by Steve Mentz
Motion disorients bodies.
When they are moved, bodies seek stable refuge—whether the bodies in question comprise shipwrecked sailors, strife-torn nations, dislocated asylum-seekers, or even confused students. Poetry offers a partial, not always effective, response to motion sickness. In disorienting times and places, we imagine refuge—while not averting our eyes from roiling seas. Dislocation demands poetry.
In September 2016, I was walking back from the apocalyptic landscape of Dead Horse Bay in Queens after hearing Craig Dionne read to my grad class from his new book Posthuman Lear when, for some reason, we all started talking about seasickness. It’s a universal human response to the sea’s motion, I offered. Investigating the cultural and historical forms seasickness assumes might lead toward a shared language for responding to disorientation. One student replied that she’d seen a program that described the most common scientific hypothesis for motion sickness as the body’s defense mechanism against perceived neurotoxins. In this view, the conflict between a body’s felt motion and lack of physical control over that motion leads the brain erroneously to suspect the presence of neurotoxins, which can be cleared by vomiting. Hence, seasickness. We walked back to the parking lot speculating about cultural motion sickness, a collective response to dislocation and change. What purgation does motion invite? What refuge waits on the far side of seasickness?
I’ll hazard some responses to these questions through brief engagement with three experimental revisions of classical maritime literature, the kinds of stories that speak to the human experience of unstable seas. These three trans-historical poems all respond to cultural motion sickness. They offer poetry’s comfort: not false stability but forms that can endure change.
I’ll start with the opening of David Hadbawnik’s great new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid. I’ll float for a time with Caroline Bergvall’s Drift, a multi-media work that mashes up the Anglo-Saxon elegy “The Seafarer” with the story of the Left-to-Die boat of Algerian refugees, abandoned in the Mediterranean in 2011. Last I’ll explore Stephen Collis’s “The Lawyer’s Tale,” a revision of Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale” that takes aim at the collectivizing violence of the pronoun “we” in an effort to uncover shared forms of complicity. These modern authors reanimate premodern texts to demonstrate how stories respond to unsettling movements. Motion sickness results from the conflict between a body’s need for refuge and the sea’s disorienting flux.
I love Homer more, see more of Ovid in Shakespeare, and probably judge Dante the greater artist, but let’s not kid ourselves: Virgil is the poet who built our world. Today’s global geopolitical order and its attendant conflicts spill out from Virgil’s epic of imperial conquest, consolidation, and sacrifice. The Aeneid tells the story of a sometimes reluctant imperator, one whose heart may remain in burning Troy or perhaps in a North African cave with Dido, Queen of Carthage, but who nonetheless does his job, sails for Italy, and founds Rome.
Poet and medievalist David Hadbawnik’s stripped-down translation of Virgil’s epic, the first six books of which appeared in print in 2015 and which I taught for two semesters in a row last year, unravels Virgil’s stateliness. This version of the imperial hero responds to being a sea-tossed refugee the way so many human bodies do, with fear and nausea:
Aeneas gets scared.
Limbs loosened in fear, he
groans, bends over and
pukes over the boat’s
The short staccato lines, chiseled out from the Latin poet’s rich hexameters, remake epic suffering as motion sickness. Hadbawnik’s modern vernacular retelling of the Rome-founding epic reminds us that Virgil tells a still-familiar story, in which war in the Middle East pushes refugees out onto the stormy Mediterranean in frail boats. Empires arise on the far shore, where the puke washes up.
Caroline Bergvall’a 2014 book Drift, recently praised by Marina Warner in TLS as the best book she read in 2016, yokes together an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poem with a harrowing tale of modern refugees. In spring 2011, the Left-to-Die boat, though plainly visible to other boats and to NATO aircraft, drifted in the Mediterranean for fourteen days without food or water, resulting in the death of all but nine of the seventy-two mostly Algerian refugees on board. Bergvall engages this horrific tragedy to show the human cost of migration. In response, her poetry crafts a language of witness. “I can make my sorry tale right soggy truth,” Bergvall sings in the Seafarer’s voice. In the Nordic context of the medieval poem, the drifting boat enters “hafville, sea wilderness, sea wildering” (153). It’s a painful place and a place we recognize:
Did not know where I was going hafville Had fear wildering hafville
For a minute there I lost myself Totally at sea lost myway tossed misted
lost myself in the fog hafville hafville my love
Major Tom hafville
Li Bai hafville
Amelia Aerhardt hafville… (42-43)
The list of loss continues as the poem memorializes drowning. In an extraordinary typographical experiment a few pages earlier (pp 36-42) the text visually fractures to display the human encounter with killing waters.
When I taught this poem last spring alongside Hadbawnik’s Aeneid, students fixated on the plight of the seventy-two passengers. As we spent time with Bergvall’s spare language and medieval source, we recognized her effort to make art respond to tragedy. The poet offers both drowning and singing. “To north oneself,” she writes, “To come into song” (156). The project requires intimacy: “Let me come in from the cold, cold way, Seafarer” (166). Her verse dwells in the hortatory imperative, insisting “Let the tides shake your life” (110). Being shaken can be upsetting.
“The Lawyer’s Tale”
The poet Stephen Collis’s contribution to the volume Refugee Tales in 2016 rewrites Chaucer’s “Man of Law’s Tale” as a lawyer’s brief that re-defines the porous borders of legal and literary language. He asks that Chaucer’s tale of forced migration unsettle us:
knowing the truth
one does not always
nor does the truth
always remain intact
and the borders
are no longer
at the border
Collis’s project echoes Bergvall’s mashup of medieval and modern sea-wilderings, but the lawyerly pose also produces analytical questions. Who is the “we” that watches suffering human bodies move? Might “we” be an “empty category” (110), a category we need to disavow (111), or a collective whose desire to form and re-form itself constitutes an act of collective violence through exclusion? Collis assumes an ecological perspective: “’We’ (things that are living) are all carbon-based beings, but ‘we’ (active and passive participants in waves of economic violence) don’t all do unto others as ‘we’ would accumulate various and unequal wealths and debts to ourselves” (115). The prosecutorial conclusion names us all complicit: “What if complicity is a form of relationship—of negative connection—the realization that we are all in (or near) the same drunken boat?” (118). We have options, Collis reminds us: “Gather at the stern. Organize the disembarkation into unkempt regions of permanent asylum” (118). It’s possible, perhaps, to respond to complicity with poetry.
By way of conclusions, I offer three dramamine tablets. Human bodies need help enduring motion. Maybe these little pills can do the trick?
First pill: I’m the kind of person who goes through life constantly being reminded of moments from Moby-Dick. Right now I’m thinking of the coffin-turned-life-buoy that saves Ishmael from the whirlpool at the story’s end. The ship has gone down, Queequeg has drowned, and the last survivor drifts toward the vortex’s center. Just before he’s pulled under an object splashes into view, “rising with great force, the coffin life-buoy shot lengthwise from the sea, fell over, and floated by my side. Buoyed up by that coffin, for almost a whole day and night, I floated on a soft and dirge-like main. The unharming sharks, they glided by as if with padlocks on their mouths; the savage sea-hawks sailed with sheathed beaks.”
Second pill: Poetry can be that coffin life-buoy, building communities and imagining refuge. Melville’s lone survivor knows what Hadbawnik and Virgil and Bergvall and Chaucer and Collis know too, that poetry wells up in fractured communities. Verses are edge-revealers and form-makers.
Last pill: I’m left feeling a little seasick, still. There’s a nausea that never goes away. Disorientation captures an inescapable component of being in the world, at least if we really look at the world we’re in. I cling to poems and sometimes to life-buoys. I practice swimming and drifting. I tell and listen to and teach stories about people who survive and people who don’t. And, whether I’m thinking about Aeneas or the Seafarer or Constance or about my own body, I’m struck by one truth about motion sickness:
We always feel a little better after we vomit.
Essay first presented as a talk at REFUGE: A GWMEMSI Symposium, 10/28/16, in Washington, DC, and later published on Arcade |
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.
 M. Treisman, “Motion Sickness: An evolutionary hypothesis,” Science 29 (1977) 493-95.
 Virgil, Aeneid, Books I-VI, David Hadbawnik, trans., Carrie Kaser, illus., Chris Piuma, for. (Bristol: Shearsman Books, 2015) 15.
 Caroline Bergvall, Drift, (Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2014) 25. Further citations in the text.
 Stephen Collis, “The Lawyer’s Tale,”, Refugee Tales, David Herd and Anna Pincus, eds., (Manchester: Comma Press, 2016) 107-24.
 Herman Melville, Moby-Dick, Hershel Parker and Harrison Hayford, eds. (New York: Norton, 2002) 427.
About the Author:
Steve Mentz teaches English literature at St John’s in New York City, with a focus on oceanic literature and culture, Shakespeare, ecocriticism, and histories of changing media technologies. Current book publications include a monograph on early modern maritime disaster narratives, Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization, 1550-1719 and a collection of essays, Oceanic New York, that respond to New York’s urban waterways, Hurricane Sandy, and the place of art in times of crisis. He is working now on the early modern Anthropocene and concepts of error in ecological thinking.