Archive for January, 2016


“And all the nobody people, and all the somebody people…”

When I taught Beowulf, the Kalevala, and Balkan poetry, I would ask my students if America had an epic. We would brainstorm stories that were epic in scope, but we concluded that the United States didn’t seek its identity in just one national story. Fortunately, that hasn’t stopped good poets from writing epics for hypothetical Americas: first Frederick Turner’s wild 1985 epic poem The New World, the tale of North America 400 years in the future, and his follow-up epic about the terraforming of Mars; and then Marly Youmans’ moving and mystical Thaliad, a 2012 epic about a group of children who rebuild civilization after a fiery apocalypse. I loved both books—and I’m pleased (and surprised) to add another hypothetical-America epic to the list.

The Epic of Clair is about—well, I’ll let the opening of the poem declare its plot and purpose, since it does so with charming, perfect clarity:

Heavens, help me tell the story about
that girl-runner who saved her parents’ house
and beat her own anxiety problems
by running messages for the witches
after the oil economy’s collapse.

Yes—it’s an alternate 2008, only the wealthy have electricity and cars, and suburbanites with a knack for backyard gardening now face food raids by hungry marauders. The teenage daughter of a laid-off English teacher in a run-down corner of St. Paul, Minnesota, faces the collapse of her neighborhood, her household, and even her social life—until the end of the world turns out to be the best thing that ever happened to her, and she proves to be one of the best things ever to happen to her disintegrating city.

The Epic of Clair is short—too short—so I don’t want to write a full review of it, lest I spoil its many clever surprises, especially the secrets of the Twin Cities’ nigh-omnipotent witches. I will say, though, that its author, Maryland teacher E.C. Hansen, really hears the language of teenagers: it’s demotic, but with the loftiest aspirations. (The full, redundant title of the book—The Epic of Clair: An Epic Poem—conveys what my middle-aged memory recalls as the naive and pretentious nobility of the teenage mind.) “Rosy-fingered Dawn” even shows up, literally, as a wealthy, boy-crazy teen with her hands in “a bag / of red, spicy cheese curls—the best!” Hansen serves up epic similes drawn directly from such teen experiences as the state cross-country championship; his characters quote that staple of ninth-grade English, Romeo and Juliet; and the poet himself gleefully mocks the young-adult vogue for glittery, tragic vampires.

Sometimes The Epic of Clair feels as if it were even written by a teen, no doubt because Hansen’s students inspired it. “I wanted to invent a future so much better than the popular titles on the store shelves—dystopian science fiction, miserable memoirs, vampire novels—ever allowed them to expect,” he explains on the acknowledgements page. Good for Hansen for defying horrible marketing trends; kids need stories in which something matters other than impulse and emotion. Clair learns that adult responsibility is worlds better than teen melodrama—imagine that!—and the practiced skills that earn you sports trophies or a high-school writing prize may point you to your far-off purpose after all.

Throughout the poem, Clair helps human ingenuity prevail in the face of cultural, technological, and economic collapse, and Hansen suggests that erudition and education can lead to a more civilized form of warfare in which nobody dies. The world he creates always teeters on the edge of atrocity, and violence does erupt, but I found myself wondering if Hansen’s depiction of mostly peaceful chaos, which flatters the Twin Cities, is plausible. Now I’m not sure it matters. The Epic of Clair is a generous poem about decency and grace—about being generous to neighbors, unreliable friends, strangers, and even enemies. I hope I never find out if this epic poem accurately portrays human nature, but I’d rather live in the world E.C. Hansen hopes would arise than in most of the likely alternatives. The Epic of Clair would be a fine teaching tool for high-school kids—but it also usefully reminds the rest of us that youthful optimism is a devastating weapon all its own.

“In the thunder crash, you’re a thousand minds, within a flash…”

[Poet Christopher Logue died in 2011 without completing his eccentric and riveting adaptation of The Iliad—but as of last week, all of the published volumes plus the new bits he was working on are finally available between one set of covers. Logue was a remarkable storyteller; you can get a sense of knack for using modern poetry to its fullest from this post I wrote in 2011 after seeing a rare staging of part of “War Music” at a tiny theater in New York City.]

For half a century, autodidact and occasional actor Christopher Logue has 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.” For a few more days, New Yorkers have a rare chance to see Logue’s Homer come to life: With the poet’s approval, director Jim Milton has adapted the first 70 pages, “Kings,” for two actors on a mostly-bare stage. The production, at the Workshop Theater through April 3, is a wild, addictive hour that does remarkable justice to its source.

Literally irreverent, Logue frees himself from the tyranny of the Homeric text through one curious advantage: his ignorance of ancient Greek. Instead, he’s basing 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. Sensitive to the distinction between scholarship and artistry, Logue calls what he’s doing an “account,” not a translation—and if that makes classicists cringe, they’re missing the point.

Known for his gleeful use of anachronism—like his description of Ajax, often cited by reviewers, as “[g]rim underneath his tan as Rommel after ‘Alamein”—Logue deploys evocative modern language to create quick, crisp snapshots. Here’s Agamemnon’s line-up of champions from All Day Permanent Red, a slim volume of battle poetry published in 2003 with a title nicked from a Revlon ad:

Nestor, his evening star.
Ajax, his silent fortress. Good—even on soft sand.
Odysseus (you know him), small but big.
Fourth—grizzled and hook-tap nosed—the king of Crete,
Idomeneo, who:
“Come on!”
Would sign a five-war-contract on the nod.

Logue’s Homer resounds with cries of war, but he also crafts domestic scenes with a deftness that other poets should envy. In “The Husbands,” an exchange between Zeus and a petulant Athena neatly reveals the condescension that defines their relationship:

The armies wait.

“Dearest Pa-pa, the oath said one should die.
The Trojan was about to die. He did not die.
Nobody died. Therefore the oath is dead.
Killed by a Trojan. Therefore Troy goes down.”

Drivers conducting underbody maintenance.

“Father, You must act.
Side with the Trojans, Greece will say,
Were we fools to believe in His thunder?
Why serve a God who will not serve His own?”

And giving her a kiss, He said:

“Child, I am God,
Please do not bother me with practicalities.”

When battle calls, Logue can craft a scene as thrilling as anything in 300, combining heroic deeds with colloquial diction while never undercutting the tone, as in this passage from “Patroclea”:

The air near Ajax was so thick with arrows, that,
As they came, their shanks tickered against each other;
And under them the Trojans swarmed so thick
Ajax outspread his arms, turned his spear flat,
And simply pushed. Yet they came clamouring back until
So many Trojans had a go at him
The iron chaps of Ajax’ helmet slapped his cheeks
To soft red pulp, and his head reached back and forth
Like a clapper inside a bell made out of sword blades.
Maybe, even with no breath left,
Big Ajax might have stood it yet; yet
Big and all as he was, Prince Hector meant to burn that ship:
And God was pleased to let him.

Now either you like this sort of thing or you don’t. I happen to love Logue’s knack for trotting out modern gimmickry not for its own sake, but in the service of narrative— and while Logue finds humor in his ancient source, he never treats Homer like a joke. Both Homer and Logue understand, from different angles, the maddening mindset of warriors. Jim Milton concedes its relevance, too; it’s why his adaptation of “Kings” is so good.

Milton is also lucky to have two nimble actors on his stage. Dana Watkins switches effortlessly between Zeus, Odysseus, Hector, and even a hammy Hephaestus, but he’s at his best as a furious, choked-up Achilles who’s never more than half a slight away from homicide. J. Eric Cook is funny as a shrill Hera and a rash, tipsy Thersites, but he’s also weirdly touching as Thetis, Achilles’ mother. His Agamemnon is unremarkable, but perhaps deliberately so, as Logue’s text renders him a slick politician before his homesick army:

“Thank you, Greece.
As is so often true,
Silence has won the argument.
Achilles speaks as if I found you on a vase.
So leave his stone-age values to the sky.”

Although Cook doesn’t look like a warrior king, he imbues the character with the smiling certainty of a psychopath. Logue’s text helps. As the Trojan Anchises later asks, “Indeed, what sort of king excepting theirs / Would slit his daughter’s throat to start a war?”

Seeing Logue’s Homer performed by two Americans makes clear that the text might be better declaimed by actors with droll British diction; once or twice, Cook and Watkins seemed too busy recalling Logue’s lines to give them their full weight. Still, both actors possess powerful, well-trained voices, and they and the director draw from a deep well of vocal tricks and physical gestures to make this production brilliantly audience-friendly. Before Thursday night’s performance, I heard a couple in front of me whisper that they had no idea what they’d gotten themselves into, but as soon as Watkins and Cook took the stage, they were beguiled. As Logue himself put it, “[i]t was so quiet in Heaven that you could hear / The north wind pluck a chicken in Australia.”

Unfortunately, “Kings” is tantalizingly brief. The show, which clocks in at 75 minutes, ends with howls of war just as the audience is dying to see (even though they know) how it all plays out. I hope the empty seats in the tiny Workshop Theater don’t dissuade director Jim Milton from further adapting Logue. Drearily, the Poetry Foundation can use its $185 million boon to build a $21 million headquarters and publish reams of mediocre verse, but a staging of Logue can’t fill 65 seats in midtown Manhattan. That says less about Logue than it does about the mannered insider-ism of the poetry scene, and Logue himself knows it.

“[N]one of my contemporaries seem to be interested in the things that interest me, such as fast, clear, several-stranded narrative, action, character, violence,” Logue told the Paris Review in 1993. His contemporaries are missing out. If you’re near New York, you have nine days to get to the Workshop Theater, see “Kings,” and hear how poetry sounds with a mouth full of blood.

“I’m so cool and calculated, alone in the modern world…”

It’s becoming a genre unto itself: the call by scholars of the Middle Ages to invigorate their fields by reaching out to new audiences. In the latest example at The Chronicle of Higher Education, medievalist and English professor Christine Schott asks an evergreen question—”[h]ow can literary scholarship make a claim for its value when its product reaches only the other members of its own narrow field?”—and writes with candor about her work:

Of course I have an interpretive argument about the marginalia I study, and I do not wish to abandon that side of the field either. I am reasonably capable of dressing up my theories about material culture, genre, and self-writing in fancy vocabulary, but I maintain that they are no smarter for being decked out in academic regalia. And when it comes down to it, I don’t want to write scholarship that my friends and nonacademic peers cannot understand.

Schott plucks a painfully abstruse passage from a 1993 book about literary theory and boils it down to a lovely, clear, informative sentence—a rare skill. I’ve considered the rebuttals by humanities scholars who claim that specialized fields need their own patois, and since my career isn’t at stake, I can say that I find those defenses bunk; you can dazzle your colleagues with rarefied terms without writing in a style that makes the rest of us laugh out loud. Schott is wise to be sensitive to outside perceptions:

When I talk to fellow scholars, I might frame my work as “the study of paratextual material in late medieval vernacular scribal culture.” Even I hate the sound of that sentence. Let me offer, instead, the version I gave my Aunt Bea, who once ventured to ask me what I work on. I told her, “I study the things that people wrote in the margins of books in medieval Iceland.” When I said that, Aunt Bea wasn’t exactly impressed, but she did understand exactly what I meant.

Actually, what she said was, “They give Ph.D.s for that sort of thing, huh?” A familiar response from anyone who, like my aunt, works in a nice, practical field like nursing. And yet I get excited by a reaction like hers, because that is a teaching moment.

Schott’s solution is “to write even our scholarly work for a popular audience.” That’s a great idea—but why be so conservative? After all, professionalism hasn’t smothered her joy:

I always launch into a litany of the wonderful things one finds in the margins of Icelandic manuscripts: poetry, proverbs, complaints (my pen is dull, I didn’t get enough fish to eat, my wife is mad at me and it’s not my fault — all real examples). Part of the value of my work as I see it, then, is simple translation: “nu kolnar mér á fingrunum” means nothing to most people. But “my fingers are getting cold” is both transparent and so delightfully human that people often comment on how un-foreign these complaints sound. I don’t think you should have to get an advanced degree to enjoy these little glimpses into long-forgotten lives.

Look at that: the enthusiasm that makes non-scholars light up, the humanism they crave but can rarely describe, and the simple eloquence of someone who is uniquely suited to give them both.

“When I suggest changing our target audience,” Schott writes, “what I’m really talking about is marketing, and we are rightly suspicious of treating intellectual pursuit as a commodity.” Those of us who’ve migrated from academia to writing and the arts understand those concerns. I get tired of hearing that we can’t be only writers anymore, that we need to become experts at marketing and branding. Call it advocacy, then; no one else is standing by to champion us, and clearly there are ways to do it that don’t cheapen your work. Heck, more than two million American teenagers have had a blast with poetry because a former Kool-Aid marketing executive knew when to stop taking and how to start doing.

And so my humble advice to medievalists is this: stop talking about hypothetical outreach and do something. Write a book for a trade press. Spin your scholarly insights into poems. Produce a podcast. Start a blog. Make YouTube videos or Vines or a novelty Twitter account. Stage a play. Lecture at your local Osher center. Pitch articles to trendy media outlets like NPR or The Atlantic. Translate texts for non-scholars. Give the good work of strangers the attention you wish your own were receiving. You decide where to draw your own line. After you stare down a few frowning peers, the way is less fraught than you think: You won’t make enough money to fret about your soul, and you’ll compromise your scholarship only if you pander to your audience or fail to beguile them with the promise of much larger worlds.

I’ve written before that if the circles of scholars, writers, and artists overlapped more than they do, we’d all benefit. Professor Schott sees that we’re in danger of entombment in our own narrow niches:

What is literary scholarship for if not to aid readers in appreciating, understanding, interpreting, and questioning the literature that they encounter? In writing for a tiny coterie of specialists, we may achieve great heights of intellectual pursuit, but we are generally preaching to the choir. If we are not content with our society turning into a post-literary world, then we have some proselytizing to do, to people like my Aunt Bea. That is not marketing, that is teaching.

Indeed it is, and I hope Schott will share her enthusiasm wherever she can. The right blend of scholarship and passion can hearten the rest of us with all the thrilling alchemy of art.

“Driving ’round the city rings, staring at the shape of things…”

“While contemporary poets tend to sneer at the riddle as a genre, riddles continue to be a guilty pleasure for the public, particularly for millions of lovers of Tolkien and Rowlings,” writes poet A.M. Juster in Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles, a new translation of the work of a seventh-century abbot and monk who certainly knew better. Committed to shoring up Christianity in Anglo-Saxon realms, Aldhelm composed the Aenigmata, a collection of 100 Latin riddles. Layered in allegory, these deceptively simple poems provided pleasure in their own right but could also kindle profound conversations about the omnipresence of God. As Juster points out, Aldhelm “accomplished something that had not been done before: he lured readers closer to an unfamiliar God with literature infused with warmth, wit, and wonder.” Few non-scholars have read Aldhelm’s riddles, but Juster is eager to bring the Aenigmata to new audiences with what he hopes is a “fair yet fun” translation that “gives nonclassicists a faithful literary version of Aldhelm’s masterpiece that mimics the many joys of this text.”

Juster first tackles Aldhelm’s challenging preface, a preposterous 36-line double acrostic. In the original, the first letters of each line spell out, in Latin, “Aldhelm composed a thousand lines in verse,” while the last letters of each line spell the same message—in reverse. “I duplicated the acrostic,” Juster writes, “but freely admit that duplicating both the acrostic and the telestich [the end-of-line acrostic – J.S.] was too much for my poetic bag of tricks.” Only a jerk could hold this “failure” against him, especially since he offers intriguing theories about why (other than the thrill of the challenge) Aldhelm composed a double acrostic in the first place. Juster suggests that Aldhelm means to out-Irish the Irish, who loved these kinds of linguistic and textual games, while perhaps further tweaking them by satirizing ancient satires, something they lacked the primary sources to do.

These musings, apparently Juster’s own, may open interesting new doors for scholars of Anglo-Saxon verse—but this speculation shouldn’t scare off modern readers who don’t give a fig about academic debates. Juster has a light, lovely touch and a masterful command of tone—both honed, I suspect, by his classical know-how and his commitment to form and lucidity in English verse.

Although Latin hexameters possess a languid dignity that English pentameter can’t quite capture, Juster does a terrific job of paying tribute to Aldhelm’s style. When he can, he echoes the monk’s fondness for alliteration and internal rhyme, and he follows Aldhelm by usually avoiding enjambment—that is, Aldhelm tends to stop each line at its end to form a complete syntactic unit. In one of his few major concessions to the modern ear, Juster adds end-rhyme, a decision I heartily endorse.

Aided by a technically adept translator who cares about creating a good poem in the target language, Aldhelm can still amuse and intrigue readers more than thirteen centuries on. Here’s Riddle 2:

Cernere me nulli possunt prendere palmis;
Argutum vocis crepitum cito pando per orbem.
Viribus horrisonis valeo confringere quercus;
Nam, superos ego pulso polos et rura peragro.

No one can hold me in his palms or sight:
I scatter sudden clatter far and wide.
I want to hammer oaks with mournful might;
Yes, I strike sky and scour countryside.

Juster captures the sense of Aldhelm’s original, but look at what he’s done to polish this gem of his own. He interlaces three dense sets of assonance and rhyme: scatter, clatter, and hammer; no, hold, and oaks; and sight, wide, might, strike, sky, and side. Alliteration between these groups further knits together all four lines: sky, scatter, and scour; mournful and might; and sudden, sight, and side. To appreciate Juster’s artistry, you don’t need to be a poet. You don’t even need to be fluent in English. Recite it; feel how its complex structure rolls off the teeth and tongue with pleasing, elemental ease.

If I wanted a threatening letter from the University of Toronto Press legal team, I’d reprint the two dozen “Juster Aldhelms” I most enjoyed. Two will have to suffice. This one, which is easy to solve, shows off Aldhelm’s ability to combine astrology, etymology, natural history, and perhaps a Biblical allusion:

Dubbed “scorpion” by Romans of the past,
I walk wet beaches of the foaming ocean
And cross the seafloor with a backwards motion,
And yet high Heaven’s decked out when I rise,
Along with twelve red stars, into the skies,
Which makes the oysters, scared of stones, aghast.

Some of Aldhelm’s riddles will baffle modern readers, but those who know a little about ancient scribes may figure out this one:

I got my start from honey-laden bees,
And yet my outside part has grown from trees;
Tough leather made my shoes. An iron spike
Now cuts my gorgeous face and wanders like
A plow that’s carving furrows into rows,
But lays down fruitful seed from Heaven’s field
Where, from vast harvests, countless bounty grows.
Alas, cruel arms destroy the holy yield!

Page after page, lovely little poems enshrine silkworms, serpents, scales, leeches, spices, celestial bodies, bubbles, a pillow, the Minotaur—all of which embody, as Juster convincingly argues, Aldhelm’s “insistent vision that close attention to the mysteries of our pedestrian world can lead us closer to the mysteries of God’s world and God Himself.” Aldhelm’s riddles all have answers, but they stir greater, more challenging questions—especially Riddle 90, a tiny, four-line heartbreaker about a woman giving birth to twins for which there’s no easy answer in any age.

Of course, Juster’s book isn’t just a translation; with its 3:4 ratio of text to endnotes, it’s also one-stop shopping for anyone who wants a fresh introduction to the scholarship on these riddles. Juster is famously fond of light verse, so his endnotes, while perfectly professional, are far from a snooze. In the notes for Riddle 8, he points out that “[t]he word dominam (‘mistress’) suggests here a slaveowner, not a participant in amorous adventures.” When explaining the history of Biblical mistranslation that inspired the legend of the ant-lion, the hybrid spawn of an ant and a lion, Juster fans himself in mock relief that “the mechanics of such unions are, thankfully, unclear.” He calls out one scholar who “savages” these riddles through politicized, hyper-sexualized “forced overreading”; Aldhelm, he insists, composed his unicorn and lighthouse riddles “blissfully unaware of Freudian psychology.” And when Juster suggests that Aldhelm may see the peppercorn as a metaphor for the relationship between the body and the soul, he is content to allow that “[p]erhaps sometimes pepper is just pepper.”

The notes to Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles are rich in obscure lore. Juster brings to light the wonderful belief that goat blood could dull a diamond, and he identifies “what may be the first example in British literature of a joke at the expense of the French.” There’s even a charming bonus poem: Juster’s own translation of “Eucheria’s Impossibilities,” which he bills as “the oldest extant humorous poem in Latin by a woman.” Juster even taught me a new Old English term, the word for a dung beetle, tordwifel—literally, “turd-weevil.” If I were translating the poems of an Anglo-Saxon monk, I’d sure as heck encourage that philological novelty to scuttle through my endnotes pages too.

As a writer and researcher who relies on many books like this one, I could register a complaint or two. I would have liked a more thorough indexing of the terms and proper names that pop up in the notes, and sometimes I wanted more background than the notes provided. (Don’t tempt me with the promise of insight into Scylla’s “canine name” only to send me hunting for an article in an Italian e-journal.) Still, my gripes are minor, and I’d rather bestow kudos upon the University of Toronto Press for making sure that those of us who’d never spring $65 for the hardcover version of Saint Aldhelm’s Riddles could immediately enjoy the paperback or Kindle editions for less than $30.

Riddles may be dismissed as trifles today, but Aldhelm reminds us that a clever poet can use them to make a sophisticated case for a wondrous and joyful coherence in the world. This is the first translation of his riddles meant to be read for pleasure, and I hope it will be. In Juster’s hands, Aldhelm is once again serious fun.