Youmans (pronounced like 'yeoman' with an 's' added) is the best-kept secret
among contemporary American writers. --John Wilson, editor, Books and Culture Marly Youmans is a novelist and poet out of sync with the times
but in tune with the ages. --First Things

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Triptych with artisans, art, and music

Hand of St. Valentin. Paul Koudounaris
If a common thread runs through this three-stranded post, it is that each of these things I find interesting this morning made me see something new and anew--the past and church history, a Frost poem so familiar that I couldn't imagine it being unfamiliar again, and the state of culture. In each case, I saw or heard through another, and enjoyed what I found for that reason.

1. Catacomb Saints

Photographs like this one by Paul Koudounaris are suddenly popping up around the web. I find them fascinating too, though they seem to be an excuse for many people to flog various dead horses of the past and church history, at least in comments on various sites. Go here for a reasonably respectful treatment of the "catacomb saints."

Koudounaris's new book is Heavenly Bodies. He claims "spectacular" as a descriptor in the subtitle, and that seems to be true from the many samples of photographs online. It's too bad that the book does not appear to have much apparatus to tell us about the photographs which, detached from their historical context and meaning, may well be seen as fabulous but freakish. Many artisans spent years laboring to decorate these bones, seeking to make them an image of the saints in glory . . .

"In 1578 the remains of thousands of individuals assumed to be early Christian martyrs were discovered in Rome. The remains were given fictitious names and sent to Catholic churches and religious institutions in German-speaking Europe as relics of saints to replace holy relics that had been destroyed during the Protestant Reformation. Reassembled by skilled artisans, encrusted with gold and jewels and richly dressed in fantastic costumes, the skeletons were displayed in elaborate public shrines as reminders of the spiritual treasures that awaited the faithful after death."

Last night I saw one of the images on Nathan Ballingrud's facebook page and had a sudden memory of an anecdote. A friend (who shall remain unnamed) was visiting an eastern European castle and allowed to take a peep into stone coffins down in the basement, including one of a recently-deceased aunt. I still remember an odd detail of her fine, detailed clothing. It would make a wonderful story...

2. Eric Whitacre making the over-exposed new

Here's the original version of Sleep from Whitacre's blog. The text was Frost's "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." I love the way it estranges the text and makes it uncanny again. The Frost estate did not give permission for the use of the text, and so there is really only one version of the piece available, so far as I can tell. The Concordia Choir.

3. Gioia x 2

If you are interested in arts, music, culture-building, education, business-and-the-arts, or religion, take a look at the double interview with Ted and Dana Gioia:  The Arts: Agents of Change and Source of Enchantment. Here are a few clips to entice:

Ted Gioia: I am convinced that, if you have a vocation in life, you don’t choose it. It chooses you. The religious phrase we use to describe this process is the right one. You receive a calling, and the only proper thing you can do is respond to the calling.

Dana: The modern assumption that writers and artists are dreamy, impractical people is both odd and quite insulting to creative people. Sophocles was a general, Goethe a scientist and statesman. Shakespeare was the most successful entertainment entrepreneur of Renaissance England. 

Ted: . . . people are just as hungry for serious culture as they ever were, but are stymied by entertainment-driven media that refuse to give a platform to anything deep, challenging, or sophisticated. But let me make a prediction. Popular entertainment of the current sort will not satisfy this hunger.

Dana: Both jazz and poetry became too academic and intellectual. This is not unique to these two arts. It reflected the general isolation of the arts in our society. They have been relegated to small subcultures and cut off from the general audience that once supported them. That separation has hurt both the arts and the general culture. . . . We need to take responsibility for creating the culture we want to live in. That means to express our values—aesthetic as well as ethical—in our daily lives.

And a late addition--

Thanks to Stephen Roth for reviewing A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage at his blog and at Amazon! For more review clips, see the page tabs above. Evidently Stephen's first book will be out next year--congratulations to him!


  1. So much interesting stuff here, Marly, worthy of several posts.

    The catacombs and the anecdote about a friend's visit to the stone coffins in the basement of a castle jogged a memory of my own. Many years ago, with two young daughters in tow, we were touring parts of Europe. In southern Germany, we happened to visit a stunning Rococo style church in a small town. What stunned us and made me cover our girls' eyes, were the glass faced, gold encrusted display cases along the walls. The contents were the actual skeletons of various royalty, placed in lounging or seated positions with all their glorious garments, jewelry and crowns. The leering skulls seemed alive. Shudder.

    Interesting interview with the Gioia brothers - they are right that cheap entertainment has hurt our culture.

  2. I wonder if your minor royalty is still in place! Just think about all the little children who were quite used to seeing those figures...

    Yes, it was pleasing to have them interviewed together. I'm surprised that was the first time.

  3. I once visited a church in Austria where the corpses of nuns were dressed in finery that on closer examination proved to be film-flam: tinsel, sequins and paste on show in glass fronted caskets. Strange indeed.

    You should weave the castle episode into a Marly story. Don't let it go to waste.

  4. Notice I didn't say who, as I didn't ask permission!

    That's so strange--what message does that send, if dressing these in gold and jewels was to surround them with a heavenly aura?

  5. p. s. Had a somewhat Clivean evening--rural bonfire and picnic in very light rain, followed by a house concert with lots of little doggies wandering around.

  6. Heavenly Bodies was just too alluring a notion not to explore some more, and so I purchased the book. Thank you for drawing it to my attention.

    Permission given!

    Did I ever tell you about the anecdote Graham shared with me that had come from a friend of his? The one about the drowned boy? He thought that I would make a good painting of it, and though I haven't yet, I plan to.

  7. I'm not surprised you ordered that one! Won't even be surprised if one wanders (is carried?) into a painting.

    Good! The details of that one (particularly the boots) stick in my mind.

    No drowned boy story--write me!


Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.