“She moves with the music, ’cause it never gets old…”

[This is the twelfth and penultimate part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, May, and June. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

JULY

In a dream about mountains, a mouse warned me
That an owl can hear a heart when it flickers
A farm-length away under fallen branches
And freshly mowed grass. The faintest whim
You harbor in secret, they sense and remember,
But the eleventh month tests them. The land is a clamor
Of wheezing moths on milkweed sills,
The crackling of squash vines that creep toward the shade,
A hiss in the dark when the heavens uncover
The Blinded Dragon. He blinks in vain
But he bristles with visions: blackest when feeding,
Golden when writhing, and red when he sleeps.
Though the night makes sure we never uncover
His hooded face, we hear him seethe
His thieving dreams. At dawn, he twitches.
His mirrored hide sheds heat in waves
And the universe wilts as he whets his tongue
For empty remembrance, the morsel he craves.

You squint and stumble, then stand at attention
To mark out the first of your many new worlds:
A moonlit arena, a maze on a plain,
A web of electric on lush, verdant planets
Where weapons rely on a light you can’t see.
You feel like a hero, this first real time
That the world flickers out, and what stays burning
Are furious atoms of infinite choice.
Count three heartbeats for half of each beep
From the ruby medallion that reckons your life.
Prowl through the underbrush; prey on your friends.
You could turn off your kit; you could call them to join you
And trust them with whispers of worlds yet to come,
Your prophecies spoiling their space-cadet glow.
Too fearful of youth on their faces again,
You just stare at their sensors, like stars, burning red,
Trembling like children with tension and promise,
Then someone says “go!”, and the glittering pinpoints
Bobble, and scatter, and bolt toward the dark.

We steer through the bums on the steps of the Garden,
Giddy with rhythm. The ghosts of the moment
Pogo behind us, their hair a blaze
Of sawtooth waves. Their singing beguiles us
“I’m glad in these hard times, there’s hope in your eyes”
To warble and march through midnight vigils
In hot, dusty rooms, no heed for the martyrs
Who fell by the way: the one we predestined
To wander the night with a knife in his back,
Or the girl with the spikes and spotlight eyes
Who brought the orc who ached at the grins
Of imagined deceivers. Unmoved by our rapture
“Do you be-lieve in love, one that lasts for all time?”
He reached in his pocket to pluck a guitar string.
Her throat puckered red where he wrapped it and pulled.
The dawn train home is hot and prickly,
The headrests are sloppy with hair spray and trash
And our necks run wet with wicked failure.

At the peak of the bridge, the breeze is amazing,
It could pick up your bike as you pass through the cones,
They cleared the way, kept cars away,
Now you’re over the Narrows, you need to let go,
You’ll lock up tomorrow, go limp now let go,
Let your hands fly back as you hurdle through space―
(Why didn’t you listen? The lanes were all yours.)

I could fatten you gladly with fifty raw crumbs
Of regret and remembrance. The grit and sweat
Still chafe the same, and on sodden mornings
When to breathe it all in is a burden, the swelter
Overwhelms, we sag, we sit through more sneering
From gnats that insist we’ve gone nowhere at all.
You could choke on the spores of spent vegetation
And underworked mud, make mawkish collages
From tape-flecked photos that fell from the wall,
Or else you could live. You could listen again.
When the first of our peppers have popped into form,
A song blows north through our silent grove,
A trickle of rhythm, rising and thrumming
When sunlight is fading. We follow the pounding
And find something new: a field past the bramble
Where sunflowers rumble in rows without end,
Like booming speakers that blare the truth
As they turn to face nightfall, no less worthy
Than just before noon. Kneeling before them,
Giddy pilgrims peek from trenches
To honor a whim on the wind, and be healed;
They hear their own songs as they hop through the furrows,
Dancing like frogs with a finger thrust skyward
In natural elation, in lightness unceasing.

The sun stands still: something scaly
Appears to be stuck on the steps in a net
Where it fought with a shadow. Its freedom is yours
To make real or deny. The knots are constricting
And ripping its side, but to see it this closely,
This long, and in stillness, no stars in the way,
Is an offer of grace. It asks for nothing,
But whether it’s sated, or weary, or fuming,
It needs to feed elsewhere. Let able strangers
Tear the mesh gently, then take the wyrm
And leave it in peace, letting it bleed
Through the litter and sticks. Laugh at its weakness
And what it takes with it. And welcome what stays.

“And there’s talk in the houses, and people dancing in rings…”

[This is the eleventh part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, January, February, March, April, and May. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

JUNE

The year amasses its measureless weight.
With a turn of the heavens, a tilting world
Sends us chasing the mean: chairs and tables
Slide across the floor, and framed paintings
Fall away from the walls. We wait for rest.
As a summer-blown tractor on the sidelong edge
Of a grassy slope slows to a rumble,
Raring to topple, when its teetering rider
Questions his wisdom but coolly steers
Into the incline, toward the even plain,
A whim in the stars leaves us steady and poised.
The Raven with Scales roosts in the treetops
To croak forth the turn of the tenth-most month.
When brilliance and nothingness neatly align
In fleeting balance, he brazenly shakes them:
They swing from his beak on bronze-white chains
Whose plates overflow with fruits and seeds
And nuts he plucked from the purple night.
Then he lifts off, cackling, and lets it all spill.
Far below him, the falling remnant
Is reason for joy: a ring of squirrels
Darts from the vapor of dimmer stars
And bows to their lord. Bobbing in circles,
They hunger for crumbs from higher realms
Past the baffle of heaven, though the briefest glimpse
Would seize up the wheels in their whirligig hearts.

How strange not to mention the moons until now:
The three closest ones clear and cheerful,
The fourth more fickle, the fifth ever dark.
But this was the month when the moons flickered out,
Leaving little to look at, and less to describe
Except stars, once exhausted, restored to their glory,
And the bilious creatures that creep from gullies
To savage the pots on our porch out of spite.

And yet, every morning, the markets open,
Their tables teeming with tender crops:
Stiff-necked garlic, greens in bunches,
Early peaches, early tomatoes,
A few ears of corn―crates in waiting
Renew our hope in the harvest to come.
The soy spills out and spins in the open
Like oxidized coins, but the corn rattles
With woeful groans, as its green stalks spread
Over patches of tan, tousled and sprawling
Down to the stream banks, like drowsy yeomen
Lolling on hillsides in leather and felt.

But look what we find in the last shaded row
By the long purple barn at the bend in the road:
Primeval acanthus, that carven adornment
And monk-doodled frill. The first one splays
Its spines beneath a spike in flower;
The second rests its rounded leaves.
We take two pots and plunk them down
On opposite sides of an east-facing door
And tempt them to prosper, pretending we live
On the leafy tip of a toppled column
Or the overgrown whorls on the edge of a book.
And maybe we do. A monk would train
Their writhing vines around our failings
To bring our days to a balanced end.
I’d read that poem. It plainly commends
That in the mounting fields and flaming lilies
That line the roads, you look to nature
To grant you peace, but the peace of the world
Has other intentions. When it ticks at the siding
And peers through a curtain of perfect darkness,
Be certain you’re willing to see its face:
The light would force you to learn to distinguish
The fleeting pax of a prosperous garden
From living peace. So let it sulk;
Let frantic stirges and faithless remnants
Claw their own eyes out and cling to the brick.
Let them dribble like mud into meaningless art.
When one scrapes at the window in whispered grievance
And seethes through the screen, scrawl your verses.
To its purposeless sorrow, sing your creation
And praise the day. But don’t look back.

“So keep an open eye, it’s as well we tell no lie…”

[This is the tenth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, January, February, and March, and April. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

MAY

What rose with a shudder and shook into being
The ninth month enjoins with monotonous song,
The thrum of gutters, glutted and burbling.
When inklings of light on an infinite river
Of roiling blackness writhe at sundown,
We hail the sight of the Sated Snake.
Astrologers say he could stretch his existence
To scale the wall of the sky to its zenith
And slither through windows to worlds unimagined,
If such were his will. But this wyrm is as fixed
As a fallen branch. He bides his time.
When haze obscures him, when the hissing downpour
Soaks through the bramble and saturates toad-holes,
His waiting ends: whole worlds come to him.

It rains for weeks. Weary farmers
Peer from windows with pursed resolve.
The trees turn blue; bugs fall silent;
The flowers starve for a stick’s-width of light.
In purple sunsets, we poke through the murk
And take stock of our grove. We gather herbs,
Frilly lavender, lemon balm, parsley,
Rosemary, chamomile, oregano, dill,
And quaking fennel, the favorite of kings,
Bounded by marigolds, baubles of daylight,
And drop their roots into damp little folds.
I carve out holes for honey-cup vines,
Twine-lined bundles of tangled runners,
And part them with care; you pick up sticks
And stomp through the muck in your sticky boots
Like a stuffed blue bear over bedsheet hills.
From the bug-caked mud, monsters rumble
And rise in a flurry to flap through the bramble
On graceless spindles and gawky necks.
Like lost inspiration from long-ago songs,
We hear them whisper: he will bite you,
He will bite you—
then birds come to order,
Hatching on branches like bubbles of rain,
The blunt little phoebe, fly-gorging, squeaking
Imperious peeps from its pole-top domain.
The night-black grackle gawks from the branch-post,
Its gilt-tinged eyeballs agog like the sunshine
We wait to receive. The wind brings only
A seed-hungry bunting, as blue as the gloom.
When the rain does relent, and the dark wings part
For a few bright minutes, we fiddle with slingshots
And rev up the tractor. Toads fly in horror.
We roar through the weed-fields and raze them at last.

When the drenching ends, as all things must,
The brittle farmlands bow to the grumble
Of wobbling green trailers and whirling blades.
The hay-bales fall like formal poems,
Stanza by stanza, studies in concord,
Pleas for order in the endless distress
Of unquenchable life.

                              Look in the garden.
It seems that some creature got sick in the dirt.
But see how it moves? No moss or fungus
Explodes overnight, like a nova, then rolls
Through the cool of the morning. Look closer. It pulses.
The sick is the creature. It creeps as it feeds
Over wet, weedy mulch, just one oozing cell,
Massive and vital, with millions of nuclei
Dancing in union, but destined to crumble.
The dirt awaits the wealth they commit
To the worm and the world in wild indifference.

But nothing here dies over nothing at all,
For nothing is nothing. I know what I hear:
A minute to midnight, the mad windfall
Of giggles and whispers, a wisp in the moonlight
That slips through the flowers and flits up the rail
To its perch on the porch-roof, where it passes the night
With such delicate breaths that I doubt it was real.
When you come home, you’ll hear it too:
The whip-lash crack of a cricket-bone goad,
The wheels with spokes of spinners’ legs
Entangled in elf-locks, and out of your mind
Comes a burst, like the swifts that blow from the chimney
And soar over currents on scythe-like wing,
Never suspecting they nest at our whim:
It’s easy out here to feel utterly trifling,
A blade on the edge of an infinite plain.
But nothing is nothing; you know what you mean
When a hummingbird sees you. His sees what you’re doing
And knows who you are, not the name others gave you
Or novels you read, but the role you fulfill
In his fidgety soul, the father of nectar
And giver of zing. So go to the window
And listen till dawn for a laugh from the roof.
It may be that fiends, in their mocking at twilight,
Admit that you matter. And maybe we stay
In this marvelous place at their pleasure and whim.
Maybe they stay at ours. Maybe everything matters,
But we’re never the thing we think we are
And always the witness that others demand.
So tell them the tale of the toad in the flood
When his pond and perpetual downpour were one,
How the whole of the world fell to him alone,
And how he wept, and then willingly leapt
In the maw of the serpent, to see what comes next.


“Takes more imagination when everything’s remote control…”

[This is the ninth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, January, February, and March. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

APRIL

When derelicts pelt us with petulant snow
That scourges the lampposts and scatters in winds
So willfully lawless that the windows rattle
And doors fly open in the upper rooms,
Then the eight month mends an ancient promise
And winter slinks off with the whiff of decay.
From the slopeside pens where alpacas mumble
To the lopsided tear-downs that loom too close
To the market-bound road, we reel from the wallop
Of dung flung over the face of the earth.
No wonder by then that the wind itself retches
When the White Skunk pokes through the sky at dusk;
She rises in rows of the rankest stars
That skirt the horizon and roots through the heavens
Assured of her freedom, a shadowless nomad
Aroused by the newness of noisome rewards.
Yet others here say that they see in her outline
Not starlight expectant, but the pallid exhaust
Of a hearse making ready for hearts in decline.
In the attic, fine ears heed the echo of wheels.
The bats, bored of fidgeting, brush past the fringes
Of rust-crumpled vents and go veering through treetops,
Where finches run screeching for fear of the brewing
Misrule in the twilight, the ten-minute limbo
When the dubious comforts of color forsake them
And everything winged is one in dismay.

We sing of this season as sodden with green,
Writhing and heaving and rampant, a surge
Of eternity spewed in a spasm of dust―
But the ripe-eyed flies and the flowering combs
That make us yawn strew yellow everywhere.
After frost and flurries, fields of wheat grass
Turn ocher from shock, like ancient maps
Unfolded and crumbling on a cloister wall.
By the sides of driveways, forsythia snap
Into splayed glory, like the golden spikes
On synth-happy boys when the sequencer rises
Through arches of limelight, and only their tribe
Wants to dance through the aisles to the opening band.
Clusters of yellowcress cling to the fringes
And pop from the meadows on microphone stems.
Packs of dandelions dot the crabgrass
In overblown clearings, and oceans of buttercups
Bubble through pastures and pass through the hooves
Of oblivious mares. An abundance of courage
Is waiting to ripen and rip from the wood,
But the land is as guarded as lines on the road.

Then things that fly throw flashes of red
And pink in the palace of purposeful cardinals.
He whistles, bristles, and brings her twigs
As she plaits their nest among purple blooms
And wadded mulch in a woody azalea.
Our feeders blaze with the fiery wicks
Of crests and crowns and craning necks
Of brazen woodpeckers, broad-winged and rapt
By grubworms that rustle in rain-sopping bark;
And the breast of a grosbeak gorging on seeds
In a thrill of abundance; and the throat of a hummingbird
That hangs in the firmament, heady with nectar,
Then turns, with a glint like a twinkling inlet
Compressed to a flash at the final sigh
Of a spent summer day.

                                    Then the dark splays its feathers.
Like drops from a storm cloud, a duo of bluebirds
Splash through our forest, and find it worthy.
We raise up a home at the height they demand
Graced with eastern exposure and platters of worms.
Still they loiter, and leave, then look sidelong, and hover,
Insultingly cautious, as creatures must be
That summer in holes. Yet they sense the encroachment
Of skittering claws; then they claim every right
To the trunk, all its bark, and the brambles below:
As nimble fingers work fringe on a loom,
They drop and cut, across and returning,
Entwining the beast in a tangle of wills
Till its haunches blister and their beaks transfix it
From ear-tip to tail, shearing tatters of gray.
When the shuttling blur of blue comes to rest,
Pick up the feather you found in the grass;
Let slanted sunlight slip through the down
And between the barbs, let bouncing motes
Ricochet, scatter, and race through your thumbs.
Twirl the feather; it fades in the day
Into nothing but air in your open hand.

Then that nothing explodes, knocking you asswards
Through laughing creation. Lambs in pastures
Wobble and pop as empyrean bleats
That blast off their fleece leave them bald in the mud.
Cowbirds scatter when calves look amazed
At the force they unfurl when they fart in a barn.
In musty lofts, tumescent wretches
Glutted with colors they gulped down for months
Pull up their paunches and part their cheeks
With a clap: and they cough up a crackle of green
That scorches the grove, a green that burns
Through electrified branches, a blinding jolt
For restarting the world. This wheeling and bobbing
Is not for us, but is ours to imagine
Through plant-spattered glasses, a prism upended
That sucks every color through coiling green vines
For the shuddering out in one urgent bright come.

“Give us direction, the best of goodwill…”

[This is the eighth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, January, and February. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

MARCH

Wake early; fill the feeders with seed
And sweep away the swollen remnants
Of busted mice. In barns and garages,
With the sickly rumble of a rusting key
In a seized ignition, the seventh month turns.
As spiders creep from the crags and fractures
That kept the runoff from wrecking their gears,
Shuddering trucks and tractors emerge
In the blur before dawn. The dingy glare
Of their headlamps rises over hillside fallows
And fills the stars with the Farmer’s Sons.
Their hands have yet to be hardened by summer
And their eyes are bright. In an hour of prudence,
They seed the sky with skittering beams.
Wake early to learn what their labors have made.

If you look, you can sense when a late snowfall
Will send the moths that suckle at floodlights
Back to the shadows. Bristling finches
Too harried to mete out harmonious verse
Flap to our awnings, flooding their gullets
With suet and seed. They see past the treetops
And over the daffodils, open and bright,
That rise on the edge of the road through the woods;
Beyond the monsters that yelp in their hollows
Or hoot from their crannies or cluck in their roosts;
Higher than chimes from the churchyard garden
That blow through the fields on a blustery night―

I’ll see for myself. Like a sixth-grade gallant
Who whets his hero in a haven of orcs,
Hacking and slashing, I hew the limbs
From saplings; they crumple in soundless defeat.
With a mattock and clippers, I clear a channel
Through a lake of leaves, and I lop the chaos
From looming boughs. Though litter and twigs
The wisp of a pathway points to a clearing
That swells from a stream to a strand of grass
Where the fertile tide of the forest recedes.
In the midst of these exploits, I meet myself loping
The opposite way. “The work is noble,”
I laugh at my wheezing, “but leave some steam
For a wary walk back. We both should be patient
And wait to make claims on the worth of the trail
Until blazing the way in both directions.”

For now, we go forward. We nail up meshwork
Filled with mealworms to flatter bluebirds
And tempt them home. We hang an orange
And strips of twine, if stray orioles
Should drop from the morning, dizzy and singed.
We sing of strength to a struggling lilac,
Frail and slumping, as we fondly consign
A blessed fish to its famished roots.
Like a limping exile with an ancient cup
In a bundle of rags on a battle-cragged tor,
I plunge dry sticks into stony clods
And pray for berries to bloody their thorns.
Then I hate how I’m getting ahead of myself:
Nothing but radishes rise in the weed-beds
That buttress our home; they break up the soil,
The humblest of callings, and hasten the rest.

In the cool of the morning, a creature of twilight
Struts through the bramble, strawberry gold
And vast with purpose, a vision of judgment
To the quaking souls of songbirds and mice
But auspicious to us, like an angel ablaze
With inscrutable news. Nosing the furrows,
It finds no prey in our pitiful sprouts,
But its tail flares up, like a torch at the vigil,
And in a glimmer the fur and the fire are one:
We walk in darkness from a whistling pyre
On the graveyard’s edge to the open door
Of a wayside church, our chanting scattered
In the passionless wind, but our wants converging
With the eager peeping from pastures and creeks,
More pleas for mercy than the measureless lauds
Of souls that wake early, as silence is conquered,
And all things rise in an endless note.

“Behind our glass, we’ll sit and look at our ever-open book…”

[This is the seventh part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, December, and January. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

FEBRUARY

A sickly gnawing from the ceiling unnerves us.
Say it’s the wind. Our walls are flayed
By twisted sticks, stiff and bristled
Like matted fur; and in the midst of the sixth
And shortest month, the Mouse ascends.
On her midnight revels, she rips through the stars
That spin on their tips like spilling fistfuls
Of sunflower seeds. The sundered shells
Pour from the heavens, unheard by mortals
But a deafening call to the dozing spirits
That nod over eggs in their evergreen lair.
The winter dares them to warble for joy.

In an age of delusion, I often lingered
In a sooty vineyard, a sacred wedge
Of pitted beams that bound an alley
To the sagging backs of city shops.
A clever hunter held court in this void,
Where he staked out every stalk and cutting,
Muttered enchantments, and made things grow.
Singers gathered, summoned by whispers
Of wistful frescoes and fountainside wine;
One pale and limping, with plump white ringlets
Framing the sides of her sightless eyes
And seasoned tongue, was attended by men
With old concertinas, who ached to warble
Their heartsick songs. I heard them once,
When lines of lovers lost to enchantment
Followed them out through falling dust.
The grove remained, and its grapes gave comfort
To rumpled pilgrims and peeping beaks.
They lazed in sunbeams; we leafed through books.
I never knew the names of the birds
That shared that place of shade and rest;
I just tossed them crumbs when they tiptoed near.

I know them here. Like hurtling suns,
Burbling goldfinches boing through the yard
And shine their light on our sheltered rail.
Beside them, chickadees sing of riches:
Their fellow seed-fowl follow in waves.
From forking treetops and tousled weeds,
A derisive cardinal and his rosy consort
Trill their judgments. A junco bristles,
As plump as coal, and pries out snacks
With his stubby beak, staring down brethren
That flock to our feeder to fend off the cold.
A feather-length more than its fellows and blessed
With the buoyant aid of an extra toe,
A gray-white nuthatch grips a tree-trunk
And clings without fear; it creeps ground-ward
Tail over neck, nabbing a seed-pod
To cart to its haven to crack it to bits.
Agog, the titmouse turns and ruffles
Its hooded tuft, like a tempted friar
Warily clutching his cassock of gray.
From the hollow wood, the worm-fowl follow:
In flooded yards, flickers huddle
And bow to the morsels that bubble to life.
When a stunted holly stirs with larvae
That writhe beneath the notice of men,
A rare riot of robins in swarm
Inhales them all. My hapless measures
Lack the wit and weathered reason
Of born woodsmen—“the bluebird carries
The sky on his back”—and the skilled shaping
Of silly fluttering into subtle miracles
Pecks at the novice. I’ll name what I see;
But what things mean is tomorrow’s work.

We waste fewer words in welcoming specters
That flit round the curtains and fall into lamps.
They startle us first, till we find out what plagues them.
They loiter in summerlight low by the ground,
Where their wriggling litter, lusting for earthworms,
Will feast for weeks. Then flies emerge:
In their thirst to endure, some delve into fissures
In attics and eaves; others find refuge
In slats under windows. Sluggish and trusting,
They dream of dirt, but their doom is real.
Winter tricks them; they wake too soon,
And the hearth tempts then inward. Haunted by sunlight,
They cluster by doorframes and keen their own failure
To die in the soil. Their song is fleeting:
And when we form a face on the glass
Just look away, and let it pass…

The house fails us. A horrid crunching
Makes the rafters cringe—we run to the threshold
With morning-cold weapons and wince at the prospect
Of a gristly ogre grinding the bones
Of winter’s victims in his weltering maw.
But the doors fall inward; from the endless heavens
The Mouse tumbles. Her time has passed.
In vain she basks in a bag of seeds,
The churn of it echoing out through the night.
We bar the way, blocking crevices
With rags to keep her rage contained,
But when we flee to bed, the frantic gnawing,
The hideous scraping and scratching at doors,
Scare us till morning. The scurrying world
Woke in confinement; it wails for release.

“Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution…”

When Gary Gygax died in 2008, I called him “one of the most influential medievalists of the latter half of the 20th century.” I still think that’s true: without the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, medieval-ish fantasy and gaming wouldn’t have blossomed into mainstream obsessions. Gygax lashed together the conceptual trellis for both, but exactly how he did it was a mystery to me. As a kid, I knew him only as a distant sage who beguiled the rest of us with eldritch parlance and baroque prose, but thanks to Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons, I can at least glimpse the outlines of this legendary tabletop adventurer—but not much more. As it turns out, his was a far more labyrinthine mind than even his biographer anticipated.

At first, E. Gary Gygax of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, was the bright, nerdy child I knew he would be: a lover of strategy games, especially chess; a fan of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories; and a dungeon-delver who led his friends through an abandoned sanatorium in the dark of night. Witwer presents him as a smart, undisciplined underachiever who dabbled in a little of everything, from fishing to cobbling, but whose passion for late-night wargames in his friends’ basements was so all-consuming that his wife was convinced he was cheating on her. Empire of Imagination explains how Gygax and dozens of like-minded misfits found each other, how they elevated tabletop wargames into guided improv with dice, and how their hobby became a commercial phenomenon that unfurled its leathery wings and abandoned them all. It’s a straightforward story, but it probably shouldn’t be; several cryptic anecdotes hint that the journey was circuitous and strange.

Witwer mentions that in the late 1950s, after dropping out of high school but before getting married, Gygax served briefly in the Marines. But for how long, and in what capacity? When the subject is an ardent wargamer, these details matter. In one of several fictionalized inner monologues, Witwer imagines that Gygax hated boot camp and was happy to be discharged for health reasons—but did Gygax himself discuss the experience? What did he learn from it? How did he see the role of war in human affairs? Empire of Imagination doesn’t answer these questions—and it raises too many more.

Early on, Gygax supported his family as an insurance underwriter, but Witwer suggests that the main influence of this job on his game-writing hobby was the convenience of the office typewriter. I don’t doubt that the typewriter was handy—but isn’t it noteworthy that a guy who spent his days poring over actuarial data would go on to craft a game around pages and pages of probability-based tables? I wish Witwer had drawn this connection; there’s meaning in it. It’s charming that one of the quirkiest countercultural pastimes, now an endless wellspring of self-expression and creativity, has roots in a field that most people find utterly deadening.

The biggest surprise in Empire of Imagination pops up halfway through the book, when Witwer writes about conflicts between the Gygaxes and their children in the late 1970s:

Another point of dissension between Gary and his son was that Ernie had drifted away from his parents’ faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In times past, Gary had made attempts to pull away from gaming in favor of devoting more time to his faith, but such efforts were always short-lived. And while not “devout” by Jehovah’s Witness standards, Gary and Mary Jo had maintained the religious affiliation and expected their children to follow suit.

Wait—what? The Prime Mover of geekdom and godfather of role-playing games, dogged by accusations of promoting demonology and witchcraft, was a Jehovah’s Witness? That’s a heck of a revelation not to poke with a stick. Was he born into the religion? Did he adopt it as an adult? Witwer doesn’t say. Twenty pages later, Gygax and his wife break from their church over gaming, drinking, and smoking, and that’s that. But how can it be that the co-creator of a game steeped in magic, mysticism, polytheism, and violence was active in a faith most of us think of as uncompromising and austere? Are there traces of the religion in the design of D&D, and if so, what are they?

It’s clear from Witwer’s lengthy sketch that Gygax demands a thorough intellectual biography. He was a complex autodidact whose inner life wasn’t easy to categorize or explain, the product of an unrepeatable alchemy of place, time, and personality—but unless someone can conjure a compilation of interviews, letters, and reminiscences by family and friends, Empire of Imagination may be the best glimpse of his life we’re going to get. It’s engaging and earnest; it just doesn’t feel done.

Fortunately, Empire of Imagination is also the story of a business—a lurid cautionary tale that Witwer relates with enthusiasm. In 1973, when no gaming publishers wanted the original Dungeons & Dragons manuscript, Gygax and two fellow gamers incorporated TSR—”Tactical Studies Rules”—and published it themselves. Like any empire, TSR was soon rife with enmity, backstabbing, and strife. The untimely death of one of the founders in 1975 reverberated for years: An investor who bought his widow’s one-third share would introduce a family of executives who, as Witwer tells it, despised everything about the gaming world but its potential revenues. By the early ’80s, their preposterous excess was worthy of a Simpsons episode: In Hollywood, Gary Gygax was blowing millions on D&D-based entertainment prospects, leasing King Vidor’s mansion, and snorting cocaine in a private booth at the Playboy Club, while back in Wisconsin, the colleagues who despised him were funding shipwreck excavations and investing in real estate on the Isle of Man. When Gygax recaptures the company in a startling coup and writes a book that restores solvency to the land, the tale takes a hopeful turn—until one Hollywood hanger-on proves to be an enemy in disguise…

I like to believe that Gygax saw himself as a hero embroiled in a magnificent story of palace intrigue, but Empire of Imagination documents a vulgar reality: the first time anyone looked at the burgeoning geek subculture and saw the cash cow it could someday become. As such, it’s a parable of hubris and greed far different from the stories that sensitive outsiders once told about themselves. I’m not sure young people today can envision what it was like when this stuff was so far outside the mainstream that it was socially poisonous, when it spread like secret lore among strange boys who sought refuge and fellowship in its small, exciting world. We now know that the bookish misfits of yesteryear could be just as venal as anyone else, but it takes imagination to remember the daydreams and desperate optimism that drove them to find each other. Gary Gygax and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson collaborated by mail at a time when even long-distance phone calls between Wisconsin and Minnesota were prohibitively expensive, and the first big gaming convention Gygax organized in 1968 had fewer than a hundred attendees. No wonder their hopes found expression in medievalist fantasy: finding other kids who shared their interests was a genuine, ongoing quest.

The world has changed. Big companies have succeeded where TSR failed: they’ve learned to exploit the public’s appetite for fantasy through movies and literally endless video-game franchises, while fan artists and makers of memes do much of their promotion for free. Even most Renaissance festivals are now run by large entertainment corporations. Who’s doing the imagining for whom? Although Witwer is right to see Gary Gygax as a founding father of 21st-century popular culture, Empire of Imagination reminded me of a time when weird young people could be fantasists rather than customers first. For all the adventures awaiting them now, there’s one that kids can no longer experience, at least not through games: the thrill of helping map out something new.

“…a million generations removed from expectations…”

[This is the sixth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, November, and December. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

JANUARY

When the fifth month mocks you with faraway suns,
See through their dust for signs of order.
Beyond the trees, the Two Riders
Rise before us, refreshed by their sojourn
At fathomless wells. Whether you see them
Stand side by side in the same direction
Or tail to tail, as they turn like reflections
To cast their fortunes on contrary paths,
It is grave and auspicious to spy them at dusk
As they compass the verge of the vast green wheel.
Be still at first. They startle easily.

But luck gives out, and late one night
The month awakens, though the wiser course
Is to slouch in a mousehole and sleep for weeks.
From a despondent roar, the ravenous winds
Burst from the treetops and batter our doors
Like a bishop’s murderers barred from vespers.
Prickly footsteps fall from the attic
And drop through the walls; we drive long nails
Through the beams by the windows and wait for shrieks.
With nothing to stir them, nests freeze over.
In the birdless orchards, branches wither
And crumple like spiders, spindly and drained.
The barn turns gray from the granite ashes
And shattered slate where the shivering carver
Shed his apron and sheathed his rasp.
Willful flurries whirl on the pavement
And strain to take form when the streetlights pale,
Coming in rancor to claim a debt.

Ancient poets were plain in their scorn:
Only the laziest look down their noses
At the chores men face when frigid downpours
Drive them indoors. The dreariest labors
Bloom into leisure by the light of candles:
They forged new blades, branded cattle,
Sharpened their tools, cut troughs from lumber,
Laid out trellises, labeled their measures,
And plaited new beehives and baskets for spring.
Their work is gone, but the gift that endures
Is a bracing air of expectation.
To spite the cold, our kitchen swirls
With the cheerful scent of simmering bones
And honeyed bread. We bring in the plants,
Test the lanterns, lay out batteries,
Fill buckets with water, and watch the sky,
Sitting side by side, like signs of our own,
Restored by visions of the storm to come.

Two old black dogs swap dares in the headlights,
As rigid as rocks on the road through the wood.

Two pilgrims shoulder their shovels, as bone
Crackles and freezes underfoot as they go.

Deaf to the snoring of snow-blind bats,
Two white messengers molt on a ledge.

On two numb legs, the laughing plowman
Arrays his blades. The blizzard parts.

A grieving beggar barks out a prophecy
As two red ears turn in fulfillment.

Two shotgun blasts shake woodpeckers
From their cramped hollows. A holy silence
Falls like starlight, and falls for days.

“Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice…”

[This is the fifth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September, October, and November. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

DECEMBER

The dark extends a dreadful wait.
A bristling veil divides the heavens
From the baffled and weary who warble songs
About purpose and fate; so the fourth month looms.
Nursed by drizzle and dreary wind,
The dimmest stars stir and waken
The God of the Cave. He gropes in the murk
To draw around him a ragged pelt
Threaded together with grim sinews
As he heaves himself up on his hindmost legs.
His naked snout sniffs the treetops,
And when he senses something wanting
He ambles out to the open sky,
Where his grisly claw clutches and raises
A torch, to hallow a turn in the world,
To comfort and guide his golden heirs.
In the gloom beside him, the glimmer quickens
A tender form. With its first exertion,
A vital shrug, it sheds a caul
Of sizzling pips, silver and orange,
That blanch and harden when they hit the air,
Reeling and clacking with erratic ticks
As we face straight up on a foggy morning
With empty vessels in our open hands
And softly cheer when chance ordains
That they plink in our dish. Promises ripen
From simple patterns. Put them away;
We save them to scatter if summer returns.

But love, maybe I remember it wrong.
On a dish by the window, you dried the seeds
From a blue pumpkin—no blessed spark,
Just the graying excess of an aching vine
That shaded the gate of a grinning witch—
Or no, not a witch, just a woman who smiled
Though we valued no shred of her village of junk.
And wasn’t it warm? I walked—no, I drove
To a dank, nettled plot to undo my old work.
I ripped out poles. I pulled down fences.
Scrap-wood trellises scraped up my forehead.
I wandered through twilight to the walled garden;
I paced the flagstones, and feeling bold
I twisted the fruit from a defiant branch,
A squishy medlar, and mumbled a prayer
For the barest inkling of an ancient rhyme.
I wrote it here. But how did it go?
“Now pray we bless the bletted mess—”
“Of course they rot, then ripen at last—”
I strained to remember my medlar song.

“Come sit by my side,” you sang that night,
“And let the world slip.” Your sly foreboding
Had noble ends: “we shall never be younger.”
You knew some months leave us no other choice
But to settle for stories by somebody else,
So I argued the grace of a grubby old man
With lice-riddled wings and waterlogged eyes
Who rose from his coop “with the risky flapping
Of a senile vulture.” I sighed, envious.
Then a flash caught my eye on the edge of our grove,
A whirl in the woods like a wobbly hubcap,
A circle of bears with blazing torches
Stacking up cordwood and kindling bonfires
On the grassy edge of the interstate ramp—
I turned the pages. We talked for a while.
You banked the ashes for better times.
There was, you assured me, one real herald:
A rusty mantis emerged from a hole
And fiddled away at the foot of the door.
He would not speak. I expected couplets.
You sized up his sense with a scientist’s poise:
“He drinks in the light of a dwindling month.
See how he stands up straight on the brick?
He comes to witness the calendar turn,
Not to grieve over words in a work without end.”

When the fourth month turns, the townsmen defy
The sprawling dread; they dare to unravel
Their own constellations. Along the road
Between the ferryman’s slip and fallow ditches,
They reach in the air with easy grace
To twist new sparks into twinkling sockets
And straighten the fraying strands anew.
These stopgap stars tell a story they love,
A claim that the heavens roll closer to earth,
A promise pulled nearer in perfect lines.
Then two lost donkeys return to their barn.
The wind blows homeward a wayward goat.
The weaver, the potter, the painter, the wrencher
Of limestone and iron all open their gates.
On hillside porches, hungry mothers
Hurry to root through a harvest of packets
And precious cans. The country mud
Is giddy with sunshine, golden and white,
And hunters nod. Nothing is dying.
Like flies that emerge in confused expectation,
They shed their jackets and shake their heads.
The winter is weirdly warm, a cockroach
In a taped-up box, biding its time.
For now, be here. When the night dispenses
Its spattering rain, risk disappointment;
Run straight downstairs and stand alone
On the open deck, dry and blinding,
As dunes once harbored derelict monks.
Though the morning office is hours away,
The sun surrounds you; it rises wide
From all directions, reeling out shadows
That arc from the tree line to tremble and bow
Toward the fleeting sight at the centermost point
Of an infinite wheel. The waiting ends:
Like the long, low rumble of reluctant strangers
Exhorted to pray in a packed cathedral
Who stir in chaos but stand as one,
A field of living fire heaves skyward,
And all the words you ever needed
Inflame the air with urgent news.

“And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people…”

When I taught Beowulf, the Kalevala, and Balkan poetry, I would ask my students if America had an epic. We would brainstorm stories that were epic in scope, but we concluded that the United States didn’t seek its identity in just one national story. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped good poets from writing epics for hypothetical Americas: first Frederick Turner’s wild 1985 epic poem The New World, the tale of North America 400 years in the future, and his follow-up epic about the terraforming of Mars; and then Marly Youmans’ moving and mystical Thaliad, a 2012 epic about a group of children who rebuild civilization after a fiery apocalypse. I loved both books—and I’m pleased (and surprised) to add another hypothetical-America epic to the list.

The Epic of Clair is about—well, I’ll let the opening of the poem declare its plot and purpose, since it does so with charming, perfect clarity:

Heavens, help me tell the story about
that girl-runner who saved her parents’ house
and beat her own anxiety problems
by running messages for the witches
after the oil economy’s collapse.

Yes—it’s an alternate 2008, only the wealthy have electricity and cars, and suburbanites with a knack for backyard gardening now face food raids by hungry marauders. The teenage daughter of a laid-off English teacher in a run-down corner of St. Paul, Minnesota, faces the collapse of her neighborhood, her household, and even her social life—until the end of the world turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to her, and she proves to be one of the best things ever to happen to her disintegrating city.

The Epic of Clair is short—too short—so I don’t want to write a full review of it, lest I spoil its many clever surprises, especially the secrets of the Twin Cities’ nigh-omnipotent witches. I will say, though, that its author, Maryland teacher E.C. Hansen, really hears the language of teenagers: it’s demotic, but with the loftiest aspirations. (The full, redundant title of the book—The Epic of Clair: An Epic Poem—conveys what my middle-aged memory recalls as the naive and pretentious nobility of the teenage mind.) “Rosy-fingered Dawn” even shows up, literally, as a wealthy, boy-crazy teen with her hands in “a bag / of red, spicy cheese curls—the best!” Hansen serves up epic similes drawn directly from such teen experiences as the state cross-country championship; his characters quote that staple of ninth-grade English, Romeo and Juliet; and the poet himself gleefully mocks the young-adult vogue for glittery, tragic vampires.

Sometimes The Epic of Clair feels as if it were even written by a teen, no doubt because Hansen’s students inspired it. “I wanted to invent a future so much better than the popular titles on the store shelves—dystopian science fiction, miserable memoirs, vampire novels—ever allowed them to expect,” he explains on the acknowledgements page. Good for Hansen for defying horrible marketing trends; kids need stories in which something matters other than impulse and emotion. Clair learns that adult responsibility is worlds better than teen melodrama—imagine that!—and the practiced skills that earn you sports trophies or a high-school writing prize may point you to your far-off purpose after all.

Throughout the poem, Clair helps human ingenuity prevail in the face of cultural, technological, and economic collapse, and Hansen suggests that erudition and education can lead to a more civilized form of warfare in which nobody dies. The world he creates always teeters on the edge of atrocity, and violence does erupt, but I found myself wondering if Hansen’s depiction of mostly peaceful chaos, which flatters the Twin Cities, is plausible. Now I’m not sure it matters. The Epic of Clair is a generous poem about decency and grace—about being generous to neighbors, unreliable friends, strangers, and even enemies. I hope I never find out if this epic poem accurately portrays human nature, but I’d rather live in the world E.C. Hansen hopes would arise than in most of the likely alternatives. The Epic of Clair would be a fine teaching tool for high-school kids—but it also usefully reminds the rest of us that youthful optimism is a devastating weapon all its own.