Archive for July, 2011


“….and it’s true, if all this around us is paradise.”

“Excuse me, sir?”

He’s probably ten, but he’s small for his age. His purple ball has rolled into unbusy State Street, and while he’s forbidden to step off the curb, apparently he is allowed to talk to strangers.

“Can you please throw me that ball?”

I do. He’s polite enough not to tell me I’m a strange sight on a Sunday afternoon. Subdued salsa from Puerto Rican cookouts drowns out the car noise. People are chatting; it’s too hot to dance.

“Takin’ pictures, huh?” He holds his ball under one arm and glances at the sky. “You know what would make a good picture? Those gargoyles up there. They’re awesome.”

He’s right. They see everything in Perth Amboy.

Built in 1919 by and for the Polish Catholics of Perth Amboy, St. Stephen’s Church is a fine example of American neo-Gothic, but despite its intricacy, it’s bereft of grotesques—except for the huge faux-gargoyles below the spire.

Weirdly, I can’t find any public information about the architect, but whoever he was, he didn’t Americanize this church, nor did he grant its parishoners (who still run a Polish CCD) a speck of Slavic idiom. No, the mind behind St. Stephen’s adored Western Europe; those gargoyles would be right at home on a cathedral like Bayeux.

Though these gargoyles seem like relics of the city’s better days, prosperity alone doesn’t explain them. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when neo-Gothic building was rampant, Perth Amboy was a gargoyle breeding ground. A local abundance of rich clay here and in nearby Woodbridge and New Brunswick meant that Perth Amboy firms like A. Hall and Sons (later the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company, later Atlantic Terra Cotta) made grotesques and ornamentation for buildings across the United States, providing decorations for the Woolworth Building, exterior details for the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the entire roof of the U.S. Supreme Court.

So whose idea were the gargoyles of St. Stephen’s? A 1906 Architectural Record article shows similarly slender beasties made by the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company on the first City College of New York building, a neo-Gothic landmark by architect George B. Post.

Then again, Charles Follen McKim of the legendary firm McKim, Mead, and White had attended school in Perth Amboy, and he partnered with the Perth Amboy Terra Cotta Company to make multicolored brick when brownstone and red brick fell out of fashion. It’s tempting to see St. Stephen’s as a “forgotten” work by MM&W or one of the many architects associated with them, but then what if it’s a great Gothic sob by the fanatically medievalist church designer Ralph Adams Cram? Or maybe it’s a monument to the faith of an architect no one has thought to remember.

I asked the folks at St. Stephen’s if they know who built their church; I’ve yet to hear back. Regardless, I’ll bet that like the kid who pointed them out to me, the gargoyles of Perth Amboy were locally born—a hundred years distant, but raised in an age that perceives the medieval wherever you look.

“…all the best freaks are here, please stop staring at me…”

Lately, people point me to gargoylish doings wherever I go—including my home state. While rushing across Princeton last week, I learned that since the university’s guide to gargoyles (grotesques, to be accurate) is far from complete, hunting for neo-Gothic doodads still leads to charming surprises.

At McCosh Hall, I might have missed this erudite goat.

Or this monk. (“Prends moi—je suis a toi—mea culpa!”)

Or this macabre baker making Taylor ham the traditional way.

On 1879 Hall (built in 1904), monsters howl silent o’er summer lawns…

…monkeys tear apart a human face…

…and despite what a few lines of poetry claim…


…those “unseen things” may be studying you.

“Now half the world hates the other half…”

Here in D.C., soggy July makes gargoyles all fall silent—but let these links from clever humans kindle your conditioned air.

“365 Sonnets” chronicles “a Canadian teenager’s love affair with iambic poetry.” He’s up to #363. (Hat tip: Steven.)

“You’re the top / You’re Michele Obama…” Dylan at The Crystal Tambourine drags Cole Porter into 2011.

Dylan also rewrites pop songs in the voices of famous poets, asking questions dear to my heart, such as: How would Smiths lyrics sound from the pen of Gerard Manley Hopkins?

For years, I’ve read and linked to the blog of writer and historical reenactor Will McLean without knowing he was the fellow whose cartoons added vital levity to the first Dungeons & Dragons books. (“Papers & Paychecks,” anyone?)

At Open Letters Monthly, Steve Donoghue reviews a new book, The Last Vikings.

Also at OLM, Rohan Maitzen finds the voice of I, Claudius “very nearly without anything identifiable as a personal style.”

The Book Haven marks the “Orwell Watch” with several sad cliches.

As a Linguist listens to the Breton language.

Ephemeral New York sees a face over West 15th.

Hats & Rabbits ponders technology and life’s little (and not-so-little) tradeoffs.

Steve Mulhberger posts “tear-gas poems” from the streets of Egypt.

Jake Seliger thinks about Harry Potter and sophistication.

James Gurney asks: Do Parrish paintings boost your melatonin?

Ductor possum ad extremum tolerare! On Facebook, Julius Caesar kicks off his 2012 presidential campaign.

“I need him now to meet me face to face…”

From April to June, a local thief took advantage of dawn twilight to help himself to flowers from private yards, community gardens, and the cathedral grounds. In mid-June, the police nabbed him, and although he wasn’t arrested, his crime spree witheredbut not before a gargoyle on the north nave barked a bit of doggerel.

NOTEBOOK: FRAGMENTS FOR A FLOWER THIEF

They paced the plot for hours, as mothers would,
But understood: “His arms were full of flowers.”

      * * *

CHORUS
  The cruelest month: a cusp’d cliché
  That pricks the wisp of guilty May
  And breeds the thief of blameless June.
   Summer, unsurprise us soon.

      * * *

“In April it was lilacs.” (Listen how
she hates to blame the deer.) “Hydrangeas now!
Four times this spring.” (Of course it could be deer.)
My peonies at least were spared this year.

      * * *

The Lilack speaketh late of early Love.
The bolder Peon prospereth a-red.
The Seede abundant unifies the Figge.
We love thee numb, O Koriandrum, come—
Fragaria, redeem the injur’d Maid.

      * * *

“He sold us flowers first a year ago.
We called him—Shantih?” Shantih does not know.

      * * *

We conquer by the weapons we desert.
By dawn the dogs will bound ahead to find
The efflorescent errand you resigned,
The arrow shafts unwagoned in the dirt.

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

“I stand for motherhood, America, and a hot lunch for orphans…”

Here in the U.S., Fourth of July weekend is winding quietly down. While we groan over leftovers, sweep up carbonized fuses, and sew our blown-off fingers back on, here’s a sparkling assortment of links at once literary and linguistic, poetic and pontificatory, academic and amateur, medievalist and modern. Light ’em up and enjoy.

As a Linguist wonders where common nautical terms come from and ponders the literal meaning of freedom at Normandy Beach.

At University Diaries, Margaret Soltan marked Independence Day by discussing her Righthaven lawsuit.

At the always-eloquent Hats & Rabbits, Chris rides a roller coaster arabesque.

The Cranky Professor shows you how the Transformers are helping renovate the duomo in Milan.

Open Letters Monthly finds a secret magic library in New York.

The Washington Independent Review interviews “Professor X,” author of In the Basement of the Ivory Tower.

Monstrous Beauty spotlights a reliquary for St. Thomas Becket.

My fantasy-writing friend Anna Tambour charts a parrot confidence course.

Classical Bookworm discovers a forgotten Hungarian polyglot. Sixteen languages?

At A Momentary Taste, Stephen is in summer-reading mode with Gil’s All Fright Diner.

Prof Mondo reads Gardner’s On Moral Fiction in light of young-adult lit.

First Known When Lost reads Edwin Muir’s poem “The Interrogation” and thinks things got good when Philip Larkin looked into Thomas Hardy.

The New York Times tells Gothamites: Read Cavafy!

“I can’t see you, but I know you’re here”: Ephemeral New York finds the sad cemetery angels of Brooklyn.

He’s not really “the last of the rhyming poets,” but here’s a nice profile of Richard Wilbur.

Some say Jack Kent was the best cartoonist and children’s book illustrator you’ve forgotten.

I love the sonnets of Edna St. Vincent Millay, but the fellow who loved Millay herself wrote poems worth reading as well.

Fly, my pixelated minion! In the 1980s, who among the Colecovision set didn’t long to master “George Plimpton’s Video Falconry”?