Oceanic Sydney

Steve Mentz reflects on swimmer poetics, his recent return to Australia and his hopes for a blue humanities that imitates the enigmatic fluidity of the cuttlefish.

Cuttlefish, image by Kristina Vackova via Unsplash

On the afternoon of my last day in Sydney, I was snorkeling in the Harbor near Fairlight Beach in Manly, when something caught my eye. It was below me in the water, nearly two feet long, swimming above the kelp bed. It didn’t move like any fish I’d ever seen. It had no fins, and I could not see any tentacles. It moved evenly through the water. The outside fringe of its baguette-shaped body subtly undulated and propelled itself forward, with a slightly spooky Halloween-appropriate wriggle. As I followed above it, the creature kept a calm pace just ahead of me. Then it slowed to a stop, but rather than making a turn with its head, it backed itself away to the left. Instead of flipping its body, it simply re-oriented itself so that its old tail was now its head. It swam off after that, and in not too long lost itself in the kelp. It was the giant Australian cuttlefish, a strange creature unlike anything I’ve ever seen before in the sea.

Flying home now above the South Pacific, I’m thinking about the cuttlefish. He didn’t put on the color-changing display that these amazing beasties sometimes perform, but his alien swimming entranced me. The soft, fluid movements of the creature’s body, its eerie floating pace, and its K-turn style of redirection — these were things I’ve never seen before in a lifetime of immersion. Giant cuttlefish are shy, retiring critters; my host, who’s been snorkeling in and beyond Sydney all his life, had never seen one before. But there the creature was, in the middle of the afternoon, showing itself to su as if wanting to remind me of how little I know, really, about the waters that I love. I followed the creature for a few timeless minutes, before he shook me off.

The cuttlefish swims in my mind’s eye now as emblem of my trip to Australia, which showed me many things I’ve not seen before and reminded me of how much I still want to learn. My week in Sydney as a guest of the Sydney Environment Institute swims into the past under the sign of the cuttlefish. What a flood it was! I’ll blog separately about the Armidale / University of New England part of the trip, and also post the salty details of my swim diary for the past week for anyone interested — but right now I want to get at least some glowing embers of the Sydney trip corralled into words.

The main event was a public lecture on Tuesday night at (what everyone calls) Sydney Uni, Swimming into the Blue Humanities. The talk brought together a few strains of what I’ve been calling “swimmer poetics” for a little while. My main effort was to combine an analysis of Everard Digby’s 1587 De arte natandi, the first how-to-swim manual published in England, with a half-dozen contemporary swim-writer-theorists, from the blazing individualism of Charles Sprawson’s Haunts of the Black Masseur to the subtler touches of Lynne Shapton and Philip Hoare, the heroic endurance of Lynne Cox, and the communal artistry of Vanessa Daws. I’m not sure I realized it until the moment I was delivering the talk, but the undertext of my talk traced a path from Sprawson’s mad solitude, painfully underscored by his current illness and dementia, into the communal practices exemplified by Vanessa Daw’s Psychoswimography in Santa Barbara. To make swimming into an Anthropocene meditation requires, I think, this movement beyond the self in solitary sensory deprivation to a collaboration of fellow swimmers and thinkers in our era of rising seas.

That’s the insight I arrived at while giving the talk, but the audience and workshop participants gave me much more.

A lively set of questions that evening, as well as the stunning water-acoustics of the group Baptism at the wine reception after, pushed me toward new watery ideas. I loved the comments-not-questions reminiscences about the legendary local swimming star Murray Rose, who I’d quoted (via Sprawson) in the paper and who a member of the audience had seen in a long distance race in Bondi. Other helpful questioners pushed on the “poetics” part of my formulation ,and wondered whether there was a difference between “swimming” (and its laboring, mobile poetics) as opposed to “floating” (which might produce a speculative ontology instead). I got great, engaging questions from Astrida Neimanis, who would take me on a splendid fresh-water adventure the next morning at Karloo Pools, and from Killian Quigley and Liam Semler, who had walked the Bondi-Coogee path with me the day before, including staring into the fishy eye of a blue groper underwater in Clovelly Inlet and frolicking in the surf at Coogee. I felt lucky to be there, and to have so many people giving me the gift of their critical attention.

The overflow continued the next day at the Ocean Thinking Workshop, hosted again by SEI. They gave me an hour to show some images of my favorite toxic or inviting beaches from New York to California to Liverpool, and to speculate about what it might mean to consider beaches as arguments, ways of bringing humans and oceans together. That part was fun, but the collection of interdisciplinary topics was just amazing. Before I forget all the best bits —

  • Felicity Picken on “disorganized thinking” via Latour and the oceans
  • Mariko Smith on the bark canoes and water culture of the indigenous peoples of New South Wales
  • Kate Fullagar and Tanya Evans on the history of Sydney’s Split Swimming Club
  • Astrida Neimanis on her new book, “the feeling of water,” including a generous and critical reconsideration of Adrienne Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck” that has re-oriented that great poem for me
  • Iain McCalman, who was a generous and imaginative presence all week, on the shared meanings of “pleasure” in watery contexts, including the ways in which “pleasure tourism” might both damage and also possibly preserve the Great Barrier Reef
  • Ann Elias on “how a man standing in water looks to a fish,” by way of science and surrealism in the 1910s
  • Marine biologists Will Figueria and Brigette Sommer on complexity in 3D reef modeling and how climate change is migrating corals beyond the tropics
  • Josh Wodak (later my cuttlefish snorkeling companion) on volcanos and “no analogue states”
  • Claire Britton on Sydney’s Cooks River, which reminds me a bit of my beloved Newtown Creek in Brooklyn
  • Anita Calloway on the faeries at the bottom of Sydney Harbor
  • Killian Quigley on “harbor poetics” and the bones that may lie beneath the Brooklyn Bridge
  • Lea Vuong on the hidden second river of Paris, La Bievre,
  • Robyn Backen closed us out with a tour de force of watery installations, from Sydney to Cologne among other places

The long, exhilarating, exhausting day took us from the pleasures of swimming to the post-industrial melancholy of fouled urban rivers and what we might call the “poetics of pollution.” I was dazzled by the methods on display, from marine biology to anthropology, art history, and heritage studies as well as my more familiar home-discourses of literature and history. Other attendees also spoke about projects in shipwreck archeology and surf studies. I left feeling that the blue humanities are in very good hands and that I’ll never be able to keep track of all the directions we’ll go. Which is the best thing about any intellectual upwelling!

“I’m hoping for a blue humanities that imitates the cuttlefish: using all the edges of our bodies to propel ourselves forward in one direction, then suddenly re-directing so that what appeared in front is now to one side.”

I let slip at some point during the question periods that I’m in the market for a successor discourse to the sublime, a way to interpret nonhuman vastness and power that does not require the egoistic ju-jitsu we know from Romanticism. We talked about that for a while, but I’m not sure anyone was ready to nominate a discourse — unless, perhaps, it might emerge in dialogue with Glissant’s post-colonial idea of Relation.

What do I take home with me, besides flygskam and a faint hope that the carbon offsets I bought before I left home will support some mitigating projects? I’m hoping for a blue humanities that imitates the cuttlefish: using all the edges of our bodies to propel ourselves forward in one direction, then suddenly re-directing so that what appeared in front is now to one side. There’s so much still to be discovered!

This latest academic adventure wasn’t my first trip to Sydney, but it was the first since I arrived there in 1989, fresh from working to clean up the Exxon Valdez’s oil from Alaskan beaches and powerfully motivated to defer adulthood’s responsibilities. Walking through Sydney this week, I returned to many of the haunts of my younger self’s four-month stay, especially the cotton-candy surf of Coogee and Manly beaches, the dazzling sunlight on the Opera House, and the ferries that sketch their wake-lines across the vast intimacy of the Harbor. I kept feeling as if the young man I had once been was there alongside me on this trip, just a bit out of sight or splashing underwater, wondering what his future might be like.

What would that twenty-two year old make of me returning to Sydney in 2019, the father of teenagers, one of whom has started college this fall, working as a professor (I knew no professors as a child), thinking and writing about the feeling of ocean on skin?

At least the last of those things would feel familiar to him, I think. In some ways I’ve had a long road over the past three decades. But in others, I’m where I’ve always been.

This post originally appeared on Steve’s blog The Bookfish, in a series of reflections on his time here in Australia. 

Steve Mentz is a Professor of English at St John’s University, New York. He has directly engaged with port and harbour studies in New York and Bristol, and has authored numerous publications including Shipwreck Modernity: Ecologies of Globalization 1550-1719, (2015) and At the Bottom of Shakespeare’s Ocean (2009). A forthcoming book in the Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series is titled Ocean.

The Swimming Into The Blue Humanities public lecture and Oceanic Thinking workshop were held on October 29 and 30, 2019. Curated by Ann Elias as part of The Floor of Sydney Harbour research project, these events brought together a panel of interdisciplinary leaders in the Blue Humanities, and featured keynote guest Steve Mentz, to discuss the future of this emerging field.