Archive for December, 2015


“No ceiling bearing down on me, save the starry sky above…”

For family and friends—and for me—2015 was a year of changes, challenges, windfalls, and work. It was also, to my surprise, the year this blog experienced something of a renaissance. How did this happen? I don’t know, but behold: highlights from the year that was, a flurry of medievalism, poetry, books, and other laudable follies.

I questioned whether medievalists really mean it when they say “it is clearly time to lower the drawbridge from the ivory tower and reconnect with the public.” When one scholar struggled with writing for wider audiences, his frustration reminded me of trenchant comments by Norman “Inventing the Middle Ages” Cantor.

In any case, scholars should stop being shocked that the public doesn’t use the word “medieval” precisely.

“What is the future of an art when the majority of its audience must be paid to participate?” So asked Dana Gioia, pondering the academicization of poetry.

This year, I tracked down several excellent poetry books that deserve more readers:

  • Science And by Diane Furtney, who writes in her own weird, compelling idiom inspired by geology, radiation, epigenetics, quantum physics, and other verse-worthy wonders.
  • New Crops from Old Fields, a wide-ranging collection of strong work by eight medievalist poets.
  • Mid Evil, Maryann Corbett’s book-length prayer for inspiration, confidence, purpose, and grace.
  • Poems to Learn by Heart, a Disney anthology that isn’t half-bed despite its assembly by committee.

Can Dante save your life? I reviewed a book that answers si. Cynthia Haven at Stanford weighed in on Dante, too, with a sobering take on his timeless appeal.

“They are gone! Like shadows have these men of might sunk on the earth.” A sucker for ubi sunt outbursts, I dug up Rob of the Bowl, a forgotten novel about colonial Maryland.

I cheered for Marly Youmans’ latest novel, Maze of Blood, literary fiction that honors a pulp author as an artist in his own right.

In Georgia, I visited a building where the strands of Southern medievalism rise and converge.

In Virginia, I outlined a Charlemagne-shaped hole in a 17th-century play.

“They’ll find it when they need it”: in Pennsylvania, I tarried at a wondrous stone folly.

I perpetuated a folly of my own: trying to document medieval America with an antique Polaroid.

In my garden, I spotted a monster from medieval Provence.

To my great delight, classical guitarist and music student Katie Holmes turned one of my gargoyle poems into a surreal new work of art.

When I moved out of my D.C. neighborhood after more than 20 years, I saw what it means to make your home in one small place and come to know it intimately.

In response, I started “The Beallsville Calendar.” Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems (and Anglo-Saxon alliterative, metrical verse), it’s a yearlong account of moving from the city to the country. I’m posting it here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the Prologue, then September, October, and November. (December cometh anon.)

Thanks to all of you who read, linked, commented, or browsed this site in 2015!  I may never be sufficiently prolific to become anyone’s must-read, but I’ll do my best in 2016 to make your eyeballs grateful that they came here.

“Take my shoes off, and throw them in the lake…”

[This is the fourth part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. Inspired by ancient and medieval calendar poems, it appears here as I write it, in monthly installments. First read the prologue and then September and October. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

NOVEMBER

Thick with leaf-light, the third month turns.
Trees sparkle like a torch passing
Over ancient gold, or else they smolder,
As if ripe pumpkins exploded from the glare
Of branches steeped in blood and rust—
And then, in a flicker, all fires go out
As heaven turns over the earth. The world
Lays bare in clumps of clay and dust
Its bristly roots, like the bones and hair
Of a stringy cow picked clean in a day.
We finally see what flimsy leaves
Papered over: infinite clearings
Of ravenous deer. They run at twilight
In the climbing sky, where they scatter and roll.
Just look—however you line up the stars,
Their forms converge: the fleeting spots
Of wobbly fawns that freeze, blinded
By a blast of headlamps; the hurtling trace
Of a buck escaping a skulking herdsman
And his ringing bow; the broken neck
Of a flailing doe that dropped from its sconce
To a curbside ditch; and dizzying others
Rutting and writhing, restless and starved.
The night out here spawns nothing else.
On moonlit roads, we mumble a prayer:
Forgive us our longing to glimpse something more,
Like the bumbling grace of a bear in the trash.

In an arid bed of brick and clay,
The dill shows antlers of its own; the spokes
Twirl and open for ochre seeds.
Sagging milkweed musters its nerve
And answers its calling in clustered silks
That spin on a whim and spill to the earth
Like frost and down from the flick of a tail.
Where serrated leaves sprawled luscious and green,
The oregano blackens; a rigid hoof
Can rot like mushrooms in the muck and rain.
A musty weirdness weighs down the air,
The gasp of corn decaying, and when
We walk by the river, where wiry branches
Hang over the banks like baitless rods,
And something clever surfaces fast
With a splash that wakens the weedy strand
And we turn, we are always eternally late.
Retracing our steps to the stagnant canal
That binds the lines of both horizons,
We stalk the life that eludes us yet,
As thin and as shy as shadows, but find
Not one wet track of a trudging bear,
Just our own, directed the opposite way.

Old monks, as slight as the mice that hide
In our rain-rattled walls, once lamented
That men found grace in this month of blood.
Some chased the scent of sacred brawn,
Wild-eyed horsemen who whipped their hounds
To draw out boars from dingy thickets
And into the open, where iron pikes
Pitted their ribs like perpetual rain.
Others eyed their ailing cattle
Or war-worn horses, and whetted their knives.
At dawn, a heap of heads tumbled
Snout-side down into dank trenches,
Leering, defiant of life in the dark.
Their work endures. The world prevails:
As winter whispers, wheat is sprouting
Green and fearless in fields we were certain
Were wasting graves—and in wayside pastures
White with the morning wind, squinting
Through mist and drizzle, drowsy horses
Refute the cold in comical shirts.
What visitors see on a single day
Is only a postcard, a passing calm
That flatters the traveler who takes it home.
Watch it churn for weeks, and be still:
You know it may never notice you back.
It lives for itself, unsettled, a presence
Of furious change. For the chance it offers,
We give our thanks. Then three familiars
Creep from the bramble, creatures of promise:
A green-eyed owl with an orange breast
And a face of mouse-brown fur; a pony
That tests its teeth on the tousled hedge
Of an apple-gold mane in the evening haze;
And something bigger, blue in the moonlight,
A hunger in search of a home. At dawn
It lopes and lingers, but leaves no impression
Of root-red claws in the cold, thick mud.
I want to see this: The watchful oaks
Part, as they let it pass in solemnity
Through our bleary grove. When it glimpses one of us
Taking a picture, it tries to smile.

“…in the churches and houses, in the townships and mines…”

Faced with an unsavory world, what can one do? For starters, we can promote and share the best work of other souls. Here’s an assortment of links I’ve been collecting for a while—some medieval, others poetic, all of them earnest, engaging, and good.

At his blog “The Winds of War,” Daniel Franke offers a long, rational, and rather contrarian take on the connections between medievalism, the humanities, ISIS, and politicians.

Where can you find medieval buildings brought piece by piece to the United States? This remarkably well-researched Atlas Obscura article will tell you. (Well done, Brianna Nofil and Jake Purcell!)

A Clerk of Oxford ponders winter in Middle English poetry and “the power of the untranslatable negatives.”

With neither piety nor snark, Dale Favier pens the rare topical poem I like: “Standing With France.”

“But I’m still lonely for him”: Flavia collaborates with a long-gone scholar she knows only through his work.

Jake Seliger checks out Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz.

Novelist and poet Marly Youmans pens a personal reflection on motherhood and a life in the arts.

Cynthia Haven makes the case for Rossetti’s “In the Bleak Midwinter” as the “best Christmas carol ever.”

Levi Stahl finds a fine passage on freedom and thinking from a book about Montaigne.

First Known When Lost mingles poems with art to make sense of acceptance in autumn.