“Silhouettes and shadows watch the revolution…”

When Gary Gygax died in 2008, I called him “one of the most influential medievalists of the latter half of the 20th century.” I still think that’s true: without the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons, medieval-ish fantasy and gaming wouldn’t have blossomed into mainstream obsessions. Gygax lashed together the conceptual trellis for both, but exactly how he did it was a mystery to me. As a kid, I knew him only as a distant sage who beguiled the rest of us with eldritch parlance and baroque prose, but thanks to Michael Witwer’s Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons and Dragons, I can at least glimpse the outlines of this legendary tabletop adventurer—but not much more. As it turns out, his was a far more labyrinthine mind than even his biographer anticipated.

At first, E. Gary Gygax of Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, was the bright, nerdy child I knew he would be: a lover of strategy games, especially chess; a fan of Robert E. Howard’s “Conan” stories; and a dungeon-delver who led his friends through an abandoned sanatorium in the dark of night. Witwer presents him as a smart, undisciplined underachiever who dabbled in a little of everything, from fishing to cobbling, but whose passion for late-night wargames in his friends’ basements was so all-consuming that his wife was convinced he was cheating on her. Empire of Imagination explains how Gygax and dozens of like-minded misfits found each other, how they elevated tabletop wargames into guided improv with dice, and how their hobby became a commercial phenomenon that unfurled its leathery wings and abandoned them all. It’s a straightforward story, but it probably shouldn’t be; several cryptic anecdotes hint that the journey was circuitous and strange.

Witwer mentions that in the late 1950s, after dropping out of high school but before getting married, Gygax served briefly in the Marines. But for how long, and in what capacity? When the subject is an ardent wargamer, these details matter. In one of several fictionalized inner monologues, Witwer imagines that Gygax hated boot camp and was happy to be discharged for health reasons—but did Gygax himself discuss the experience? What did he learn from it? How did he see the role of war in human affairs? Empire of Imagination doesn’t answer these questions—and it raises too many more.

Early on, Gygax supported his family as an insurance underwriter, but Witwer suggests that the main influence of this job on his game-writing hobby was the convenience of the office typewriter. I don’t doubt that the typewriter was handy—but isn’t it noteworthy that a guy who spent his days poring over actuarial data would go on to craft a game around pages and pages of probability-based tables? I wish Witwer had drawn this connection; there’s meaning in it. It’s charming that one of the quirkiest countercultural pastimes, now an endless wellspring of self-expression and creativity, has roots in a field that most people find utterly deadening.

The biggest surprise in Empire of Imagination pops up halfway through the book, when Witwer writes about conflicts between the Gygaxes and their children in the late 1970s:

Another point of dissension between Gary and his son was that Ernie had drifted away from his parents’ faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. In times past, Gary had made attempts to pull away from gaming in favor of devoting more time to his faith, but such efforts were always short-lived. And while not “devout” by Jehovah’s Witness standards, Gary and Mary Jo had maintained the religious affiliation and expected their children to follow suit.

Wait—what? The Prime Mover of geekdom and godfather of role-playing games, dogged by accusations of promoting demonology and witchcraft, was a Jehovah’s Witness? That’s a heck of a revelation not to poke with a stick. Was he born into the religion? Did he adopt it as an adult? Witwer doesn’t say. Twenty pages later, Gygax and his wife break from their church over gaming, drinking, and smoking, and that’s that. But how can it be that the co-creator of a game steeped in magic, mysticism, polytheism, and violence was active in a faith most of us think of as uncompromising and austere? Are there traces of the religion in the design of D&D, and if so, what are they?

It’s clear from Witwer’s lengthy sketch that Gygax demands a thorough intellectual biography. He was a complex autodidact whose inner life wasn’t easy to categorize or explain, the product of an unrepeatable alchemy of place, time, and personality—but unless someone can conjure a compilation of interviews, letters, and reminiscences by family and friends, Empire of Imagination may be the best glimpse of his life we’re going to get. It’s engaging and earnest; it just doesn’t feel done.

Fortunately, Empire of Imagination is also the story of a business—a lurid cautionary tale that Witwer relates with enthusiasm. In 1973, when no gaming publishers wanted the original Dungeons & Dragons manuscript, Gygax and two fellow gamers incorporated TSR—”Tactical Studies Rules”—and published it themselves. Like any empire, TSR was soon rife with enmity, backstabbing, and strife. The untimely death of one of the founders in 1975 reverberated for years: An investor who bought his widow’s one-third share would introduce a family of executives who, as Witwer tells it, despised everything about the gaming world but its potential revenues. By the early ’80s, their preposterous excess was worthy of a Simpsons episode: In Hollywood, Gary Gygax was blowing millions on D&D-based entertainment prospects, leasing King Vidor’s mansion, and snorting cocaine in a private booth at the Playboy Club, while back in Wisconsin, the colleagues who despised him were funding shipwreck excavations and investing in real estate on the Isle of Man. When Gygax recaptures the company in a startling coup and writes a book that restores solvency to the land, the tale takes a hopeful turn—until one Hollywood hanger-on proves to be an enemy in disguise…

I like to believe that Gygax saw himself as a hero embroiled in a magnificent story of palace intrigue, but Empire of Imagination documents a vulgar reality: the first time anyone looked at the burgeoning geek subculture and saw the cash cow it could someday become. As such, it’s a parable of hubris and greed far different from the stories that sensitive outsiders once told about themselves. I’m not sure young people today can envision what it was like when this stuff was so far outside the mainstream that it was socially poisonous, when it spread like secret lore among strange boys who sought refuge and fellowship in its small, exciting world. We now know that the bookish misfits of yesteryear could be just as venal as anyone else, but it takes imagination to remember the daydreams and desperate optimism that drove them to find each other. Gary Gygax and D&D co-creator Dave Arneson collaborated by mail at a time when even long-distance phone calls between Wisconsin and Minnesota were prohibitively expensive, and the first big gaming convention Gygax organized in 1968 had fewer than a hundred attendees. No wonder their hopes found expression in medievalist fantasy: finding other kids who shared their interests was a genuine, ongoing quest.

The world has changed. Big companies have succeeded where TSR failed: they’ve learned to exploit the public’s appetite for fantasy through movies and literally endless video-game franchises, while fan artists and makers of memes do much of their promotion for free. Even most Renaissance festivals are now run by large entertainment corporations. Who’s doing the imagining for whom? Although Witwer is right to see Gary Gygax as a founding father of 21st-century popular culture, Empire of Imagination reminded me of a time when weird young people could be fantasists rather than customers first. For all the adventures awaiting them now, there’s one that kids can no longer experience, at least not through games: the thrill of helping map out something new.

“…a million generations removed from expectations…”

[This is the sixth 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, October, November, and December. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]



When the fifth month mocks you with faraway suns,
See through their dust for signs of order.
Beyond the trees, the Two Riders
Rise before us, refreshed by their sojourn
At fathomless wells. Whether you see them
Stand side by side in the same direction
Or tail to tail, as they turn like reflections
To cast their fortunes on contrary paths,
It is grave and auspicious to spy them at dusk
As they compass the verge of the vast green wheel.
Be still at first. They startle easily.

But luck gives out, and late one night
The month awakens, though the wiser course
Is to slouch in a mousehole and sleep for weeks.
From a despondent roar, the ravenous winds
Burst from the treetops and batter our doors
Like a bishop’s murderers barred from vespers.
Prickly footsteps fall from the attic
And drop through the walls; we drive long nails
Through the beams by the windows and wait for shrieks.
With nothing to stir them, nests freeze over.
In the birdless orchards, branches wither
And crumple like spiders, spindly and drained.
The barn turns gray from the granite ashes
And shattered slate where the shivering carver
Shed his apron and sheathed his rasp.
Willful flurries whirl on the pavement
And strain to take form when the streetlights pale,
Coming in rancor to claim a debt.

Ancient poets were plain in their scorn:
Only the laziest look down their noses
At the chores men face when frigid downpours
Drive them indoors. The dreariest labors
Bloom into leisure by the light of candles:
They forged new blades, branded cattle,
Sharpened their tools, cut troughs from lumber,
Laid out trellises, labeled their measures,
And plaited new beehives and baskets for spring.
Their work is gone, but the gift that endures
Is a bracing air of expectation.
To spite the cold, our kitchen swirls
With the cheerful scent of simmering bones
And honeyed bread. We bring in the plants,
Test the lanterns, lay out batteries,
Fill buckets with water, and watch the sky,
Sitting side by side, like signs of our own,
Restored by visions of the storm to come.

Two old black dogs swap dares in the headlights,
As rigid as rocks on the road through the wood.

Two pilgrims shoulder their shovels, as bone
Crackles and freezes underfoot as they go.

Deaf to the snoring of snow-blind bats,
Two white messengers molt on a ledge.

On two numb legs, the laughing plowman
Arrays his blades. The blizzard parts.

A grieving beggar barks out a prophecy
As two red ears turn in fulfillment.

Two shotgun blasts shake woodpeckers
From their cramped hollows. A holy silence
Falls like starlight, and falls for days.

“Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice…”

[This is the fifth 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, October, and November. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]



The dark extends a dreadful wait.
A bristling veil divides the heavens
From the baffled and weary who warble songs
About purpose and fate; so the fourth month looms.
Nursed by drizzle and dreary wind,
The dimmest stars stir and waken
The God of the Cave. He gropes in the murk
To draw around him a ragged pelt
Threaded together with grim sinews
As he heaves himself up on his hindmost legs.
His naked snout sniffs the treetops,
And when he senses something wanting
He ambles out to the open sky,
Where his grisly claw clutches and raises
A torch, to hallow a turn in the world,
To comfort and guide his golden heirs.
In the gloom beside him, the glimmer quickens
A tender form. With its first exertion,
A vital shrug, it sheds a caul
Of sizzling pips, silver and orange,
That blanch and harden when they hit the air,
Reeling and clacking with erratic ticks
As we face straight up on a foggy morning
With empty vessels in our open hands
And softly cheer when chance ordains
That they plink in our dish. Promises ripen
From simple patterns. Put them away;
We save them to scatter if summer returns.

But love, maybe I remember it wrong.
On a dish by the window, you dried the seeds
From a blue pumpkin—no blessed spark,
Just the graying excess of an aching vine
That shaded the gate of a grinning witch—
Or no, not a witch, just a woman who smiled
Though we valued no shred of her village of junk.
And wasn’t it warm? I walked—no, I drove
To a dank, nettled plot to undo my old work.
I ripped out poles. I pulled down fences.
Scrap-wood trellises scraped up my forehead.
I wandered through twilight to the walled garden;
I paced the flagstones, and feeling bold
I twisted the fruit from a defiant branch,
A squishy medlar, and mumbled a prayer
For the barest inkling of an ancient rhyme.
I wrote it here. But how did it go?
“Now pray we bless the bletted mess—”
“Of course they rot, then ripen at last—”
I strained to remember my medlar song.

“Come sit by my side,” you sang that night,
“And let the world slip.” Your sly foreboding
Had noble ends: “we shall never be younger.”
You knew some months leave us no other choice
But to settle for stories by somebody else,
So I argued the grace of a grubby old man
With lice-riddled wings and waterlogged eyes
Who rose from his coop “with the risky flapping
Of a senile vulture.” I sighed, envious.
Then a flash caught my eye on the edge of our grove,
A whirl in the woods like a wobbly hubcap,
A circle of bears with blazing torches
Stacking up cordwood and kindling bonfires
On the grassy edge of the interstate ramp—
I turned the pages. We talked for a while.
You banked the ashes for better times.
There was, you assured me, one real herald:
A rusty mantis emerged from a hole
And fiddled away at the foot of the door.
He would not speak. I expected couplets.
You sized up his sense with a scientist’s poise:
“He drinks in the light of a dwindling month.
See how he stands up straight on the brick?
He comes to witness the calendar turn,
Not to grieve over words in a work without end.”

When the fourth month turns, the townsmen defy
The sprawling dread; they dare to unravel
Their own constellations. Along the road
Between the ferryman’s slip and fallow ditches,
They reach in the air with easy grace
To twist new sparks into twinkling sockets
And straighten the fraying strands anew.
These stopgap stars tell a story they love,
A claim that the heavens roll closer to earth,
A promise pulled nearer in perfect lines.
Then two lost donkeys return to their barn.
The wind blows homeward a wayward goat.
The weaver, the potter, the painter, the wrencher
Of limestone and iron all open their gates.
On hillside porches, hungry mothers
Hurry to root through a harvest of packets
And precious cans. The country mud
Is giddy with sunshine, golden and white,
And hunters nod. Nothing is dying.
Like flies that emerge in confused expectation,
They shed their jackets and shake their heads.
The winter is weirdly warm, a cockroach
In a taped-up box, biding its time.
For now, be here. When the night dispenses
Its spattering rain, risk disappointment;
Run straight downstairs and stand alone
On the open deck, dry and blinding,
As dunes once harbored derelict monks.
Though the morning office is hours away,
The sun surrounds you; it rises wide
From all directions, reeling out shadows
That arc from the tree line to tremble and bow
Toward the fleeting sight at the centermost point
Of an infinite wheel. The waiting ends:
Like the long, low rumble of reluctant strangers
Exhorted to pray in a packed cathedral
Who stir in chaos but stand as one,
A field of living fire heaves skyward,
And all the words you ever needed
Inflame the air with urgent news.

“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.

“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.]



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.