Archive for ‘literature’


“I can’t get unwound, why do I throw myself into the night…”

Poets pray for remembrance on the pages of an anthology—but whenever I saw Fenton Johnson’s poems in collections of African American verse, the selections were too limited for me to get a real sense of him. Fond of forgotten writers, I tracked down more of Johnson’s work to find out who he was and what he had hoped to become. My search only brought me back to his most anthologized poem, which takes on new meaning amid echoing debates about the medieval-ness of all things American.

The son of a wealthy Chicago family, Johnson earned a degree from the University of Chicago and studied at the Columbia School of Journalism. By 1913 he had self-published his first volume of poetry. Early on, he favored short, formal lyrics packed with medieval and classical references alongside Dunbar-esque dialect poems; later, he experimented (more successfully, I think) with free verse. Known to other modernists, he gathered several character sketches under the title “African Nights” and saw them published in Others for 1919: An Anthology of the New Verse.

The best of these later, more mature pieces combine the concision of poetry with a deadpan aversion to meter that keeps whimsy and sentimentality at bay. As a writer bobbing in the wake of medievalism, I particularly like this poem from “African Nights”:

The Banjo Player

There is music in me, the music of a peasant people.
I wander through the levee, picking my banjo and singing my
     songs of the cabin and the field. At the Last Chance Saloon
     I am as welcome as the violets in March; there is always
     food and drink for me there, and the dimes of those who
     love honest music. Behind the railroad tracks the little
     children clap their hands and love me as they love Kris
     Kringle.
But I fear that I am a failure. Last night a woman called me a
     troubadour.
What is a troubadour?

The editor of The Portable Harlem Renaissance Reader called this poem “simply ironic mischief.” Yes, an educated poet is enjoying a chuckle at the expense of an unsophisticated musician who is good at what he does but has never wondered for a moment what he is. But there’s quite a bit more to the poem than that.

The banjo player moves so naturally through his own life that he never says whether the people who love his music are white or black, as if he doesn’t imagine that the details might matter. The race of the woman who calls him a troubadour is less consequential than the word itself, which baffles and frustrates him. Is she a white woman who finds him charming and associates him with primitivism and archaism, or is she a black woman, perhaps an aesthete or would-be patron, who hopes to elevate a purveyor of folkways by using European terms? For the banjo player, pondering these complications could lead to troubling realizations about the world.

Johnson’s poem raises a larger question that gnawed at him, one that also occupied the poets and artists of the Harlem Renaissance: What relationship do African Americans have with European-derived civilization, and vice versa? There are also questions here for critics and scholars: Does too much thinking about form and taxonomy take all the fun out of art? Compared to audiences who react to his music with joy, is the woman who responds cerebrally missing the point?

The banjo player’s confusion over the word “troubadour” reminded me of the movement in medieval studies to promote a “global Middle Ages.” While I think it’s smart for medievalists to look beyond Europe, which hardly had impervious or easily defined boundaries back then, I find it odd that people in a field with bowstring sensitivity to the legacy of colonialism would talk about “medieval” Africa and “medieval” Asia, as if terms that mark the European timeline are an easy fit on other continents. (Alas, the promo copy on the back of my Charlemagne book refers to “medieval Baghdad.” Can’t win ’em all.) Likewise, a black American man who plays the banjo, an African-derived instrument, is not a medieval troubadour, even though the two are obvious artistic kindred. Is the woman failing to see the banjo player and his traditions on their own terms? If so, then what is she, despite her attempt at a compliment, not seeing?

In the 1922 edition of The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson noted only that Fenton Johnson “is a young poet of the ultra-modern school who gives promise of greater work than he has yet done.” In a later edition in the early 1930s, he honed his critique, describing how Fenton Johnson had

disregarded the accepted poetic forms, subjects, and language, adopted free verse, and in that formless form wrote poetry in which he voiced the disillusionment and bitterness of feeling the Negro race was then experiencing. In some of this poetry he went further than protests against wrong or the moral challenges that the wronged can always fling against the wrongdoer; he sounded the note of fatalistic despair. It was his poetry written in this key that brought him recognition. The central idea of this poetry was startling. Doubtless its effect was in some degree due to the fact that it was an idea so foreign to any philosophy of life the Negro in America had ever preached or practiced. Fenton Johnson is the only Negro poet who has ever sounded this precise note.

Nine decades later, it’s no longer true that Fenton Johnson alone among African American writers gave voice to despair, but James Weldon Johnson makes his poems sound like a dead end. They’re not. Time has offered them new life and fresh possibility, especially if we give them room to be personal reflections rather than only pronouncements about race.

Read “The Banjo Player” again, and note how the wandering musician defines success as pleasing other people. Sure, that can be a metaphor for African American experiences, but it’s also a sigh of frustration from a poet who never achieved major success and eventually stopped writing for publication. “It seemed to me like trying to walk the Atlantic ocean to obtain recognition in the literary world and especially when one was attempting to present the life of the race to which I belong,” Johnson lamented in 1920 after writing three books of poetry, publishing a doomed magazine of his own work under different pen names, and founding a largely imaginary movement for racial reconciliation. He would soon sell five poems to Poetry magazine, but his pessimism was prescient. “I know that my dream of success in literature is fading,” he confessed, “because every story I have ever offered a standard magazine has returned to my desk.”

Who are we if no one pays heed to our work? Fenton Johnson knew: Writers and artists dread the exhaustion of misunderstanding and hate the ache of indifference, no matter where or when they lived, regardless of what you believe you should call them.


Left: Vielle players and a citoler player from the Cantigas de Santa Maria, c.1280. Right: detail from Henry Ossawa Tanner, “The Banjo Lesson,” 1893.

“Quand tu vois ton bateau partir…”

I’ve known the writing of Cynthia Haven for ages; she’s a literary blogger at Stanford, an expert on dissident Eastern European poets, and now the biographer of French literary critic and philosopher René Girard. Cynthia has been kind to me over the years, boosting my poetic follies and helping me track down scholarly sources behind the scenes, so I’m already inclined to support her work—but after reading an excerpt of her new book, Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, I’m struck by how accessibly she writes about philosophical abstractions, and how sensitive she is to the tendency of human institutions to muffle or restrict truly free inquiry:

“I’ve said this for years: in the global sense, the best analogy for what René Girard represents in anthropology and sociology is Schliemann,” said the French theorist’s Stanford colleague, Robert Pogue Harrison. “Like him, his major discovery was excoriated for using the wrong methods. The others never would have found Troy by looking at the literature—it was beyond their imagination.” Girard’s writings hold revelations that are even more important, however: they describe the roots of the violence that destroyed Troy and other empires throughout time.

Like Schliemann, the French academician trusted literature as the repository of truth, and as an accurate reflection of what actually happened. Harrison told me that Girard’s loyalty was not to a narrow academic discipline, but rather to a continuing human truth: “Academic disciplines are more committed to methodology than truth. René, like Schliemann, had no training in anthropology. From the discipline’s point of view, that is ruthlessly undisciplined. He’s still not forgiven.”

I have appreciated Harrison’s analogy, though some of Girard’s other friends will no doubt rush to his defense, given Schliemann’s scandalous character—but Girard scandalized people, too: many academics grind their teeth at some of Girard’s more ex cathedra pronouncements (though surely a few other modern French thinkers were just as apodictic). He never received the recognition he merited on this side of the Atlantic, even though he is one of America’s very few immortels of the Académie Française.

I was once daunted by the numerous checkpoints that stand between academic disciplines in the humanities, and amused by how much talk of dismantling them is mere air. Girard just clambered over them:

For Girard, however, literature is more than a record of historical truth, it is the archive of self-knowledge. Girard’s public life began in literary theory and criticism, with the study of authors whose protagonists embraced self-renunciation and self-transcendence. Eventually, his scholarship crossed into the fields of anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy, psychology, theology. Girard’s thinking, including his textual analysis, offers a sweeping reading of human nature, human history, and human destiny.

Cynthia goes on to say that Girard “overturned three widespread assumptions about the nature of desire and violence.” You can click through to her blog post to find out what they are, but if you’re fond of scholars who gleefully veer not just into neighboring lanes but across entire freeways of thought, René Girard may be for you—and if so, Cynthia’s new book awaits you.

“The Deadheads got their Jerry, and mom’s got her Barry…”

I’m rarely in sync with the squeaking styrofoam cogs of the news cycle, but sometimes a story turns my head, and I can write about it even after several weeks because it fits a pattern I halfway wish I hadn’t noticed.

Transport us, O muse of blogging, to England, where at the end of last month, the Manchester Art Gallery removed a painting that apparently troubled almost nobody but museum staff:

It is a painting that shows pubescent, naked nymphs tempting a handsome young man to his doom, but is it an erotic Victorian fantasy too far, and one which, in the current climate, is unsuitable and offensive to modern audiences?

Manchester Art Gallery has asked the question after removing John William Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, one of the most recognisable of the pre-Raphaelite paintings, from its walls. Postcards of the painting will be removed from sale in the shop.

The painting was taken down on Friday and replaced with a notice explaining that a temporary space had been left “to prompt conversations about how we display and interpret artworks in Manchester’s public collection.” Members of the public have stuck Post-it notes around the notice giving their reaction.

[. . . ]

[Curator of contemporary art] Gannaway said the removal was not about censorship.

[ . . . ]

Waterhouse is one of the best-known pre-Raphaelites, whose Lady of Shalott is one of Tate Britain’s bestselling postcards, but some of his paintings leave people uncomfortable . . .

We can’t have art making generically identified “people” uncomfortable, now can we?

This story ripened and rotted fast. After seven days of ridicule, the museum put the painting back on the wall and continued to claim that the removal itself was itself an artistic act to accompany a new exhibition. No one explained why that stunt necessitated the disappearance of postcard replicas from the gift shop.

Four days later, I read that concerns about discomfort prompted a major change to the high-school English curriculum in Duluth:

A Minnesota school district is removing To Kill a Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn from its required reading list because they contain racial slurs.

[ . . . ]

The decision was praised by the local chapter of the NAACP.

Call me crazy, but a town that’s more than 90 percent white is doing all students a disservice by not demonstrating to them that mature, thoughtful readers of any age can discuss fictional depictions of racism without succumbing to emotional breakdowns.

I wish I hadn’t noted so many similar stories in the past year:

Ten minutes of searching will net you many more such examples, without even considering professors getting fired for asinine comments, the toppling of statues—which, yes, are also works of art—by latter-day iconoclasts, or the policing of jokes between friends of different races in the music world.

It’s an old story, this business of people telling other people what they can read, see, say, make, or know, but one thing has changed since my teenage years. The perpetrators used to be finger-wagging church ladies. They called on TV networks, libraries, schools, stores, and museums to restrict or ban books, music, and art. They received an inordinate amount of deference and press attention while trying to stoke moral panic about comic books, rock music, role-playing games, newspaper cartoons, radio hosts, shows about liberal priests, Satanic corporate logos, or whatever other ungodly cultural mooncalf shambled past their porch. Artists, writers, and other creative souls replied, sensibly, that people who didn’t want to read or see certain things could and should change the channel or skip the museum and let fellow citizens make their own choices.

Back then, threats to wall off artists and writers from the public came from the outside. Now, however, the poles in the art world have flipped. Curators, professors, artists, teachers, readers, and students—the people we once entrusted to protect free expression or expected to defend open access to books, art, and ideas—are starting to do it themselves.

This would be an obvious post with an obvious point, except that our cultural narrative hasn’t caught up to real trends. Mrs. Prudeshrew from Spittoon Falls praying in vain to exorcise Judy Blume from the library stacks is no longer a major threat to literature and art. Scolds, censors, control freaks, and prudes are now policing words and works from within, adopting the traditionally conservative position, anathema to them until recently, that certain books and art are virtuous while others are not, requiring the most enlightened and most orthodox to draw clear lines in the putative interests of everyone else. They’re toying with newfound privileges as censores librorum, empowering themselves to determine which creative works are sufficiently inoffensive to public faith and morals to deserve a nihil obstat.

This is why humans crave power. This is how most of us use it when we get it. None of this ever really changes. The assertions of moral superiority, this impulse to nail down sinners and damn the impure, all show that church ladies can come from anywhere, even with no church in sight. I’ll be watching to see if this timidity and moral preening get worse in literary and artistic circles. I want the doors of secular institutions to stay open to unorthodox, offensive, and literally irreverent ideas, without the precondition of a single profession of faith, while I still have the ghost of a choice.

(Avert your eyes! Waterhouse’s Hylas and the Nymphs, from Wikimedia Commons.)

“…to keep her from the howling winds.”

Last week I attended ninth-grade “gallery night” at our local high school and came away heartened. Asked to create works of art inspired by something they had seen at a nearby museum, sixty kids wrote lucid statements to accompany their exhibits, and they were required to discuss their thinking with adults who put them on the spot. I liked the countercultural lesson: that art isn’t limited to emotional outbursts or mindless spasms of inspiration.

The teacher in my home reinforces the idea in her English classes. She shows the same kids how to scrutinize poems by Whitman and Dunbar so they can map their facets, imitate their forms, and understand that writing and reading are acts of practiced thought. In recent weeks, they’ve also rafted down the river with Huck and Jim, needled the dithering Prufrock, and held vigil in hospital wards with Frederic Henry from A Farewell to Arms. Romanticism, skepticism, generosity, regret, love, loyalty, loss—part of being a kid is growing into oversized gifts, not least among them the realization that your experience, though uniquely your own, has centuries of precedent.

Unfortunately, the worst times in our lives confirm the value of these lessons. I can add nothing but a preface to this unforgettable blog post by scholar and high-school teacher David Salmanson, whose wife died unexpectedly last month:

People keep asking me what they can do for me, and I keep answering that I don’t know yet. People also keep telling me that I seem so composed and that they cannot believe that I can write and think through all of this, but I can. Indeed, I’ve been training my whole life for it, for it’s times like this that the value of a liberal arts education is revealed. Since boyhood, I’ve read and watched Shakespeare and Rostand’s Cyrano and The Bible. I’ve studied history and art and literature. I’ve done science in the labs and in the woods and I’ve stared into the deepest recesses of the universe in the dark of night with astronomers and I’ve stared into the darkest recesses of my own soul with philosophers. So when the unthinkable happened I was ready. I have 10,000 years of human history providing me examples of how to handle myself in the worst times. It’s a handy thing to have on your side.

This, then, is the true purpose of education. We are, again, in one of those moments in history where the liberal arts is under attack for being irrelevant. The calls for job training and “useful” majors is on the rise again.

Majoring in business cannot teach us how to deal with the unthinkable. It may be a path to money, but it will leave you forever poorer.

Friends of the Salmanson family have set up a fund to help with funeral expenses and a memorial scholarship that gives young women the adventure of a month-long hike in the Southwest. If we can’t avert the unthinkable, we can at least respond with condolence and compassion, and we can support opportunities for others to live, listen, and learn. Someday it may help them bear the unthinkable too.

“River, I’ve never seen the sea…”

As the teacher in my household prepares to steer her ninth-graders through tricky literary currents, she’s revisiting The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; I’ve hopped aboard and joined her on the raft. I read Twain’s novel when I was 14, but returning to it more than three decades later has been a revelation. I hadn’t expected to find that the natural focus on slavery and race had obscured Twain’s other related ideas.

I’m probably the last adult reader to notice what makes it such a rich and challenging book: the perfect ease of the narrative voice, the tender passages about life on the river, and the wrenching moments when Huck starts to comprehend Jim’s humanity. And holy crow, Huck Finn is an epic catalog of the deficiencies and absurdities of the antebellum South: family feuds of long-forgotten origin; the poisonous grafting of codes of honor to lawlessness and mob violence; and grifters peddling phrenology, cynical revivalism, and mutilated Shakespeare to yokels who fully deserve to be conned. I can’t be the first person to imagine that the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? owes far more to Huck Finn than to The Odyssey for its episodic mythologizing of Southern culture.

What leaped out at me the most, though, is Twain’s full-on satire of people who take their entertainment way too seriously. I’ve written before about the chapter in Life on the Mississippi where the state capitol in Baton Rouge ignites Twain’s rant about the South’s destructive obsession with the Middle Ages:

Sir Walter Scott is probably responsible for the Capitol building; for it is not conceivable that this little sham castle would ever have been built if he had not run the people mad, a couple of generations ago, with his medieval romances. The South has not yet recovered from the debilitating influence of his books. Admiration of his fantastic heroes and their grotesque “chivalry” doings and romantic juvenilities still survives here, in an atmosphere in which is already perceptible the wholesome and practical nineteenth-century smell of cotton-factories and locomotives; and traces of its inflated language and other windy humbuggeries survive along with it. It is pathetic enough, that a whitewashed castle, with turrets and things—materials all ungenuine within and without, pretending to be what they are not—should ever have been built in this otherwise honorable place; but it is much more pathetic to see this architectural falsehood undergoing restoration and perpetuation in our day, when it would have been so easy to let dynamite finish what a charitable fire began, and then devote this restoration-money to the building of something genuine.

[…]

By itself the imitation castle is doubtless harmless, and well enough; but as a symbol and breeder and sustainer of maudlin Middle-Age romanticism here in the midst of the plainest and sturdiest and infinitely greatest and worthiest of all the centuries the world has seen, it is necessarily a hurtful thing and a mistake.

Twain is sincere in his loathing of romanticism, but in Life on the Mississippi he’s too blunt and unfunny about it to sound like anything but a crank. In Huck Finn, published two years later, he more effectively vents his ire through the excesses of Tom Sawyer, whose mania for tales of adventure tests the patience of his more practical friend:

We played robber now and then about a month, and then I resigned. All the boys did. We hadn’t robbed nobody, hadn’t killed any people, but only just pretended. We used to hop out of the woods and go charging down on hog-drivers and women in carts taking garden stuff to market, but we never hived any of them. Tom Sawyer called the hogs “ingots,” and he called the turnips and stuff “julery,” and we would go to the cave and powwow over what we had done, and how many people we had killed and marked. But I couldn’t see no profit in it.

One time Tom sent a boy to run about town with a blazing stick, which he called a slogan (which was the sign for the Gang to get together), and then he said he had got secret news by his spies that next day a whole parcel of Spanish merchants and rich A-rabs was going to camp in Cave Hollow with two hundred elephants, and six hundred camels, and over a thousand “sumter” mules, all loaded down with di’monds, and they didn’t have only a guard of four hundred soldiers, and so we would lay in ambuscade, as he called it, and kill the lot and scoop the things. He said we must slick up our swords and guns, and get ready.  He never could go after even a turnip-cart but he must have the swords and guns all scoured up for it, though they was only lath and broomsticks, and you might scour at them till you rotted, and then they warn’t worth a mouthful of ashes more than what they was before. I didn’t believe we could lick such a crowd of Spaniards and A-rabs, but I wanted to see the camels and elephants, so I was on hand next day, Saturday, in the ambuscade; and when we got the word we rushed out of the woods and down the hill. But there warn’t no Spaniards and A-rabs, and there warn’t no camels nor no elephants. It warn’t anything but a Sunday-school picnic, and only a primer-class at that. We busted it up, and chased the children up the hollow; but we never got anything but some doughnuts and jam, though Ben Rogers got a rag doll, and Jo Harper got a hymn-book and a tract; and then the teacher charged in, and made us drop everything and cut.

I didn’t see no di’monds, and I told Tom Sawyer so. He said there was loads of them there, anyway; and he said there was A-rabs there, too, and elephants and things. I said, why couldn’t we see them, then?  He said if I warn’t so ignorant, but had read a book called Don Quixote, I would know without asking. He said it was all done by enchantment. He said there was hundreds of soldiers there, and elephants and treasure, and so on, but we had enemies which he called magicians; and they had turned the whole thing into an infant Sunday-school, just out of spite. I said, all right; then the thing for us to do was to go for the magicians. Tom Sawyer said I was a numskull.

Huck and Tom argue about wizards and genies, and Huck decides to test his friend’s claims. It’s one of many times when he tries on the world-views of others as he struggles to work out his own:

I thought all this over for two or three days, and then I reckoned I would see if there was anything in it. I got an old tin lamp and an iron ring, and went out in the woods and rubbed and rubbed till I sweat like an Injun, calculating to build a palace and sell it; but it warn’t no use, none of the genies come. So then I judged that all that stuff was only just one of Tom Sawyer’s lies. I reckoned he believed in the A-rabs and the elephants, but as for me I think different. It had all the marks of a Sunday-school.

Of course—spoiler alert for time-traveling readers from the 1880s—Tom Sawyer plays a huge role in the climax of Huck Finn when he agrees to help free Jim from imprisonment in a shack. Tom and Huck could easily break him out in a moment, but the liberation has to happen on Tom’s convoluted terms. Day after day, Tom draws out Jim’s captivity by insisting on all the elaborate trappings of a swashbuckling adventure novel: a secret tunnel, a coat of arms, snakes and rats, a rope ladder baked in a pie—there’s even talk of sawing off Jim’s leg even though he could free himself from his chain simply by lifting the leg of his bed.

Many readers find the whole episode tedious and cruel, but the cruelty is the point. It would be easy to see the better-educated, middle-class Tom Sawyer as a lovable scamp who just wants others to share his bookish whims, but in Huck Finn he embodies a trend that Twain found troubling: the triumph of fantasy over reason and reality. Whatever the character meant to him elsewhere, Tom Sawyer is a figure of dangerous foolishness here. Wouldn’t Twain glower disapprovingly at the emergence of fandoms so all-encompassing that they inspire cosplay, cultural squabbling, and vicarious reinterpretations of history? He might have said that what our geeky age has wrought from harmless escapism will someday prove harmful to people who won’t play along. I guess we’ll see.

Jim is held captive for far longer than he needs to be because of storybook romanticism. You could see the whole Civil War in that, if you want.

“And everything under the sun is in tune…”

We hardly need any more books in our house. They’re shelved in the guest room, stacked in the bathroom, tucked under tables, and stowed in my trunk. I try to discourage people from sending me books, even if they look pretty good; my backlog is immense. But last spring, when a stranger from Pittsburgh contacted me to tell me about the epic he’d written, I almost filed away his email without replying, yet something about his good-natured mix of modesty and erudition told me to give him a more thorough look. I’m glad I did; Tim Miller has joined a select group of quirky poets who feel called to contend with a neglected form, the book-length narrative poem, and what he does with it is brilliant.

To the House of the Sun is no dainty chapbook; it’s 33 books long, a 600-page tome illustrated with woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer and annotated to the hilt. On the surface, it’s the story of Conrad, a young Irish man in Savannah during the Civil War who wanders north, in love with a ghost, losing himself in a quest for personal vengeance but finding peace and wisdom beyond his imagining. To say more about Conrad’s involvement in the war, the famous figures he encounters, and where his quest really takes him would spoil the strange, sprawling plot. But like other poems in the epic tradition, Tim Miller’s book is about more than its narrative. Its diction and tone help tell a richer and more universal story, one that begins with vivid purpose:

In the second year of our War:
in the fourth month:
on the twelfth day of the month,
as I stood on the sands of Savannah facing the sea,
a voice breathed into me—
    & my song ascended to be sung:
        my poem came down from its own mouth:
    & these new words were my life:

& before the end, I wound my way around the mountains: I found my way to the hidden road, where the sun rises: & I created for us all a dwelling out of danger, here & in heaven, & the underworld:

& here, I will write & inscribe & show:
here, I will make a place to see it,
    the Book & the Day:
here, I will make a place to watch,
    the light beside the sea:
here, I will make the ground to know,
    of a place in the shadows:
here, I will make a place to live in the dawn:
here, I will bring a voice back
    that will stand us all upright:
    make us all unbroken by grief:
    unstricken by cares—
    that will raise up low spirits:

& she was the beginning & the end of my song,
& my stand on the shore.

To the House of the Sun evokes millennia of faith, storytelling, and scholarship simply by committing to its orthography: from its first lines, it looks like the typed-up notes of a young scholar seized by inspiration as he transcribes and translates a cryptic inscription. Look closer, though, to see the designs of a careful poet: these lines mark where the singer’s words intersect time; alliteration evokes a sense of place (“the sands of Savannah facing the sea”); and psalmic repetition gives them incantatory power, affirming poetry’s roots in enchantment. This could be Gilgamesh, King David, or Hildegard of Bingen, and Miller honors that ageless mysticism here. To the House of the Sun sounds and feels like an ancient text, layered with fragments of sources and traditions, a pastiche that takes familiar poems and scriptures and stories and weaves them into something inspiring and fresh.

I don’t know how else to give a sense of To the House of the Sun but to share a few representative passages. Here’s a slave describing how he stole children’s copybooks and taught himself to read:

& when I didn’t have one I looked at the board fence:
I looked at the brick wall:
I looked at the sides of carriages:
I looked at the storefront windows,
all covered with words to unlock:

& my family are long gone from here, so I’ve never feared getting sold away from anybody. & words were all I had—and as long as I could smile as we passed from Corinth to Athens & know what those names meant, they couldn’t take a thing from me. & that’s real freedom: that’s more freedom than jumping up North where all they want is to send me back to Africa. I’d rather take a beating down here than their pity & a boat fare, up there:

    when a freed black man can walk a Southern street &
      whistle at a white woman & not be
        hanged or cut up or beaten
        or weighed down with stones & thrown in a river—
      & when a freed black man can walk a Northern
street without being accused of taking every white man’s job—
      & when the President himself doesn’t assume living among us is impossible—
That’s when it’ll get so much better. Until then we’ll always be an object to you people—& my own mind is enough in the meantime.

[ . . . ]

I recognize the starts in the sky, & that’s a privilege the wealthy can’t own. Do what you can not to be owned, is all.

Here’s a battlefield chaplain, telling his story:

I was walking through a hospital when a man came yelling after me: & he tells me what he’d been through: & I went off to the edge of the woods with him: & I sat on a cracker-box, & heard his confession—& he jumps up after & yells Oh Father, I feel so light!

& not to tell you what he confessed, but what others did too, that they’ve been godless for years—they’ve wandered & done what men do, even while married: & it’s this War that gave them their God back: this War, & the distance from their wives & families, that showed how much they depended on both—or not, showing sometimes how little love they know anymore.

And here’s one of many agonized stories from the wounded and dead:

    & there was the one with the violets:
    & his ribs & insides were just sitting out:
    & he looks at me all embarrassed,
    & he starts babbling about some girl:

& we were good friends, but I never knew about this girl: & it hurt him so much, this secret: & I hate to think of her back home, hearing he’s dead, & having no one to talk to about it, forever. & she’ll keep the pain, for sure—it won’t ever go away.

Clearly this isn’t the Civil War of TV movies or weekend reenactors or even poignant Ken Burns fiddle-whispers. What Conrad sees is overwhelming: Miller wants to humble you with the unfathomable number of lives affected by the war. There are so many stories here—sometimes rendered in just a few words or a handful of lines—about tortured black men, murdered prisoners, doomed soldiers seeking solace in prostitutes, mothers in mourning, baffled ghosts, even a priest who can summon water from the earth. For all I know, Miller’s approach may be unprecedented in Civil War fiction. There are no stock characters or cartoon souls; everyone gets a distinctive few lines, a defining moment, an acknowledgement of their fleeting humanity set against the infinite. In that sense, To the House of the Sun is a work of literary realism. It’s as if Miller means to challenge Walt Whitman’s insistence in the 101st chapter of Specimen Days:

Such was the war. It was not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its interior history will not only never be written—its practicality, minutiæ of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested. The actual soldier of 1862–’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written—perhaps must not and should not be.

Sharing Whitman’s desire to see the war clearly and in all its complex ugliness, Miller imagines futures beyond Whitman’s ken, with the privilege of hindsight:

How will any of us talk of this War when it’s over? Should the North win, will a man in Pennsylvania really feel so much pride, when going down to Virginia—or will a Virginian really feel satisfaction when walking Northern streets, should the South win?

That’s how it is now—
how it has to be now, for the newspapers & the public:
they’ve got to make generals divine & their soldiers into heroes:
    & the dates of the battles:
    & the ground:
    & how the weather was—these things matter now—
but will they in the future: will we only focus on the understandable bitterness of our mother’s brother & our father’s uncle & our family’s old hometown—or will we find something better to do with all the memories; & will we rise somewhere in the air, where we can forget ourselves, finally:
    & forget what our families did:
    & forget what was done to them,
    & instead see them all as God might, forgiven?
Or will the making of peace be like moving two mountains, for these people?

To the House of the Sun soberly acknowledges the vastness of history: the brother of Conrad’s friend “was not wounded so a black man might be freed: & the wounded soldier on either side doesn’t die or recover for the sake of a Union only, but for something in the far future we’ll never know.”

As To the House of the Sun progresses, the smoke and blood of the Civil War recede, giving way to a series of dizzying visions, a revelation that blurs Blake, Eliot, the Bhagavad-Gita, Celtic myth, and a whirlwind of mystical traditions into a statement about the place of each of us in the divine. But as trippy and transcendent as his poem can be, Miller doesn’t want it to be obscure. To the House of the Sun is a hefty book, 620 pages in all, but more than 250 of those pages are reference: meticulous notes, lists of sources, and a compelling 20-page defense of his borrowing and adapting from cultural and religious traditions that range from the Bible to Confucianism, from Christian saints’ lives to Arthurian legend. In my notes, I initially wrote “not necessary – why include all this?”, but I get it now. Miller isn’t trying to impress us with his erudition; he wants us to share his inspiration. “In the end, there was no reason not to allow the notes to become a kind of anthology of world literature,” he writes in a candid note, “and I figured that, anyhow, someone put off by a six hundred page poem would not be any more comfortable with a four hundred page poem. The opportunity to do this can happen only once, and it seemed best to do so with both feet on the gas.”

And even though Miller’s poem is full of heartbreak and loss, his Whitmanesque love for creation, his passion for the fine details of every life, are reason for universal hope:

This is the final goal, perhaps an impossible one, that of somehow suggesting a sense of awe for the entire world, for everything we do, for everything we experience, of injecting real meaning (as opposed to mere irony or ego) into everything we do. This is the real reason for all the borrowing—to refer not to a text or some words, but to situations in the human life that are basic, meaningful, and even holy, whether now or thirty-five thousand years ago.

I can’t write a proper review of To the House of the Sun. Dear reader, you already know if you’re inclined to relish a 33-book epic set during the Civil War, inspired by the world’s great religious and literary texts, and offering prophetic glimpses of the divine. I loved it, not only because it’s proudly noncommercial and defies everything that’s trendy right now in entertainment, poetry, and the culture at large, but also because it offers a hard, humane vision that tries to disturb and inspire you into wanting to be better than you are. Reading and writing are not, by themselves, moral acts, and we often ascribe more virtue to them than they deserve, but To the House of the Sun is proof that a lifetime of the right kind of reading really can lead to enlightenment—and sometimes, a genuine act of creation.

[Read more excerpts of To the House of the Sun on the publisher’s website, explore Tim Miller’s blog Word and Silence, and buy the book on Amazon: select new seller “S4N Books” to get an autographed copy from the publisher at half price.]

“Don’t blame the sweet and tender hooligan…”

When the journal Able Muse lands in my mailbox twice a year, I’ve typically torn through the cardboard and gotten to skimming before I’m back inside the house. As usual, the summer 2016 issue rewarded my exertions, opening with a piece that’s as solid as grapeshot in the wall of a clifftop villa: “It’s Time to Talk About Lord Byron Again,” Amit Majmudar’s overview of Byron’s Letters and Journals: A New Selection, published last year by Oxford University Press. Majmudar, a diagnostic and nuclear radiologist who’s also the current (and first) Poet Laureate of Ohio, has penned what’s ostensibly a review essay, but his immersion in the English poetic tradition makes it one heck of an inducement to revisit Byron’s sprawling corpus and his almost pointlessly preposterous life.

The precision that makes Majmudar a good poet lends a special shine to his prose. Here’s one of several passages that share the delight of a satisfied reader where other reviewers would dutifully summarize:

Byron’s Letters have what you find in the letters of few other poets: Tumult. He sought drama, and drama sought him. A future Prime Minister’s wife, jilted, cuts herself for his sake. A few months later, he’s sleeping with his half-sister. White-water torrents, adultery in Italy; gonorrhea, malaria, indigestion. We read of him stripping off his coat and boots to keep Shelley, who was unable to swim, from drowning in a storm (he managed to pull the poet to shore in the end after vigorous bailing). Random gunshots sound a hundred feet from his door, after which he carries a dying policeman into his room to bleed to death. Enough action for one life, perhaps. Only then he sets off to expel the Turks from Greece.

I loved this bit, too:

What with the prolific poetizing, the bisexual vortex of his bed set amid the smells and noises of a small zoo, the international fame, the international infamy, the looks, and the wealth, he must have struck people as a monster of nature, possessing a kind of preternaturally intense life-force.

[. . . ]

The promiscuity at the time did wax operatic, if only opéra bouffe, complete with shouting matches between the weeping cuckold and defiant adulteress, whilst the foreign interloper buttoned his breeches. In 1817, one of Byron’s mistresses moved into his house uninvited and refused to leave, even after her husband, her relatives, the police, and Byron himself begged her to go home. (He ended up employing her as a housekeeper-with-benefits; apparently she performed excellently in both her duties, reducing his daily expenses by half.) To gauge how sordid Byron got in those years, we need only go to the Letters of his neighbor and fellow exile, Percy Bysshe Shelley—who, for all his atheism and his shared contempt for British moral cant, was horrified to hear Byron haggle with Italian parents over the price of their daughter.

Majmudar writes wittily about Byron’s nigh-unbelievable adventures, as a fellow poet should, but he offers the benefit of a different expertise. As a doctor, he can’t help but mention, as few critics could, the modern connection between extreme promiscuity and suicidal depression, and that Byron’s hypersexuality was not atypical of what our age witnesses in a childhood abuse survivor—which, among so much else, he was.

Majmudar’s essay is 13 pages long. I’ve cited the bits that got a laugh out of me, but the rest is both a finer and more concise introduction to Byron than I ever got in college, covering not only his life and his erratic evolution as a poet but also his recent critical standing and international legacy. Apparently his poems translate congenially. Yet there’s one thing this titan of vitality was powerless to do: commend his spirit to the here and now. “We have had no Byronic poet for a few generations now, and we are the duller for it,” Majmudar laments, suggesting that poetry would do well to jog out into the dunes once in a while and shake the solemnity off its paunchy, pasty frame. Byron, he says, reminds us “it is possible for poetry to get written in the downtime between pleasure seeking and politicking, cussing and whoring and seeing (and saving) the world.” More of us can stand to hear this, and I liked that Majmudar embeds his exhortation in an example of what a strong review should be: proof that reading the book is a good, rousing start.

“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.

“In the thunder crash, you’re a thousand minds, within a flash…”

[Poet Christopher Logue died in 2011 without completing his eccentric and riveting adaptation of The Iliad—but as of last week, all of the published volumes plus the new bits he was working on are finally available between one set of covers. Logue was a remarkable storyteller; you can get a sense of knack for using modern poetry to its fullest from this post I wrote in 2011 after seeing a rare staging of part of “War Music” at a tiny theater in New York City.]

For half a century, autodidact and occasional actor Christopher Logue has rallied all the gimmicks of modern poetry to craft a loose, idiomatic version of Homer’s Iliad. “[I]t’s some of the best poetry being written in English today,” wrote Jim Lewis at Slate in 2003, “and it should be read widely and with great pleasure by anyone still interested in the art of verse.” For a few more days, New Yorkers have a rare chance to see Logue’s Homer come to life: With the poet’s approval, director Jim Milton has adapted the first 70 pages, “Kings,” for two actors on a mostly-bare stage. The production, at the Workshop Theater through April 3, is a wild, addictive hour that does remarkable justice to its source.

Literally irreverent, Logue frees himself from the tyranny of the Homeric text through one curious advantage: his ignorance of ancient Greek. Instead, he’s basing his still-unfinished poem on English translations published between 1720 and 1950. His Homer—currently collected in three separate volumes—includes scenes that aren’t in the Iliad; at one point, he cribs a passage from Paradise Lost. Sensitive to the distinction between scholarship and artistry, Logue calls what he’s doing an “account,” not a translation—and if that makes classicists cringe, they’re missing the point.

Known for his gleeful use of anachronism—like his description of Ajax, often cited by reviewers, as “[g]rim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”—Logue deploys evocative modern language to create quick, crisp snapshots. Here’s Agamemnon’s line-up of champions from All Day Permanent Red, a slim volume of battle poetry published in 2003 with a title nicked from a Revlon ad:

Nestor, his evening star.
Ajax, his silent fortress. Good—even on soft sand.
Odysseus (you know him), small but big.
Fourth—grizzled and hook-tap nosed—the king of Crete,
Idomeneo, who:
“Come on!”
Would sign a five-war-contract on the nod.

Logue’s Homer resounds with cries of war, but he also crafts domestic scenes with a deftness that other poets should envy. In “The Husbands,” an exchange between Zeus and a petulant Athena neatly reveals the condescension that defines their relationship:

The armies wait.

“Dearest Pa-pa, the oath said one should die.
The Trojan was about to die. He did not die.
Nobody died. Therefore the oath is dead.
Killed by a Trojan. Therefore Troy goes down.”

Drivers conducting underbody maintenance.

“Father, You must act.
Side with the Trojans, Greece will say,
Were we fools to believe in His thunder?
Why serve a God who will not serve His own?”

And giving her a kiss, He said:

“Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.”

When battle calls, Logue can craft a scene as thrilling as anything in 300, combining heroic deeds with colloquial diction while never undercutting the tone, as in this passage from “Patroclea”:

The air near Ajax was so thick with arrows, that,
As they came, their shanks tickered against each other;
And under them the Trojans swarmed so thick
Ajax outspread his arms, turned his spear flat,
And simply pushed. Yet they came clamouring back until
So many Trojans had a go at him
The iron chaps of Ajax’ helmet slapped his cheeks
To soft red pulp, and his head reached back and forth
Like a clapper inside a bell made out of sword blades.
Maybe, even with no breath left,
Big Ajax might have stood it yet; yet
Big and all as he was, Prince Hector meant to burn that ship:
And God was pleased to let him.

Now either you like this sort of thing or you don’t. I happen to love Logue’s knack for trotting out modern gimmickry not for its own sake, but in the service of narrative— and while Logue finds humor in his ancient source, he never treats Homer like a joke. Both Homer and Logue understand, from different angles, the maddening mindset of warriors. Jim Milton concedes its relevance, too; it’s why his adaptation of “Kings” is so good.

Milton is also lucky to have two nimble actors on his stage. Dana Watkins switches effortlessly between Zeus, Odysseus, Hector, and even a hammy Hephaestus, but he’s at his best as a furious, choked-up Achilles who’s never more than half a slight away from homicide. J. Eric Cook is funny as a shrill Hera and a rash, tipsy Thersites, but he’s also weirdly touching as Thetis, Achilles’ mother. His Agamemnon is unremarkable, but perhaps deliberately so, as Logue’s text renders him a slick politician before his homesick army:

“Thank you, Greece.
As is so often true,
Silence has won the argument.
Achilles speaks as if I found you on a vase.
So leave his stone-age values to the sky.”

Although Cook doesn’t look like a warrior king, he imbues the character with the smiling certainty of a psychopath. Logue’s text helps. As the Trojan Anchises later asks, “Indeed, what sort of king excepting theirs / Would slit his daughter’s throat to start a war?”

Seeing Logue’s Homer performed by two Americans makes clear that the text might be better declaimed by actors with droll British diction; once or twice, Cook and Watkins seemed too busy recalling Logue’s lines to give them their full weight. Still, both actors possess powerful, well-trained voices, and they and the director draw from a deep well of vocal tricks and physical gestures to make this production brilliantly audience-friendly. Before Thursday night’s performance, I heard a couple in front of me whisper that they had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into, but as soon as Watkins and Cook took the stage, they were beguiled. As Logue himself put it, “[i]t was so quiet in Heaven that you could hear / The north wind pluck a chicken in Australia.”

Unfortunately, “Kings” is tantalizingly brief. The show, which clocks in at 75 minutes, ends with howls of war just as the audience is dying to see (even though they know) how it all plays out. I hope the empty seats in the tiny Workshop Theater don’t dissuade director Jim Milton from further adapting Logue. Drearily, the Poetry Foundation can use its $185 million boon to build a $21 million headquarters and publish reams of mediocre verse, but a staging of Logue can’t fill 65 seats in midtown Manhattan. That says less about Logue than it does about the mannered insider-ism of the poetry scene, and Logue himself knows it.

“[N]one of my contemporaries seem to be interested in the things that interest me, such as fast, clear, several-stranded narrative, action, character, violence,” Logue told the Paris Review in 1993. His contemporaries are missing out. If you’re near New York, you have nine days to get to the Workshop Theater, see “Kings,” and hear how poetry sounds with a mouth full of blood.

“Driving ’round the city rings, staring at the shape of things…”

“While contemporary poets tend to sneer at the riddle as a genre, riddles continue to be a guilty pleasure for the public, particularly for millions of lovers of Tolkien and Rowlings,” writes poet A.M. Juster in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, a new translation of the work of a seventh-century abbot and monk who certainly knew better. Committed to shoring up Christianity in Anglo-Saxon realms, Aldhelm composed the Aenigmata, a collection of 100 Latin riddles. Layered in allegory, these deceptively simple poems provided pleasure in their own right but could also kindle profound conversations about the omnipresence of God. As Juster points out, Aldhelm “accomplished something that had not been done before: he lured readers closer to an unfamiliar God with literature infused with warmth, wit, and wonder.” Few non-scholars have read Aldhelm’s riddles, but Juster is eager to bring the Aenigmata to new audiences with what he hopes is a “fair yet fun” translation that “gives nonclassicists a faithful literary version of Aldhelm’s masterpiece that mimics the many joys of this text.”

Juster first tackles Aldhelm’s challenging preface, a preposterous 36-line double acrostic. In the original, the first letters of each line spell out, in Latin, “Aldhelm composed a thousand lines in verse,” while the last letters of each line spell the same message—in reverse. “I duplicated the acrostic,” Juster writes, “but freely admit that duplicating both the acrostic and the telestich [the end-of-line acrostic – J.S.] was too much for my poetic bag of tricks.” Only a jerk could hold this “failure” against him, especially since he offers intriguing theories about why (other than the thrill of the challenge) Aldhelm composed a double acrostic in the first place. Juster suggests that Aldhelm means to out-Irish the Irish, who loved these kinds of linguistic and textual games, while perhaps further tweaking them by satirizing ancient satires, something they lacked the primary sources to do.

These musings, apparently Juster’s own, may open interesting new doors for scholars of Anglo-Saxon verse—but this speculation shouldn’t scare off modern readers who don’t give a fig about academic debates. Juster has a light, lovely touch and a masterful command of tone—both honed, I suspect, by his classical know-how and his commitment to form and lucidity in English verse.

Although Latin hexameters possess a languid dignity that English pentameter can’t quite capture, Juster does a terrific job of paying tribute to Aldhelm’s style. When he can, he echoes the monk’s fondness for alliteration and internal rhyme, and he follows Aldhelm by usually avoiding enjambment—that is, Aldhelm tends to stop each line at its end to form a complete syntactic unit. In one of his few major concessions to the modern ear, Juster adds end-rhyme, a decision I heartily endorse.

Aided by a technically adept translator who cares about creating a good poem in the target language, Aldhelm can still amuse and intrigue readers more than thirteen centuries on. Here’s Riddle 2:

Cernere me nulli possunt prendere palmis;
Argutum vocis crepitum cito pando per orbem.
Viribus horrisonis valeo confringere quercus;
Nam, superos ego pulso polos et rura peragro.

No one can hold me in his palms or sight:
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
Yes, I strike sky and scour countryside.

Juster captures the sense of Aldhelm’s original, but look at what he’s done to polish this gem of his own. He interlaces three dense sets of assonance and rhyme: scatter, clatter, and hammer; no, hold, and oaks; and sight, wide, might, strike, sky, and side. Alliteration between these groups further knits together all four lines: sky, scatter, and scour; mournful and might; and sudden, sight, and side. To appreciate Juster’s artistry, you don’t need to be a poet. You don’t even need to be fluent in English. Recite it; feel how its complex structure rolls off the teeth and tongue with pleasing, elemental ease.

If I wanted a threatening letter from the University of Toronto Press legal team, I’d reprint the two dozen “Juster Aldhelms” I most enjoyed. Two will have to suffice. This one, which is easy to solve, shows off Aldhelm’s ability to combine astrology, etymology, natural history, and perhaps a Biblical allusion:

Dubbed “scorpion” by Romans of the past,
I walk wet beaches of the foaming ocean
And cross the seafloor with a backwards motion,
And yet high Heaven’s decked out when I rise,
Along with twelve red stars, into the skies,
Which makes the oysters, scared of stones, aghast.

Some of Aldhelm’s riddles will baffle modern readers, but those who know a little about ancient scribes may figure out this one:

I got my start from honey-laden bees,
And yet my outside part has grown from trees;
Tough leather made my shoes. An iron spike
Now cuts my gorgeous face and wanders like
A plow that’s carving furrows into rows,
But lays down fruitful seed from Heaven’s field
Where, from vast harvests, countless bounty grows.
Alas, cruel arms destroy the holy yield!

Page after page, lovely little poems enshrine silkworms, serpents, scales, leeches, spices, celestial bodies, bubbles, a pillow, the Minotaur—all of which embody, as Juster convincingly argues, Aldhelm’s “insistent vision that close attention to the mysteries of our pedestrian world can lead us closer to the mysteries of God’s world and God Himself.” Aldhelm’s riddles all have answers, but they stir greater, more challenging questions—especially Riddle 90, a tiny, four-line heartbreaker about a woman giving birth to twins for which there’s no easy answer in any age.

Of course, Juster’s book isn’t just a translation; with its 3:4 ratio of text to endnotes, it’s also one-stop shopping for anyone who wants a fresh introduction to the scholarship on these riddles. Juster is famously fond of light verse, so his endnotes, while perfectly professional, are far from a snooze. In the notes for Riddle 8, he points out that “[t]he word dominam (‘mistress’) suggests here a slaveowner, not a participant in amorous adventures.” When explaining the history of Biblical mistranslation that inspired the legend of the ant-lion, the hybrid spawn of an ant and a lion, Juster fans himself in mock relief that “the mechanics of such unions are, thankfully, unclear.” He calls out one scholar who “savages” these riddles through politicized, hyper-sexualized “forced overreading”; Aldhelm, he insists, composed his unicorn and lighthouse riddles “blissfully unaware of Freudian psychology.” And when Juster suggests that Aldhelm may see the peppercorn as a metaphor for the relationship between the body and the soul, he is content to allow that “[p]erhaps sometimes pepper is just pepper.”

The notes to Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles are rich in obscure lore. Juster brings to light the wonderful belief that goat blood could dull a diamond, and he identifies “what may be the first example in British literature of a joke at the expense of the French.” There’s even a charming bonus poem: Juster’s own translation of “Eucheria’s Impossibilities,” which he bills as “the oldest extant humorous poem in Latin by a woman.” Juster even taught me a new Old English term, the word for a dung beetle, tordwifel—literally, “turd-weevil.” If I were translating the poems of an Anglo-Saxon monk, I’d sure as heck encourage that philological novelty to scuttle through my endnotes pages too.

As a writer and researcher who relies on many books like this one, I could register a complaint or two. I would have liked a more thorough indexing of the terms and proper names that pop up in the notes, and sometimes I wanted more background than the notes provided. (Don’t tempt me with the promise of insight into Scylla’s “canine name” only to send me hunting for an article in an Italian e-journal.) Still, my gripes are minor, and I’d rather bestow kudos upon the University of Toronto Press for making sure that those of us who’d never spring $65 for the hardcover version of Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles could immediately enjoy the paperback or Kindle editions for less than $30.

Riddles may be dismissed as trifles today, but Aldhelm reminds us that a clever poet can use them to make a sophisticated case for a wondrous and joyful coherence in the world. This is the first translation of his riddles meant to be read for pleasure, and I hope it will be. In Juster’s hands, Aldhelm is once again serious fun.