Archive for April, 2013


“Now, the mist across the window hides the lines…”

As the dubious “National Poetry Month” limps to its grave, I’ll be glad not to have to pretend that poetry is anything but marginal in American life—but there’s so much good stuff out there that the “Quid Plura?” kobolds and I can’t help but offer a few recommendations. Some things are worth reading (and writing) regardless of popularity or relevance.

If you think there ought to be at least one good poem about the horrific life of the tomato hornworm, then you’re going to like Bruce Taylor. In No End in Strangeness, Taylor shows that even poems of personal reflection need not begin or end with the self, and that there’s much to be learned from peering at bread mold or using a microscope to marvel, as van Leeuwenhoek did, at the zoological wonders in backyard muck. (That poem, “Little Animals,” justified my purchase of this 2011 collection.) Taylor isn’t necessarily a “science poet,” but he also doesn’t indulge that romantic urge to dismiss or dream away technology, and I like that his poetry sent me to YouTube to look at digenea, rotaria, and amoeba for myself. (Check out a review of No End in Strangeness in the Contemporary Poetry Review and a nice appreciation of “Little Animals” by Anita Lahey.)

I first knew Alan Sullivan through the lively, form-conscious translation of Beowulf he published with his partner Tim Murphy, but the Psalms of King David were clearly the work of his life. While dying of cancer, Sullivan partnered with an Israeli textual scholar to translate the Davidic psalms with a particular emphasis on replicating the alliteration and meter of the originals. The resulting poems are lucid, lyrical, and fresh; through Sullivan, King David sings anew. Read selections from the Sullivan Psalter in this review and remembrance by poet Maryann Corbett, and don’t miss Sullivan’s famous villanelle about cancer.

Part Virgil, part “Thundarr the Barbarian,” Frederick Turner’s The New World is a classical epic about an America yet to be—and holy crow, is it fun. Picture this: It’s 400 years in the future, and North America has evolved in bizarre ways. Brutal mutants rule formerly prominent cities (now known as Riots), and religious fanatics threaten the borders of the world’s last civilized place: an enlightened, chivalric, polytheistic republic based in Ohio. According to Dana Gioia, when Turner first published his epic in 1985, it “was met with bewilderment or abuse by academic commentators, even while it earned high praise in nonacademic journals.” Love triangles! Lofty language! Laser swords! Turner does a great job of fusing classical epic with science fiction, and while The New World is great fun, it’s also far more moving and beautiful than I’d expected. Late in the epic, there’s a passage about pregnancy and childbirth that really shows off Turner’s poetic chops; it’s one of countless images that will stick with you long after you put the book aside.

For half a century, autodidact and occasional actor Christopher Logue 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.” Literally irreverent, Logue freed himself from the tyranny of the Homeric text through one curious advantage: his ignorance of ancient Greek. Instead, he based 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. If you like the idea of blatant anachronisms perfectly deployed—Ajax likened to Rommel alongside references to helicopters and camera angles—then start with War Music. This is exciting, engaging stuff. (I wrote about Logue after his death in December 2011.)

Agha Shahid Ali raised the profile of the ghazal in the English-speaking world. Not every poem in Call Me Ishmael Tonight hews strictly to the Persian form, with its unusual use of couplet-based rhyme within, and not at the end of, every other line, but Ali knows when to be flexible, and he never fails to strike strange, memorable chords. Some poets gripe that ghazals are tricky to write, but there’s an impressionistic quality to them that should excite Westerners: A ghazal’s couplets each tell tiny stories that don’t add up to a coherent narrative but do convey a consistent wistfulness that registers somewhere between heartbreak and hope. Ali adored the ghazal, and he makes the form look easy—even as he uses it to document a creeping awareness of his impending death.

Most fantasy fans know Robert E. Howard as the pulp writer who invented Conan the Barbarian, but he was also a prolific poet. Some of his verse served as epigraphs to his own stories, a few poems appeared in magazines like Weird Tales, and most of it was never published at all. Howard’s Collected Poetry is already out of print—I wrote about it a couple years back—but this hearty Selected Poems should be enough for nearly anyone. As you’d expect of a writer in his late twenties who wrote thousands of poems, Howard composed plenty of clunkers, but his best works are loud, brawny fun. We’ve forgotten that poetry need not be about flowers and personal reflection; Howard knew that it’s also the province of Satanic wizards, voodoo queens, blood-flecked Vikings, Puritan swordsmen, and barbarous hordes. He ought to be “the poet laureate of restless boys, whose lives these days lack poetry, but who, as Howard comprehended, crave it more than most.”

“I focus on a face in Samarkand…”

Tom Shippey, Studies in Medievalism XIV (2005), p. 3:

“The issues, however, remain, and no modern reader can quite escape a sense, once again, that the medieval world with all its cruelty and fanaticism has not been entirely buried, is all too capable of returning to haunt us. Medievalisms remain dangerous, and dangerously vital: that is one reason why they require careful and dispassionate study, of the kind they too rarely receive inside or outside the academy.”

Eliza Shapiro, The Daily Beast, April 19, 2013:

Amir Temur, also known as Tamerlane, was a Central Asian ruler and warlord who lived in the 14th and 15th centuries. Scholars estimate that his military campaigns throughout Central Asia, Africa, Europe, and the modern Middle East killed about 17 million people, or 5 percent of the world’s population at the time.

Identifying strongly with Mongol culture, Tamerlane wanted to restore the empire of Genghis Khan and conquered the modern nations of Iran, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Syria, India, and southern regions of Russia. He was a devout Muslim who referred to himself as the “Sword of Islam,” even though he razed many of the Islamic world’s greatest cities at the time.

Although Tamerlane died six centuries ago, his legacy still carries enormous weight throughout Central Asia. The Tsarnaev brothers are Chechen, and Tamerlan, the older of the two, fled Chechnya with his family in the early 1990s to escape the bloodshed that followed the fall of the Soviet Union. He came to the United States with his family in either 2002 or 2003 under refugee status from Kyrgyzstan.

“To say Tamerlane evokes mixed reaction across Central Asia would be an understatement,” Justin Marozzi, author of Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the Worldtold the Daily Beast. “Respected as a national hero in Uzbekistan, site of his imperial capital of Samarkand, he is regarded with loathing—with good reason—by the country’s neighbors, who remember, more than 600 years after his death, the numerous outrages he committed against them.”

Tom Shippey, Studies in Medievalism XVII (2009), p. 52:

“There are . . . many medievalisms in the world, and some of them are as safe as William Morris wallpaper: but not all of them.”

“Look, a golden-winged ship is passing my way…”

My Garden State relatives and friends survived Hurricane Sandy with incredible stories to tell about living in darkness, dealing with looting and theft, and almost being flattened by trees. Over the weekend, while hanging out with family in my great homeland, I drove down the shore to see the worst of it for myself.

The ride along Route 35 was as heartbreaking as I expected, but Jersey attitude is a universal constant. On a sunny April weekend, one of the surviving chunks of the Seaside Heights boardwalk was so busy that a carny let down his guard to marvel at how “jumpin'” it was.

Folks were there to wander around, chow down on pizza and pork roll—and yes, to gawk. If you’re from New Jersey, then someplace you love was likely destroyed.

For example, beyond this sign, there used to be a 200-foot pier.

I’m not about to share gratuitous disaster photos; this blog is about finding medievalism. Even in the aftermath of Sandy, Dame Medievalism staggers drunkenly up and down the Jersey Shore—as long as you know where to look.

Although the storm wiped out Casino Pier in Seaside Heights, its jolly streetside facade survives, keeping out the curious…

…while across the street, a Viking watches and waits.

At Point Pleasant Beach, Jenkinson’s Boardwalk is mostly restored. The tiki bar is open, the zeppoles smell terrific, and the kiddie amusements are whirring away—including this iconic ride that invites you to fling yourself inside a dragon’s gaping chest cavity.

Up the road in Long Branch, my new favorite building defied Sandy: the Church of the Presidents, an 1879 masterpiece of carpenter Gothic that highlights what the Jersey Shore has always been known for: restraint and good taste.

Up in Rumson, on a charmingly landscaped plot around 1,500 feet from the beach, St. George’s-by-the-River looks like a nice, straightforward Episcopal church…

…until you realize that from one corner of its tower looms a gargoyle—the only such monster I can recall with an identifiable, even incontrovertible sex.

This weekend I saw awful sights: oceanside streets still buried in sand, bungalows tossed into piles and smashed, and one of my favorite childhood places destroyed. I also saw residents busy with shovels and saws, workers rebuilding boardwalks with heroic speed, and locals who want the world to know they’re very much open for business. At the risk of irreverence, all I can say is that if a topless gargoyle from 1908 can survive Sandy, the Jersey Shore will too, with the tenacity of medieval myth. It’s amazing what endures.

“World tour, media whore, please the press in Belgium…”

Friends tell me I’m underzealous in promoting my own books. I see this blog as something other than a relentless sales pitch—but since April is the dubious “National Poetry Month,” it’s time to tout two titles. I’ll say only this: If you enjoy the way this blog chases down medievalism in everyday life, then the “Quid Plura?” team of kobolds would be grateful for your support.

In 2009, after promoting my Charlemagne book and working on projects for other people, I was word-weary and exhausted. To make writing fun again—without worrying about marketability, editors’ impressions, or other people’s needs—I started composing poems inspired by the gargoyles and grotesques that adorn my friendly neighborhood neo-Gothic cathedral.

Light verse! Sonnets! Strange soliloquies and songs! Translations from Latin and German! Three years and more than fifty poems later, the folks at the cathedral graciously gave me permission to show their typically publication-shy beasties in print. The resulting book, Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles, is now available at the cathedral gift shop, through Amazon, or (most profitably) directly from me. I’ll donate 75 percent of the net profits to the National Cathedral to help repair damage from the 2011 earthquake. It’s my way of saying thank-you for the many quiet afternoons I’ve spent on the cathedral grounds. (Browse the first drafts of 51 of the 53 poems, and learn more about the book here.)

In 2007, I translated the 15th-century romance “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear,” a 972-line Middle Scots poem about the kerfuffle that ensues when Charlemagne, separated from his entourage by a snowstorm at Christmastime, seeks refuge in the home of a proud and irascible collier (a sort of medieval Tommy Saxondale). Combining folklore motifs with burlesque humor and elements of chansons and chivalric romances, “Rauf Coilyear” is a lively but rarely-read tale of courtesy, hospitality, and knighthood. To my knowledge, it’s also the only medieval romance in which Charlemagne totally gets slapped in the face.

The translation was an experiment: I wanted to see if I could imitate all 75 of the original poem’s tricky rhyming, alliterative, 13-line stanzas in a translation that was both readable and entertaining. (Check out “The Taill of Rauf Coilyear” in its original Middle Scots to see what I was up against.)

The Tale of Charlemagne and Ralph the Collier is now available through Amazon as a $10 paperback. There’s also an e-book specially formatted for the Kindle. (To get a taste of the translation, sample this low-res PDF of the first few pages.)

No one else has translated “Rauf Coilyear” into rhyming, alliterative, modern English verse, and I doubt anyone else will be nutty enough to try—so whether you’re a longtime reader of this blog, a student of medieval literature, a fan of old-fashioned poetic formalism, or a collector of truly obscure manifestations of Charlemagniana, I hope you’ll find this translation a satisfying read. Despite what Mamillus claimed, sometimes a sad tale isn’t best for winter after all.