Archive for November, 2011


“Funny how my memory skips while looking over manuscripts…”

With unlikely conviction, my garden has thrived well into November. Last week I dug up a little white-orange carrot still stubbornly finding its form. It smelled wonderful: fragrant, persistent, alive, a deep-rooted argument against autumn gloom. It stirred up two rabbits, long out of season.

THANKSGIVING

i.

“Senses are quickened by subtile forebodings.”
So sops the chorist by shadow-cold doors.
Blackening leafmeal bletts into mulch,
The cinders spelt from summer pyres
Blaze low before us, blow themselves out.
The wormeled looms, woven blindly,
Fate unpatterning, feast on the ash.
From these I spair my spirit shrinking:
In winter’s wane and withring dark
No thing endures. I thank no one.

ii.

Ah. Songs missung spiel but seasonal doom.
Finding their form, fetal hornroots
Clot the bodden; now clawing one free
We breathe, haling brawn and carrick,
Sweaty scrafings, the sweetest persistence,
No lesser life from leafmeal spurned,
And we know: Something censes in gardens
In alway above eyesores and brume-song
That nurtures a savor not known here before.
Craving to taste, we partake, and give thanks.

 

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

“…and the little ones chewed on the bones-o….”

Unfortunately, I got smothered by autumn leaves before I could offer “Quid Plura?” readers the annual Thanksgiving exercise in applied paleobromatology, such as last year’s medieval Islamic carrot jam, or candied Baghdad lamb, or medieval hogdepodge duck gone awry, or that much-googled classic, galangal ale.

Still, I’m grateful for those of you who stop by, and I’m equally thankful to the people who make the Internet a perpetual buffet of tidbits about art, books, history, and life. Settle in with a plate of leftovers—and these links—and stuff the cornucopia of your mind.

The Washington Independent Review reads Kimberly Cutter’s new Joan of Arc novel.

Weirdly, late medieval paintings of martyrs have become a hot commodity.

At the British Library, Book Haven browses royal manuscripts.

Steve Donoghue (whose reading time I envy) explores The Age of Bede.

Steve also wonders: Will we ever see a King Charles III?

I may need to check out Creole Medievalism: Colonial France and Joseph Bédier’s Middle Ages.

Patricia Emison remembers the Renaissance, and wants you to do the same.

Dr. Beachcomber seeks big bones in churches.

Anecdotal Evidence praises the worth of the hunt.

First Known When Lost finds Herrick in the teriyaki.

The Silver Key remembers pulp writer Harold Lamb.

Dylan pens “Viva Voce,” a nonsense rhyme that makes sense to me.

Lingwë wonders what Samwise Gamgee meant by “neekerbreekers.”

Collected Miscellany asks: Are All the Giants Dead?

Classical Bookworm hops the Bulgarian book bus.

Laudator Temporis Acti meets the First Earl of Balfour, bibliophile.

Wuthering Expectations hosts those two German horrors, Max und Moritz.

Adrian Murdoch likes a review of an Elagabalus biography.

For a police thriller with a Garden State twist, check out Steven Hart’s We All Fall Down.

A Momentary Taste reviews The Revisionists.

Thinking about the lack of novels about work, Bibliographing revisits “Office Space.”

Jake Seliger thinks too few students think thoughts of their own.

Lee Goldberg notes a spy writer who plagiarized damn near everything.

Cinerati suggests interesting kids in myth and history with Badass of the Week.

ZMKC jogs ’round Gellert Hill in Budapest.

Gabriele at Lost Fort tours castles in Thuringia.

As a Linguist paints a portrait of a polyglot.

Pete Lit links to a basketball sonnet.

Intelligent Life weighs up Warhol.

Philip A. Lobo reviews the game Bastion.

Ephemeral New York spots sheep heads on East 13th.

“Some people dance cheek to cheek…”

Although I’ve found this beast atop the northwest tower difficult to photograph, I’ve long wondered why he—she? it?—holds such a savage grip on a mere bird. Then I realized: From a monster’s point of view, they’re dancing.

INTERMEZZO
(after Edgar Degas, “Four Dancers,” c.1899, National Gallery of Art)

In the wings, a measured rest.
Four as one in florid fits

Flitter in. The wald submits.
Autumns rise upon the scene:

In a rush of salmoned green
Tender tressings flip, exchanged,

Battened fast, or rearranged.
Trellising her arm, the first

Honors artifice reversed:
“Wasted branches bow, and then

Painted planklings bough again.”
Half as daft, the second sets

Flambent straps, but scarce forgets
Quips that crab her brittle heart:

“Oui, technique—mais où est l’art?”  
Sembling innocence, the third,

Primping, pincing, undeterred,
Shoulders not a knot of shame

Lest regret, or light acclaim
Drag her down, or bow her stance.

Note the last; no lasting glance
Lingers there for us to see.

Music lifts her. Fanions flee—
Blithe she twirls, and none observe

Lesser lines we scarce deserve
(You and I) to leer and know.

Laud her flourish. Let her go
Pattern grace, while we pretend

Faux Novembers never end.
Autumn twilight sets too soon;

Fumbling, we belie the tune
(You and I) that times the turns

Every gilded dancer learns.
Let their line, from fourth to first,

Misperceive why we rehearsed,
Wrought the light from blighted rhyme,

Warped the chord in common time,
Daubed the gloss, as their debut

Burnished our façade anew.
Late, they loiter back, to find

Nothing I disclose in kind.
Fold your program; feign we see

Faith in faint simplicity,
False in sight, divine in show,

Pas de deux de deux, they go,
Pirandelles of perfect stone

Turn together, dance alone.

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

“But the answers you seek will never be found at home…”

The ghost of Robert E. Howard sleeps fitfully at best. His better stories have been republished by the University of Nebraska Press, but fans still struggle to champion his worth. You know Howard, if you know Howard, from crummy movies about his characters—Kull, Conan, Solomon Kane—even if you’re unaware of the brawny shadow he casts across decades of sword-and-sorcery. Both co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons cited him as an outsized influence, but his prominence as a fantasy writer overshadows the speed with which he also cranked out horror yarns, cowboy tales, historical fiction, and boxing stories from the bedroom of his parents’ Texas home.

Before committing suicide in 1936 at the age of 30, Howard published more in twelve years than most of us will in a lifetime, earning his rep as one of the great writers of the pulp era—but Howard wasn’t just a famously frantic storyteller. He was also, as his gravestone points out, a poet. Until recently, few readers knew how madly poetic he was.

At nearly 800 pages, The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, published in 2009, is a monument to its author’s strange and boyish mind. Several of Howard’s 700-odd poems first appeared in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, either as standalone pieces or as epigraphs to stories; many were never published at all. Gathered in one tome (without the bibliographies compiled on a separate website), they’re an almost overwhelming blast from Howard’s mental universe, a cacophonic orgy of Romans, Babylonians, Vikings, cowboys, Crusaders, Mongols, Zulus, cavemen, and voodoo queens—figures who’ve long since been forced from the realm of respectable verse.

Can the collected works of any other poet boast a 60-page section on Wizardry and Satanism? Ah, but here it is, nestled amid sections covering Heroic Verse, War Poems, Horror Poems, Exoticism and Nature, Personal Poems, Historical Poems, Dialect and Doggerel, and Prose Poems. I’d already known some of Howard’s most effective ballads, especially “The King and the Oak” and “Solomon Kane’s Homecoming,” but it’s enlightening to see the good stuff in context. This comprehensive volume proves how many words even the most manic writer has to fling around before breaking free of his influences and pouncing on bright, fleeting lines of his own.

As befit his youth, Howard was an imitative poet, wedding his own stark worldview to the rhythms of Tennyson, Noyes, Chesterton, and others. His imitation of Robert Service and William Blake is particularly obvious, but his better poems show that they taught him how to write deeply creepy verse. “Zukala’s Jest,” for example, sounds less like the invention of a Texan autodidact and more like an ancient chant heard by a traveler who barely escaped with his life. “Memories of Alfred,” about a Saxon who battles the Danes, ends with a line cribbed from Tennyson: “and friend slew friend, not knowing whom he smote.” In Idylls of the King, this line marks the chaos of Arthur’s final battle and the failure of the Arthurian dream, but Tennyson follows it with a sunrise. Howard admits no hope; fratricide is its own poetic end.

Howard’s lack of military service didn’t stop him from writing about modern war, and the resulting poems are an unsatisfying mishmash of Kipling and Siegfried Sassoon—but then, sometimes, a startling phrase presents itself. In the beguiling “White Thunder,” a Cornishman fighting in Flanders during World War I recalls a faraway land where “the clashing crags re-echoed / like a planetary war.” Outside of pop songs, I can’t recall any poets who’ve used sci-fi similes to describe earthly experiences. Howard makes it work; it rightly describes what he saw in his mind.

I’ve been browsing Collected Poetry for more than a year, and my notes are full of pointers to curious bits like these: nice double meanings in lines like “[a]s clouds blow over the mead,” chilling little images, notable exercises in form, parodies of Longfellow, or bizarre poems that almost work but for a few clunky lines, like a lyric that notes (as God knows I never thought to) the absence of Arcadian centaurs on the Creole lawns of New Orleans. Howard, I think, didn’t strive for maturity, but said his piece in the bleak, angry fury of youth. Even when his diction is derivative, he raises his own voice to a roar to drown out the poets he read. His “Song of the Naked Lands” could never be mistaken for Edna St. Vincent Millay:

You raped the grapes of their purple soul
For your wine-cups brimming high;
We stooped to the dregs of the muddy hole
That was bitter with alkalai.

That verse isn’t perfect, but it’s perfectly Howardian. No other poet would snarl while rehearsing one of his favorite themes, the Thomas Cole royal collapsapalooza:

You lolled by fountain and golden hall
Until that frenzied morn
When we burst the gates and breached the wall
And cut you down like corn.

Weirdly, a few pages away, Howard lays aside his weapons and shines in repose. “A Negro Girl,” a short lyric about African echoes in Harlem, might appear in literary anthologies if someone else’s name were attached to it.

Of course, Howard strikes some awful notes. Collected Poetry includes much juvenilia, doggerel, and diction I’d never defend. In “The Song of the Last Briton,” Howard dubs Saxon longships “millipedes of doom,” and he habitually strides into awful rhymes: prophet/Tophet, strident/trident, lizard/wizard, strange-and-hoary/Purgatory. Some off-rhymes hint at his own accent—”dour” and “moor”—while others reveal the limits of his travels and education. “Lithe,” for example, doesn’t rhyme with “myth.” Perhaps Howard never heard the word spoken, and only read it in books.

Splayed as they are across hundreds of pages, Howard’s flaws are obvious, but dwelling on his clunkers holds him to a standard we’d scarcely meet ourselves. How many high-school graduates, or even educated genre authors, can write a proper ballad or sonnet and conjure hundreds of literary references and historical allusions from sulfurous mental fog? How many boys doze off in English class because no one made clear that poetry is also the province of Satanic wizards, voodoo queens, blood-flecked Vikings, Puritan swordsmen, and frantic barbarian hordes?

Howard holds no place in the history of American poetry. Some entries in Collected Poetry show that he was aware of free verse, but he continued to compose formal, narrative poems for readers whose tastes were undeterred by the literary trends of the day. In keeping with Sturgeon’s Law, much of Howard’s work is derivative, but his worst is no worse than many of the Georgian poets who were his overseas predecessors, and he’s certainly more persistent in his own weird vision than the authors of the wan, formless sighs I skim in Poetry magazine every month. And when Howard is good, he’s a big, brawny blast.

Collected Poetry, which is already out of print, is far more Howard than most people need—I didn’t, and can’t, read every poem in the book—but teachers and parents fretting over “reluctant readers” should explore the shorter Selected Poems, available in print-on-demand. Howard’s works are case studies in form and tone, and they fling open the gates to discussions about medieval lands, ancient empires, violence, decadence, and the decline of civilizations. They’re also grand, lurid proof that poetry sometimes has hair on its chest.

“Howard is manic-depressive, courageous, and self-destructively human,” Steve Eng writes in his 1984 essay “Barbarian Bard,” reprinted as the introduction to Collected Poetry. “At his best, he carries the reader forward like a trussed captive, astride a black horse with crimson hooves, headlong off that final cliff toward the sharp rocks of Death below.” Eng’s epitaph suggests what Robert E. Howard ought to become: the poet laureate of restless boys, whose lives these days lack poetry, but who, as Howard comprehended, crave it more than most.