A Review of Peter Wayne Moe’s Touching This Leviathan

March 25, 2022 § Leave a comment

By Jonathan Frey

Once, we found a kestrel on a field edge. We were walking the dirt road that intersected a thousand acres of wheat, and the kestrel lay there on the margin, wings splayed. My wife picked him up, spread his wings, found beneath the downy chest the thrum of a heartbeat. She handed him to me, and it was like holding a breath in my hand. I had looked at many books about birds, admired paintings of kestrels from Audubon to Sibley. I had identified them atop utility poles by the bright plumage of the males. I had watched them soar over these same wheat fields, dive for mice and voles. But holding the body pressed the limits of my knowledge.

I’ve known Peter Moe for a long time, and among the most winsome of his many winsome characteristics is his capacity for fascination. Objects of Peter’s fascination that I’ve witnessed include: baseball, Aristotle, the Eucharist, and—most abidingly—whales. So, it was not surprising to learn Peter had written a book about whales. Nor was it surprising to read it and find that his delightful book about whales is not, in the end, a book about whales at all. Touching This Leviathan is a book about and animated by fascination, a book about and undergirded by deep curiosity, a book as concerned with the limits of our ability to know the world as it is with the world we might come to know.

In Touching This Leviathan, Moe welcomes us into a catalogue of his winsome curiosity. With him, we visit Moby-Dick and Jonah, the shores of the Salish Sea and the nuances of composition theory, a fertility clinic,  and the viscera of a gray whale. All of this is somehow of a piece in this book, which might be called a lyric epistemology.

In each of Moe’s six movements, he draws the reader into what he calls “the work of knowing.” The first movement begins with a whale sighting, but turns quickly to books. We visit Moe’s sundry collection of whale books, along with Thoreau, Moby-Dick, composition theorist Stacey Waite, and the Book of Job. Each of these discursions is a distinct exploratory step. Moe pushes, against the notion that any single variety of knowledge—taxonomic, literary, practical—is sufficient to “the work of knowing.” The aim is to lead the reader to what Waite calls “the already failing extent of our various knowledges.” “It is there,” Moe writes, “where knowledge fails, that possibility resides.”

The wonder is that he covers so much heady intellectual territory in a voice that remains companionable and welcoming. No doubt, this is attributable to the fact that Moe, far from a didact in spite of his expertise, adopts the tone of fellow sojourner, sharing equally from what he has gleaned and what he has as yet failed to glean.

As the book unfolds, movement by movement, Moe works closer and closer to something like an epistemic process: We must first embrace the limitations of “our various knowledges” and face the treacherous space of mystery. Once we have done that, we learn to watch and to wait, to notice and to name, but the pinnacle of knowledge in Moe’s epistemology is in the intimate space of bodily experience. In his final movements, Moe balances a close reading of the Book of Jonah with a frank and tender recounting of his and his wife’s struggle with infertility, and goes on to narrate his experience of flensing a gray whale with his students.

Touching This Leviathan is a chronicle of Moe’s curiosity, a celebration of the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of knowledge. But curiosity is more than the subject of the book: Moe has built curiosity into the very structure. He adopts the associative movement of the lyric essay throughout the book to create a vivid mosaic of modalities and subjects that seems like a formal echo of that epistemic process. In the fifth movement, we begin with a clip of dialogue in a fertility clinic—bad news—before launching into a long discussion of various accounts of humans swallowed by whales, with particular attention to dubious attempts to prove the plausibility of the Biblical account of Jonah. Then we are back to Moe’s account of his and his wife’s response to the bad news from the fertility clinic. Moe is sounding the parameters of our capacity to know even the intimacies of our own bodies, our own experiences.

Here, then, is the space of knowledge Moe invites us into: to touch the ineffable, to scan the inscrutable, and to recognize that in doing so we are only standing at the threshold and peering into something vastly larger than all our attempts to tie it down with language.

Holding the kestrel that day, I did not know him. The closest I came was when we set him back in the field and walked on only to return an hour later and find him gone. I like to imagine he was resurrected, but likely as not he was scavenged. This is the space Moe leans into, “where knowledge fails,” where “possibility resides.”

Jonathan Frey holds an MFA from Eastern Washington University, and is now associate professor of English at North Idaho College, teaching creative writing and composition. His nonfiction has appeared in a handful of online and regional publications. He lives in Spokane, Washington, with his wife and daughters, and has just completed work on his first novel.

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