Archive for June, 2011


“Sie haben uns ein Denkmal gebaut…”

Known as “the administrator,” this gargoyle hangs just to the side of the cathedral’s west façade and grips a miniature of the façade of the school he faces. After all this time, he argues in admirably good faith.

FAÇADE

Behold the form: We found our faith in spires.
From balustrade to buttress, by design
We build upon the base of our desires.
The ape of human order we divine,
And carved creation lightly gives us praise.
On day and eve, proportion we impose:
The perfect sun sets perfectly ablaze
A thousand perfect petals on the rose;
An arch constrains the brunt of outward pride.
One hymn we hue: “Ennobling words are dear
In thee, all sacramental modes preside
In thee”
       as from the fading close I hear
a thing to tempt us out of rite and rhyme,
       a sole cicada singing out of time.

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

“Way over yonder in the minor key…”

Sometimes a tiger mother makes more sound than sense, but obscurity is useful: It forces you to ask, “Will I understand this when I’m older, or is this nonsense?”

ST. JOHN’S EVE
(MIDSUMMER SONG)

When leaves that leach from every tree
Like bitten insects blight and curl,
The swollen moon may let you see
  But once a goblin girl.

Be quick: The brindled moths detest
To stir the brack and shallow air
Of seeping June, where scinnhiws nest,
  Yet you will find her there.

Their sodden boughs admit no strand
Of summer-wasted moon to stream
But one, but she must make her stand
  Within her sallow beam.

She snuffs the muck, but scarcely finds
The spoor of misremembered things,
As “Love, O careless Love, my mind’s
   Not right,” she sifts, she sings,

She scents, she turns—her eyes aflash
Like stars above a harrowed field
That starve their spark in cosmic ash,
  Eternity revealed

In silver curls, inflamed with sweat,
In reckless lilies, late awoke;
Their withring stems she stoops to let
  Enwreathe her, lest she choke,

While through the gloom, she stalks the word
That calls the rake of summer rain.
As some slight boy who nursed a bird
  But set her wing in vain,

She raises high her plunder fair,
She offers up a secret thing,
She grounds her glyph in graceless air,
  While wild around you ring

The beadling eyes that light abide
To see the perfect rind unfold,
To gnaw the hidden fast inside
  That goblins long to hold—

Her eyes will rise; you cast yours down.
Before her sneer, betray no guile.
And to her grin, extend a frown;
  In this, you whet her wile.

And if she riddles, answer straight;
And to her white, you echo black;
But when she fangs, embrace your fate,
  And her, and bite her back.

Then run, as you must always run,
And learn what you will never learn,
And goblin glances roundly shun;
  But let the memory burn.

Beyond the bramble, timbers blaze,
So join us as we rouse with song
The lazing dawn, and know our days
  Will never be this long.

Let seven into fathoms fall,
Let three around the wake-fire whirl,
And let your summer scant recall
  But once a goblin girl.

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

“Thursday, I don’t care about you…”

It’s Friday; I’ve got links for you.

Mandy Brett pens a nice defense of the professional editor.

Alex Carnevale contemplates “the macabre unpleasantness of Roald Dahl.”

Alan Jacobs wonders why writers make writing sound awful.

Cynthia Haven hears Orwell when public figures “take full responsibility”—and when she looks at book-blurbs.

The “100 Reasons NOT to Go to Graduate School” blog is up to reason #61, “unstructured time.”

Reviewing In the Basement of the Ivory Tower, Jake Seliger highlights a useful term: “dispossessed of context.”

Interested in medieval jousting? Historian Steve Muhlberger has a $100 book for you.

Katy Perry sings a poignant cover of the Fountains of Wayne song “Hackensack.”

I like this: a blog devoted to parodies of “American Gothic.”

Ephemeral New York sees the strange and scary faces of Chelsea.

Lingwë looks at a Hogwarts professor’s curious name.

First Known When Lost marks the start of cruise-ship season with Philip Larkin.

A Momentary Taste of Being reads The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham.

Hats & Rabbits hears what kids say about their parents.

If you have a background in Greek, Latin, and French, speak at least one additional language (Spanish, Italian, Mandarin, or Japanese), love drama and the arts, can teach philosophy while helping sail a yacht, and have mastered at least one martial art and you exist outside of a J.D. Salinger novella or Dos Equis commercial, then Gwyneth Paltrow would like you to tutor her kids.

The Chronicle of Higher Education sees “students who are full of it.”

“…to holes of their own making in the cracks within the walls…”

For four years, “Quid Plura?” has chased medievalist echoes in New Orleans—the statue of Ignatius Reilly, a shrine to a French saint, the glitter of Joan of Arc—as well as medieval-ish statuary in Cajun country and miscellaneous medievalism on the North Shore.

Yes, here there be saints—but where are the medieval monsters?

Earlier this week, on a hot afternoon, we sought to answer that question by turning to someone who slays them.

What say you, heroically-abdomened St. George in a hotel courtyard just outside the French Quarter?


George points west, so we’re off to the 16th Ward, where the beasts atop Tilton Memorial Hall at Tulane are timelessly monstrous rather than strictly medieval…

…but the alley behind the building hides a clutch of caudophagic dragons.



Heeding the call of the neo-Gothic, we take the streetcar east into Ward 12 and trudge down to the impressive St. Stephen Church on Napoleon Avenue…

…and when we look up…


…the neo-medieval mocks us.

Yet we cling to the hope of grotesquerie, just as two miles to the east, on Jackson Avenue in Ward 10, something clings to the side of a gutted 19th-century synagogue…

…a creature not quite medieval…

…but poised to petrify your inner ten-year-old.

“I’m alive, I’m dead, I’m the stranger…”

[Here’s the latest in an ongoing series of reviews of all of Lloyd Alexander’s non-Prydain books. To see all posts in this series, click on the “Lloyd Alexander” tag.]

To borrow a library book is to make a promise; to return it is a sacred duty. That’s the premise of The Jedera Adventure, the fourth Vesper Holly tale—but that description makes Lloyd Alexander’s 19th-century heroine and polymath sound downright mundane. The book in question is a manuscript in Avicenna’s own hand. Vesper’s late father checked it out of a library in the North African desert, and it’s 15 years overdue.

Regular Vesper Holly readers know where this is going: Vesper and her guardian, Professor Brinton “Brinnie” Garrett, travel to the fictional land of Jedera, where—aided by her perfect command of Arabic—she marches with the French Foreign Legion, settles an ancient tribal war, resolves a star-crossed romance, charms a brooding desert warlord, and again outwits her nemesis, Dr. Helvetius. She also becomes the first human being to fly.

At this point, an adult reader wonders: Does the target audience for this series want to adore a flawless teenage genius? Do they expect an enemy so cartoonishly evil that he invents the petrol-powered airplane just so he can exploit the natural resources of others, re-institute the global slave trade, and subdue the world through aerial bombardment? As the Vesper Holly formula calcifies and the characters feel sketchy and interchangeable, I long for the more serious author who knows that choices often bring hard consequences for grown-ups and children alike.

Alexander does tease readers with a new character: Marelle, a colonel in the French Foreign Legion. His dual loyalties hint at plausible conflict in an otherwise harmless world:

“So it is my first duty to avoid trouble and not to stir it up or seek it out.  It is a practical policy. For myself, I would prefer it if the French were not here at all. But I am an officer. Above all, an officer of the Legion. I command. Also, I obey.”

This attitude struck me as unusual. Most of the colonials I had met during my travels set the natives an example of European civilization by brutalizing them. Marelle, as Vesper drew him out a little more, was not usual.

She soon learned that he had been born in Mokara of a Jederan mother and French father, that he was fluent in all the tribal dialects, and that his devotion to Jedera was as fierce as his devotion to his beloved Legion. He was the sort of person who should be a governor-general and seldom is.

It’s not the job of a light adventure series to paint a complex and harrowing picture of French power in North Africa, but the subject is an odd one to raise and then dismiss four pages before the end of the book, when Marelle and a noble desert outlaw acknowledge that they are only temporary allies:

“Arrest me?” An-Jalil’s eyes glinted. “Will you try your Legionnaires against my Tawarik?”

“I said it was my duty,” replied Marelle. “I did not say I would carry it out. Why should I deprive myself of a gallant opponent? Another day, perhaps. Or perhaps not. Be warned. It may be different with those who someday will take my place. The times have changed. You, with your honor and chivalry, are not modern.”

“Are you?” answered An-Jalil. “We are both only temporary. The desert and the mountains will outlive us. But a day must come when the French leave my land, as others before them have done.”

There’s hope here for drama. Alexander lets it pass.

Still, Colonel Marelle brings clarity: He shows how safe this series is. Unlike the heroes of Alexander’s Prydain books or his Westmark series, no one in a Vesper Holly book is ever in any real danger. Religion doesn’t exist, so Vesper can resolve age-old cultural conflicts with implausible ease. Even our skittish narrator, Professor Garrett, accepts that a feisty, 18-year-old white girl commands respect, even worship, from warrior-nomads in 19th-century North Africa.

My copy of The Jedera Adventure says the book is meant for readers between the ages of 10 and 14, but it feels like it’s aimed at a much younger crowd. With her perfect command of history, literature, languages, and science, Vesper is competent, but effortlessly and unsympathetically so; she’s a sharp contrast with Lidi, the heroine of Alexander’s 2002 novel The Rope Trick, whose life is a series of compromises made ever more frustrating by her failed quest for magical escape.

Alexander once told an interviewer that the Vesper Holly books contain no fantasy, but I don’t think that’s right. It’s a term that suits stories where girls never deal with a difficult choice.

“And of course you can’t become if you only say what you would have done…”

To a ninth-century monk at Salzburg, June was a month for plowing. When your own labors leave you weary, drive deep the furrows of your mind with these sharp and spiffy links.

Michael Livingston shows you what it’s like to edit a medieval text. (He continues his lesson in part two.)

Christopher Abram, who blogs at Old Norse News, has just published the very cool-looking Myths of the Pagan North.

Because “people don’t ‘get’ Czeslaw Milosz,” Cynthia Haven suggests taking authors on their own ground.

What do a Pakistani-American fourth-grader and Isaac Bashevis Singer have in common? Anecdotal Evidence tells you.

Steve Donoghue discovers My Robin, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1912 tribute to a backyard bird.

Lingwë digs for Tolkien’s worms.

Jake Seliger ponders writing in terms of computer programming.

Frank Wilson argues that “thank you” is harder than it sounds.

Nicole reads Chinua Achebe reading Joseph Conrad.

First Known When Lost presents “The New House” by Edward Thomas.

Looking up, Ephemeral New York spots tradesmen on a 41st Street building.

Hats & Rabbits tells a parable of marathon.

I’m not on many e-mail lists, but this one I like: Poetry News in Review.

SpokenVerse recites “Nude Descending a Staircase” by X.J. Kennedy.