. I watched it slowly revolve, an undegradable petrochemical solid resting atop ten or fifteen feet of toxic water, both of them perched above a thick, invisible, omnipresent swamp of oil mayo. Floating is a bit like flying, in that it holds a body just at the top of a larger fluid body. The plastic was doing the thing that I wanted to do but could not do — that is, swimming in post-Nature.

Floating plastic

Digester eggs

Installed in 2010 as part of the Wastewater Treatment Plant renovation, these eight “shiny spaceships” light up in the North Brooklyn night. Watching them from across Whale Creek they appeared fantastical. All of us wanted to come back at night to see the purple glow.

These eggs display the techo-aesthetic of industrial environmentalism, a new post-Nature system that takes in about 1.5 million gallons of sludge each day from New York City, processes it with heat, time, and “burping,” and generates carbon dioxide, water, methane, and biosolids. Garbage goes in, and sustenance comes out. Long Island City locals call the array “shit tits.”

Fragrance Garden

The last stop on the audio tour, underneath the stairs that lead up into the path to the water, was a fragrance garden. On our way out of the Nature Walk, we turned beneath the steps and followed a low path through to the garden beneath. We’d seen flowers already on our walk; a Virginia Rose back across from the digester eggs had even quoted Juliet: “That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” A pretty good joke, I thought, given how close the flowers were to the smellmouth.

But the garden beneath the steps was a bizarre under-metal smellword and antidote to the occasional toxic whiff the creek had given off. Shaded by the steps, the fragrance garden provided a respite and conceptual bridge back into Greenpoint.

Twenty minutes later we were at a rooftop bar drinking overpriced cocktails.

Exiting the Nature Walk

Post-natural thoughts —

I went there looking for toxins but found multiplicity.

I was trying to unsee Nature as a unitary object and find post-Nature in networks.

One strange thing: I kept thinking about beauty, and about design. I always think clear water is beautiful, no matter what’s beneath the surface. The plastic floatable bears a semi-translucent charm. What do we want beauty to do for us?

I also thought about one of Marina Zurkow’s phrases about urban ecology and design, that I first heard her describe at the Oceanic New York event at St. John’s in 2013. “Soft edges” are what we need, especially when it’s hard to fit things together. I was thinking about that when looking at the locking-gear design of the creek’s shoreline, the graceful curves of the digester eggs, and the step that was submerged in creek water. Where exactly are the edges?

What I always want in nature is to be porous, to let some bit of the not-human seep into me. To be porous in Newtown Creek, that painfully apt representation of our Anthropocene future, requires us to be both toxic and digesting. We can’t get too close. But we must get close.

I’m going back next week. Maybe at night.

In the fragrance garden

Looking toward the LIE