“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.

“And with this crutch, its old age and its wisdom…”

“It was a pleasant group of roof and bower, of spire and tree to look upon from the city, towards sunset, when every window-pane flung back the lustre of a conflagration; and magnificently did it strike upon the eye of the liegeman as they sat at their doors, at that hour, gazing upon the glorious river and its tranquil banks.”

That’s St. Mary’s, the first capital of Maryland, reimagined more than a century after its demise by John Pendleton Kennedy: popular Whig politician, Secretary of the Navy under Millard Fillmore, friend of Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe, and a novelist who never quite found his audience.

Three years ago, I checked out Kennedy’s little-read 1832 novel Swallow Barn, which offers a leisurely visit to an antebellum Virginia plantation sodden with pseudo-chivalry. I was curious to see if his 1838 historical novel, Rob of the Bowl: A Legend of St. Inigoe’s, has medieval echoes of its own. It does, faintly—but it also sets the mood for a two-hour drive out of Washington to the wild, quiet end of the St. Mary’s Peninsula. Maryland was founded as a Catholic colony there along the St. Mary’s River between the Potomac and the Chesapeake, and while the original settlement is long gone, you can still explore the lovely Historic St. Mary’s City, a sprawling living-history site that demands more than a day—especially when you’re propelled by a novel that almost no one else living has read.

It’s 1681, and times are tense: Charles Calvert, Lord Baltimore, Proprietary Governor of the colony of Maryland, stands accused of favoring his fellow Catholics. Protestants insist that atrocities committed by the Piscataway Indians are actually the work of Catholics in disguise, and they’re lobbying the crown to hand over the colony to the Church of England. Drama! Politics! Violence! But Kennedy squanders it all to chase less genteel ghosts: The first third of Rob of the Bowl follows an exploratory mission to the haunted cottage of a murderous fisherman, a hovel of the damned that the locals call the Wizard’s Chapel.

“I would have the inquiry made by men who are not moved by the vulgar love of marvel,” Lord Baltimore declares, putting his faith in a ragtag band—a Dutch musketeer captain, an English innkeeper, a Flemish woodsman, and a taciturn Native American—who set off on an adventure right out of a 1980s Dungeons & Dragons module. An Episcopalian who admired his Catholic forebears, Kennedy was opposed to slavery, helped repeal an anti-Jewish law, and supported Irish Catholic immigrants; the Wizard’s Chapel story is his explicit memorial to Marylanders’ historic enthusiasm for coexistence and cooperation.

But with that out of the way, most of Rob of the Bowl is indulgent romance. Captain Cocklescraft—a crass pirate fostered by Captain Morgan himself—challenges Albert Verheyden, the chivalrous, lute-playing secretary of Lord Baltimore, for the affections of Blanche, the daughter of the local customs official. On page after page, the wilds of St. Mary’s ring with the revels of traders, wenches, cavaliers, and rogues, including the title character, Rob Swales, a mysterious amputee who slides across sandy beaches in a large bowl strapped to the remnants of his legs. In 17th-century Maryland, it’s still the Middle Ages: the locals celebrate their patron saints’ holidays, hold a tournament, clutch relics, and reminisce about visiting Old World shrines. Unfortunately, the weird characters aren’t very rich, the likeable characters don’t feel seriously imperiled, and fateful tensions between Catholics and Protestants await a sequel Kennedy never wrote. Rob of the Bowl is a stroll through a living-history museum, one that’s full of welcoming souls who want to edify and amuse you, but the plot they abide in is frozen in time.

Working hard to immerse 19th-century readers in the late 17th century, Kennedy opens each chapter with snippets of verse from the 17th and 18th centuries, and he forces his characters to use period language (including my favorite Elizabethan exclamation: “ads heartlikens!”). At one point, a Dutch doctor at Lord Baltimore’s court speaks in a meticulously rendered accent—”Vell, vell, dere is noding lost by peing acquanted at once wid de people of de house”—on and off for sixteen tedious pages, only to be superseded by his even less comprehensible assistant: “Goot beoplish! dish is de drice renowned and ingomprbl Doctor.” I laughed; hopefully Kennedy meant me to.

If parts of Rob of the Bowl now come off as sillier than the responsible, civic-minded Kennedy deserves, it’s partly the fault of our age; Kennedy has written an unapologetically earnest book packed with sincere observations. Here’s his narrator explaining one character’s quick turn toward penitence:

When age and satiety have destroyed the sense of worldly pleasure, the soul finds a nourishment in the consolations of religion, to which it flies with but slight persuasion; and however volatile and self-dependent youth may deride it, the aged are faithful witnesses to the truth, that in the Christian faith there is a spell to restore the green to the withered vegetation of the heart, even as the latter rain renovates the pastures of autumn.

And here’s Albert, smitten by Maryland:

With my own free will I should never leave this sunny land. These woods are richer to my eye than pent-up cities; these spreading oaks and stately poplars, than our groined and shafted cathedrals and our cloistered aisles: yes, and I more love to think of the free range of this woodland life, these forest-fed deer, and flight of flocking wild fowl, than all the busy assembling of careful men which throng the great marts of trade.

Rob of the Bowl didn’t sell well, but the novel is a heartfelt tribute to old-timey Maryland, and its jumble of romantic tropes includes a concession to life’s transience:

They are gone! Like shadows have these men of might sunk on the earth. They, their game, their wigwams, their monuments, their primeval forests,—yea, even their graves, have flitted away in this spectral flight. Saxon and Norman, bluff Briton and heavy Suabian inherit the land. And in its turn, well-a-day! our pragmatical little city hath departed. Not all its infant glory, nor its manhood’s bustle, its walls, gardens and bowers,—its warm housekeeping, its gossiping burgers, its politics and its factions,—not even its prolific dames and gamesome urchins could keep it in the upper air until this our day. Alas, for the vaulting pride of the village, the vain glory of the city, and the metropolitan boast! St. Mary’s hath sunk to the level of Tyre and Sidon, Balbec and Palmyra! She hath become trackless, tokenless.

I have wandered over the blank field where she sank down to rest. It was a book whose characters I could scarce decipher.

Reading John Pendleton Kennedy today is more poignant than I’d expected. Oh, the book isn’t good, but its author’s peculiar giddiness humanizes every page: his face in shadow, beaming in the lamplight as he dreams up a bygone world and then conjures a cabinet of Toby Mug characters to inhabit it. He dearly wants to make 17th-century Maryland real, to raise old St. Mary’s from its grave, to remind us that those who came before us drank, fought, laughed, prayed, and loved. I came away believing only that the obscure author himself did all of those things—but when even whole cities can crumble and rot, that’s a relic well-found after 200 years.


(Partially rebuilt chimney bases of the Leonard Calvert House, Historic St. Mary’s)

“It seems the music keeps them quiet, there is no other way…”

No matter the ground that’s granted to you,
Whether sand-rotten or silt-riddled,
Whether shoots ripen in rich, sopping earth
To give their full and fattened yield,
Whether high hillsides or handily worked
Lowlands beckon, a level plain,
Or a valley roughened with veering slopes,
It cannot refuse to bring forth for you
Its native plants, provided that you
Don’t louse your labors with laziness…

Walahfrid Strabo (d.849), De Cultura Hortorum (my translation)

Someday I may do what the ninth-century abbot of Reichenau wouldn’t have recommended: cultivate a garden full of medieval European plants. Until then, I’ll revel in my 169 square feet of New World fecundity, a bee-friendly spider-riot of corn, peppers, cucumbers, collards, squash, and beans. I try to be the largest creature on my tenancy; narrow paths and high, uneven fences keep the deer far hence, and I banish chipmunks and mice with a clemency that would put St. Francis to shame.

Even so, my garden cried out for a medieval beastie—and a certain clever loved one of mine decided to oblige.

That’s the tarasque, a marvelous and horrifying creature from the folklore of medieval Provence. With the head of a lion, the tail of a scorpion, six bear’s legs, and a turtle shell, the tarasque ravaged the countryside, until St. Martha—the biblical Martha—lulled it with prayers and hymns and lured it into town. Terrified locals killed it, after which they regretted attacking a tame monster, converted to Christianity, and renamed their town in the monster’s honor.

That’s the story in the 13th-century Legenda Aurea, anyway, and it sure did last: I had a vague memory of encountering this critter in another context long ago, so I went back to the Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual II from 1983 (don’t judge me) and found this fearsome fellow:

My tarasque is likewise domesticated—or at least domestic. Back in February, when the aforementioned loved one and I were in Memphis, an ice storm shut down the city. We were lucky to be stuck indoors with an assortment of local beer, including the Tarasque Saison from Wiseacre Brewing Company. I liked the can design, she’s got an inventive mind, and three months later, when we saw a garden store shamefully asking 20 bucks for whirligigs made out of nothing more than two beer cans, a wire hanger, and plastic straws, I heard a claim I’ve come not to doubt: “I could totally make that.”

And so a couple weeks ago, having mostly forgotten the matter, I opened a box to find a terrific surprise: a trace of modern medievalism, a souvenir from a recent adventure, and a thoughtful, handmade present all rigged up into one.

After we calibrate the spinning blades a little, the wind vane at the tail should inspire optimal whirling. My garden is now a bit more medieval, if not more dignified. So be it. Such is a blog post befitting July, when the weather is languid, the wind is lazy, and writerly ambition is as tame as a tarasque.