“We’ll find the speck of truth in each riddle…”

When you write a blog that focuses mostly on medievalism and poetry, you accept that you dwell in a narrow and unnoticed niche. Then a book subtitled “Eight Medievalist Poets” lands in your lap, and you revel in the rare pleasure of finally being somebody’s ideal reader. Published by Stairwell Books, a tiny but prolific Yorkshire-centric press, New Crops from Old Fields summons medievalists from Britain and America, most of them scholars of literature, and bids them sing. The resulting poems are often bookish, but not academic; they’re as vital as the era behind them once was.

Editor and contributor Oz Hardwick, for example, plays with a motley assortment of medieval tropes: pagan fertility, Christian prayer, Arthurian visions, Germanic adventurers—you name it. I can’t tell if his “Journey from the West” is a translation from an Old Norse poem by Sigvatr Þórðarson or just inspired by it, but this moving paean to homecoming after travel and toil is just serpentine enough to evoke skaldic poetry without being cryptic and cramped:

Wind’s servant, across the shifting hills
I return, richer in words and welcomes,
giving gifts undiminishing, gaining
grace of place, proud amongst peers.

I have fared far, fought clinging coils
of earth’s duplicitous dragon, found
home, the giver of true gifts:
one word resolves all riddles.

Another poem, “The Seafarer’s Return,” blurs the rhyme schemes of two types of sonnets and staggers the meter to capture the relief and grace of a second, harder-earned homecoming:

At your door I stand, tongue tied in weed,
footsore, with blistered palms and a distant stare,
my shoulders stooped with the weight of my journey. I need
more than I can ask. But first, share
these far-gathered gifts of shell and stone
whose value resides in the grace of you alone.

In Hardwick’s poetry, life teems just beneath the surface: the Green Man wakes for sex and then slumbers, obscene wooden beasts cavort in the choir at a Belgian basilica, and we beg to behold the true nature of things:

And I pray: not for the voice, not
for the touch, taste, sight, smell
of sound, but for the sharp annunciation
of fire, the heart’s bright kindling,
the understanding beyond understanding.

Hardwick’s craving for the cosmic highlights the fact that in an era of Ren faires, cosplay, and fantasy LARPing, popular medievalism often omits a crucial aspect of the Middle Ages—but in New Crops from Old Fields, religion is omnipresent. Hannah Stone, an expert on eastern Christianity, contributes poems inspired by desert hermits and the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, where “stiff robes chafe; their doctrines / don’t sit comfortably, either.” She’s capable of a lighter touch, too, as she shows in a funny, Browning-like soliloquy about a cat in a Mercian church, and in a poem that culminates in a call to pray for the soul of Worcester pilgrim reduced to a headless skeleton in boots.

Other pilgrims pace restlessly through this book: Jane Beal finds poetry when she visits landmarks in Rome, but her most striking entry in New Crops from Old Fields consists solely of questions Muslims and Jews asked her in the Holy Land. The poem is a remarkable distillation of the sort of grace and charity a pilgrimage should foster: a diminution of the self, and the generosity of letting others speak. Throughout her poetry, Beal makes the medieval personal—a fox on the roadside reminds her of the Reynard of fable, and she writes in the voices of Caedmon and Dante—and her destination is the answer to an intimate question: “What shape does the shadow of my life form / when I take my stand in the light of God?”

Likewise, Joe Martyn Ricke recounts his eagerness to observe the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is how he finds himself in an Indiana church “with what felt like half a million Mexicans, / I mean at least a hundred of us standing and only one of us a very tall gringo.” His pilgrimage culminates in manic, ecstatic verse that wavers between dreamlike and drunk:

And it’s not exactly a miracle that everything smells like roses,
since there are perhaps a New Year’s Day parade’s worth of them
piled together under her feet. And, yes, sometimes the celestial music
is slightly out of tune or the trumpets are just obviously showing off.
But it really doesn’t matter about the roses or the guitars or the outfits
because you find yourself mumbling,
I’ve been bleeding a long time. Such a long time.

Elsewhere, Ricke takes a 15th-century lyric about Adam and “translates” it into a rambling, Beat-like poem that name-checks Harry Belafonte, while his “Four Sinful Hymns for the Love of Saint Mary Magdalene” imagine the biblical figure’s conversion and salvation from her own perspective, gritty and physical. Ricke is more playful than the other overtly religious poets in this book, but he’s never irreverent; his earthy exuberance is worthy of Chaucer.

Several poets in this collection show a strong commitment to form. M. Wendy Hennequin retells the story of Andromache as an Anglo-Saxon poet might have done, in lines that resemble Old English alliterative verse. In the rhyme-royal septets of “The Bard’s Tale,” an Irish maiden appears at Camelot at Christmastime and tells a story that astounds King Arthur. Her tale ends on an emotionally ambiguous note, as if it really were composed in another, less knowable time. “My scholar attempts to understand the past; my poet tries to sing with them,” Hennequin explains, and her knack for the latter is clear in a light and lovely ballade for a scribe who joyfully works through the night:

How glorious the colors, green and gold,
The black and scarlet, purple and the blue!
Though deep the night and bitter bites the cold,
And candles smoke, and colors shine untrue,
My dancing hands a woman’s face imbue
With living truth of spirit and of sight.
My hands in darkness work; my heart, in light.

Working furtively is a recurring theme in this book. I recalled Jane Chance from assigned readings in a graduate seminar on Beowulf, but I hadn’t known she was a poet; appropriately, her medieval-inspired poetry laments the strain of conflicting roles. In “The Night the Books Fell,” a shelf collapses when a retired scholar is a continent away. The ponderousness of her scholarly responsibilities by “the tough edge of discipline / slackened,” she is

relieved of the obligation
of learnedness
and granted the divine gift of
pleasure in being
simply
human.

In another poem, Chance gives voice to the unicorn in a tapestry at the Met. Chained to a tree, he too feels the weight of his work and is “tired of being symbolic”:

He’d like to sleep a little, or play with others,
leave town and get a little dirty,
have a cool drink, find a girl,
let down his horn.

Burdened scholars, restrained beasties, weary French women, moat-encircled ladies, costumes and masks—Chance’s take on academic life is poignant and personal but not self-pitying. “Given scholars’ training to maintain objectivity and the life of the mind, medievalism helps create an imaginary shield against personal revelation,” she warns in her introduction, but that doesn’t diminish the optimism of “Aventure,” in which a young knight sets out amid “the sun bursting on the horizon / like a promise / in the long summer of his youth.” Another poem, concise and original, likens the migration of animals on the Serengeti to the stained-glass sunlight and sense of belonging inside a cathedral. It also prompts a question: Is the Serengeti the subject, or the Gothic nave? The answer doesn’t matter: balancing them is the point, and Chance writes with a freedom and lightness for not having to choose between “you and the wildebeests / in endless repetition, season in and season out, / natural music in time, in time.”

Other poets in this collection wear their medievalism less showily, using the past to buttress poems about the here and now. Imitating Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines, Pam Clements casts snowy owls as feathered Vikings to dramatize the birds’ migration in vast numbers from the Arctic to the northeastern United States. In “Anhaga,” she draws upon words and concepts from Old English poetry for the lament of a Yankee in the antebellum South who sounded to me like a battlefield ghost:

Palmettos clap thin plats
where wind should keen and wail
that anyone so loved should have the gall to die.

Here, the go bare-legged in November
in fleshy-bosomed air
Anhaga, eardstapa —
it might be any season.

In “Wodewose,” Clements uses the Green Man, “Lord of Kudzu / and Dandelion,” to evoke the fecundity and lushness of a springtime trail, but the poem could easily be read with no understanding of the title—but then I think an adventurous reader could easily enjoy New Crops from Old Fields without any background in the Middle Ages at all. If published elsewhere, the eerie personal verses of A.J. Odasso probably wouldn’t strike most readers as the work of a medievalist, but they’re precise, haunting dream-visions with diction and alliteration inspired by late medieval poets. Odasso’s inclusion makes a worthwhile point: the medieval often lingers well below the surface, where it nourishes something peculiar and new.

If I were forced at sword-point to gripe about New Crops from Old Fields, I might mention the introductions provided by each poet: most of them are too jargony and too reluctant to let the poetry stand on its own. But so what? The range and heft of these poems surprised me—and as someone with a bias toward formalism, I was cheered to find free verse that was free for good poetic reasons. As scholars who work line by line through texts in eldritch languages, these poets brood over words—what they mean, what they insinuate, how they sound on the tongue. What they do with that lore is delightful. The Middle Ages are a golden trove strewn with trinkets and bones; this book proves it’s a blessing instead of a curse.

“…with this really ragged notion that you’d return…”

“I don’t much like poetry. Never have.” So declares Rod Dreher on the first page of How Dante Can Save Your Life, a memoir about that least sensational of modern experiences: reading a medieval book. As Dreher works his way through the Divine Comedy, he finds out how wrong he was—about poetry, about his family, about his failure to love as his religion demands. I’m tempted to call this book Dante and the Art of Fanboat Maintenance, but I can’t recall another recent example of a hesitant reader coming to Dante on such quirky and personal terms. People often use medievalism to escape their lives; Dreher looks to a medieval poet to help him find his again.

By his own telling, Dreher reached middle age feeling dreary and lost. After several years as a big-city journalist and pundit, he had moved with his wife and children back to his Louisiana hometown, where he never fit in. In the aftermath of his sister’s death, he butted heads with his family, especially his father, a sportsman and mechanic who loved him but was ill-equipped to have a bookish philosophy geek as a son. Dreher’s homecoming weighed him down with fatigue, depression, and chronic mononucleosis; a long religious journey from “mild, neighborly Methodism” to Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy brought little peace.

And then, in 2013, he picked up the Jean and Robert Hollander translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

This medieval masterpiece, perhaps the greatest poem ever written, reached me when I thought I was unreachable, and lit the way out of a dark wood of depression, confusion, and a stress-released autoimmune disease that, had it persisted, would have dangerously degraded my health.

Dante helped me understand the mistakes and mistaken beliefs that brought me to this dead end. He showed me that I had the power to change, and revealed to me how to do so. Most important of all, the poet gave me a renewed vision of life.

Like Dante, Dreher recounts his journey so others can find their way out of gloom:

Dante Alighieri wrote a book explaining how to do this—a user’s manual for the soul, you might call it—and cast it into the sea of time. There it remained, bobbing on the currents, until I came across it on a shelf I rarely browse in a bookstore I almost never visit. It was a message in a bottle. It was a sign. It was a gift and a source of grace that redeemed my exile and turned a tragedy that very nearly broke me into my own divina commedia—a story with a happy ending.

Although Dreher delved into scholarship to understand Dante more completely, his approach to the Divine Comedy is academically unfashionable. “This is not a literary analysis, it is a personal view,” he explains. “It’s a self-help book for people who may not read self-help books, but who are curious and delight in journeys of self-discovery along roads not often taken.”

The notion that medieval literature has therapeutic value will strike some readers as strange, but Dreher’s intentions aren’t trivial, nor are they unprecedented: Americans have long looked to Dante for fortitude and hope. In a 1983 issue of Studies of Medievalism devoted to Dante in the modern world, editor Kathleen Verduin explains that many 19th-century Americans saw Dante as a proto-Protestant. The Transcendentalists were beguiled by him; Hawthorne alluded to him; Melville found him “the infernal guide to ever-deepening realms of moral complexity”; Longfellow sought solace in translating him; and Charles Eliot Norton promoted his work at Harvard, founded an academic society around him, and praised him for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears suggests that 19th-century America craved Dante’s moral certainty:

Nor was fascination with Dante confined to the Brahmin few. The poet was acclaimed and interpreted by critics in the established press, eulogized and imitated by dozens of magazine versifiers. The Dante vogue pointed not only to aestheticism or vaporous romanticism, but to widespread moral and religious concerns . . . By ignoring the scholastic superstructure of the Divine Comedy, commentators were able to join Dante with simpler medieval types. Like the saints and peasants, he became a prophet of spiritual certainty in an uncertain, excessively tolerant age.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure), or you can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

Dreher doesn’t singlehandedly rescue Dante from pop-culture hell, but he does re-baptize him—even as he sincerely hopes to intrigue and even assist the secular:

Though the Commedia was written by a faithful Catholic, its message is universal. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or any sort of believer, to love it and to be changed by it. And though mine is a book that’s ultimately about learning to live with God, it is not a book of religious apologetics; it is a book about finding one’s own true path. Like the Commedia it celebrates, this book is for believers who struggle to hold onto their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it.

Dreher is so moved by the Divine Comedy that he hopes to share Dante’s poem with everyone, but I wonder how many irreligious readers will want to accompany him to Paradiso by way of this book’s many Christian lessons:

The pilgrim Dante’s journey teaches him that the source of all the chaos and misery is disordered desire. If everyone, including himself, loved as they should love, they would love God more than they loved themselves and their passions. To harmonize with the will of God requires us to overcome our passions and our ego, to make room for the transforming love of God.

If the life Dante saves may be your own, then it’s one in which the spiritual, the physical, and the emotional prove inseparable. For that reason, Dreher didn’t trek through the Divine Comedy alone; he leaned on his priest and his therapist, and his attempt to deal with his problems by walking parallel paths shapes the tone and approach of this book. Each chapter ends with a bald recapitulation of the lesson, pithy paragraphs sequestered in a box that make this otherwise beautifully designed hardcover (with a cloth cover from a 1596 edition of Dante, color art on the endpapers, and well-placed Gustave Doré illustrations) look like a mass-market self-help book. Dreher writes clearly and his lessons are plain, so these summations feel superfluous and a little condescending.

Because Dreher is a brainy writer with rich material to draw from, I was disappointed when he sometimes fell back on trite self-help metaphors that poorly serve his profound subject: “What you do with that suffering determines whether or not you remain an earthbound caterpillar or metamorphose into a butterfly”—or: “When you are the captain of your own soul, though, and have cast aside all the maritime charts showing you the safe route through dark waters, navigating only by your own stars, it’s easy to make a shipwreck of your life.”

By contrast, here he is in full force, writing with conviction and insight:

Without quite realizing what was happening to me, I gave myself over completely to Dante, absorbing the personalities of his figures and identifying with them as I considered how my life and my sins were like theirs. Brunetto Latini, that marvelous egotist, reminded me of a favorite professor, charming and vain. Put him in an ice cream suit and give him a bourbon-filled julep cup and Farinata, a bastard of peacock magnificence, could hold court on the front porch of a Feliciana plantation manse. All of these people, these medieval Tuscans the wayfaring poet met on the road, were so alien yet so familiar. At times I felt like the pilgrim standing before the bas-reliefs on the holy mountain, not entirely sure if these figures were living or dead.

Dreher may not be writing a Christian apologia, but he does argue strenuously for a matter of faith I find to be true: that we’re separated from medieval people by fashion and time, but we’re one with them in our comically defective humanity.

How Dante Can Save Your Life is more than a defense and interpretation of a great poem. It’s a memoir of one man trying to find a religion where he feels at home; a record of overcoming physical and spiritual malaise; a compelling account of a subtle but pernicious family conflict; and a candid confession of one man’s failings and sins. It’s an uncomfortably intimate book, but full of surprises: At one point, Dreher even tells an eerie bayou ghost story! It comes out of nowhere, a reminder that real life isn’t as tidy as literature, but rich in mysteries beyond our understanding.

Put off by the self-help angle, a friend asked me if she should skip Dreher’s book and go straight to Dante instead. Readers at ease with medieval thinking should probably do just that, but others who shrink from a gust of obscure names and notions may find this book a worthy prelude. Lucid and accessible, How Dante Can Save Your Life is aimed less at aesthetically minded literary types like me and more at folks like Dreher’s dad—intelligent but reluctant readers who rarely let themselves be moved by art. Fittingly, Dreher uses that gulf in his family to try to bridge a similar chasm in the culture, bringing the Divine Comedy to those who’d never otherwise give it a look. “You will not be the same after reading it,” he insists. “How could you be? All of life is in there.”

“The eyes all rollin’ round and round into a distant gaze…”

From English churches to Gothic synagogues, I’ve found plenty of medievalism in Georgia—but when I trekked deeper into the state two weeks ago to visit Flannery O’Connor’s farmstead, I expected to encounter the Middle Ages only as an abstraction. At Andalusia, O’Connor read medieval saints’ lives and studied St. Thomas Aquinas, but it seems she wasn’t the only medievalist in the history of Milledgeville, Georgia. Before spending a quiet afternoon on O’Connor’s farm, I drove into town for lunch and was startled to spot a huge and wholly tangible monument to the South’s obsession with the medieval: castle, cathedral, and parliament all piled up into one.

This handsome but peculiar building housed the Georgia legislature from its construction in 1807 until 1868, when the state capital moved from Milledgeville to Atlanta. Destroyed by fire in 1941 and later restored, it’s now the heart of the Georgia Military College campus and the home of Georgia’s Old Capital Museum.

Tourism websites claim it was the first Gothic Revival public building in the United States, and they may well be right. This castle-capital was indeed ahead of its time, both in the South and nationwide: John Adams is on record as reading Sir Walter Scott only later, in 1820; theaters in New Orleans adapted Scott’s work for the stage in the decade that followed; and the medieval-ish tales of Washington Irving thrived in the 1820s and ’30s and beyond. I’d love to know what specifically moved Major General Jett Thomas, who would go on to fight in the War of 1812, to make the Georgia statehouse a castle, but chivalry was surely on his mind, and this building shows just how early a militaristic medievalism took root in the South.

The shorter north and south sides of the building, with porticoes added in 1835, show its layered insistence on medieval roots: Gothic windows, tracery, niches, and castellated battlements with pinnacles that scream “the Middle Ages” even if they don’t quite belong there.

The rest of the campus flaunts the medieval with an unwavering sense of mission: even a dumpy little mail building has a castellated roof. Most striking, though, are the campus gates. Blind arches, skinny niches for absent statues, give them an almost religious air…

…which makes sense. “So redolent indeed with historic associations is the atmosphere of this ancient seat of hospitality that the very streets of this old town are like fragrant aisles in some old cathedral,” declared a 1913 guidebook to Georgia landmarks. Antebellum Southerners of high social standing treated the medieval with just that sort of reverence, and Louisiana even built its own castellated capitol building in Baton Rouge four decades later, much to the chagrin of Mark Twain.

“Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building,” Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi in 1883, “for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances.” I can’t find any thoughts by Twain on the Milledgeville capitol, but I don’t doubt he would have deplored it as another example of Southerners’ obsession with chivalric tournaments, romantic tales, and a mythologized past they never doubted was their heritage.

Today, Milledgeville is sleepy on a Sunday afternoon, but the students who scurry past the old capitol building on weekdays are a living legacy of 19th-century medievalism. Georgia Military College includes a middle school, a high school, and a junior college where students can earn a commission in the Army, so when you pass through those gates you’re entering a shrine to old chivalric virtues. New knights will pair patriotic faith with military might; empty niches wait in solemnity to honor them as saints.

“A concert of kings, as the white sea snaps…”

A few months ago, I got an email from Katie Holmes, a classical guitarist and music student at Columbus State University in Georgia. She had read my book of poems inspired by the National Cathedral gargoyles and was hoping I’d be okay with her setting some of them to music.

I told her to go for it. Her YouTube channel showed that she’s a talented and promising musician with an impressive formal education, and I was eager to see what she’d do.

Ms. Holmes debuted her first composition inspired by Looking Up on April 3—and, to my delight, she did much more than merely set a poem to music. Instead, she took “An Octopus Reappraises Her Lobster,” one of the earliest and most popular poems in the series, and committed a riskier act of artistic interpretation, turning it into a composition for…voice and marimba!

[Go to this YouTube link if the video doesn’t work.]

Just when I think life is low on surprises, there it is: a trained vocalist takes the stage to sing, with all due solemnity, “I hear the hot breath of the lobster I love.”

Without the cathedral and its grotesques to put it in context, this piece of bittersweet light verse becomes a surreal new work of art, a echo from an eerie, alien, inverted world well beyond my imagining. It’s its own weird beastie, and I love it.

As I wrote to Katie, I’m glad she felt free to make this poem hers. We all long for readers, listeners, and fans, but having an interpreter—essentially an artistic collaborator—is a rare and unexpected gift.

* * * * *

AN OCTOPUS REAPPRAISES HER LOBSTER

I hear the hot breath of the lobster I love;
The trees wilt below us; there’s nothing above.
You snore and I shudder, for sleepless I know
The oath of adventure we swore long ago:

“Between us, our limbs number eighteen in all;
Let’s creep from this tank and slip over the wall
And forever be free! Let’s aspire to perch
On a spire of our own on the loftiest church.”

You clawed at my tentacle, tender and green,
Like the first awkward kiss of a king and his queen.
You scuttled, I swam; through the garden we went.
Where grass gripped the stones, we began our ascent.

A lobster lives long, as no octopus can,
But a lobster has in him but one perfect plan.
I longed for longevity; no girl expects
To ask of her lobster, “So what happens next?”

You curl up contentedly, dreaming of me;
I cling to my cornice and scarcely feel free.
“I won’t let you down,” you once vowed, and I sighed.
I love that you’re honest; I wish you had lied.

“Asking for more only got us where we are today…”

A while back, two poets independently responded to my gargoyle-poem book by asking me if I knew Maryann Corbett. I didn’t, but when I looked her up, I was pleasantly stunned to find someone whose modus operandi I understood: a poet who tends to the formal, a medievalist who holds a non-academic day job. Her latest book, Mid Evil, collects only 40 poems, but together they show how we frame our yearnings with fragments of the past—both the world’s and our own.

At first, all I saw was Corbett’s medievalism. Mid Evil takes its title from a poem about an blasé student’s chronic misspellings; the book also includes poems about studying medieval manuscripts, facing cancer in light of Cathar heresies, seeing The Return of the King with costumed teenagers, and imagining J.R.R. Tolkien’s inner life. Corbett is a skilled translator, so Mid Evil includes modern English versions of several medieval poems: the Old English “Deor” and three Exeter Book riddles, all of them in a form that recalls Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines; two balades from the French of Christine de Pizan; and verses from Alcuin about a nightingale, rendered in a meter that evokes the long Latin lines of the original.

When medievalism inspires new works of art, I’m intrigued and delighted, so I might have decided that all this was enough. On a hunch, though, I decided to read Mid Evil not as a miscellany but as a collection with purposeful organization. What emerged was an even more meaningful book: the story of a halting but ongoing pilgrimage.

Appropriately, Mid Evil opens with two poems in which old books provoke unexpected emotion. In “Paleography,” Corbett describes the intermingled confusion and enthusiasm that comes from trying to read 16th-century handwriting, which leaves her feeling “like the child who listened, puzzled / by the cries in the next room.” She lets the reader decide whether her experience is a sign of cosmic immaturity or a rare opportunity for the renewal she later craves. In “Hand,” she finds a colophon in a Middle English manuscript that reads “pray for him that made this book,” which pits skepticism against faith but leads Corbett to contemplate the actual, physical existence of the long-dead scribe and to “wonder how long the bones of a hand would last.”

In Corbett’s poetry, such relics are forever surprising us; they suggest a larger, more more challenging context to our lives. A teacup, for example, is a tribute to centuries of human activity—slavery, alchemy, religion, myth—culminating in the morning sip that affords the poet a moment of peace. A blue bowl tells the story of the aging and the dead and holds memories of a loud, insulting father:

“Depression glass.” Imagine it: her mother,
using that gimcrack thing for sixty years,
remembering how a speechless misery feels.
A kind of sore the mind keeps picking at.
I think she’s kept a lot of things like that.

And see, the mother’s still around. That’s why
she hasn’t sold it yet to an antique store.
I’ve often told her that would be a mercy.
Honey, it would. That’s what collecting’s for.
Restoring things. We clear the clouds away
so people see good things for what they are.

If mundane objects can resonate with meaning, so can our lives, as long as we’re open to seeing them as stories. In “The Return of the King Screens at Midnight at the Multiplex,” Corbett’s disputatio between skepticism and faith takes on a secular cast as she notes a conflict familiar to medievalists: the detached study of the scholar versus the playfulness of the costumed fan. She realizes it’s not a conflict at all, but reason for an overdue reprimand:

And I
am riven in the dark, remembering
how, long ago, I swore the only way

into these glamours was to learn to sing
in ancient grammar. Oh my misspent youth:
As well escape your life with imagining

as riddle through the words of some dead mouth.

Settling into her theater seat, she bids herself “[t]o hear the tale that salves the sting of truth” and to think about the fleeting value of fantasy and escapism. “So make your minds / more bloody,” she later exhorts girls shopping for Halloween costumes at Goodwill, hoping they’ll revel in pretending to be monsters. Otherwise, they’ll miss a youthful opportunity, however modest, to experience something beyond themselves, like the hapless undergraduate of “Mid Evil”:

And the last blow is this, your final exam,
in which, over and over, you call the course
mid evil literature. Yes, I suppose
for you that is the word. We both are lost here,
mapless in Middle Earth and muddling through.
You’ll claim your paper. Mild civilities
will be exchanged, and then you’ll lope away,
a sad C minus in your grip ensuring
we’re done. It’s mid-December. Snow will fall—
hrim ond hrið, but no one says that now,
since this is the sphere of Time, beneath the moon,
where everything must change, and where the poems
evaporate like hoar-frost in the sun.

Poems, movies, stories, myths—they shore us against aimlessness, but they also nudge us toward generosity. Faced with a storyteller in “The Pandhandler’s Tale,” Corbett puts aside her reservations and welcomes “the willing suspension of disbelief, / which lets us yield ourselves to the tale of wonder,” even though she only ends up attracting more panhandlers. The experience is real regardless; we’ve avoided a mystery, perhaps even a moment of grace, by assuming a story is false. Imagining one of the Brothers Grimm rewriting tales told by a cowherd’s wife, Corbett wonders: “Does it matter / that now we know how far from truth it falls?” A poem about Abelard and Eloise finds fault with all parties, but encourages interpretation: “What can we know? Perhaps less love than pride / led to their woes. Read their own words. Decide.”

But myth, fantasy, stories, and scholarship all have their limitations, as Corbett makes clear in several poems with a tragic edge. A fond memory of watching the rousing “Victory at Sea” on television in the 1950s darkens with the adult realization that the veteran who was dozing in a nearby armchair likely saw horrific things; simple stories are for children. The myths in fashion magazines prove useless decades after our teenage years; a mysteriously returned gift from a daughter’s long-ago lover shocks us out of our personal fables and into complex reality. Even history itself has limited value: in “The Historian Considers the End Time,” a scholar wracked by cancer is tempted by the Cathars’ heresy of the evil of the body, but her medievalism is useless. She can only hope to leave behind scant relics that give meaning to someone else:

They must, those thirteenth-century prelates,
have known it with a blazing certainty,
the truth he’s going to know then, when he hugs
the clothes that hold her fragrance, when his chest knots
as he cleans her closet, when months past the funeral
he finds in a broom strands of the long, dark hair.

So what do we do when the shadow of nothingness looms? All of Corbett’s thematic strands rise and converge in “Sing, My Tongue,” the final section of Mid Evil. These seven poems find strength and revelation in singing as Corbett invites us to join her in church. “On Singing the Exultet” puts us in the choir at the start of the Easter Vigil, where the singer marvels at the audacity of what she is about to do:

It’s candlelight that makes it possible.
How otherwise could you, with your puny pipes,
expect to do this? yell to the end of space—
where air won’t carry sound—and order the nebulae
Exult? But here you are: you’re going to dare it.

Even feeling insignificant implies a cosmic context for our lives, as “the light of the unforeseen”

burnishes a quiet table
where lover and beloved look at each other
weighing a question that will change the world.
That has already changed it.

In these closing poems, Corbett grapples with doubt while singing at a funeral; one page later, she crashes to earth after the high of singing Mozart with an orchestra in a cathedral. “I’ve come to feel / how all my feasts are haunted,” she says after a child interrupts her attempt to find focus in church, and she falls back on translating Alcuin, who exhorts the nightingale to sing without end: “Sour as my soul had become, you could fill it with honeying sweetness.” She ends on a note of fatigue, physical and spiritual, but despite being disheartened by “wheezing gasps where nothing is inspired,” she still hopes for profundity:

I want it back: the confidence in air—
ruah, pneuma, spiritus—the breath
that stirs the vocal folds of nuns in choir.
The breath that Is. The sound of something there
guiding this gusty round of birth and death.
The rush of driving wind. The tongues of fire.

Mid Evil starts with scholarly study and ends in a wish for religious exultation; it begins with writing and ends in song, becoming a prayer for inspiration, confidence, purpose, and grace. Whether that prayer can or will receive an answer remains, for Corbett, an open question, but she comes to a conclusion I gladly endorse: that myth and medievalism are promising places to start.

“Well, it seemed to be a song for you…”

Two years ago, I was half-watching the Disney Channel with my nephew and niece when a commercial startled me—not because a fleeting tween sensation had finally done something funny, but because I couldn’t believe they were airing a two-minute promo for poetry. Backstage at a children’s poetry slam, Caroline Kennedy was chatting about her new Disney-backed anthology, Poems to Learn by Heart, without naming a single poem in the book. Naturally, I wondered: What sort of anthology do we get from a network that exalts dancing and singing above all other human endeavors?

As it turns out, a pretty conservative one. Poems to Learn by Heart isn’t the slam-tastic book the commercial makes it out to be; instead, it’s full of traditional, anthology-friendly names: Shakespeare, Byron, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Stephen Crane, Wallace Stevens, Langston Hughes, Rita Dove, Richard Wilbur—around a hundred poets in all. Adults who want poetry to be “edgy” will find the selection cautious—the wildest poet here is Amiri Baraka, whose “Ballad of the Morning Streets” won’t shock grandma—but Kennedy has less seasoned readers in mind. To her credit, she knows that while most English majors have read poems like “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks, most American children (and their parents) have not. She also gets that this book’s 183 pages contain more poetry than most kids will encounter in twelve years of school, so it’s a rare chance to show them what the English language has to offer, from Lewis Carroll to Nikki Giovanni.

Even though Kennedy arranges her selections by subject (“the self,” “family,” “friendship and love,” “faeries, ogres, witches,” “nonsense poems,” “school,” “sports and games,” “war,” and “nature”), Poems to Learn by Heart doesn’t feel guided by a clear editorial point of view. Of course, that’s an adult concern; young readers who don’t yet know their own tastes may enjoy discovering Ovid, Countee Cullen, and Robert Louis Stevenson alongside a Navajo prayer, the Gettysburg Address, the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Henry V, selections from the First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians, and Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for the Socialists” speech. I appreciate breadth, and even the inclusion of lyrical prose, but is it here to foster inclusiveness, or to deflect criticism? One could easily use the table of contents to reconstruct the minutes of Disney’s fretful editorial meetings: Something for the religious? Cultural-literacy conservatives? Social-justice liberals? Native Americans? Check, check, check, and check.

Despite these thoughtful, wide-ranging selections, this book doesn’t always fulfill the promise of its title. Kennedy may be gung-ho for memorization, but I didn’t always see the mnemonic value of her selections: Is “Peace” the one Gerard Manley Hopkins poem to remember? Why learn Shakespeare’s sonnet 94 instead of one of the others? Kennedy asked a six-member poetry slam team at a Bronx high school to help pick these poems, and she devoted four pages to their own passionate free-verse poem about racism, consumerism, child abuse, and mass media. While I hope the publication credit gave their lives a hearty boost, I do wonder, perhaps heartlessly, if their work belongs here. For whom other than the teens who wrote and performed it is it a “poem to learn by heart”?

I was also baffled by the selections in a final “extra credit” section: “Young Lochinvar” by Walter Scott, “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Longfellow, “Kubla Khan” by Coleridge, Robert Service’s crowd-pleasing “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” and the first 18 lines of the General Prologue of The Canterbury Tales. “Mostly they are old chestnuts that have fallen out of favor,” the scion of a privileged political dynasty warns us, lest she come off as a square, “but the feats of memory required to master them will impress even the most modern audiences.” Why can’t the editor of a poetry anthology write as if she actually believes that old things have value beyond their potential for self-exploration and showing off? (And who the heck drops Chaucer on kids without a pronunciation guide?)

That final section highlights this book’s major flaw: a lack of wild, wham-bang narrative. Jon J. Muth’s illustrations are beautiful, but his cover captures the overall mood: gentle, contemplative, dreamy. That’s fine for some kids, but what about action for the more rambunctious? It’s not my style to call for a book to be less intellectual (or for things Disney to be less introspective), but cripes, what about a good, gory chunk of Beowulf or Homer, or an Asian or African epic? Where are the pirates, cavemen, and ghouls of Robert E. Howard? Except in passing in its introduction, Poems to Learn by Heart forgets to teach kids that some of humanity’s best stories are told in verse—and that people proudly carry them around in their heads.

I hate to be hard on this book. For many kids, it will be their only introduction to poetry, and some, I hope, will adore it. Decades from now, if those readers fondly remember this book as adults, the Disney Channel will deserve praise for marshaling its legions of wolf-mounted marketing goblins in support of something more sophisticated than terrible sitcoms—nothing less than Octavio Paz, Seamus Heaney, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Elizabeth Bishop, and Ovid. Only then will I know if Poems to Learn by Heart has served children well or if it’s the century’s first great, unread gift book, a smart, well-intentioned effort to elevate young readers that’s (maybe) too pensive, too mousey, too nice.

“The wind and sun are in the words you say…”

Now that melting snow has slathered my garden in dank, fecund mud, I’m ready to wrestle the deathless alehoof and sow my springtime seeds. Of course, medieval people were always outdoors, and a set of charming miniatures found in two ninth-century manuscripts (see the subpar Wikimedia Commons image below) shows some of the activities the Carolingians associated with rural life, one labor for each month. Most make sense—but March is startling. What’s the deal with the guy with a bird and a snake?

The garden-history website Wyrtig offers some clues:

The Romans associated snakes with healing, wisdom, and fertility, and honored them as guardians of the home; the Celts associated them with the goddess Brighid and with healing waters. Two of the first signs of spring were the emergence of snakes from their winter hibernacula, and the return of the ravens to their nests.

That’s a good start, but this figure may have a richer classical pedigree. Ancient poetry and art personified the seasons, the months, and the zodiac. Since the 19th century, art historians have scrutinized manuscripts and calendar poems and produced impressive catalogs, vexed by the question of when these celestial beings withered into mortal men who began wielding scythes and driving plows.

"You take me up to the higher ground..."Check out all twelve figures in the so-called Salzburg Labors. While other months take on discernible tasks, March looks lost. Similar figures in a second ninth-century manuscript each take up an entire page; sometimes they verge on the allegorical, but not always. James Carson Webster, writing in The Labors of the Months in Antique and Mediaeval Art to the End of the Twelfth Century, thinks our bird-and-snake guy is an ancient holdout:

March is illustrated by a curious scene in which a man holds a bird in his right hand and a snake in his left, which is explainable only by the verse of the Carmina Salzburgiana, “Martius educit serpentes, alite gaudet”; it seems thus a survival of an antique tendency to personification, that is, March, as an agent, personified, brings forth the serpents from hibernation.

“March calls forth snakes; the birds rejoice”: so sings this ninth-century poet in a tradition that harks back 800 years earlier to Virgil, who didn’t invent it either:

Optima vinetis satio, cum vere rubenti
candida venit avis longis invisa colubris

The best planting season for vines is when in blushing spring the white bird, the foe of long snakes, is come…

(Georgics, Book 2, lines 319–20)

My garden may not breed Latin hexameters, and snakes take little interest in it, but when I turn over the soil, earthworms squirm in the clods. Robins hear them. I lean on my rake and stay perfectly still; they land at my feet and feast. They come every spring, as they have for far longer than I’ve worked a plot. A ninth-century monk might be glad of this scene: a glimpse of the ancient, diminished but good.
 

“Turn on these theater lights and brighten the darkest skies…”

(Dante in D.C.: solarized Polaroid negative)

Most aspects of medievalism in America don’t baffle me. I understand why we want to lay down European roots through Gothic architecture, I get why the pedigreed chivalry of Charlemagne and King Arthur might appeal to us, and the imaginative pleasures of medieval-ish fantasy are (mostly) self-evident. But Dante? I’ve never grasped what Americans hope to do with him—maybe because the answer turns out to be “everything.”

While Dante helped rally Italian nationalism in the early 19th century, Americans looked to him for different shades of inspiration. Melville saw him as a guide through moral quagmires; Emerson considered him a simple genius; and others longed for his unshakeable certainty in their own supposedly weak-willed and overly tolerant age. Charles Eliot Norton, who promoted the study of Dante at Harvard and established the Dante Society of America, praised the poet for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure). You can imagine the scent of Dante cigars, fondly recall the “Dante’s Inferno” ride at Coney Island, or show off your snazzy Dante earrings. You can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

So is Dante nothing more than a leering cadaver we clothe in our whims? In a blog post about two new Dante books, Cynthia Haven at Stanford suggests that il Poeta has something greater to offer us, a vision as priceless as it is stark:

A more interesting question might be: what does Dante tell us about our world that we do not recognize ourselves? Here’s my take: we live in a time and in a generation that thinks everything is negotiable, and that every psycho-spiritual lock can be jimmied. As W.H. Auden put it, we push away the notion that “the meaning of life [is] something more than a mad camp.” For us, there’s always a second, third, and fourth chance. It’s a strength – but it’s a weakness, too. Maybe that’s why we resist Dante. We don’t realize that some things are for keeps. There’s not always another day. Not all choices can be reversed with every change of heart – and no, our heart isn’t always in the right place. Words unsaid may remain forever unsaid. And perhaps no choice is trivial or innocent: it is the choices that bring us to ourselves, the choices that reveal and work as a fixative for our loves, our priorities, and our direction.

Just before Christmas, I checked out “The Divine Comedy: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell Revisited by Contemporary African Artists” at the SCAD Museum of Art in Savannah. The title was misleading, since the art wasn’t inspired by Dante; the works only echoed his concepts and themes. “The concern here is not with the Divine Comedy or Dante,” explained the curator, “but with something truly universal.” How gloomy, but how unsurprising, that another interpreter of Dante, another artist in search of the timeless, doesn’t discern that they’re one and the same.

“It’s not the way you have your hair, it’s not that certain style…”

After the artists at a major art center in Virginia asked me to do some writing for them, I was delighted when they kept me busy for nearly two years—and surprised when their work pushed me back toward the visual arts after a 20-year lapse. I’m now fumbling with media I saw others handle so masterfully, but the most challenging project by far has been prying (sometimes literally prying) interesting photographs from three mid-1960s Polaroid Land Cameras.

As I’ve written before, A Land Camera is not versatile. Although it has a focus bar and other manual controls, an electric eye presumes to do much of the squinting. There’s no zoom, development time depends on the air temperature, and the prints leave behind photographic placentas in strips of chemical-drenched litter.

I don’t aspire to be a photographer; I’m learning to use only this type of camera, with all its quirks and severe limitations and almost no reliance on Photoshop. Using a Land Camera is like writing a poem within strict formal constraints: Certain flourishes are simply impossible—but if we practice a little, what can we make it do?

It helps to have an obsessive theme—and so from time to time, I haul my cameras out into the world in the hope of framing glimpses of medievalism in snapshots. Over time, maybe, this project will find its focus.

* * *


I love the little neon mujahed on this sign in Ocean City, Maryland. Four things helped me take this low-light photo: a tripod, a homemade Lego camera stand, electrical tape, and a beatifically indifferent night manager.

Although Ocean City is flashy and bright, I had to keep the shutter open for five seconds, which shows you just how light-hungry these old cameras can be.

* * *

I spent the day before Columbus Day doing research at the Johns Hopkins library—but when I was done, I roamed the city looking for something medieval to photograph. There’s a statue of William “Braveheart” Wallace along the reservoir in Druid Hill Park, but the afternoon light fell far more serendipitously on this Christopher Columbus monument from 1892.

What hath Columbus to do with the Middle Ages? He loved the travel stories of Mandeville and Marco Polo, he was beguiled by medieval legends about marvelous islands to the west, and on his third journey, he was sure he’d located the Earthly Paradise. He hoped his Atlantic voyages would ultimately convert the Chinese emperor to Christianity and help fund a new crusade to reclaim Jerusalem. Quoth historian Luis Weckmann: “Columbus, the first link between the Old World and the New, stands in a clearer light, perhaps, if we envisage him not so much as the first of the modern explorers but as the last of the great medieval travelers.”

* * *

No, gnomes aren’t medieval, but they are rooted in 19th-century European medievalism, and there’s certainly a medieval tradition of wee woodland beings making trouble for us humans. Some Anglo-Saxon charms even blame certain types of pain and disease on wicked little “elves.” (Plus, this gnome is made out of felt, the discovery of which is rather dubiously attributed to saints Clement and Christopher.)

At only four inches high, this fellow gave me a excuse to practice using the special Polaroid “close-up kit.” This picture doesn’t illuminate anything particular about the American penchant for medievalist fantasy, but it did teach me that when you’re on your belly in the grass at noon on a hot summer day photographing gnomes with an antique camera, the cops slow down to get a better look at you.

 * * *

This Gothicpalooza facade on the bagel shop at 36 East Main Street in Newark, Delaware, contrasts sharply with the quaint Colonial Revival campus of the University of Delaware campus just footsteps away. The facade’s two beasties have looked down on the drunk and the un-drunk alike since 1917, when the building was a pharmacy. As I wrote back in 2013, I’m convinced they were inspired by specific grotesques at Notre-Dame in Paris.

* * *
“…but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shall be wel.”

Sometimes you get lucky. In the crypt of the National Cathedral, there’s a stark little chapel lit only by indirect sun. On a frigid afternoon last January, I leaned on a pew and snapped a quick picture of this Good Shepherd statue. The resulting image startled me; with these old cameras, light and luck are always intertwined.

Last year, Fuji stopped making this fast black-and-white film, so I’m brooding, dragon-like, over a hoard of it. It’s possible that I’ve chosen the wrong tools for the task, and that lingering traces of the Middle Ages demand a sharper lens. We’ll see. For now, I’ll keep learning how to use old cameras that thrive on what shadow and sunlight demand.

“…but as for fame, it’s just a name…”

Blackfriars Playhouse interior. Photo by Lauren D. Rogers.

What was it like to see a play in the 1590s? The good folks at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Virginia, answer that question at least five nights a week, as unflagging actors stage the work of Shakespeare and his contemporaries in a cozy recreation of Shakespeare’s first theater in London. The Blackfriars is now in the throes of its Actors’ Renaissance Season, the annual late-winter whirlwind where a dozen actors direct themselves and play all of the roles in five plays at once, with only a few days to prepare and rehearse. (There’s a prompter nearby, but it’s a sign of the actors’ immersion in their work that they rarely need to “prithee” him.)

This weekend, we drove down to Staunton for two shows: Aphra Behn’s “The Rover,” which taught me a useful new 17th-century exclamation—‘sheartlikins!—and John Webster’s “The White Devil,” a lurid, over-the-top revenge tragedy packed with vivid metaphors and similes about death and the cruel indifference of nature. “But keep the wolf far thence, that’s foe to men, / For with his nails he’ll dig them up again”—T.S. Eliot parodied those lines, and I was startled to hear the originals spoken by a grieving mother; it’s rare to spot a footnote from “The Waste Land” running loose in the wild.

Because I’ve written so much about Charlemagne, I was also surprised to hear a character name-check the Carolingians during one of Webster’s most frantic scenes: Two women think they’re tricking a scoundrel named Flamineo into a complex, three-way suicide pact, but he’s actually tricking them into revealing their falseness by giving them pistols loaded with blanks. As he feigns preparation for death, he muses on his afterlife—so the Blackfriars actor said something like this:

Whither shall I go now? O Lucian, thy ridiculous purgatory! To find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, and Julius Caesar making hair buttons, and King Pippin crying apples in a cart.

A reference to one of the Pippins, but not Charlemagne? That surprised me, so I looked up the full text of the play, and sure enough, the Big C is right where I thought he would be:

Whither shall I go now? O Lucian thy ridiculous purgatory! To find Alexander the Great cobbling shoes, Pompey tagging points, and Julius Caesar making hair buttons, Hannibal selling blacking, and Augustus crying garlic, Charlemagne selling lists by the dozen, and King Pippin crying apples in a cart drawn with one horse.
Whether I resolve to fire, earth, water, air,
Or all the elements by scruples, I know not
Nor greatly care—Shoot, shoot,
Of all deaths the violent death is best,
Far from ourselves it steals ourselves so fast
The pain once apprehended is quite past.

What intrigued me here is that either the actor, overwhelmed by having to learn five plays at once, skipped over several of the mighty men who are reduced to menial labor in purgatory—or, more likely, he and his castmates cut the play for time, paring down this overwrought passage to the three names an early 21st-century audience might know: Alexander, Julius Caesar, and…Pippin?

Although they all had the same name, Charlemagne’s disfavored hunchback son who inspired the 1972 jazz-hands musical wasn’t the same guy as Charlemagne’s other son Pippin, who ruled Italy, or Charlemagne’s father Pippin, the first Carolingian king. The fact that a Pippin made the cut but Charlemagne didn’t hints at the priorities of theater people, who know the musical but not necessarily the history behind it—but that’s not a complaint. The Blackfriars’ productions are engrossing and smart, historical figures are doomed to whirl ’round Fortune’s wheel, and Webster knew that drawing sustenance from the mouldering past is part of the natural and necessary gloom of life:

Or, like the black and melancholic yew-tree,
Dost think to root thyself in dead men’s graves,
And yet to prosper?