Archive for ‘National Cathedral’


“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.

“Slipping the clippers through the telephone wire…”

Because I’m monstrously busy, I figure it’s time to bring back some of the more literal monsters featured on this blog from 2009 to 2012. Every few weeks, I challenged myself to wander up to the National Cathedral, where I chose from among its myriad gargoyles and grotesques and wrote a poem inspired by what I’d seen.

With the kind permission of the cathedral, I collected the resulting poems, 53 in all, in a 138-page paperback that you can order online, buy at the cathedral gift shop, or purchase from me via email. (You can browse the first drafts of 51 of the poems here.)

Written for Halloween 2010, the following poem fell from the mouth of a hard-to-photograph gargoyle known as “Stabber.” Visitors to cathedrals are sometimes confused, even startled, by gargoyles that honor irreverence or depict blatant evil. This suicidal, Gollum-like ghoul isn’t equivocal; he knows what he is.


ALL HALLOWS’ EVE

Long live the weeds and the wilderness—yet
What would be left of the wildness and wet
Were it not for the curdle, the canker, the theft
That threaten to render the blessèd bereft?

Our beady-boned eyebulge flits over the burn;
Wily we twitch through the sack-shriveled fern
As the groin-growls enrage us where daggers bite through,
Damning the bloodline that dapples the dew.

Yet rounded in couplets, despair-darksome sneering,
Frown pitchblack poets defy all our leering,
Twindled revisioners burbling like broth,
Donning their Jesuit wind-shriven cloth.

What pumpkin-maws mumble, we ache to express;
Ghouls plunder verses they dare not possess.
Take heed of the unhallowed eyeblight you mourn:
Then know why the saints of the morning were born.


“Mais nous pouvons faire ce que nous voulons…”

Because I’m monstrously busy, I figure it’s time to bring back some of the more literal monsters featured on this blog from 2009 to 2012. Every few weeks, I challenged myself to wander up to the National Cathedral, choose from among its myriad gargoyles and grotesques, and write a poem inspired by what I’d seen.

With the kind permission of the cathedral, I collected the resulting poems, 53 in all, in a 138-page paperback that you can order online, buy at the cathedral gift shop, or purchase from me via email. (You can browse the first drafts of 51 of the poems here.)

Written in March 2011, “Apologia” was certainly one of the weirder poems, inspired as it was by the indifference of a snake to the shock and hopelessness of his prey. I almost put a poem in the mouth of the rabbit, but then I attended an exhibition of medieval reliquaries in Baltimore and jotted down this note: “snake an antiquarian with a fascination for the Anglo-Saxons, attempting to explain to the rabbit the weird, mythologized larger purpose for eating him.”

The resulting poem is full of New Old English, but my hope is that even people who don’t get a word of it will read it aloud and find it fall familiar on the tongue.

APOLOGIA

Heo cwaeð: “Seo naedre bepaehte me ond ic aett.”
—Gen. 3:13 (British Library MS Cotton Claudius B.iv)

We rede the Saxons sympathised with snakes:
On broach and bract they turve and intertwine
But buckle when modernity awakes;
All laud the wyrm who weaves a wulfish vine.

In retsel-books and wrixled words we find
The Saxons, ever lacertine, bestirred
To grammar-craft, whose duple pronouns bind;
So sundered lives were woven with a word.

(A scene: Some god-forsook Northumbrish monk,
Emboldened by an asp to double think,
Professes wit and unk and unker-unk,
But shrinks from git and ink and inker-ink.)

Now I, who raveled precedent relate,
Propose that we be litchwise intertraced;
The wulf and adder gleam on plink and plait,
Yet no immortal lepus ever graced

The lapidated latch of art divine,
So spurn your sallow scrafe, forget the sun.
For you the relic, I the blessid shrine;
In wit and work alike, we two are one.

 

“In between the lines, there’s a lot of obscurity…”

Some books you set out to write; others simply happen. Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles definitely falls into the latter category—and this blustery week feels like a fine time to plug it again on this blog.

This 138-page paperback includes 53 poems accompanied by black-and-white photos of the gargoyles and grotesques that inspired them. The poems are steeped in medieval weirdness and hew to traditional forms, from sonnets, villanelles, and alliterative riddles to ghazals, rubaiyat, and Japanese tanka. I posted drafts of 51 of the poems on this blog from 2009 to 2012; there’s a clickable list of them here.

You can find Looking Up at your favorite online bookseller (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Powell’s) and among the gargoyliana the National Cathedral gift shop, or you can buy a copy directly from me; just send me an email. (Alas, there’s not yet an e-book, because I have scant time for the tedium of formatting poetry for the Kindle.)

Looking Up is tantalizingly close to turning a profit. Cathedral officials graciously agreed to let their publication-shy gargoyles show their faces in print; I’ve offered to donate 75 percent of the proceeds to their fund to repair damage from the 2011 earthquake.

Friends tell me I’m too reticent about promoting my own work, so here goes: If you buy just one book of medievalism-influenced, gargoyle-inspired neoformalist verse, let it be this one!

Thanks, also, to those of you who’ve already bought a copy. Whether you’re a new visitor to this blog or a longtime reader, I’m grateful for your interest and support.

“…and eyes full of tinsel and fire.”

[When I wrote and posted drafts of more than 50 gargoyle-inspired poems between 2009 and 2012, this was one of the most popular. I offer it again in the spirit of the season. You can get a copy of Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles from Amazon, at the National Cathedral gift shop, or by emailing me. To read drafts of 51 of the 53 poems, click here. For more background on this project, go here.]

SOLSTICE SONG

Come and grace our gleeful number,
Come and shake off snows unknown.
Bells will ring while wood-woes slumber,
Bells will ring for you alone.

Rave with uncles reeked in holly,
Reel with aunts who saw you born.
Whirl away your grear-tide folly,
Hearth-life dwindles ere the morn.

Haul the ash-bin ’round the byre,
Feel the pinelight breathe your name.
From the tongue of colder fire
Cracks and calls a hotter flame.

Run and chase your sweet-lipped singer,
Run and race your hope anon.
Bells will ring where’er ye linger,
Bells will ring when you are gone.

“World tour, media whore, please the press in Belgium…”

Friends tell me I’m underzealous in promoting my own books. I see this blog as something other than a relentless sales pitch—but since April is the dubious “National Poetry Month,” it’s time to tout two titles. I’ll say only this: If you enjoy the way this blog chases down medievalism in everyday life, then the “Quid Plura?” team of kobolds would be grateful for your support.

In 2009, after promoting my Charlemagne book and working on projects for other people, I was word-weary and exhausted. To make writing fun again—without worrying about marketability, editors’ impressions, or other people’s needs—I started composing poems inspired by the gargoyles and grotesques that adorn my friendly neighborhood neo-Gothic cathedral.

Light verse! Sonnets! Strange soliloquies and songs! Translations from Latin and German! Three years and more than fifty poems later, the folks at the cathedral graciously gave me permission to show their typically publication-shy beasties in print. The resulting book, Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles, is now available at the cathedral gift shop, through Amazon, or (most profitably) directly from me. I’ll donate 75 percent of the net profits to the National Cathedral to help repair damage from the 2011 earthquake. It’s my way of saying thank-you for the many quiet afternoons I’ve spent on the cathedral grounds. (Browse the first drafts of 51 of the 53 poems, and learn more about the book here.)

In 2007, I translated the 15th-century romance “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear,” a 972-line Middle Scots poem about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm at Christmastime, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier (a sort of medieval Tommy Saxondale). Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.

The translation was an experiment: I wanted to see if I could imitate all 75 of the original poem’s tricky rhyming, alliterative, 13-line stanzas in a translation that was both readable and entertaining. (Check out “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear” in its original Middle Scots to see what I was up against.)

The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is now available through Amazon as a $10 paperback. There’s also an e-book specially formatted for the Kindle. (To get a taste of the translation, sample this low-res PDF of the first few pages.)

No one else has translated “Rauf Coilyear” into rhyming, alliterative, modern English verse, and I doubt anyone else will be nutty enough to try—so whether you’re a longtime reader of this blog, a student of medieval literature, a fan of old-fashioned poetic formalism, or a collector of truly obscure manifestations of Charlemagniana, I hope you’ll find this translation a satisfying read. Despite what Mamillus claimed, sometimes a sad tale isn’t best for winter after all.

“Winter is the glad song that you hear…”

Christmas songs are quick to commemorate the sounds and the sights of the season, but rarely do they dwell on smells. Most people, I gather, fondly recall the fragrance of spruce needles or the cloying whiff of cookies, but this year I’ll pine for a more medieval Christmas scent: the sweet, pseudo-oenomelic aroma of tiny, rotting fruit.

Meet the National Cathedral medlar! Planted in 1962 to honor Florence Bratenahl, the medievalist who refined Frederick Law Olmsted’s plan for the cathedral garden, the tree goes unnoticed by nearly everyone. There aren’t many medlars in America, and when the cathedral horticultural staff and garden guild kindly let me harvest the fruit of their medlar in December 2010 (in exchange for writing two articles for the garden guild newsletter), I soon learned why: this is one persnickety tree.


Every spring, the medlar’s large white flowers blossom with absurd brevity, at a day and hour determined by the tree’s own inscrutable whim. (Most years, the medlar stubbornly hangs onto its red-gold leaves well into December, long after other trees are as bony and cold as Dickensian waifs.) During the summer, the flowers turn into grotty little fruit with deservedly obscene medieval nicknames. The French knew the medlar as the cul de chien, and Chaucer called it the “open-arse”; his bitter Reeve likened himself to a medlar in The Canterbury Tales. More recently, Shakespeare denigrated the medlar in four different plays, and D.H. Lawrence, not one to be outdone, dubbed them “wineskins of brown morbidity” and “the distilled essence of hell.”

You see, here’s the thing about medlars: The fruit is hard, acidic, and inedible until a good early-winter cold snap, after which it has to “blett,” or ripen into the semblance of rottenness, under precise conditions known only to God and the medlar itself. (Some sources even warn you not to jostle the fruit or let them touch each other. Medlars are the Happy Fun Ball of obsolete produce.)

Medieval people would have bletted their medlars in wooden crates filled with straw. As a modern-day apartment dweller, I bletted ten pounds of medlar fruit in cardboard boxes lined with shredded credit-card courtesy checks.

Bletting medlars is a lost art. Hours turn into days, days turn into weeks, acids turn into sugars, and the end result is…most inelegant.

Did I mention they sometimes sigh or whistle when squeezed?

Ah, but holy crow, the smell of a home full of bletting medlars is truly divine. They smell like they taste: a robust blend of applesauce, cinnamon, and cheap wine. Charlemagne ordered the medlar to be grown on royal estates; a barn or fruit cellar full of bletting medlars must have been heaven for the Carolingian nose.

Participating in one medlar harvest made clear to me why this fruit, well known to medieval people, is barely a novelty now. For one thing, despite my best efforts at climate control, at least two pounds of fruit took the express lane straight past “bletted” and into genuine rot. Also, once you get past the five gigantic seeds in each fruit, you’ve not much of the squishy stuff to eat. In the U.K., Tiptree sells a lovely medlar jelly, but when a dear friend and I decided to try a medlar tart recipe from an Elizabethan cookbook, we spent hours mutilating hundreds (hundreds!) of weeping squishballs to make just two of these:

That tart’s tastiness was inversely proportional to its beauty, but it was also ludicrously labor-intensive. Medieval and early modern Europeans ate the fruit straight-up or enjoyed mashed and boiled jellies; a tart was a rare luxury.

As medlars lack widespread commercial value—did I mention concerns about their “violent laxative properties”?—the wizards of modern food science haven’t bothered to demystify them. For the latest medlarology, you have to dig up a 1989 Economic Botany article that documents (with remarkable encyclopedicity) everything now known about them, from passing references in classical texts to the chemical composition of the wood. Still, even in our Internet age, no one can tell you exactly how to blett the fruit, and I’m currently preparing to answer a barrage of riddles in a crumbling, booby-trapped crypt so a thousand-year-old crusader will pass on to me the mystic secret of cultivating medlars from seeds.

I hit the wrinkly rare-fruit jackpot in 2010. Since then, the medlar tree at the National Cathedral has (the chief horticulturalist tells me) suffered from fire blight, which is common among trees in the apple family. The fruit blackens and dies before maturing; a cool, wet spring may cause the problem to recur. (Lacking the ability to do anything useful, I’ve worked several medlar references into the poems in Looking Up.)

The truth is, if the medlar sprouted elf heads or started singing madrigals, it couldn’t befuddle me more than it already has, but I’ll never forget the aroma that welcomed me home every time I returned from some tedious holiday errand. The National Cathedral medlar reminds me that the road back to the Middle Ages is not only endless, but also endlessly strange. Relieved to know I’ll never run out of things to write about, I can only wish the readers of this blog a blessedly olfactive Christmas—and a New Year as hopeful and sweet as a medlar-blessed home.

Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles

I’m pleased to announce that Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles is now available—just in time for Halloween.

This 138-page paperback includes 53 poems accompanied by black-and-white photos of the gargoyles and grotesques. I posted drafts of 51 of these poems on the blog from 2009 to 2012; you’ll find a clickable list of them here. Two of the poems in Looking Up are new to the book. (The cover image is the work of photographer, tour guide, and all-around good guy Chris Budny.)

For the time being, I’m donating 75 percent of the net profits from Looking Up to the National Cathedral, to help repair damage from the 2011 earthquake. It’s my way of saying thank-you for the many quiet afternoons I’ve spent on the cathedral grounds.

I had fun writing these poems, and I’m glad so many of you enjoyed reading them. I’d no idea there was an audience for such unfashionable folly: three years of light, occasionally obscure, medieval-influenced neoformalist verse.

* * *

There are several ways to buy Looking Up:

Order it through Amazon (and its international variants: .de, .es, .fr, .it, .uk), Barnes & Noble (coming soon), Powell’s, or the online retailer of your choice.

Buy a copy at the National Cathedral Store, at the new shop on the ground floor, just off the narthex near the front doors, or the original shop down in the crypt. (You’ll find the book in the gargoyle section.)

Order it from me. Email me: jeffsypeck -at- gmail dot com.

If you buy the book from me, the cost within the United States is $14 (which includes shipping!), more if you’re elsewhere. Each additional copy is only $12, no matter where you live. Printing and shipping are exorbitant these days; I’ve kept the price as low as I can.

(I’m looking into e-book options, but I can either do the tedious line-by-line formatting required to make poetry presentable on some e-book platforms, or distribute a PDF that may misformat on many mobile devices. I don’t like either option. Stay tuned.)

* * *

Some books you plan to write; others simply happen. Looking Up definitely falls into the latter category. It’s a great surprise to me that it even exists; I hope you’ll find something pleasantly surprising in it as well.

“…and every time I wonder if the world is right…”

In 2009, after promoting my Charlemagne book and working on projects for other people, I was word-weary and exhausted. To make writing fun again—without worrying about marketability, editors’ impressions, or other people’s needs—I started composing poems inspired by the gargoyles and grotesques that adorn my friendly neighborhood neo-Gothic cathedral.

Three years and more than fifty poems later, this series is complete—and, to my amazement, the gracious folks at the cathedral have granted permission for their typically publication-shy beasties to show their faces in print. Later this summer, Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles will be available as a 138-page trade paperback. I’ll donate the bulk of the profits (whatever they may be) to the cathedral to help fund post-earthquake repairs.

Many of the poems will be freshly polished; here are links to the first drafts. (The final two poems won’t be posted here; they’ll appear solely in the paperback.)

A wild boar who wants to rule the world.
An octopus reappraising her lobster.
A bitter but alliterative Anglo-Saxon mother.
A Gollum-like monster on All Hallows’ Eve.
A creepy dragon with an Arthurian autumn elegy.
A tiger mother singing a Midsummer goblin song.
A bird and dragon, doomed to dance.
Medusa,
with angels.
A robot camera, conjuring a sprite.
An alligator, delaying salvation.
A rooftop-ruling monster.
A bellyaching, medlar-eating monster.
An insect with an identity crisis.
A skeletal beast decaying on Good Friday.
A unicorn with Easter dreams.
A caveman, soft on the inside.
A scholarly owl with stories to tell.
A dog on the trail of a thief.
Rilke, through raccoonish eyes.
A medievalist goat going all Carolingian.
A skeletal horse, mindful of Mother Goose.
A bird who celebrates Sukkot.
A snake with a taste for antiquarianism, and rabbit.
A smiling dragon.
A tradition-minded frog.
An indefatigable fish.
A monster, begging for silence.
A mouse with his eyes on circling skies.
A devil, exiled from the Garden State.
Two autumn rabbits, one thankful, one not.
A confused Boethian hamster.
Cerberus, barking mad.
A bat-creature, in Nordic disrepair.
A restless, bookish elephant.
An insecure, artsy deer.
The anecdotal basenji.
A lovelorn, molar-clutching monster.
A medieval-minded birdwatcher.
Pan,
not even mostly dead.
Baby Pan,
undaunted by snow.
A rooster, resigned to vicissitude.
Some vegetation, sinning through the weeds.
An administrator on form and façade.
A fish who spouts one slippery riddle.
An angel on an Easter Vigil.
A monster, with a winter warning.
The bishop, recalling Chaucer.
A fallen angel, who knows his Chaucer, too.
A ghazal by a cicada…
…and a cockroach’s reply.

Thank you to everyone who linked, commented, or otherwise supported this project! I hope you’ll enjoy the resulting book.

“No ceiling bearing down on me, save the starry skies above…”

RIDDLE

I saw on the strand     the strangest of sights:
A gleaming pageant     that passed from the sea,
Their foremost borne,     that fine-bearded king,
Through sculpted chambers      skeined with sea-weed,
Mute twirling trumpets      trailing his wake.
Sailing beside him,      his silent white lords
Were marred by the maulings     of millions of wars.
Light on the shoreline,    their lonely race
Watched and waited     wordless ages
For imminent signs.     Silence drained heaven,
Then a dry rustle     like rain in ascent:
The whitecaps boiled        bone-dry, leaving
deserts unplundered,     plains without end.
Long they beheld here     horrors of old:
Ravenous monsters,      maws ringed with arms,
Pried their bulk blindly   from beds of muck
As nobles sternly     stiffened their spines,
For all was lost.     The lords yielded,
Shedding their swords     and shields of gold,
Hurling their helms      hard on the dune,
Laying their war-gear     now lightly aside,
Once-bright armor         bristling with rust.
With no last cry      they cracked their spears;
No howling braced     their broken ranks;
Insensibly stone-eyed     as statues at dawn,
Their remnant sank      in the sand where they stood.
Then forth from the snare     of a fisherman’s nets
In their relics reborn      I rose to my shrine
To wait for water.     Their world is dust,
And so is this matter.     Now say what I am.

(For all the entries in this series, hit the “looking up” tab, or read the gargoyle FAQ.)