Archive for May, 2015


“The spheres are in commotion, the elements in harmony…”

Poetry rarely springs from scientific marginalia—but Diane Furtney’s 2014 collection Science And is, amazingly, an answer to a Richard Feynman footnote:

[F]ar more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?

So here is a book Feynman just might have praised: 80 pages of poems composed in an idiom of Furtney’s own devising, “radically enjambed, off-rhymed, non-metrical couplet[s],” formal poetry that, like the natural world, doesn’t always seem formal. I’m reluctant to call this book “science poetry,” which wrongly suggests gimmickry or lack of artistry, when it’s a wonderful and frequently successful experiment—and, in its imagery, downright radical. By seeking inspiration not in the usual stale and shallow allusions but in geology, radiation, epigenetics, and quantum physics, Furtney reminds us that poetry ought to offer the infinite depth of a fractal.

Still, most of the poems in Science And are not specifically about science; this mind-bending material simply gives Furtney fresh ways to write about familiar subjects. Looking at computer models that show it’s theoretically possible to turn a hollow sphere inside out without creasing or breaking it, she crafts a metaphor about a troubled sibling relationship: “curved parallel lines, each in / loves motion, which has to exclude reverse, / and that meet on the far side of the universe.” Elsewhere, a cruel father reminds us that evolution isn’t just about endurance, but also, chillingly, about endings:

But, because time

moves in a straight line through us, the justice
of biology, of development, is

that every action, with or without thought,
reorganizes and delimits what can be brought

into the future, including one’s ability to know it.

[…]

By his sixties, none of his children would consent

to emplace him in the future; none
of the four would have a child. His horizon

finally, at eighty-seven, gripped
his identity like a mummy’s wrap,

his self-absorption so complete, so assiduous,
there was no need—tending his needs—for anyone else

to give him an invested thought. “Justice”
does not have to be hoped for; it is ubiquitous

and emergent.

Elsewhere, a note explains that the poem “A Man, a Boy, a Stick, a Goose with Goslings” was inspired by serotonin and norepinephrine, chemicals that help us with memory and open us to new emotional reactions, but the poem itself isn’t a neurobiological study; instead, it’s a thoughtful and disquieting narrative about what children learn from their fathers, the complex irrationality of human parenting compared to the behavior of our fellow animals, and the cycles we’d break if we could. Other poets would turn an encounter between goose and human families into something romantic and trite, but Furtney adds a hint of biochemistry; she wants us to marvel at what wildly intricate creatures we are.

In the spirit of classic science fiction, Furtney asks “what if?” and invites us into her thought-experiments. “The Ark” compares skeptics of space exploration to a Roman shrugging off the invention of a grain harvesting machine; “Some Generations” brings a rare warmth to futurism, insisting that even as humanity tinkers with genetics and explores the stars, we’ll remain a flawed, ambitious, quixotic race:

But we are young, just some generations
from the white winds and little, worked stones

of the Pleistocene.
And we have time. At fourteen

billion years, the universe is crisp
and fresh, and we’ve changed down to the grist

and have immensities
of more green time for change. It may be

one of your descendants—deft,
confident, reliable in emotional depth,

able at seventy to learn Chinese
or Navajo in just three weeks,

seriously ill maybe twice
in a two-hundred-year life, spliced

without breaking genes to inhibit,
a little, our recidivist

midbrain conflicts and maladaptive
selfishness; better, then, at love

but incomplete still, like all
the sprawling future…

“The Good” asks us to imagine the trial of a woman charged with murder for opening a vat of genetically engineered “almost-finished tissue” that was supposed to become a new breed of humans destined to colonize a distant, icy planet:

As prosecutor, I’d claim any deed

that levels our spiral staircase or props it
to go nowhere on one world, is the opposite

of good, is a form of murder
of our past as well as our future,

while an act that adds to the molecular good
allows two things: species adulthood

and a destiny worth the name.

Fond of pondering the personal within the cosmic, Furtney leaves the defense to us—with the sly, unsettling reminder that the defendant has two non-hypothetical children of her own.

There’s unabashed humor in Science And, too. In “Cells,” Furtney wonders, as Philip K. Dick might have before her: What if the chair at a coffee house had a chip that made it sufficiently aware of you to anticipate your order? If it could crack jokes and be civil and entertaining, wouldn’t it be far more pleasant than that ignorant, fussy, scientifically illiterate woman at a local ceramics exhibition?

Furtney is the only poet in the world who would use 42 couplets to bring readers on a tour of the Carbinoniferous Period of the Late Paleozoic—and why not? Science And makes clear that poetry can complement illustration, sculpture, prose, and other creative forms in showing us a place where oxygen was one-third of the air and damselflies with three-foot wings alighted near ten-foot ferns. Of course, Furtney is also the only poet who, with stark, unromantic beauty, could imagine lovers united eternally—and literally!—as particles swept up in a supernova:

And one glowing day,
my love, when the sun is blowing away

and a similar if warmer breeze
has begun to rotate its long, slender keys,

we and other blue-star particles
will loosen in our Tinkertoy mesh and travel

into wider space again
—stay close to me, I’ll stay close if I can—

arcing out in ionized light,
freebooting amidst bits of this white

moon, en route to our heirs…

The poems in Science And read like the ghazals of a Martian expat. They’re difficult, intricate, and baffling; they also capture a full spectrum of invisible emotions belied by a cramped term like “science poetry.” Diane Furtney finds delight and solace in thinking, wondering, making connections; in her poetry, we are small, but not insignificant. Through her efforts to craft what she calls a “poetry of reality,” she shares a mystic’s openness to the infinite, and I hope she won’t be taken aback if I suggest that she offers an alternate route to the heavens where mystical poets hope to abide: a universe of amazement, revelation, and truth.

“We’ll find the speck of truth in each riddle…”

When you write a blog that focuses mostly on medievalism and poetry, you accept that you dwell in a narrow and unnoticed niche. Then a book subtitled “Eight Medievalist Poets” lands in your lap, and you revel in the rare pleasure of finally being somebody’s ideal reader. Published by Stairwell Books, a tiny but prolific Yorkshire-centric press, New Crops from Old Fields summons medievalists from Britain and America, most of them scholars of literature, and bids them sing. The resulting poems are often bookish, but not academic; they’re as vital as the era behind them once was.

Editor and contributor Oz Hardwick, for example, plays with a motley assortment of medieval tropes: pagan fertility, Christian prayer, Arthurian visions, Germanic adventurers—you name it. I can’t tell if his “Journey from the West” is a translation from an Old Norse poem by Sigvatr Þórðarson or just inspired by it, but this moving paean to homecoming after travel and toil is just serpentine enough to evoke skaldic poetry without being cryptic and cramped:

Wind’s servant, across the shifting hills
I return, richer in words and welcomes,
giving gifts undiminishing, gaining
grace of place, proud amongst peers.

I have fared far, fought clinging coils
of earth’s duplicitous dragon, found
home, the giver of true gifts:
one word resolves all riddles.

Another poem, “The Seafarer’s Return,” blurs the rhyme schemes of two types of sonnets and staggers the meter to capture the relief and grace of a second, harder-earned homecoming:

At your door I stand, tongue tied in weed,
footsore, with blistered palms and a distant stare,
my shoulders stooped with the weight of my journey. I need
more than I can ask. But first, share
these far-gathered gifts of shell and stone
whose value resides in the grace of you alone.

In Hardwick’s poetry, life teems just beneath the surface: the Green Man wakes for sex and then slumbers, obscene wooden beasts cavort in the choir at a Belgian basilica, and we beg to behold the true nature of things:

And I pray: not for the voice, not
for the touch, taste, sight, smell
of sound, but for the sharp annunciation
of fire, the heart’s bright kindling,
the understanding beyond understanding.

Hardwick’s craving for the cosmic highlights the fact that in an era of Ren faires, cosplay, and fantasy LARPing, popular medievalism often omits a crucial aspect of the Middle Ages—but in New Crops from Old Fields, religion is omnipresent. Hannah Stone, an expert on eastern Christianity, contributes poems inspired by desert hermits and the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451, where “stiff robes chafe; their doctrines / don’t sit comfortably, either.” She’s capable of a lighter touch, too, as she shows in a funny, Browning-like soliloquy about a cat in a Mercian church, and in a poem that culminates in a call to pray for the soul of Worcester pilgrim reduced to a headless skeleton in boots.

Other pilgrims pace restlessly through this book: Jane Beal finds poetry when she visits landmarks in Rome, but her most striking entry in New Crops from Old Fields consists solely of questions Muslims and Jews asked her in the Holy Land. The poem is a remarkable distillation of the sort of grace and charity a pilgrimage should foster: a diminution of the self, and the generosity of letting others speak. Throughout her poetry, Beal makes the medieval personal—a fox on the roadside reminds her of the Reynard of fable, and she writes in the voices of Caedmon and Dante—and her destination is the answer to an intimate question: “What shape does the shadow of my life form / when I take my stand in the light of God?”

Likewise, Joe Martyn Ricke recounts his eagerness to observe the celebration of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is how he finds himself in an Indiana church “with what felt like half a million Mexicans, / I mean at least a hundred of us standing and only one of us a very tall gringo.” His pilgrimage culminates in manic, ecstatic verse that wavers between dreamlike and drunk:

And it’s not exactly a miracle that everything smells like roses,
since there are perhaps a New Year’s Day parade’s worth of them
piled together under her feet. And, yes, sometimes the celestial music
is slightly out of tune or the trumpets are just obviously showing off.
But it really doesn’t matter about the roses or the guitars or the outfits
because you find yourself mumbling,
I’ve been bleeding a long time. Such a long time.

Elsewhere, Ricke takes a 15th-century lyric about Adam and “translates” it into a rambling, Beat-like poem that name-checks Harry Belafonte, while his “Four Sinful Hymns for the Love of Saint Mary Magdalene” imagine the biblical figure’s conversion and salvation from her own perspective, gritty and physical. Ricke is more playful than the other overtly religious poets in this book, but he’s never irreverent; his earthy exuberance is worthy of Chaucer.

Several poets in this collection show a strong commitment to form. M. Wendy Hennequin retells the story of Andromache as an Anglo-Saxon poet might have done, in lines that resemble Old English alliterative verse. In the rhyme-royal septets of “The Bard’s Tale,” an Irish maiden appears at Camelot at Christmastime and tells a story that astounds King Arthur. Her tale ends on an emotionally ambiguous note, as if it really were composed in another, less knowable time. “My scholar attempts to understand the past; my poet tries to sing with them,” Hennequin explains, and her knack for the latter is clear in a light and lovely ballade for a scribe who joyfully works through the night:

How glorious the colors, green and gold,
The black and scarlet, purple and the blue!
Though deep the night and bitter bites the cold,
And candles smoke, and colors shine untrue,
My dancing hands a woman’s face imbue
With living truth of spirit and of sight.
My hands in darkness work; my heart, in light.

Working furtively is a recurring theme in this book. I recalled Jane Chance from assigned readings in a graduate seminar on Beowulf, but I hadn’t known she was a poet; appropriately, her medieval-inspired poetry laments the strain of conflicting roles. In “The Night the Books Fell,” a shelf collapses when a retired scholar is a continent away. The ponderousness of her scholarly responsibilities by “the tough edge of discipline / slackened,” she is

relieved of the obligation
of learnedness
and granted the divine gift of
pleasure in being
simply
human.

In another poem, Chance gives voice to the unicorn in a tapestry at the Met. Chained to a tree, he too feels the weight of his work and is “tired of being symbolic”:

He’d like to sleep a little, or play with others,
leave town and get a little dirty,
have a cool drink, find a girl,
let down his horn.

Burdened scholars, restrained beasties, weary French women, moat-encircled ladies, costumes and masks—Chance’s take on academic life is poignant and personal but not self-pitying. “Given scholars’ training to maintain objectivity and the life of the mind, medievalism helps create an imaginary shield against personal revelation,” she warns in her introduction, but that doesn’t diminish the optimism of “Aventure,” in which a young knight sets out amid “the sun bursting on the horizon / like a promise / in the long summer of his youth.” Another poem, concise and original, likens the migration of animals on the Serengeti to the stained-glass sunlight and sense of belonging inside a cathedral. It also prompts a question: Is the Serengeti the subject, or the Gothic nave? The answer doesn’t matter: balancing them is the point, and Chance writes with a freedom and lightness for not having to choose between “you and the wildebeests / in endless repetition, season in and season out, / natural music in time, in time.”

Other poets in this collection wear their medievalism less showily, using the past to buttress poems about the here and now. Imitating Anglo-Saxon alliterative lines, Pam Clements casts snowy owls as feathered Vikings to dramatize the birds’ migration in vast numbers from the Arctic to the northeastern United States. In “Anhaga,” she draws upon words and concepts from Old English poetry for the lament of a Yankee in the antebellum South who sounded to me like a battlefield ghost:

Palmettos clap thin plats
where wind should keen and wail
that anyone so loved should have the gall to die.

Here, the go bare-legged in November
in fleshy-bosomed air
Anhaga, eardstapa —
it might be any season.

In “Wodewose,” Clements uses the Green Man, “Lord of Kudzu / and Dandelion,” to evoke the fecundity and lushness of a springtime trail, but the poem could easily be read with no understanding of the title—but then I think an adventurous reader could easily enjoy New Crops from Old Fields without any background in the Middle Ages at all. If published elsewhere, the eerie personal verses of A.J. Odasso probably wouldn’t strike most readers as the work of a medievalist, but they’re precise, haunting dream-visions with diction and alliteration inspired by late medieval poets. Odasso’s inclusion makes a worthwhile point: the medieval often lingers well below the surface, where it nourishes something peculiar and new.

If I were forced at sword-point to gripe about New Crops from Old Fields, I might mention the introductions provided by each poet: most of them are too jargony and too reluctant to let the poetry stand on its own. But so what? The range and heft of these poems surprised me—and as someone with a bias toward formalism, I was cheered to find free verse that was free for good poetic reasons. As scholars who work line by line through texts in eldritch languages, these poets brood over words—what they mean, what they insinuate, how they sound on the tongue. What they do with that lore is delightful. The Middle Ages are a golden trove strewn with trinkets and bones; this book proves it’s a blessing instead of a curse.

“…with this really ragged notion that you’d return…”

“I don’t much like poetry. Never have.” So declares Rod Dreher on the first page of How Dante Can Save Your Life, a memoir about that least sensational of modern experiences: reading a medieval book. As Dreher works his way through the Divine Comedy, he finds out how wrong he was—about poetry, about his family, about his failure to love as his religion demands. I’m tempted to call this book Dante and the Art of Fanboat Maintenance, but I can’t recall another recent example of a hesitant reader coming to Dante on such quirky and personal terms. People often use medievalism to escape their lives; Dreher looks to a medieval poet to help him find his again.

By his own telling, Dreher reached middle age feeling dreary and lost. After several years as a big-city journalist and pundit, he had moved with his wife and children back to his Louisiana hometown, where he never fit in. In the aftermath of his sister’s death, he butted heads with his family, especially his father, a sportsman and mechanic who loved him but was ill-equipped to have a bookish philosophy geek as a son. Dreher’s homecoming weighed him down with fatigue, depression, and chronic mononucleosis; a long religious journey from “mild, neighborly Methodism” to Catholicism to Eastern Orthodoxy brought little peace.

And then, in 2013, he picked up the Jean and Robert Hollander translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

This medieval masterpiece, perhaps the greatest poem ever written, reached me when I thought I was unreachable, and lit the way out of a dark wood of depression, confusion, and a stress-released autoimmune disease that, had it persisted, would have dangerously degraded my health.

Dante helped me understand the mistakes and mistaken beliefs that brought me to this dead end. He showed me that I had the power to change, and revealed to me how to do so. Most important of all, the poet gave me a renewed vision of life.

Like Dante, Dreher recounts his journey so others can find their way out of gloom:

Dante Alighieri wrote a book explaining how to do this—a user’s manual for the soul, you might call it—and cast it into the sea of time. There it remained, bobbing on the currents, until I came across it on a shelf I rarely browse in a bookstore I almost never visit. It was a message in a bottle. It was a sign. It was a gift and a source of grace that redeemed my exile and turned a tragedy that very nearly broke me into my own divina commedia—a story with a happy ending.

Although Dreher delved into scholarship to understand Dante more completely, his approach to the Divine Comedy is academically unfashionable. “This is not a literary analysis, it is a personal view,” he explains. “It’s a self-help book for people who may not read self-help books, but who are curious and delight in journeys of self-discovery along roads not often taken.”

The notion that medieval literature has therapeutic value will strike some readers as strange, but Dreher’s intentions aren’t trivial, nor are they unprecedented: Americans have long looked to Dante for fortitude and hope. In a 1983 issue of Studies of Medievalism devoted to Dante in the modern world, editor Kathleen Verduin explains that many 19th-century Americans saw Dante as a proto-Protestant. The Transcendentalists were beguiled by him; Hawthorne alluded to him; Melville found him “the infernal guide to ever-deepening realms of moral complexity”; Longfellow sought solace in translating him; and Charles Eliot Norton promoted his work at Harvard, founded an academic society around him, and praised him for representing “the mediaeval spirit found in the highest and completest expression”—namely, an ahistorical vision of independence, individualism, and curiosity he hoped would prosper in post-Civil War America.

In No Place of Grace: Antimodernism and the Transformation of American Culture, 1880-1920, T.J. Jackson Lears suggests that 19th-century America craved Dante’s moral certainty:

Nor was fascination with Dante confined to the Brahmin few. The poet was acclaimed and interpreted by critics in the established press, eulogized and imitated by dozens of magazine versifiers. The Dante vogue pointed not only to aestheticism or vaporous romanticism, but to widespread moral and religious concerns . . . By ignoring the scholastic superstructure of the Divine Comedy, commentators were able to join Dante with simpler medieval types. Like the saints and peasants, he became a prophet of spiritual certainty in an uncertain, excessively tolerant age.

After American Protestants dunked Dante in their own ecstatic rivers, Eliot and Pound dwelt largely on his words, adoring him as a poet who wed precision to faith. More recently, the Big D has thrived in a popular culture beguiled by mysticism and the occult. Oh yes: You can pop “Dante’s Inferno Balls” candy while playing the Dante’s Inferno game for XBox or Playstation (with accompanying action figure), or you can also check out how two science-fiction authors Americanized Dante to make his Hell literally escapable.

Dreher doesn’t singlehandedly rescue Dante from pop-culture hell, but he does re-baptize him—even as he sincerely hopes to intrigue and even assist the secular:

Though the Commedia was written by a faithful Catholic, its message is universal. You don’t have to be a Catholic, or any sort of believer, to love it and to be changed by it. And though mine is a book that’s ultimately about learning to live with God, it is not a book of religious apologetics; it is a book about finding one’s own true path. Like the Commedia it celebrates, this book is for believers who struggle to hold onto their faith when religious institutions have lost credibility. It’s a book for people who have lost faith in love, in other people, in the family, in politics, in their careers, and in the possibility of worldly success. Dante has been there too. He gets it.

Dreher is so moved by the Divine Comedy that he hopes to share Dante’s poem with everyone, but I wonder how many irreligious readers will want to accompany him to Paradiso by way of this book’s many Christian lessons:

The pilgrim Dante’s journey teaches him that the source of all the chaos and misery is disordered desire. If everyone, including himself, loved as they should love, they would love God more than they loved themselves and their passions. To harmonize with the will of God requires us to overcome our passions and our ego, to make room for the transforming love of God.

If the life Dante saves may be your own, then it’s one in which the spiritual, the physical, and the emotional prove inseparable. For that reason, Dreher didn’t trek through the Divine Comedy alone; he leaned on his priest and his therapist, and his attempt to deal with his problems by walking parallel paths shapes the tone and approach of this book. Each chapter ends with a bald recapitulation of the lesson, pithy paragraphs sequestered in a box that make this otherwise beautifully designed hardcover (with a cloth cover from a 1596 edition of Dante, color art on the endpapers, and well-placed Gustave Doré illustrations) look like a mass-market self-help book. Dreher writes clearly and his lessons are plain, so these summations feel superfluous and a little condescending.

Because Dreher is a brainy writer with rich material to draw from, I was disappointed when he sometimes fell back on trite self-help metaphors that poorly serve his profound subject: “What you do with that suffering determines whether or not you remain an earthbound caterpillar or metamorphose into a butterfly”—or: “When you are the captain of your own soul, though, and have cast aside all the maritime charts showing you the safe route through dark waters, navigating only by your own stars, it’s easy to make a shipwreck of your life.”

By contrast, here he is in full force, writing with conviction and insight:

Without quite realizing what was happening to me, I gave myself over completely to Dante, absorbing the personalities of his figures and identifying with them as I considered how my life and my sins were like theirs. Brunetto Latini, that marvelous egotist, reminded me of a favorite professor, charming and vain. Put him in an ice cream suit and give him a bourbon-filled julep cup and Farinata, a bastard of peacock magnificence, could hold court on the front porch of a Feliciana plantation manse. All of these people, these medieval Tuscans the wayfaring poet met on the road, were so alien yet so familiar. At times I felt like the pilgrim standing before the bas-reliefs on the holy mountain, not entirely sure if these figures were living or dead.

Dreher may not be writing a Christian apologia, but he does argue strenuously for a matter of faith I find to be true: that we’re separated from medieval people by fashion and time, but we’re one with them in our comically defective humanity.

How Dante Can Save Your Life is more than a defense and interpretation of a great poem. It’s a memoir of one man trying to find a religion where he feels at home; a record of overcoming physical and spiritual malaise; a compelling account of a subtle but pernicious family conflict; and a candid confession of one man’s failings and sins. It’s an uncomfortably intimate book, but full of surprises: At one point, Dreher even tells an eerie bayou ghost story! It comes out of nowhere, a reminder that real life isn’t as tidy as literature, but rich in mysteries beyond our understanding.

Put off by the self-help angle, a friend asked me if she should skip Dreher’s book and go straight to Dante instead. Readers at ease with medieval thinking should probably do just that, but others who shrink from a gust of obscure names and notions may find this book a worthy prelude. Lucid and accessible, How Dante Can Save Your Life is aimed less at aesthetically minded literary types like me and more at folks like Dreher’s dad—intelligent but reluctant readers who rarely let themselves be moved by art. Fittingly, Dreher uses that gulf in his family to try to bridge a similar chasm in the culture, bringing the Divine Comedy to those who’d never otherwise give it a look. “You will not be the same after reading it,” he insists. “How could you be? All of life is in there.”