Archive for November, 2012


“Well, tell her that I miss our little talks…”

I’m not a book collector, but I am a book accumulator, so I haunt the D.C. area’s secondhand shops in joyful hope of discovering something peculiar and new. Other blogs charmingly document the personal detritus we slough off in our books, but I never find anything to get the Antiques Roadshow crowd all aflutter. Sometimes, I find something better.

While rummaging around the Second Story Books Warehouse recently, I spotted Because the Sea is Black, a 1989 collection of translated poems by Blaga Dimitrova, a Bulgarian anti-communist writer who served as her country’s vice president in the early 1990s. I’d never heard of Dimitrova, but I was happy to meet a new poet for the price of a $7.50 paperback. I was also intrigued by a translator’s note reminding Americans that “writers who live where not everything can be said with impunity develop strategies for expressing concerns that are mortal.”

As with many modern translations, this one doesn’t make clear the poems’ original forms. Dimitrova’s poetry is rendered in semi-free verse intermingled with wordplay and rhyme—although sharp, rhythmic, fun-to-recite passages like this one encouraged me to read on:

                           Memory, what does it mean
to be clear? To be ice? To be twice? To be more?
We are gasping with asking since infancy, answerless—
What is the name of the cure?

The big surprise, though, was the half-title page, where I found an inscription:

To Mr. Boorstin

With thanks
for your report,
that it mooved [sic]
me deeply —
Bl. Dimitrova

21.IV 93

Jerusalem

“Mr. Boorstin” is prolific historian Daniel J. Boorstin, author of The Discoverers and The Creators and Librarian of Congress from 1975 to 1987. What were he and Dimitrova doing in Jerusalem? An L.A. Times story tells me that they were tasked with kicking around the dreary question of writers as “moral guardians”:

The invitation to be “the conscience of the world” may have seemed like one any writer would accept. Here was a chance to denounce “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, starvation in Somalia, anti-Semitism in Europe, racism in America.

But one after another, 16 leading novelists, poets, historians, biographers, essayists and publishers declined the invitation during the Jerusalem International Book Fair this week. At a two-day forum co-sponsored by the fair and the Aspen Institute, many also warned of the danger of any writer acting as a moral arbiter.

“Why is a writer more capable of being a conscience than a jurist or an educator or a philosopher?” asked David Grossman, an Israeli whose books have explored the difficult relationship his country has with Palestinian Arabs and examined the moral dilemmas that result. “No one can serve as someone else’s conscience.”

Cynthia Ozick, an American novelist, poet and literary critic, spoke even more sharply: “Being a writer myself, I know what kind of people we are—and I don’t trust us. Writers are after power, and when writers meddle in politics it can be a cover for their drive for power.”

The L.A. Times article doesn’t report what Boorstin said that left Dimitrova “deeply moved,” but it does provide a snippet of her musings:

The forum concluded that conscience was necessary to inform a writer’s work, wrong as a role for the writer in society, yet in some ways inevitable as they faulted others who would perform the same function.

“A politician and a writer speak with two different languages,” Dimitrova observed, “and it is very dangerous when they get mixed together but we all do this.”

Twenty years on, I don’t know that poets, journalists, novelists, and critics are still this hesitant to declare themselves our consciences.

Dimitrova died in 2003. Boorstin died in D.C. in 2004, and based on the number of signed books I’ve found, I’m thinking the less valuable bits of his poetry library ended up at Second Story. (Sic transit gloria mundi: The remnants of Jack Kemp’s personal library also clutter the bookshelves just three aisles away.)

I don’t suppose we’ll ever know if Boorstin and Dimitrova genuinely liked each other, or if Dimitrova’s inscription represents anything but professional courtesy, but discovering it amid half a million moldering books makes clear how writers—and the words they labor to perfect—slip so readily into oblivion.

That’s reason for reflection, not despair. It’s a worthier challenge to roam the stacks, using this one slim relic of Blaga Dimitrova to find in endless spines not squandered lives, but infinite creation:

Breathing, we go blind
to what exists—whole universes!—
right here, next to us.

“I bit off more than I can chew, only so much you can do…”

Each year, I notice an uptick in blog visitors on Thanksgiving night and the weekend that follows it, presumably because sated readers lumber to their computers in search of something savory to stuff inside their rested brains.

So here’s what I’ve collected in my mental stock-pot: a jumble of links about books, language, poetry, and art, with nary a turkey in sight.

Nancy Marie Brown sees Iceland’s trolls in Tolkien.

At Lingwë, Jason wonders what Tolkien’s “Esgaroth” means.

Leonore the linguist wonders what’s in her name.

Steve Donoghue reads Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra.

Bibliographing reads Treasure Island!!!

Cynthia Haven reads Proust in Paris.

George reads Inventing the Middle Ages.

Gargoyle Girl finds faces on facades in Prague.

Levi Stahl contemplates Thanksgiving as homecoming.

First Known When Lost reaps poetic misgivings.

Dylan sings of “bent rhyme and feeble reason.”

Pete finds a classy Walgreen’s.

Frederick Turner, the man behind neat epic poems about 24th-century America and the terraforming of Mars, has published a new book on epics.

Kevin at Interpolations wonders why he adores Moby Dick.

Julie K. Rose ponders patronymic patterns.

Photographer Guido Krüger documents his Potomac adventures in front of the Corcoran and on the streets during Hurricane Sandy.

Tim Hyde’s Photoriffs blog commingles beauty and disaster.

Jake Seliger says don’t go to law school and don’t become a doctor.

At last, a blog decrying dumb classroom projects: Wasting Time in School.

University Diaries is thankful for her students.

“A long time ago, we used to be friends…”

On the day after a national election, it’s bracing to stroll through the blustery streets of Colonial Williamsburg—which, lucky for me, is just footsteps away from a conference I’m attending. I’d hoped to find some trace of American medievalism, and the colonial city did not disappoint: along the green leading to the Governor’s Palace is a house where a Virginia lawyer lit a medieval torch in the mind of a Founding Father.

That’s the home of George Wythe, signer of the Declaration of Independence and delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Fresh out of William and Mary, a young Thomas Jefferson spent five years here as Wythe’s law apprentice and stumbled early into one of his innumerable lifelong hobbies: the study of Old English.

Poring over a 15th-century legal tract, Jefferson encountered a modern preface arguing that a student should learn “Saxon” to understand the essence of English law. Already intrigued by languages, the young man was hooked; Stanley R. Hauer points out (in “Thomas Jefferson and the Anglo-Saxon Language”) that the future third president of the United States collected Old English textbooks, painstakingly copied footnotes in Anglo-Saxon script into a 1778 legal treatise, and made sure that the University of Virginia was the first American institution to offer Anglo-Saxon language courses when it opened in 1825. According to Hauer, Jefferson’s grasp of Anglo-Saxon was weak—often he couldn’t distinguish it from Middle English—but if you’ve studied Old English, or even if you’ve read Beowulf in a college class, its presence was partly Jefferson’s doing.

Jefferson’s obsession with Old English resonated far beyond the English department. During his five years in Wythe’s study, he imaginatively plunged into what historians have dubbed the “Saxon myth,” the common belief among Whigs of his era that the best English institutions—parliament, trial by jury, common law—were the unbroken legacy of freedom-loving Germanic tribes who’d crept into Britain as early as the fifth century. (This idea was itself the legacy of 16th- and 17th-century reformers who’d tried to prove that both the Church of England and Parliament were continuations of ancient, primitive democracy.)

In letters and treatises, Jefferson trumpeted his belief that America had directly inherited liberty from the Anglo-Saxons. His strongest statement on the matter was surely his (unsuccessful) push to decorate the Great Seal of the United States with the figures of Horsa and Hengist, “the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”

I suppose we are the political heirs of the Anglo-Saxons, since Jefferson believed it to be so when he helped establish our republic. He knew, though, that his contemporaries held conflicting views. “It has ever appeared to me,” he wrote to English political reformer John Cartwright in 1824, “that the difference between the Whig and the Tory of England is, that the Whig deduces his rights from the Anglo-Saxon source, and the Tory from the Norman.” It’s instructive, two centuries later, to see how our predecessors reached into the past for conflicting myths to answer a perennial question: What sort of people are we to be?

“On the back seat of the car, with Joseph and Emily…”

Fleeing a hot, crowded brownstone, Tom built his life on a dead-end lane: some trees, a brook, and extra land to parcel out to kids. For decades, he made the commute to the city, but most of his relatives followed him home. They were charmed by the place where he chose to raise chickens, plant string beans, and tinker with gadgets in peace.

The Piscataway soil will never be known for producing fine wines, but the tangle of vines on the side of the house was Tom’s own little piece of Provence. On the morning he never grew tired of griping about, he was tending his few feeble grapes. The sun was high, and the only sounds were birds and barking dogs. Perhaps he stopped to wipe his brow; he surely snuck a sip of beer and dreamed about the homemade wine to come. Then a stranger slipped into the garden.

Dapper but fat, the stranger was speckled with dust from the road. He fanned his spiny jowls with his hat, introduced himself without a handshake, and eyed the gawky farmer. Uncreative, as all of them are, he asked about the clump of vines. He expressed delight, this bringer of mighty compliments, for who was nearer to God, who better understood the common good, than a man who coaxed life from the earth?

The vines gave the stranger a sudden idea: He knew a nearby farmer whose cows were a sight to behold. Their output, he said, was impressive—no, not impressive: magical. This farmer had worked miracles with manure, and the kicker was, he always had a little dung to spare. Picture it: these grapes here growing and thriving, while neighbors and family toasted each other’s health with the sweetest wine in town. A diligent public servant, he said, might easily procure a bag of this miracle fertilizer and bestow it upon a neighbor in need. Delivery would be quick, and it wouldn’t cost a penny—as long as that public servant knew he could count on a vote or two come November. Speaking of which, was the lady of the house at home?

The two men exchanged promises. Weeks passed, and then months. Only one man kept his promise. Tom remembered; fifty years later, it still made him angry.

By the time we were children, the suburbs had grown up around us, and Chaucerian frauds were sprouting like mushrooms: Combed-over charlatans who failed to hide their disdain as they loped up our porch steps to beg for support. The part-time mayor who never had time for parades or graduations. The priest who crept through the halls at the old folks’ home, buying cheap votes for his patron by handing out kitchen sponges. The sheriff’s sergeant who stole from the pension fund. Judges who snorted cocaine with their staff. Real-estate developers who hand-fed their pet creatures from town hall to Trenton. We were taught to laugh at them; only as an adult did I learn that “freeloader” was not, in fact, a valid civic office.

But sometimes, on a Tuesday, the grown-ups gathered at the kitchen table and unfolded an arcane sheet filled with drawings of dozens of levers. They studied it, they agreed on a time, and then, dressed as if going to church, they herded us into the Pinto. Sometimes we did go to a church; more often, we drove to a school, or the nearby college campus. Old ladies waited in line, as somber as schoolgirls in black-and-white photos, and old men talked in tones we never heard around the house. No one introduced us to any adults—we were small, badly dressed, and invisible—but we knew to behave while our elders, one by one, stepped behind a curtain. When they emerged, looking mostly unchanged, we all drove home, with no speeches about privileges or duties. The whole of the ritual spoke for itself.

The earth never shook, and our street still went unnoticed, and nobody told me which outcome was worse: the leader who promised a sack full of crap or the leader who failed to provide it. But we learned to detect its distinctive bouquet, that whiff of impending election. My grandfather taught me the grown-up response: get up, and go, and vote—but hold your nose.