Archive for February, 2017


“And everything under the sun is in tune…”

We hardly need any more books in our house. They’re shelved in the guest room, stacked in the bathroom, tucked under tables, and stowed in my trunk. I try to discourage people from sending me books, even if they look pretty good; my backlog is immense. But last spring, when a stranger from Pittsburgh contacted me to tell me about the epic he’d written, I almost filed away his email without replying, yet something about his good-natured mix of modesty and erudition told me to give him a more thorough look. I’m glad I did; Tim Miller has joined a select group of quirky poets who feel called to contend with a neglected form, the book-length narrative poem, and what he does with it is brilliant.

To the House of the Sun is no dainty chapbook; it’s 33 books long, a 600-page tome illustrated with woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer and annotated to the hilt. On the surface, it’s the story of Conrad, a young Irish man in Savannah during the Civil War who wanders north, in love with a ghost, losing himself in a quest for personal vengeance but finding peace and wisdom beyond his imagining. To say more about Conrad’s involvement in the war, the famous figures he encounters, and where his quest really takes him would spoil the strange, sprawling plot. But like other poems in the epic tradition, Tim Miller’s book is about more than its narrative. Its diction and tone help tell a richer and more universal story, one that begins with vivid purpose:

In the second year of our War:
in the fourth month:
on the twelfth day of the month,
as I stood on the sands of Savannah facing the sea,
a voice breathed into me—
    & my song ascended to be sung:
        my poem came down from its own mouth:
    & these new words were my life:

& before the end, I wound my way around the mountains: I found my way to the hidden road, where the sun rises: & I created for us all a dwelling out of danger, here & in heaven, & the underworld:

& here, I will write & inscribe & show:
here, I will make a place to see it,
    the Book & the Day:
here, I will make a place to watch,
    the light beside the sea:
here, I will make the ground to know,
    of a place in the shadows:
here, I will make a place to live in the dawn:
here, I will bring a voice back
    that will stand us all upright:
    make us all unbroken by grief:
    unstricken by cares—
    that will raise up low spirits:

& she was the beginning & the end of my song,
& my stand on the shore.

To the House of the Sun evokes millennia of faith, storytelling, and scholarship simply by committing to its orthography: from its first lines, it looks like the typed-up notes of a young scholar seized by inspiration as he transcribes and translates a cryptic inscription. Look closer, though, to see the designs of a careful poet: these lines mark where the singer’s words intersect time; alliteration evokes a sense of place (“the sands of Savannah facing the sea”); and psalmic repetition gives them incantatory power, affirming poetry’s roots in enchantment. This could be Gilgamesh, King David, or Hildegard of Bingen, and Miller honors that ageless mysticism here. To the House of the Sun sounds and feels like an ancient text, layered with fragments of sources and traditions, a pastiche that takes familiar poems and scriptures and stories and weaves them into something inspiring and fresh.

I don’t know how else to give a sense of To the House of the Sun but to share a few representative passages. Here’s a slave describing how he stole children’s copybooks and taught himself to read:

& when I didn’t have one I looked at the board fence:
I looked at the brick wall:
I looked at the sides of carriages:
I looked at the storefront windows,
all covered with words to unlock:

& my family are long gone from here, so I’ve never feared getting sold away from anybody. & words were all I had—and as long as I could smile as we passed from Corinth to Athens & know what those names meant, they couldn’t take a thing from me. & that’s real freedom: that’s more freedom than jumping up North where all they want is to send me back to Africa. I’d rather take a beating down here than their pity & a boat fare, up there:

    when a freed black man can walk a Southern street &
      whistle at a white woman & not be
        hanged or cut up or beaten
        or weighed down with stones & thrown in a river—
      & when a freed black man can walk a Northern
street without being accused of taking every white man’s job—
      & when the President himself doesn’t assume living among us is impossible—
That’s when it’ll get so much better. Until then we’ll always be an object to you people—& my own mind is enough in the meantime.

[ . . . ]

I recognize the starts in the sky, & that’s a privilege the wealthy can’t own. Do what you can not to be owned, is all.

Here’s a battlefield chaplain, telling his story:

I was walking through a hospital when a man came yelling after me: & he tells me what he’d been through: & I went off to the edge of the woods with him: & I sat on a cracker-box, & heard his confession—& he jumps up after & yells Oh Father, I feel so light!

& not to tell you what he confessed, but what others did too, that they’ve been godless for years—they’ve wandered & done what men do, even while married: & it’s this War that gave them their God back: this War, & the distance from their wives & families, that showed how much they depended on both—or not, showing sometimes how little love they know anymore.

And here’s one of many agonized stories from the wounded and dead:

    & there was the one with the violets:
    & his ribs & insides were just sitting out:
    & he looks at me all embarrassed,
    & he starts babbling about some girl:

& we were good friends, but I never knew about this girl: & it hurt him so much, this secret: & I hate to think of her back home, hearing he’s dead, & having no one to talk to about it, forever. & she’ll keep the pain, for sure—it won’t ever go away.

Clearly this isn’t the Civil War of TV movies or weekend reenactors or even poignant Ken Burns fiddle-whispers. What Conrad sees is overwhelming: Miller wants to humble you with the unfathomable number of lives affected by the war. There are so many stories here—sometimes rendered in just a few words or a handful of lines—about tortured black men, murdered prisoners, doomed soldiers seeking solace in prostitutes, mothers in mourning, baffled ghosts, even a priest who can summon water from the earth. For all I know, Miller’s approach may be unprecedented in Civil War fiction. There are no stock characters or cartoon souls; everyone gets a distinctive few lines, a defining moment, an acknowledgement of their fleeting humanity set against the infinite. In that sense, To the House of the Sun is a work of literary realism. It’s as if Miller means to challenge Walt Whitman’s insistence in the 101st chapter of Specimen Days:

Such was the war. It was not a quadrille in a ball-room. Its interior history will not only never be written—its practicality, minutiæ of deeds and passions, will never be even suggested. The actual soldier of 1862–’65, North and South, with all his ways, his incredible dauntlessness, habits, practices, tastes, language, his fierce friendship, his appetite, rankness, his superb strength and animality, lawless gait, and a hundred unnamed lights and shades of camp, I say, will never be written—perhaps must not and should not be.

Sharing Whitman’s desire to see the war clearly and in all its complex ugliness, Miller imagines futures beyond Whitman’s ken, with the privilege of hindsight:

How will any of us talk of this War when it’s over? Should the North win, will a man in Pennsylvania really feel so much pride, when going down to Virginia—or will a Virginian really feel satisfaction when walking Northern streets, should the South win?

That’s how it is now—
how it has to be now, for the newspapers & the public:
they’ve got to make generals divine & their soldiers into heroes:
    & the dates of the battles:
    & the ground:
    & how the weather was—these things matter now—
but will they in the future: will we only focus on the understandable bitterness of our mother’s brother & our father’s uncle & our family’s old hometown—or will we find something better to do with all the memories; & will we rise somewhere in the air, where we can forget ourselves, finally:
    & forget what our families did:
    & forget what was done to them,
    & instead see them all as God might, forgiven?
Or will the making of peace be like moving two mountains, for these people?

To the House of the Sun soberly acknowledges the vastness of history: the brother of Conrad’s friend “was not wounded so a black man might be freed: & the wounded soldier on either side doesn’t die or recover for the sake of a Union only, but for something in the far future we’ll never know.”

As To the House of the Sun progresses, the smoke and blood of the Civil War recede, giving way to a series of dizzying visions, a revelation that blurs Blake, Eliot, the Bhagavad-Gita, Celtic myth, and a whirlwind of mystical traditions into a statement about the place of each of us in the divine. But as trippy and transcendent as his poem can be, Miller doesn’t want it to be obscure. To the House of the Sun is a hefty book, 620 pages in all, but more than 250 of those pages are reference: meticulous notes, lists of sources, and a compelling 20-page defense of his borrowing and adapting from cultural and religious traditions that range from the Bible to Confucianism, from Christian saints’ lives to Arthurian legend. In my notes, I initially wrote “not necessary – why include all this?”, but I get it now. Miller isn’t trying to impress us with his erudition; he wants us to share his inspiration. “In the end, there was no reason not to allow the notes to become a kind of anthology of world literature,” he writes in a candid note, “and I figured that, anyhow, someone put off by a six hundred page poem would not be any more comfortable with a four hundred page poem. The opportunity to do this can happen only once, and it seemed best to do so with both feet on the gas.”

And even though Miller’s poem is full of heartbreak and loss, his Whitmanesque love for creation, his passion for the fine details of every life, are reason for universal hope:

This is the final goal, perhaps an impossible one, that of somehow suggesting a sense of awe for the entire world, for everything we do, for everything we experience, of injecting real meaning (as opposed to mere irony or ego) into everything we do. This is the real reason for all the borrowing—to refer not to a text or some words, but to situations in the human life that are basic, meaningful, and even holy, whether now or thirty-five thousand years ago.

I can’t write a proper review of To the House of the Sun. Dear reader, you already know if you’re inclined to relish a 33-book epic set during the Civil War, inspired by the world’s great religious and literary texts, and offering prophetic glimpses of the divine. I loved it, not only because it’s proudly noncommercial and defies everything that’s trendy right now in entertainment, poetry, and the culture at large, but also because it offers a hard, humane vision that tries to disturb and inspire you into wanting to be better than you are. Reading and writing are not, by themselves, moral acts, and we often ascribe more virtue to them than they deserve, but To the House of the Sun is proof that a lifetime of the right kind of reading really can lead to enlightenment—and sometimes, a genuine act of creation.

[Read more excerpts of To the House of the Sun on the publisher’s website, explore Tim Miller’s blog Word and Silence, and buy the book on Amazon: select new seller “S4N Books” to get an autographed copy from the publisher at half price.]

“…but nevertheless you know you’re locked toward the future.”

Nobody associates the Appalachian Trail with the Middle Ages. I wrote that in haste after discovering a faux-medieval monument in a Maryland park. Now I know better—because if you hike north from Gathland for seven miles, the forest opens onto an old highway and the parking lot of an eighteenth-century inn, and across the road you see this:

That’s St. Joseph’s Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, built in the 1880s to serve as a local Catholic mission church and family mausoleum. The Appalachian Trail now runs next to it through the weeds, but this patch of mountain used to be part of the vast summer retreat of Mrs. Madeleine Vinton Dahlgren.

The daughter of a Congressional Whig, Dahlgren was a Washington socialite and much-consulted etiquette expert. She was widowed twice after marrying prominent men: first an Assistant Secretary of the Interior and then later Admiral John Dahlgren, an innovator in naval ordnance. In 1876, the Widow Dahlgren bought an old inn here on South Mountain, fifty miles outside D.C., and made it her summer home. Although the house looked nothing like a castle, she romantically wrote that it seemed to her “like an old manor-seat surrounded by tenantry.” She commissioned this chapel just as the Gothic Revival style was becoming fashionable for churches, prep schools, and universities.

Dahlgren Chapel (as it’s now known) is a solid and serious piece of work, with no gargoyles or grotesques to override dignity with whimsy and few overt nods to modernity. I’m intrigued by the bell tower, which looks like God reached down and gave it a 90-degree turn: Does it imitate any particular medieval church? Is it unusual to find a cross on both the bell tower and the main roof?

I can’t find the name of the architect—hopefully the group working to preserve the chapel will know—but I did learn something interesting from looking into Dahlgren: she was a highly refined writer with more than a passing interest in the Middle Ages.

You wouldn’t detect a yen for the medieval from your first glance at her ouvre: an etiquette guide, novels about Washington society, a bio of her husband and a collection of reminiscences about living in South America during his naval service, a volume of ghost stories—Dahlgren was as prolific as she is forgotten. She deserves better, at least from Maryland readers, because her 1882 book South-Mountain Magic would be smart and engaging even if it weren’t steeped in medieval metaphors and imagery.

Of mostly local interest, South-Mountain Magic collects Dahlgren’s research into the folkways of her rural neighbors, most of them poor German foresters and mountaineers who weren’t shy about sharing their old-country superstitions. There are stories here about Civil War ghosts on the nearby battlefield, a Native American spirit with its head on fire, jack-o’-lanterns and will-o’-the-wisps, Satanic masses, and even a local wizard whose German spell-book is packed with hexes and cures—which, Dahlgren notes, are always perversions of Christian prayers and rites.

“The prevalence of such a confused mass of superstition as we chronicle, and that too within fifty miles of the very capitol of this vast nation . . . does not prove much as regards a theory of progressive civilization, and the wonderful and special enlightenment of the nineteenth century,” Dahlgren writes with dainty wit. However, her book isn’t a denunciation of occultism and superstition; rather, it’s a careful Catholic argument for studying the supernatural.

Although wary of imitating centuries of “innumerable philosophers and sages, ever seeking for that cabalistic lore, which may overstep the boundary line between the known and the unknown, the seen and the unseen,” Dahlgren waxes theological: What of the “ecstacies, visions, and mystic revelations” of saints who have been allowed glimpses of Heaven? Might not lesser souls with “lower perceptive powers also seize some flashes of light, sent forth from that Divine emanation that permeates creation?” Don’t poets, artists, and musicians have a gift for apprehending the divine? Dahlgren then proposes a scientific justification: By studying magic, we can better understand the relationship between the material and the immaterial, between actions and causes, just as the study of magnetism and electricity has been productive and informative. For all we know, Dahlgren argues, scientific explanations for ghosts and spells may yet be forthcoming.

Today’s Catholic philosophers will still find Dahlgren an articulate, thoughtful ally, but I’m most interested in her respect for the Middle Ages, which suffuses her view of the world. Even as she catalogs local superstitions, she makes a trenchant point about the present: we’re not as “modern” as we think, and an honest comparison with the past should leave us humble but enlightened, like a desert saint:

There is no study, probably, more useful to give the mind something like a just balance, than the comparison of the various forms of civilization, ancient and modern. And yet when such comparisons are made, as they often are, from a sophistical standpoint, they do more harm than good. The class of minds that stultify this present era, without looking carefully through the long vista of the past ages, very much resemble those people who, staying closely at home, make their own contracted notions the standard of excellence.

The present age passes by St. Simon of Stylites poised on his pillar, and jibes at him as an undoubted madman, quite unconscious all the while that he has gained a wider range of vision from his serene height of contemplation, than the dust-stained pilgrims who revile him as they plod onward in the highway below.

To Dahlgren, modern superstitions are the misguided impulses of a soul seeking true religion but settling on “the lovely legends clinging on to the ardent faith of the so-called ‘dark ages,’ although not received as of faith”:

These accepted legends and traditions, orally handed down from generation to generation, frame in the life of the lowly peasant who believes in them, with the absolute beauty of the brilliantly illuminated border of the quaint manuscripts of that age. These borders enclosed, perhaps, a black lettering, but they expressed the true.

As we write, a vision of another and a better world comes before us. We behold the majestic, solemn repose of the monastery, and standing in a niche, as it were, set apart, a venerable figure, with bared head bowed down over the sacred desk in profound contemplation. For here is the Holy Bible, fondly clasped, with its protecting chain . . .

Such faith was of the past. Now what is of the present?

Medievalism was an important part of nineteenth-century Catholicism, and Dahlgren draws on it to offer one of her era’s most charming Catholic arguments against the pride of modern secularism. Her imagery is particularly appropriate now, given how many hikers tromp past her chapel each spring:

It is a long pilgrimage, to be sure, from the mediaeval ages to the present day, and our sandals are turned into shoes, and our shoes have lost their soles in the toilsome journey. So we are at last here, in the broad light of progress, and we enter a fashionable shop to get others more suited to the advanced ideas around us. We are duly pinched and excruciated, somewhat as we once saw the martyrs tortured, only now there is no motive in our suffering to ennoble it; and finally we are told we have “a fit.” How we sigh for the graceful old sandals, that we wore loosely strapped, without having “a fit,” and not high-stepping, tight-compressing, all-torturing, with thin understanding, iron heels and steel springs, as these. But we are assured that our purchase is of the most improved patent and latest style, and our package is handed us.

As we stretch forth our hands to receive it, what blur or film fills our eyes, once so bright with visions of the glorious past? Can we longer see, or do we dream?—for the shoes handed us are wrapped in the rudely torn leaves of a Bible! “May God forgive the impiety!” we explain. “The Bible,” answers the flippant salesman, “is of no special value; it is spread broadcast in this nineteenth century, not chained to the desk as in the Dark Ages. It is cheaper to us than other waste paper, for it is given away by thousands.”

Today, Dahlgren’s home is an inn again, and the land she called her “sky-farm” has been put to other uses, but her chapel stands as a monument to her medievalism—an open respect for the supernatural as a weirder aspect of God’s creation. “The moods that beset us here,” she concluded, “are not to be measured by conventional standards.”

Medievalism as an alternative to or refuge from modernity has a history as long as modernity itself. In Dahlgren’s lifetime, it would find fresh expression not only among Catholic aesthetes but also through the Arts and Crafts movement, in early chivalry-themed scouting clubs and youth groups, among collectors of folklore, and on the pages of popular novels. What brings hikers here isn’t so different. “Truly, this world is replete in mysteries,” Dahlgren wrote. “The golden thread which connects the ages cannot be destroyed.”