Archive for ‘Maryland’


“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.

“…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.

“Take my shoes off, and throw them in the lake…”

[This is the fourth 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 and October. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

NOVEMBER

Thick with leaf-light, the third month turns.
Trees sparkle like a torch passing
Over ancient gold, or else they smolder,
As if ripe pumpkins exploded from the glare
Of branches steeped in blood and rust—
And then, in a flicker, all fires go out
As heaven turns over the earth. The world
Lays bare in clumps of clay and dust
Its bristly roots, like the bones and hair
Of a stringy cow picked clean in a day.
We finally see what flimsy leaves
Papered over: infinite clearings
Of ravenous deer. They run at twilight
In the climbing sky, where they scatter and roll.
Just look—however you line up the stars,
Their forms converge: the fleeting spots
Of wobbly fawns that freeze, blinded
By a blast of headlamps; the hurtling trace
Of a buck escaping a skulking herdsman
And his ringing bow; the broken neck
Of a flailing doe that dropped from its sconce
To a curbside ditch; and dizzying others
Rutting and writhing, restless and starved.
The night out here spawns nothing else.
On moonlit roads, we mumble a prayer:
Forgive us our longing to glimpse something more,
Like the bumbling grace of a bear in the trash.

In an arid bed of brick and clay,
The dill shows antlers of its own; the spokes
Twirl and open for ochre seeds.
Sagging milkweed musters its nerve
And answers its calling in clustered silks
That spin on a whim and spill to the earth
Like frost and down from the flick of a tail.
Where serrated leaves sprawled luscious and green,
The oregano blackens; a rigid hoof
Can rot like mushrooms in the muck and rain.
A musty weirdness weighs down the air,
The gasp of corn decaying, and when
We walk by the river, where wiry branches
Hang over the banks like baitless rods,
And something clever surfaces fast
With a splash that wakens the weedy strand
And we turn, we are always eternally late.
Retracing our steps to the stagnant canal
That binds the lines of both horizons,
We stalk the life that eludes us yet,
As thin and as shy as shadows, but find
Not one wet track of a trudging bear,
Just our own, directed the opposite way.

Old monks, as slight as the mice that hide
In our rain-rattled walls, once lamented
That men found grace in this month of blood.
Some chased the scent of sacred brawn,
Wild-eyed horsemen who whipped their hounds
To draw out boars from dingy thickets
And into the open, where iron pikes
Pitted their ribs like perpetual rain.
Others eyed their ailing cattle
Or war-worn horses, and whetted their knives.
At dawn, a heap of heads tumbled
Snout-side down into dank trenches,
Leering, defiant of life in the dark.
Their work endures. The world prevails:
As winter whispers, wheat is sprouting
Green and fearless in fields we were certain
Were wasting graves—and in wayside pastures
White with the morning wind, squinting
Through mist and drizzle, drowsy horses
Refute the cold in comical shirts.
What visitors see on a single day
Is only a postcard, a passing calm
That flatters the traveler who takes it home.
Watch it churn for weeks, and be still:
You know it may never notice you back.
It lives for itself, unsettled, a presence
Of furious change. For the chance it offers,
We give our thanks. Then three familiars
Creep from the bramble, creatures of promise:
A green-eyed owl with an orange breast
And a face of mouse-brown fur; a pony
That tests its teeth on the tousled hedge
Of an apple-gold mane in the evening haze;
And something bigger, blue in the moonlight,
A hunger in search of a home. At dawn
It lopes and lingers, but leaves no impression
Of root-red claws in the cold, thick mud.
I want to see this: The watchful oaks
Part, as they let it pass in solemnity
Through our bleary grove. When it glimpses one of us
Taking a picture, it tries to smile.

“They turn their heads to see if we were meant to be…”

[This is the third part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. I’m posting it as I write it, in monthly installments; first read the prologue and then September. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

OCTOBER

In our world grown old, we waited too long
To hallow the dead; here we entrust them
With the second-most month, when the moon in its socket
Spins thin and white, like a thumbworn coin
From an overturned jar. Then all the heavens
Await the life of a world to come
In a bowed constellation, the Lady of Graves.
In thirty-five stars, stern but gracious,
She calms the night. Its creatures laud her:
The eyeless, the preyed-on, creep in from the dark.
Below, she prepares finer places for them
When their wound-up casings wobble and seize.
The bat sloughs off its brittle wings;
The shivering vole earns a shadow of peace
In a dry, quiet corner; a cat slinks near
With raw offerings of her own to bestow.
The Lady kneels. With loving precision
She frees their souls, saving the bones
To frame and trace a future creation.
The wise use words the same way, even here.

The morning unveils a vast exhaustion.
The fields are a burlap of beige and gray,
Fiery sorghum deflates and sags
And whole orchards shudder, shedding their bloat
With plain impatience; pears and apples
Heap up under the aching trunks.
The forest cracks—we flinch. Acorns
Sizzling like meteors melt in the earth.
On weird afternoons, warmer breezes
Buffet the siding; bursts of summer
Toy with the longings of tinier lives.
Like thick, wet sand thrown in a bucket,
Clumps of ladybirds cling to the screens.
Stinkbugs teeter on the tabletop ledge.
Pendulous wasps whirl round the gutters
And sputter to buttress their barrows of dust.
Flung from the treetops yet fixed on one point,
The living sticks look for parallels
On brown-edged doors. Where a dead one falls,
Another mounts it. We have no way to ask
If it mates in obtuseness, or mourns it and knows.

We could rue a month of mottled flesh,
Dolorous blisters, a daybreak stumble
And strange, sharp cries on the stairway landing.
A luckless toad, twisted and gnawed,
Sprawls at the threshold; the thing that brought it
Took back the offering, all but a pulp
Of mangled sacrum and sawtooth legs.
But in the midst of all endings, past immense fallows
And ashen fields, we find a place
Of open hope: the whole country
Is green, flashing with the flickering wisps
Of saplings pinned in perfect rows,
Like stunted pillars in the plan of an abbey
Too sacred to build, or a burgeoning corps
Of unshakable saints. We saw them gather
First with a sense of unsettling grace
And then with laughter, relieved and free.
When we returned to collect the lonely bones
That fell at our door, we found only
A puddle of rain. They had raised their own weight
On fleshless legs and loped away.

In the sky, soot-winged scavengers wheel
And leer like imps. Let them grovel;
The corpses we plant in these perishing weeks
Will bloom into gardens. What they grow to become
Is no more clear than the question we pose
To waiting children—“and what are you
Supposed to be?”—but the purpose now
Is to give no heed to the grave temptation
Of the second month, to summon the phantoms
Of forgotten times and pretend they were dying
To see how you’ve done. Save the prayer;
They vex us anyway all through the year.
Turn them backward with taproots gouged
Into shameless grins; let grisly lanterns
Reflect a life of lighter spirits
And look past the woods: love provided
A ghost in the window to guide you home.

“But just saying it could even make it happen…”

[This is the second part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. I’m posting it as I write it, in monthly installments; start by reading the prologue here. To read all posts in this series, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

SEPTEMBER

An ancient shadow found shelter with us.
The gray constellation, the Laden Stranger,
Returns for a month to familiar havens,
But none of his fellowship knew him like this:
Where he strained to draw form out of five scattered stars,
Order emerges, moons convulse,
And ninth reigns first. We never discern
The load he shoulders, misshaping his frame,
Where city lights blind us to burden and toil.
Set free, he explodes into forty-four stars:
With half-read books in hand, he rises
Over the barns on the eastern slope
To delight in his work, tracing lines in the sky,
Turning word-weary stars into stories again.
In solemn triumph, he sinks in the west,
Spent but restless, and rouses the dawn.
In the chamber they share, she chooses rods
Engraved with verses to give to the wisps
That gather and whirl like gangly students
In the gorgeous blur before bells ring out
And the world shudders, awake and churning
And sopping and hot. Haloed spiders
Enshrined in the windows wait and say grace.

The rest of us waited in ways of our own.
When I was five, I often slept
With my face to the wall. One cold morning
A curtain stirred; I still wonder
If I kindled the hurricane that howled around me
Or the whisper whipped through when the winds reared up,
But something knew me. No sigh of judgment,
No clap of warning, no wilting rebuke,
Just a maelstrom shot through a mote in the air
For a pure second: it said my name.
I woke from the verge to a vision of nobody
Pinned in the air, an awful peace
Behind bright nothingness. That night, and afterwards,
I traded solace for sullen hope
And slept fitfully, facing the window.

Today my windows are wicked with life.
Motes gulp down motes; mounds of webbing
Mean ripening life, or life-giving death,
And worrying ends. Once I accepted
A world reborn just weeks before,
A mantis on the deck-railing deigned to see me.
Abdomen-up, like an emeraldine wick
He beamed, at ease in the open, and preened,
Boldly asserting his safety and faith.
A glutton for grace, I regarded his hindwings
With mean ambition and bowed to esteem him,
But he knew my mind, and made it plain.

“You are not here,” he huffed, “to verify,
To instruct yourself”—he stretched a stern
And spindly femur—“or inform curiosity
Or carry report.” Discouraged, I blinked:
Am I here to kneel? “No,” he grumbled,
“Just put your words in proper order.”
Again? For what purpose? He gazed into space
And ripped the gears from a wriggling stinkbug;
It twitched and sparked. I turned away
To face the page on the first full day
Of a blank calendar, cautious and lost.

For a few parched weeks, the world just gasps
As fields tilt skyward and flare with the hope
Of perpetual dawn. This deluge of flowers,
Blinding and wild, is a bitter mirage.
Stop at the furrows; stoop in the dirt
Where the sun has only seared to bursting
The glutted soy, turned golden in ruin.
On the path, a stranger approaches at dusk,
But look how his shadow looms from behind you,
And hear how he walks in wary silence
While his footfalls go echoing east through the trees.
And when you light his way, a line of saplings
Detonates—they sprout dappled sinews
And bolt through the gloom. Baffling reality
Mocks your delusions; to live in the woods
Is more than arranging a ring of trees
And retreating to feed the fire inside.
Your language has verses for lulling to sleep
But it lacks a word for a wake-up song;
Whatever you’re certain won’t sing to you now
Waits to be witness to one formal act:
Recite the things you see and hear
Freely, even if others brand it
Daft enchantment or a children’s song,
And start simple. The sense can wait:
“She swept the ash from the iron grate…”
“Sage and parsley in pots left behind…”
“Three white horses on a hillside farm…”

“Silken mist outside the window, frogs and newts slip in the dark…”

[A few weeks ago, after more than 20 years in Washington, D.C., I picked up and moved to a quiet, rural corner of Maryland. I’d just finished learning about medieval calendar poems while translating an under-studied example of this little-read genre, so I thought: why not document my time in the country with a similar work of my own? Twelve times in the next year, between other posts about books and medievalism, I’ll sum up the month that was—starting, in the meantime, with a praefatio. To read all posts in this series, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

PROLOGUE

Cold constellations, labors, and crops,
Weathered omens and wind-bitten names—
Whatever they measured, the meter and rhyme
Of living seasons had ceased for me.
Hunched and sagging, like half an arch
Fated to hang in a freezing ruin,
Aching to fall, I almost forgot
That an arch made whole is half a wheel,
And wheels can turn. I took and read
An old calendar in careful Latin,
And before my fluency fluttered away
As tiny bats tumble from the eaves
In sheer silence, I sat with a monk
Whose furrowed words I enwound with my own.
The remarkable grace of mediaeval poets
Is to make you wonder what more could be true.
The city said not to—so somewhere between
The sigh explicit and a sincere amen,
I slumped at last, and slipped away.

I never knew the names of the stars.
They no longer mattered; nothing prevailed
For fear or entreaty in the frozen sky
But utter, awful, empty space,
And even that fell; forms behind it
Staggered forward: stoop-necked vultures
Caroled their wake for a crumpled doe.
“In this blood and muscle, all manner of thing
Shall be well,” they whistled. “Waste is a sin.”
Then they sundered their guts, disgorging as one
A holy flood of hook-backed crickets,
Mold-white toads and mummified bats,
And shrieking moths in shrouds of fire
Swirled from their mouths. As sweet breezes
Inflamed the void, I faced the gulf
And heard, everywhere, exhalation,
The ashen pop of paper wings.
Those fledgling stars burned stranger to me
Than the ones that fell. I wonder now
If I even witnessed an ending at all.

I wandered, amazed, for a while in the dusk
Newly born, toward a house they forbade me to enter.
A line of lanterns lit up the world:
I walked their course through a wood, where I saw
A second house in a sunburst grove.
Blinding cobwebs curtained the path,
And another was there. Not understanding,
I echoed her call as she came to the door:
They made me an offer, and I said yes.

Wohin geht dieser Weg? Wir werden sehen.

“And with this crutch, its old age and its wisdom…”

“It was a pleasant group of roof and bower, of spire and tree to look upon from the city, towards sunset, when every window-pane flung back the lustre of a conflagration; and magnificently did it strike upon the eye of the liegeman as they sat at their doors, at that hour, gazing upon the glorious river and its tranquil banks.”

That’s St. Mary’s, the first capital of Maryland, reimagined more than a century after its demise by John Pendleton Kennedy: popular Whig politician, Secretary of the Navy under Millard Fillmore, friend of Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, and a novelist who never quite found his audience.

Three years ago, I checked out Kennedy’s little-read 1832 novel Swallow Barn, which offers a leisurely visit to an antebellum Virginia plantation sodden with pseudo-chivalry. I was curious to see if his 1838 historical novel, Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe’s, has medieval echoes of its own. It does, faintly—but it also sets the mood for a two-hour drive out of Washington to the wild, quiet end of the St. Mary’s Peninsula. Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony there along the St. Mary’s River between the Potomac and the Chesapeake, and while the original settlement is long gone, you can still explore the lovely Historic St. Mary’s City, a sprawling living-history site that demands more than a day—especially when you’re propelled by a novel that almost no one else living has read.

It’s 1681, and times are tense: Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, Proprietary Governor of the colony of Maryland, stands accused of favoring his fellow Catholics. Protestants insist that atrocities committed by the Piscataway Indians are actually the work of Catholics in disguise, and they’re lobbying the crown to hand over the colony to the Church of England. Drama! Politics! Violence! But Kennedy squanders it all to chase less genteel ghosts: The first third of Rob of the Bowl follows an exploratory mission to the haunted cottage of a murderous fisherman, a hovel of the damned that the locals call the Wizard’s Chapel.

“I would have the inquiry made by men who are not moved by the vulgar love of marvel,” Lord Baltimore declares, putting his faith in a ragtag band—a Dutch musketeer captain, an English innkeeper, a Flemish woodsman, and a taciturn Native American—who set off on an adventure right out of a 1980s Dungeons & Dragons module. An Episcopalian who admired his Catholic forebears, Kennedy was opposed to slavery, helped repeal an anti-Jewish law, and supported Irish Catholic immigrants; the Wizard’s Chapel story is his explicit memorial to Marylanders’ historic enthusiasm for coexistence and cooperation.

But with that out of the way, most of Rob of the Bowl is indulgent romance. Captain Cocklescraft—a crass pirate fostered by Captain Morgan himself—challenges Albert Verheyden, the chivalrous, lute-playing secretary of Lord Baltimore, for the affections of Blanche, the daughter of the local customs official. On page after page, the wilds of St. Mary’s ring with the revels of traders, wenches, cavaliers, and rogues, including the title character, Rob Swales, a mysterious amputee who slides across sandy beaches in a large bowl strapped to the remnants of his legs. In 17th-century Maryland, it’s still the Middle Ages: the locals celebrate their patron saints’ holidays, hold a tournament, clutch relics, and reminisce about visiting Old World shrines. Unfortunately, the weird characters aren’t very rich, the likeable characters don’t feel seriously imperiled, and fateful tensions between Catholics and Protestants await a sequel Kennedy never wrote. Rob of the Bowl is a stroll through a living-history museum, one that’s full of welcoming souls who want to edify and amuse you, but the plot they abide in is frozen in time.

Working hard to immerse 19th-century readers in the late 17th century, Kennedy opens each chapter with snippets of verse from the 17th and 18th centuries, and he forces his characters to use period language (including my favorite Elizabethan exclamation: “ads heartlikens!”). At one point, a Dutch doctor at Lord Baltimore’s court speaks in a meticulously rendered accent—”Vell, vell, dere is noding lost by peing acquanted at once wid de people of de house”—on and off for sixteen tedious pages, only to be superseded by his even less comprehensible assistant: “Goot beoplish! dish is de drice renowned and ingomprbl Doctor.” I laughed; hopefully Kennedy meant me to.

If parts of Rob of the Bowl now come off as sillier than the responsible, civic-minded Kennedy deserves, it’s partly the fault of our age; Kennedy has written an unapologetically earnest book packed with sincere observations. Here’s his narrator explaining one character’s quick turn toward penitence:

When age and satiety have destroyed the sense of worldly pleasure, the soul finds a nourishment in the consolations of religion, to which it flies with but slight persuasion; and however volatile and self-dependent youth may deride it, the aged are faithful witnesses to the truth, that in the Christian faith there is a spell to restore the green to the withered vegetation of the heart, even as the latter rain renovates the pastures of autumn.

And here’s Albert, smitten by Maryland:

With my own free will I should never leave this sunny land. These woods are richer to my eye than pent-up cities; these spreading oaks and stately poplars, than our groined and shafted cathedrals and our cloistered aisles: yes, and I more love to think of the free range of this woodland life, these forest-fed deer, and flight of flocking wild fowl, than all the busy assembling of careful men which throng the great marts of trade.

Rob of the Bowl didn’t sell well, but the novel is a heartfelt tribute to old-timey Maryland, and its jumble of romantic tropes includes a concession to life’s transience:

They are gone! Like shadows have these men of might sunk on the earth. They, their game, their wigwams, their monuments, their primeval forests,—yea, even their graves, have flitted away in this spectral flight. Saxon and Norman, bluff Briton and heavy Suabian inherit the land. And in its turn, well-a-day! our pragmatical little city hath departed. Not all its infant glory, nor its manhood’s bustle, its walls, gardens and bowers,—its warm housekeeping, its gossiping burgers, its politics and its factions,—not even its prolific dames and gamesome urchins could keep it in the upper air until this our day. Alas, for the vaulting pride of the village, the vain glory of the city, and the metropolitan boast! St. Mary’s hath sunk to the level of Tyre and Sidon, Balbec and Palmyra! She hath become trackless, tokenless.

I have wandered over the blank field where she sank down to rest. It was a book whose characters I could scarce decipher.

Reading John Pendleton Kennedy today is more poignant than I’d expected. Oh, the book isn’t good, but its author’s peculiar giddiness humanizes every page: his face in shadow, beaming in the lamplight as he dreams up a bygone world and then conjures a cabinet of Toby Mug characters to inhabit it. He dearly wants to make 17th-century Maryland real, to raise old St. Mary’s from its grave, to remind us that those who came before us drank, fought, laughed, prayed, and loved. I came away believing only that the obscure author himself did all of those things—but when even whole cities can crumble and rot, that’s a relic well-found after 200 years.


(Partially rebuilt chimney bases of the Leonard Calvert House, Historic St. Mary’s)

“Safe were the folk words of truth would upset…”

Baltimore is a rewarding place to hunt for traces of the Middle Ages, from the extensive collection at the Walters Art Museum to the ersatz medievalism of the Bromo-Seltzer Tower —but a few weeks ago, in a redeveloped circle where the Inner Harbor meets Fells Point, I was struck by a column of burning knights.

Conquistadors? Crusaders? No—they represent something far more serious than I’d expected to find alongside J. Crew, Starbucks, and Haagen-Dazs.

That’s the National Katyn Memorial, designed by sculptor Andrzej Pitynski and dedicated in 2000. It reminds the world that in 1939 and 1940, the Soviets massacred thousands of Polish military officers, most of them reservists—teachers, doctors, priests, rabbis, lawyers, and civil servants who resisted Stalinist indoctrination in prison camps. For decades, the Soviet secret police tried to cover up the slaughter.

Putin’s Olympics are a fitting time to remember the Katyn massacre. You can learn more about it at the National Katyn Memorial website, the National Archives, and the PBS website—but what makes this memorial a suitable subject for this blog is its medievalism.

According to the plaque beneath the sculpture, the 44-foot flame symbolically “envelops the Katyn martyrs . . . and raises them spiritually into the pantheon of national heroes of Poland.” Three Polish officers (including the only known female victim) burn at the base, while other bound victims writhe higher up.

Throughout the flames stand the souls of medieval knights.

On the right is Boleslaw the Brave, the first crowned king of Poland, born in the year 967. Alongside him is Zawisza the Black, the 15th-century knight who died trying to keep the Ottoman Turks out of the Balkans. Elsewhere, you’ll find King Wladyslaw III, who also died fighting the Turks in 1444, plus a few more recent heroes: Jan Sobieski, Kasimir Pulaski, and Tadeusz Kosciuszko.

The Katyn Memorial is sobering, but at 44 feet high, it also conveys heroic permanence. We now expect atrocities to be memorialized through grim slabs of black marble with no features other than the names of strangers, but here, recognizable human figures united by defiant nationhood illustrate an ongoing story of human evil purified by the fires of patriotism.

When medievalism flares in central and eastern Europe, it’s rarely charming: Ossetian separatism, Kyrgyzstani terrorism, Serbian nationalism, royal Ukrainian saints who buried their enemies alive—the list goes on, and it’s not confined to the largely benign medievalism that thrives in the United States.

It’s an old story in Europe: Leaders rally their restless tribes by exploiting their medieval roots. What’s happening in Baltimore is more typical of the way America tempers medievalism: The worst burns away, leaving the laudable goal of simple remembrance.