“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.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

NOVEMBER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jake Seliger checks out Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz.

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

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

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

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

“They turn their heads to see if we were meant to be…”

[This is the third part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. I’m posting it as I write it, in monthly installments; first read the prologue and then September. To read later entries in this series after they’re posted, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

OCTOBER

In our world grown old, we waited too long
To hallow the dead; here we entrust them
With the second-most month, when the moon in its socket
Spins thin and white, like a thumbworn coin
From an overturned jar. Then all the heavens
Await the life of a world to come
In a bowed constellation, the Lady of Graves.
In thirty-five stars, stern but gracious,
She calms the night. Its creatures laud her:
The eyeless, the preyed-on, creep in from the dark.
Below, she prepares finer places for them
When their wound-up casings wobble and seize.
The bat sloughs off its brittle wings;
The shivering vole earns a shadow of peace
In a dry, quiet corner; a cat slinks near
With raw offerings of her own to bestow.
The Lady kneels. With loving precision
She frees their souls, saving the bones
To frame and trace a future creation.
The wise use words the same way, even here.

The morning unveils a vast exhaustion.
The fields are a burlap of beige and gray,
Fiery sorghum deflates and sags
And whole orchards shudder, shedding their bloat
With plain impatience; pears and apples
Heap up under the aching trunks.
The forest cracks—we flinch. Acorns
Sizzling like meteors melt in the earth.
On weird afternoons, warmer breezes
Buffet the siding; bursts of summer
Toy with the longings of tinier lives.
Like thick, wet sand thrown in a bucket,
Clumps of ladybirds cling to the screens.
Stinkbugs teeter on the tabletop ledge.
Pendulous wasps whirl round the gutters
And sputter to buttress their barrows of dust.
Flung from the treetops yet fixed on one point,
The living sticks look for parallels
On brown-edged doors. Where a dead one falls,
Another mounts it. We have no way to ask
If it mates in obtuseness, or mourns it and knows.

We could rue a month of mottled flesh,
Dolorous blisters, a daybreak stumble
And strange, sharp cries on the stairway landing.
A luckless toad, twisted and gnawed,
Sprawls at the threshold; the thing that brought it
Took back the offering, all but a pulp
Of mangled sacrum and sawtooth legs.
But in the midst of all endings, past immense fallows
And ashen fields, we find a place
Of open hope: the whole country
Is green, flashing with the flickering wisps
Of saplings pinned in perfect rows,
Like stunted pillars in the plan of an abbey
Too sacred to build, or a burgeoning corps
Of unshakable saints. We saw them gather
First with a sense of unsettling grace
And then with laughter, relieved and free.
When we returned to collect the lonely bones
That fell at our door, we found only
A puddle of rain. They had raised their own weight
On fleshless legs and loped away.

In the sky, soot-winged scavengers wheel
And leer like imps. Let them grovel;
The corpses we plant in these perishing weeks
Will bloom into gardens. What they grow to become
Is no more clear than the question we pose
To waiting children—“and what are you
Supposed to be?”—but the purpose now
Is to give no heed to the grave temptation
Of the second month, to summon the phantoms
Of forgotten times and pretend they were dying
To see how you’ve done. Save the prayer;
They vex us anyway all through the year.
Turn them backward with taproots gouged
Into shameless grins; let grisly lanterns
Reflect a life of lighter spirits
And look past the woods: love provided
A ghost in the window to guide you home.

“But down in the underground, you’ll find someone true…”

Robert E. Howard was supernaturally prolific. In just 12 years, he dreamed up Conan the Barbarian while cranking out millions of words for pulp magazines—not only sword-and-sorcery stories but also horror yarns, cowboy tales, historical fiction, boxing stories, and hundreds of poems, all from his childhood bedroom. The brawny Texan killed himself at 30, so he never knew the shadow he cast across popular culture: both co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons cited him as an influence; his work continues to inspire novels, comics, and movies; and fans still embrace his unrepentant manliness.

Atop this ever-growing hoard of Howardiana, Marly Youmans places Maze of Blood, a novel that’s many things Howard wasn’t—quiet, patient, meditative—even as it celebrates his humanity by treating the pulp writer as an artist in his own right. (Disclosure: After I reviewed Marly Youmans’ book Thaliad on this blog in 2013, she and I became Facebook friends and occasional correspondents.) Youmans draws on sources well-known to Howard’s fans—a memoir by his girlfriend and an engaging 2007 biography—to create a new character in Conall Weaver: the son of a country doctor and a clingy mother, a perpetual dreamer of his own past lives, a successful writer whose neighbors see only an indolent oddball.

Howard wouldn’t have liked Maze of Blood; the novel is propelled not by a straightforward plot or by swashbuckling action but by subtle, non-linear vignettes that gently peel away the layers of Conall Weaver’s mind. Still, Youmans does Howard justice, taking him more seriously than many people close to him ever did. When Conall’s girlfriend wonders “why a tale has to have so much thrashing about in it . . . as though a story were a Mexican jumping bean, and inside is some horrible larval thing that’s trying to get out,” Youmans portrays their clash as the latest failed connection in a fervent life:

“But hardly anybody ever stumbles on a buried city or a labyrinth. Nobody ever finds magical snakes sneaking through the ground. Nobody ever tries to steal somebody’s soul.”

“Oh, I don’t know. It seems to me like rattlesnakes are always magically underfoot in Texas. And I don’t know about you, but these gourd-headed people are always sneaking around, trying to find and steal my soul. They want to bottle it up somehow, so that I can’t get out. And labyrinths? Labyrinths are funny places. A job at the five-and-dime can mean being shut up in a too-symmetrical labyrinth, needing to find a way out. A family tree can look like a drawing of a maze, all disorderly and full of dead ends and hushed-up horrors. Even a prairie or a desert can be a labyrinth, if you look at it right. Lots of people are caught in one and can’t find their way out, or don’t like the only path out. Maybe I’m one of those people.”

Maybelline made a gesture as if throwing off unrealistic dilemmas.

Maze of Blood is an implicit defense of fantasy. The escapism it inspires isn’t frivolous; it’s rooted in the true lives—the true needs—of writers and readers alike.

What I appreciate most about Maze of Blood is that Marly Youmans doesn’t treat the troubled writer as a testosterone-addled buffoon, nor does she let his strange, fierce attachment to his mother overshadow his complex inner life. Instead, she’s sensitive to the possibility that he’s a kindred spirit in the arts, an inspired storyteller stuck in the absolutely wrong place and unable, emotionally or intellectually, to escape. But what if Howard/Weaver had managed to ramble far beyond his tiny Texas town? Maze of Blood suggests that his frustration was necessary: it fueled the passion that excited his readers and earned him a most peculiar renown. The whole wide world might never have lived up to the deeds of the hairy-chested warriors in the gleaming Valhalla of his mind.

That conflict—living in two worlds, but feeling unwelcome in one and detached from the other—is central to Youmans’ understanding of who Conall Weaver actually is:

His own townspeople would have asked in astonishment and offense, “When did we fail to laud you? When did we ignore and scorn your prophecies? When did we forget to make a wreath of laurel and place it on your head?” They might have laughed, reeling back and forth, slapping their thighs at the idea that Doc’s punkinheaded boy expected even the least acknowledgement of his poems and stories—as though those high-colored, feverish dreams could find a place among farmers and shopkeepers, oilmen and cowboys.

“Listen to this,” one might have said, picking up a poem: “Condemned like Lucifer to rage and fall, / These poems spark like shooting stars / That plumb the pitched infinities of all / That can appall the heart, or else enthrall / The soul with tales that close in grief and scars, / For wars and Venus both belong to Mars.”

“No dark infinities around these parts,” another would reply. If they saw him, one might call out, “Hey, Sparky, set any stars on fire lately?”

Perhaps it was best that nobody knew…

Haunted by doubt, Conall reels from the disparity between his real life and his virtual existence; he is both doomed to failure and destined for fame. Getting past the well-known irony of Robert E. Howard’s life, Marly Youmans takes an uncommonly humane approach, uniting both halves of the pulp-fiction legend to show how dissatisfaction and heartbreak inevitably get tangled up in artistry.

Although I’ve never been overly keen on Howard’s yarns, I do have a soft spot for his poetry—he earned a place on my fantasy and science-fiction syllabus in 2009—and his pointlessly abrupt death unnerves me. I suppose writers or artists whose loved ones don’t quite understand the things they create or why they create them all feel the hammer of Howardian doubt inside their own skulls. “No one could make him hold fast to a hope for a long life of stories and books and family,” Youmans writes. “No one could make him believe that the future of a young man named Conall Weaver was worth the living.” Behind that plain resignation is a swirl of cosmic inspiration, mental illness, and accidents of fate, where an artist is called to be too many things: a curse, a blessing, and a warning to the rest of us.

* * *

Related “Quid Plura?” posts of yesteryear:

November 2011: a review of The Collected Poetry of Robert E. Howard, “the poet laureate of restless boys.”

March 2013: a review of Thaliad, Marly Youmans’ epic poem about seven children who survive a fiery apocalypse.

* * *

UPDATE (11/18/2015): Howard biographer Mark Finn gives a thumbs-up to Maze of Blood, and Marly Youmans explains in a blog comment what drew her to the subject.

“But just saying it could even make it happen…”

[This is the second part of a yearlong poem about moving from the city to the country. I’m posting it as I write it, in monthly installments; start by reading the prologue here. To read all posts in this series, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

SEPTEMBER

An ancient shadow found shelter with us.
The gray constellation, the Laden Stranger,
Returns for a month to familiar havens,
But none of his fellowship knew him like this:
Where he strained to draw form out of five scattered stars,
Order emerges, moons convulse,
And ninth reigns first. We never discern
The load he shoulders, misshaping his frame,
Where city lights blind us to burden and toil.
Set free, he explodes into forty-four stars:
With half-read books in hand, he rises
Over the barns on the eastern slope
To delight in his work, tracing lines in the sky,
Turning word-weary stars into stories again.
In solemn triumph, he sinks in the west,
Spent but restless, and rouses the dawn.
In the chamber they share, she chooses rods
Engraved with verses to give to the wisps
That gather and whirl like gangly students
In the gorgeous blur before bells ring out
And the world shudders, awake and churning
And sopping and hot. Haloed spiders
Enshrined in the windows wait and say grace.

The rest of us waited in ways of our own.
When I was five, I often slept
With my face to the wall. One cold morning
A curtain stirred; I still wonder
If I kindled the hurricane that howled around me
Or the whisper whipped through when the winds reared up,
But something knew me. No sigh of judgment,
No clap of warning, no wilting rebuke,
Just a maelstrom shot through a mote in the air
For a pure second: it said my name.
I woke from the verge to a vision of nobody
Pinned in the air, an awful peace
Behind bright nothingness. That night, and afterwards,
I traded solace for sullen hope
And slept fitfully, facing the window.

Today my windows are wicked with life.
Motes gulp down motes; mounds of webbing
Mean ripening life, or life-giving death,
And worrying ends. Once I accepted
A world reborn just weeks before,
A mantis on the deck-railing deigned to see me.
Abdomen-up, like an emeraldine wick
He beamed, at ease in the open, and preened,
Boldly asserting his safety and faith.
A glutton for grace, I regarded his hindwings
With mean ambition and bowed to esteem him,
But he knew my mind, and made it plain.

“You are not here,” he huffed, “to verify,
To instruct yourself”—he stretched a stern
And spindly femur—“or inform curiosity
Or carry report.” Discouraged, I blinked:
Am I here to kneel? “No,” he grumbled,
“Just put your words in proper order.”
Again? For what purpose? He gazed into space
And ripped the gears from a wriggling stinkbug;
It twitched and sparked. I turned away
To face the page on the first full day
Of a blank calendar, cautious and lost.

For a few parched weeks, the world just gasps
As fields tilt skyward and flare with the hope
Of perpetual dawn. This deluge of flowers,
Blinding and wild, is a bitter mirage.
Stop at the furrows; stoop in the dirt
Where the sun has only seared to bursting
The glutted soy, turned golden in ruin.
On the path, a stranger approaches at dusk,
But look how his shadow looms from behind you,
And hear how he walks in wary silence
While his footfalls go echoing east through the trees.
And when you light his way, a line of saplings
Detonates—they sprout dappled sinews
And bolt through the gloom. Baffling reality
Mocks your delusions; to live in the woods
Is more than arranging a ring of trees
And retreating to feed the fire inside.
Your language has verses for lulling to sleep
But it lacks a word for a wake-up song;
Whatever you’re certain won’t sing to you now
Waits to be witness to one formal act:
Recite the things you see and hear
Freely, even if others brand it
Daft enchantment or a children’s song,
And start simple. The sense can wait:
“She swept the ash from the iron grate…”
“Sage and parsley in pots left behind…”
“Three white horses on a hillside farm…”

“Silken mist outside the window, frogs and newts slip in the dark…”

[A few weeks ago, after more than 20 years in Washington, D.C., I picked up and moved to a quiet, rural corner of Maryland. I’d just finished learning about medieval calendar poems while translating an under-studied example of this little-read genre, so I thought: why not document my time in the country with a similar work of my own? Twelve times in the next year, between other posts about books and medievalism, I’ll sum up the month that was—starting, in the meantime, with a praefatio. To read all posts in this series, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

PROLOGUE

Cold constellations, labors, and crops,
Weathered omens and wind-bitten names—
Whatever they measured, the meter and rhyme
Of living seasons had ceased for me.
Hunched and sagging, like half an arch
Fated to hang in a freezing ruin,
Aching to fall, I almost forgot
That an arch made whole is half a wheel,
And wheels can turn. I took and read
An old calendar in careful Latin,
And before my fluency fluttered away
As tiny bats tumble from the eaves
In sheer silence, I sat with a monk
Whose furrowed words I enwound with my own.
The remarkable grace of mediaeval poets
Is to make you wonder what more could be true.
The city said not to—so somewhere between
The sigh explicit and a sincere amen,
I slumped at last, and slipped away.

I never knew the names of the stars.
They no longer mattered; nothing prevailed
For fear or entreaty in the frozen sky
But utter, awful, empty space,
And even that fell; forms behind it
Staggered forward: stoop-necked vultures
Caroled their wake for a crumpled doe.
“In this blood and muscle, all manner of thing
Shall be well,” they whistled. “Waste is a sin.”
Then they sundered their guts, disgorging as one
A holy flood of hook-backed crickets,
Mold-white toads and mummified bats,
And shrieking moths in shrouds of fire
Swirled from their mouths. As sweet breezes
Inflamed the void, I faced the gulf
And heard, everywhere, exhalation,
The ashen pop of paper wings.
Those fledgling stars burned stranger to me
Than the ones that fell. I wonder now
If I even witnessed an ending at all.

I wandered, amazed, for a while in the dusk
Newly born, toward a house they forbade me to enter.
A line of lanterns lit up the world:
I walked their course through a wood, where I saw
A second house in a sunburst grove.
Blinding cobwebs curtained the path,
And another was there. Not understanding,
I echoed her call as she came to the door:
They made me an offer, and I said yes.

Wohin geht dieser Weg? Wir werden sehen.

“Ah, you are in your prime, you’ve come of age…”

“Outreach” is the kale of academia: everyone agrees it’s healthy, but they’re not always eager to make it a part of their lives. My hat is off, then, to Richard Utz, a scholar of medievalism at Georgia Tech, for his willingness to ride out to the market square and kick around big questions about the state of his field. A few weeks ago, the Chronicle of Higher Education published part of the plenary speech Utz delivered in May at the International Congress on Medieval Studies. I’ve been moving truckloads of books to a new home in the country, so this is my first chance to dig into the piece. Despite the stupid title the editors gave it—“Don’t Be Snobs, Medievalists”—it’s a worthy start, even if I found myself cuisse-deep in the questions it raises.

Utz writes:

It is clearly time to lower the drawbridge from the ivory tower and reconnect with the public.

One way to do this is to intervene aggressively in the media when the French National Front appropriates Jeanne d’Arc, New Hampshire legislators feel textually beholden to the Magna Carta, British politicians combat contemporary jihadism with a late medieval treason law, or Prince Philip is appointed to a knighthood of the Order of Australia, a title the illustrious heritage of which dates back to ye olde 1975.

What does it mean to “intervene aggressively”: stand on the drawbridge and denounce sinful readings of history? By what criteria? It’s not a question of accuracy: Utz links to stories about European nationalists, British Conservatives, American Republicans, and cranky Prince Philip (as if they’re all the same) but later he praises the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA and its members have done tremendous work in material culture, folklore, and martial arts, but as an organization whose mission is often informally characterized as creating “the Middle Ages as it should have been,” it also has a fantasy wish-fulfillment faction, and it redacts a vital force in medieval culture: religion. Is that not at least potentially a problem for academia? Does the group get a pass from the Medievalist Police because they’re nicer or generally more liberal? I don’t want (or trust the proponents of) a medievalism that seeks to justify every facet of liberalism any more than one that serves as a conservative catechism or nationalist blueprint.

Even so, Utz sees promise in meeting at least certain elements of the public on their own turf:

Add these efforts together, and we medievalists might extricate ourselves from the isolationist confines of 19th- and 20th-century medieval studies and embrace a broader and more egalitarian mélange of academic and popular medievalisms. If we join ranks with the so-called amateurs, we will ensure a continued critical as well as affective engagement with medieval culture. In the process, we might revivify our discipline and contribute to the health of the humanities.

I respect Utz’s aims, but I’m skeptical of his plan. In the past eight years, I’ve written more than 160 blog posts about medievalism, a few of which have gone, if not viral, at least naggingly bacterial, including one about a Charlemagne quote from an Indiana Jones movie that’s drawn tens of thousands of readers. I’ve written both a middle-school textbook and a moderately successful midlist pop-history book about Charlemagne. I’ve given talks about Charlemagne at libraries, museums, and book festivals. I’ve promoted a book of medievalist poetry inspired by a Gothic cathedral. I’ve translated a Middle Scots romance and published shorter translations here on the blog and in scholarly and literary journals. I’ve even dabbled in applied paleobromatology and shared my clunky efforts at retro, medieval-themed instant photography. I did these things not to advance an academic career but because the Middle Ages provided a rich matière for the creative work that occupies my spare time—but if I had done these things as a scholar engaged in public outreach, or if academia had paid more attention to me, would it matter?

Utz writes as if the scholarly world is not just doomed, but scarcely deserving of survival:

The Society for Creative Anachronism has added more to our knowledge of medieval culture by practicing blacksmithing, re-enacting the Battle of Hastings, and performing historical dance than D.W. Robertson’s decision, albeit substantiated by learned footnotes, that all medieval art was created and needs to be read according to the principles of patristic exegesis. Similarly, Michel Guyot’s megaproject of rebuilding a medieval castle, Guédelon, from scratch over a 30-year period, based on 13th-century building plans and without modern technology, yields infinitely more information than another 50 essays obsessing about the authorship of the anonymous Nibelungenlied or Cantar de Mio Cid. Moreover, sites like medievalists.net and publicmedievalist.com communicate valuable information more effectively to academic and nonacademic audiences than dozens of academic journals accessible at subscribers-only sources like JSTOR or Project Muse.

Scholars have indeed failed to bushwhack through old-growth clichés to reach the public; the late Norman Cantor identified the problem more than 20 years ago. But Utz points out an important and underappreciated supply-and-demand clash:

[T]here is now a manifest discrepancy between the large number of students who request that we address their love of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and medieval-themed video and computer games on the one hand, and the decreasing number of medievalists hired to replace retiring colleagues on the other.

When I was an adjunct, the director of the English department started me off with one medieval lit course and laughed at my hope that there’d ever be more. In the decade that followed, student demand let me revive the other three medieval courses in the catalog. Now that I’m outside Utz’s drawbridge, I wonder if there shouldn’t be less talk about impressing the public and more effort to win over university bureaucrats, especially lapsed humanities scholars who act like they’re managing a Walmart distribution hub.

I also wish Utz had clarified what he means when he says that students “request that we address their love” of the popular media of the moment. Do they want professors to pontificate about their favorite TV shows? That strikes me as a disheartening waste of brainpower and money—but my hope is that they want something more. Speaking as a kid whose medieval interests were partly rooted in childhood enthusiasm for fantasy games, I’d urge Utz and his colleagues to promise wonderful new realms to their students: history that illuminates human nature, the keys to unlocking eldritch languages, artistic and theological glimpses into the medieval mind—uncool things that endure deep within us long after entertainment companies neglect their latest love-child.

Utz alludes only briefly to “the health of the humanities.” I wish these discussions weren’t always so polar, with academia on one end and TV and video games on the other. What about other eclectic, unaffiliated souls? I’ve met or discovered the work of several such people: Lex Fajardo, author of Kid Beowulf, a series of all-ages graphic novels inspired by his love of world epics; Nancy Marie Brown, the admirably prolific author of mass-market books about the Lewis Chessmen, the Vikings, the Eddas, and Pope Sylvester II; remarkable medieval-inspired poets like Maryann Corbett and Becky Gould Gibson; or novelists like Tod Wodicka. I wonder: What would they do if they came to a scholarly conference? Would it still be a scholarly conference? Would scholars support them right back? Just as those retiring medievalists aren’t being replaced, writers and artists are watching their audiences fragment and shrink. The larger culture doesn’t care, but those of us who have never felt entirely at home on either side of the drawbridge would welcome new allies in seeking the true and the real. Sometimes it’s nice not to lurk in the moat.

“I remember, only for an hour…”

When you live near a cathedral and wander its grounds on a whim, you see human behavior that’s more grotesque than anything frozen in stone. Sometimes a bus roars in, disgorges children, and barely has time to cool its engine while a guide exhorts his young charges to find Darth Vader on one of the towers. Why? What? Wait—with startling speed, they’re back on the bus, deprived of what they might have discovered if adults had let their minds and bodies roam.

But that’s the tourist experience, and those of us in supposedly sophisticated cities fall back on it too. Some Washingtonians imagine the world in ways that must be comforting in its knowability: stick pins in maps, count up the stamps in your passport, pretend that travel teaches universal lessons rather than fine, unsettling ones. As an adult, I’ve traveled in 38 U.S. states and 17 countries, including some that few Americans ever get to see—and come home without guilt to the same little place.

I’ve lived in my D.C. neighborhood for 21 years, but I’ve rarely written about it, except obliquely. This is the Washington few people love and that many who settle here don’t really see: not political Washington, not black Washington, with its dogged roots, but a charming district lined with trees, dormant on workdays and dreamfully peaceful by night. I’ve never felt totally right for the place. By shrugging off politics, working from home, and accepting crepuscular ways, have I failed to keep up with the people around me and missed what the neighborhood’s really about?

If so, I’ve still witnessed worthwhile things: Every morning, the shopkeepers, the groundskeepers, the panhandlers, and the limping retirees follow their intertwined routes, the veins of a great, blind behemoth. Eyes open, arteries clog: commuters flee, landscapers scatter, clusters of mothers deposit their children at school. Over here, parking is hopeless; over there, you’ll find no line at the post office—unless, for some reason, it rains. The friendly librarian lopes down the block; a uniformed Secret Service agent parks illegally and loiters at the gyro shop; a smiling North African woman shuts down the pharmacy at night and opens the grocery store ten hours later. Look: I can show you where trees fell during hurricanes, where someone got shot when the Star Wars prequels debuted, and where for the cost of a cup of coffee you can kick back in a grape arbor planted by a big-game hunter. I can point out a stone that farted prophetically when we stepped on it after a storm. Like a ghost, I know what all these places used to be; I try to remember a much weirder writer who strolled the same streets as a child.

But my block isn’t haunted, at least not with gloom; all sorts of miracles thrive in our midst. Four houses away, a sneaky raccoon family feasts through the night. You might startle a fox if you go for a walk in the fog before dawn, not far from where the cicadas will be deafening when they someday re-emerge. Tourists grin as their kids tromp through curbside flower-beds; I stop for a moment to mention the rats. Then I hike to the secret spot on the cathedral grounds where it’s pleasant and breezy even on sweltering days.

What use to you is all of this? It’s no more enthralling than a life spent studying a single Italian painter, memorizing Esperanto poems, or breeding heritage chickens—or clicking through a batch of travel photos, for that matter—but it’s the answer I now have for “you still live there?”, which was rarely an actual question. It’s time to move on, but this morning I wondered: what else would I see if I stayed? Yet I’ve already learned what I’m happy to know: if you stake out a strange little place where the world can whirl through and around you, it’s better than going where everyone else stands next to the things that hold still, just to pose.