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Monday, March 31, 2014

Richard Nester on "Buffalo Laughter"

Cover art by Lavina Blossom
Hemet, California: Kelsay Books, 2014

Buffalo Laughter

Every year the buffalo get
together like a bunch of old actors.
There are only enough of them
left to make a movie.
The head buffalo plans something,
but the old times and the new times
are one time now, and it never quite happens.
There's a buffet--grass mostly and some water.
For a couple of hours the buffalo laughter
is plentiful, stampeding around the room
and then settling like snow.
It isn't as sad as you might think.
Later, there's a bill for the busted chairs.
Richard Nester's collection of poems, Buffalo Laughter (Kelsay Books, 2014), will soon be featured at Lady Word of Mouth. In the meantime, here are some ruminations about the title from Richard, with a splash of advice to young poets.
As far as my collection goes, why the title? Several years ago I came across a kind of workshop precept advanced by Allen Ginsberg that one should never pair an adjective with a noun that embodies a quality already present in the noun. It so happens that Robert Bly violates the precept in a poem I am fond of reciting (partly because it’s short) when he says about striving

           How strange to think of giving up all ambition!
           Suddenly I see with such clear eyes
           The white flake of snow
           That has just fallen in the horse's mane!

Isn’t snow by its nature white? Perhaps not any more. In any case, I enjoy both Bly’s violation of the precept and the precept itself because Ginsberg’s advice provides a spur to creativity of the sort particular to poetry, and is likely to give birth to my favorite trope—the oxymoron. There don’t seem to be all that many oxymorons in English poetry (assuming the Norton Anthology provides us with a representative sample) prior to Robert Herrick, but following his announcement that a “wild civility” is to be preferred in art as well as female fashion, the oxymorons start to bloom like wild flowers.

So all I was originally trying to do with “buffalo laughter” was to please myself by making an oxymoron. I had been watching a television documentary the night before that described the state of the American continent before the arrival of Europeans. Of course, buffalo were plentiful then. However, the show made the somewhat ironic point that this plentitude wasn’t really a “natural” condition, but was rather the result of a complex symbiosis existing between the plains Indians and buffalo wherein Native Americans by engaging in slash and burn agriculture had created more space for buffalo to prosper. So even in those relatively pristine days, ecologically speaking, humankind was still impacting its environment in unpredictable ways.

In reviewing the poem following its appearance in Floyd County Moonshine—a very good magazine currently being published in the small town I grew up in—the local newspaper in its review of that issue described it as “whimsical.” Okay, but I had ambitions for it beyond mere whimsy. I considered it as embedding a kind of ecological comment in its structure. As the poem anthropomorphizes the buffalo, it simultaneously “bisonizes” humanity. The buffalo may well be laughing sardonically when the “bill” for the chairs “busted” by humanity comes due. Nevertheless, it’s still not as “sad as you might think.” After all, the universe will hardly be stopping to weep when the bill is at last presented.

Was I thinking about all this when I wrote the poem. Yes, absolutely. And also, just as absolutely—no! If I may pause to offer some advice to beginning poets, just give yourself a chance, by whatever means necessary, to get lucky, and give yourself the maximum opportunity to learn those means by reading and reading and reading. I can’t tell you exactly what those means are because some of them may not have been invented yet. After all, who told Dickinson that it might be a good idea to use dashes as a primary means of punctuation, and what’s to keep your adoption of the same style from being mere affectation. Nothing. Poetry makes no promises.

How the collection came to be called “Buffalo Laughter” is just that the title poem didn’t seem to fit with most of the other poems precisely because it was so “whimsical.” But I loved it, and so I created a rationale for its inclusion by calling the whole volume that and by positioning it close to other “nature” poems, like “Dune Grass,” whose anthropomorphizing is less obvious. Perhaps, between the two of them, one gets another resonance, which is that the subject of the book as a whole is about humanity’s place in the scheme of things that we create in the stories that we tell about ourselves—all kinds of stories, even Bible stories, which were among the first stories that I heard in my life. Way before Doctor Seuss or the Illiad, which by the way is alluded to in the poem “Between You and Me.”

Friday, March 28, 2014

Lady Word of Mouth

New at Lady Word of Mouth:


essays, memoir, and a smattering of poetry

and a new edition of 

Other worlds in this--

I like this comment from John Banville so much--and like many things that a person likes, the reason is that it chimes with a particular experience so well:
Long Lankin came from the early sixties. But Ireland in the sixties wasn’t the sixties as Americans think of it. When I look back now to the sixties here it’s like looking back to the Middle Ages. It was a primitive world. But it’s good for a novelist to cross periods in history in one lifetime. When I was writing Kepler and Doctor Copernicus, looking back to Europe in the Renaissance, I only had to think back to Wexford when I was growing up there to get a feel for what a primitive world was like.
I had precisely the same feeling about writing A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage--that I had lived in Pip's world in my Georgia summers and knew its primitive shape very well. I only had to remove a few strands of reality to reach the farm that is the orphanage. Summer experiences in Lexsy and Collins meant knowing a poor sharecropper's life and also the life of a Southern "lady" who had risen for many years at dawn's crack to make 14 dozen biscuits for her children and hired laborers... I expect "Southern lady" always referred to a hard worker, back then. So I knew a place that, barring a few touches of modernity, felt as primitive as any medieval world; I also knew a place that felt like the late nineteenth-century or very early twentieth-century but had fallen (thanks to the Depression) from its days of glory.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Borges, Blake, Christ, and art

Public domain image; see Wikipedia citation.
Best reproduction is here.
Here's a post for a Sunday, a post for Lent... Reading a Borges interview made me think of that singular visionary, William Blake, sitting with his wife in the garden at Felpham, or glimpsing angels among haymakers, and or spying them up in a tree, the bright wings spangling the branches like stars.

Borges on Christ as artist

Jorge Luis Borges to Denis Dutton:

 ...I don’t know who said that, was it Bernard Shaw? — he said, arguments convince nobody. No, Emerson. He said, arguments convince nobody. And I suppose he was right, even if you think of proofs for the existence of God, for example — no? In that case, if arguments convince nobody, a man may be convinced by parables or fables or what? Or fictions. Those are far more convincing than the syllogism — and they are, I suppose. Well, of course, when I think of something in terms of Jesus Christ. As far as I remember, he never used arguments; he used style, he used certain metaphors. It’s very strange — yes, and he always used very striking sentences. He would not say, I don’t come to bring peace but war — “I do not come to bring peace but a sword.” The Christ, he thought in parables. Well, according to — I think that it was Blake who said that a man should be — I mean, if he is a Christian — should be not only just but he should be intelligent ... he should also be an artist, since Christ had been teaching art through his own way of preaching, because every one of the sentences of Christ, if not every single utterance of Christ, has a literary value, and may be thought of as a metaphor or as a parable.

Christ the Word and art

Borges called himself an agnostic. His description of Christ as working through style, metaphor, and parable seems highly appropriate for a savior called the Word. (In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the word was God. John 1:1.) That comment about every sentence of Christ being of literary value certainly sounds like Blake. In fact, "every sentence" being of literary value fulfills Blake's ideas about unceasing praise, which is art.

Blake, the Laocoön, and art as the Tree of Life

Borges's reference reminds me of the inscriptions circling Blake's depiction (etched and engraved in intaglio) of the famous Laocoön and his sons group (circa 200 B. C. - 70 A. D.), which he perceives as portraying God with Adam and Satan. Blake's copy-work dates from around 1815, but the winding, colorful inscriptions were added more than a decade later. These lines are fascinating, and many of them pronounce on the intersection of Christ and art.

A selection of William Blake's art-related inscriptions around the Laocoön, Copy B (Essick collection):*

Prayer is the Study of Art. 
Praise is the Practise of Art. 
The Eternal Body of Man is Imagination, that is God himself. 
It manifests itself in his Works of Art (in Eternity All is Vision) 
The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Man
Art is the Tree of Life   God is Jesus 
The Whole Business of Man is the Arts 
Jesus His Apostles and Disciples were all Artists 
Christianity is Art and not Money    Money is its Curse 
Israel delivered from Egypt is Art delivered from Nature and Imitation 
You must leave Fathers and Mothers and Houses and Lands
if they stand in the way of Art
Without Unceasing Practise, nothing can be done   Practise is Art

*Ampersands signified by "and"

It's interesting how these interrelate. Evidently unceasing "practise" means unceasing praise, since praise is the "practise" of art. All of life, then, becomes praise that expresses itself as art. And art is visonary, flourishing, and apparent in lives that might not, on the surface, appear to be devoted to art as we now think of it.

Bright Hill reading on Thursday

Interior vignette by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for Glimmerglass (forthcoming in September)

Reading and Q/A
Sarah Dohrmann and Marly Youmans
--preceded by open mic--

Thursday, March 27 
7:00 p.m.

Bright Hill Literary Center
94 Church St.
Treadwell, NY 13846
(in the Catskills south of Oneonta)

Women's History Month 
Special Edition of Word Thursdays

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

New book on fathers and disabled children--

Dads of Disability--"stories for, by, and about fathers of children who experience disability (and the women who love them!)" by Gary Dietz is up at Lady Word of Mouth. It's not just a book for fathers of disabled children but a book for all of us who live in a world that contains fathers and children.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Updatery, with owl

Clive Hicks-Jenkins vignette,
a sweet owl for Glimmerglass
I posted this one last week and then took it down after half an hour, dithering over whether it was too much about my books, my books, my books. But I've decided that if you come here, you know I write books. So now the post is up again for the weekend. If that does not please you, fly on to posts about writing and music, the passing of Lucius Shephard, green men in cathedrals, the word police, Catherwood in Entertainment Weekly, and much more...
As I haven't talked much about my books lately, I'm cobbling together a post that will link to some of Clive Hicks-Jenkins's recent work for the fall novel, Glimmerglass, and update links and news a bit about my three 2012 books.

A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage
Update on my A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage page here.

Sample review clip: It is seldom that a novel from a small university press can compete with the offerings from the big houses in New York. A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage may be the best novel this reviewer has read this year. Its quality and story-telling remind one of The Adventures of Roderick Random, Great Expectation and The Grapes of Wrath among others. The winner of the 2012 "Ferrol Sams Award for Fiction," A Death has the potential to become a classic American picaresque novel. / One wishes, however, that this novel will not get shunted into the regional box and be seen only as a Southern novel. Its themes and the power of its language, the forceful flow of its storyline and its characters have earned the right to a broad national audience. 30 July 2012 John M. Formy-Duval at

Glimmerglass (September, 2014)
Clive Hicks-Jenkins on twinship with his work for Glimmerglass here.
"Marly and Me" post from Clive here.
Glimmerglass decorations in progress here.
More Glimmerglass vignettes here.
Excerpt from a blurb by Jeffery Beam: Whether she’s writing historical fiction or fantasy, her characters leave one breathless. Her ability to describe a person, a place, or the psychological underpinnings of a plot or individual, ranks with the great novelists, the highest literature.  A tale of love and intrigue, mystery and pathology, Glimmerglass’ appeal is the warmth and charge of a tale told round a fire fused by Hitchcockian anxiety, empathy, and relief.  Nature, architecture, dread, thrill, sexual dilemma, and murder echo against Youmans’ gorgeous prose and terrifying romance, which glides like a serpent―without a single extraneous or boring word.

And here's a little focus on Thaliad, borrowed from Midori Snyder's wonderful blog, In the Labyrinth

Marly Youmans' Thaliad offers a healing balm to the swath of nihilistic post-apocalyptic fiction... Told in free verse reminiscent of heroic epics (Homer meets Gerald Manley Hopkins), Thaliad recounts the aftermath of a fiery apocalypse and the perlious journey of a band of children led by a girl whose prophetic visions guide them to a sanctuary on the edge of a lake. Here, they confront the challenges of re-creating the world – a world illuminated by hope and love.
...this a wondrous text filled with richly layered and evocative poetry, packed with fairy tale and mythic references. Like a bardic tale, it demands to be read aloud.
Nature along the road appears rotted and ruined by violence, the sky is thick with ash and poisonous rain drops of quicksilver. But Nature at the sanctuary along the lake where Thalia's visions have led them is fertile, sensual, a source of healing. Here is the spring pollen, ripening even as the children are, who seven years later have become young adults:
"...Clouding the air with fertile shining silt
That somersaulted in a beam of sun,
That changed the spiderwebs to something rich,
That kissed the surfaces of Glimmerglass
And turned its scalloped border into gold,
That moved across the air as if alive,
The landscape's bright epithalamion,
The simple golden wedding of the world."
Violence is hammered into fierce staccato rhythms -- the beating of swords and young men made mad with battle lust.
"...Close-pressed, crashing, the fell clamor of shields,
The crossroads, grand climateric of blood,
Jar of womb-shattered, the rib-comb unteethed,
Janglings above corpse couch, red butcher bed,
The bronze swords wading in a swamp of flesh
Like toddlers splashing in a muddy slough,
Hell-scathers scraping blade along the bone,
Blood-spree, blood-spore rose red on snow-white yard....

...To the hour when Cain is ever slaying
Abel in the dark eternal backward."
Balanced against the terrifying darkness and the fire's destruction are Thalia's prophetic visions, soaring with heat and golden light as the human spirit is nurtured by the divine. In an abandoned Church a grieving Thalia confronts an angel, its blasted face open to the pouring of sunlight behind it:
"...The sunshine made a starburst where the head
Once shone, auroral work of Tiffany;
The star face brought a lightening of flesh
To Thalia until the piercing rays
Transformed her body into starriness,
And rain of light made reign of light within,
Till she was drowned and nameless in its flood,
And there with trembling let the angel speak..."
Thaliad has two narrators -- Emma, the librarian who almost seventy years after the fire reflects on the history of the Clave, the settlement founded by Thalia, and then Emma as the storyteller, the bard who recounts the perilous journey through the devastated land, Thalia's determination to follow her visions, and the lives of the children as they struggle to survive. Though we are not spared their hardships and grief, through the storyteller’s voice we have confidence in our destination—it is this commitment to the angels of our better nature and Marly's sublime poetry that gives Thalid its power to inspire hope out of fear and love out of hate.
I also must mention that the book will be gorgeous as Marly has collaborated again with Welsh artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins who has created the cover art (which I love) and a lot of beautiful interior art. Head to Phoenicia Press (a small indie press in Montreal)...

And here's tiny poem from The Foliate Head, which has has gone into second printing in the UK. The book is easily available in Europe via bookstores or direct purchase from Stanza Press, and in the U.S. via Amazon or the Amazon "extended" program for booksellers or, again, direct purchase from the press. It's doing fine (for a book of poetry!) but I'd love to have more readers on this continent.

The Substance

Fine as a ring-stole drawn through a hoop
Of gold, but crimped and burned
And almost ruined by some fire
Long ago, far away—
Glimmering like abalone,
Moody and beautiful.

Some things persist as mystery,
No matter how we seek
A raveling, no matter how
We vaunt, no matter how—
Slanting above our lifted faces
Like rain shot through by sun.

And I shouldn't forget
The Throne of Psyche, 2011
What I'm reading: Albert, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art; Leithart, Deep Exegesis. I'm also skipping about, reading various poets, and also reading Patrick Kurp's poetry reviews at The Quarterly Conversation (scroll down the page for an index to his pieces), on the hunt for new reading in the realm of poetry. And I've started a number of novels but thrown them out the metaphorical window, alas.


  • Glimmerglass (tumblr)
  • Marly on Facebook
  • Marly on Twitter
  • Marly at Scribd
  • Marly on YouTube
  • Marly at Pinterest
  • The Lydian Stones
  • Marly at Goodreads
  • Marly on LinkedIn
  • Marly on Google+
  • Friday, March 21, 2014

    Music while writing--and while not writing--

    follower of Hieronymus Bosch, "Concert in the egg."
    Wikipedia Commons, from Palais des Beaux-Arts de Lille
    Q: What sort of music do you listen to while writing, and how does it vary? (The question is from Sienna Latham of the fascinating Hindsight, located at the intersection of art and museum on the web. Have a question of your very own? Leave on in comments.)

    A: Perhaps I am a bit strange in this regard. I'm always seeing online playlists for writers--what they listened to while writing such-and-such a novel. But I have a great capacity for blotting out background noise (very useful when one has been raising three children, though one needs to have internal radar set for the "wrong" sort of noise, and also possess the ability to move back and forth between children and the depths of a manuscript) and so I never trouble myself with playing music. In fact, it seems strange to me to think of doing so.

    What would I do it for? To me, it seems like the attempt to find a distraction when I neither need or want distraction, and I would tune it out anyway. But what do other people who don't blot sounds out want it for? Is it that one doesn't quite like writing and wants to be distracted to some degree? I'm always bemused by the many writers who claim to dislike writing and to love having written. (I don't think I would write if I felt that way. Should one admire people who write despite that feeling, or be troubled that they force themselves to do what they don't like?) Two of my children like music when they do homework... So is it to be amused? Is it to set a mood? Is it to let words ride on sound that "fits" the subject? To be "inspired"? Aside from the fact that I would block out the music anyway, I don't need mood or inspiration to be created by something outside myself. There's something I am missing, it seems. Writers are alike in some ways, different in others. I suppose this is a way I am different. (But I never think the particulars of how people write are significant.)

    That said, I do sometimes find myself writing a poem after listening to music. Because music is an awakening force... and in me, it tends to wake up words.

    What other part does music have in my life, then?

    Some time ago I was shanghaied into the soprano section of a choir at the little Episcopal church that James Fenimore Cooper turned into a Gothic bandbox on his return from Europe. I have two or three practices per week and sing in public at least once a week. So I probably sing more than most people my age. The choir sings Haydn, Humperdinck (the real one), Bach, etc. I'm continually surprised to find myself in a choir (me?) and singing in public, and I have threatened to write a comic novel called Choir. In the time I've been singing, we've had quite a few people in the arts in the choir--painters Deborah Guertze, Yolanda Sharpe (a wonderful mezzo-soprano), and Ashley Norwood Cooper.

    As for my life at home and on the road, I hear a good deal of music but not in any systematic way. The last CDs I bought for my fall book travels were Mike Scott and the Waterboys, An Appointment with Mr. Yeats, and also an anthology of songs made from Yeats poems.  Obviously that's because I have a Yeats mania. (I sometimes pick up other intersections between books and music, like the Tiger Lilies version of Edward Gorey--or, for that matter, as when composer-videographer Paul Digby sets one of my poems. See five videos of poems at youtube.) I don't bother with being "up to date," but my daughter makes me CDs of her favorite new music for book trips, and I listen to a lot of classical music--medieval and Renaissance music, along with Mozart, Britten, Taverner, etc.

    Thursday, March 20, 2014

    Lucius Shephard, 1947-2014

    Novelist and story writer and poet Lucius Shepard has died. He was a great, colorful character who lived an adventurous life, more than most writers. He wrote both speculative and mainstream fiction and bagged a lot of awards along the way. We were e-banter friends, I suppose you could say. Several years ago we chatted a good deal about his Virginia roots--someone he cared about in the family had passed away, and he had gone home to Lynchburg for the last time. He said some harsh and tender things about family that struck me as being so very familiar and Southern... They reminded me a little of Quentin Compson, except that Lucius didn't try to convince himself that he didn't hate many things about his natal place. Lucius was often acerbic in his humor but could be very kind and generous. (He was so to me, though I imagine we were radically different in many ways. An hour ago, looking at his page, I was touched to find "Thaliad" among three recommended books. And he gave me the most beautiful quote for my last-published novel. Yes, he was kind.)

    Here is in in a 2001 interview with Nick Gevers at Infinity Plus, talking about how he accidentally tumbled into the world of speculative fiction: What I consider myself to be is less important that how I'm seen, and I suppose that now that's as a genre writer. That may change over the next few years. I came into the field by accident more-or-less. A band I was in broke up, one I'd had high hopes for, and I was moping around the house, watching a lot of daytime television. I'd written half a story, and without my knowledge, my then wife, hoping to get me out of the house, sent it in to the Clarion Writers Workshop, which happened to be a genre workshop, and I was accepted. If she had sent the fragment in to a general fiction workshop, I would likely never have written any fantasy. I'm not well read in science fiction and fantasy....

    NG: Three especially brilliant novellas of yours, "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule", "The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter", and "The Father of Stones", have featured the Dragon Griaule, that monstrous epitome of evil influence. How did you conceive of Griaule? What does he in fact represent? And: you've composed a novel to conclude the sequence, haven't you?

    LS: The idea for a 6,000-foot-long dragon on and in which people lived occurred to me at the Clarion Writers' Workshop in 1980. One afternoon I went out onto the Michigan State University campus, parked it under a tree, smoked a joint, and started trying to generate story ideas. "The Man Who Painted the Dragon Griaule" was one of the ideas I came up with. I recall I wrote in my notebook the following words: "Big Fucking Dragon." Shortly thereafter I wrote, "Kill him with paint." Surely a moment that will be immortalized in the pantheon of under-the-tree-sitting moments, right up there with Newton and the apple.

    I've always hated dragon stories, hated the entire elf-dragon-unicorn axis. The very notion of high fantasy causes my saliva to get thick and ropy. But as an exercise, I was attempting to create a dragon whom I could respect in the morning. As far as what Griaule represents, when I was writing the story he represented a Big Fucking Dragon. I'm an instinctual writer, I rarely have a clue about what I'm doing. Prior to starting a project, I usually have a notion of a beginning and an end, but about the middles, I'm shaky. And as for subtext, theme, et al, I'm totally clueless about these elements until very late in the game. After its publication, some said the story was about the nature and the costs of creativity.


    Rest in peace, Lucius.

    Wednesday, March 19, 2014

    Green men go to church--

    Maddy Aldis-Evans photograph,
    Exeter Cathedral, Somerset
    The placement of leafy heads of green men (and the rare green woman) on cathedrals and parish churches has become what is called a "vexed subject." No document tells us precisely why a medieval sculptor would do such a thing, and writers on the subject tend to think it a wonder and mystery, though they often point to ideas of rebirth and regeneration (think of Bertilak in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, who is a figure of renewal met by Gawain at two Christmastides.) A common question asks why medieval Christians should bring such pagan-looking faces into a church structure?

    For me, a better way to question foliate heads is to begin by assuming that they belong where they are. Then the question becomes why they belong in a church setting, and how that reason could make sense to a medieval Christian.

    I've always felt that these odd heads were not surprising, and I thought about it again last Saturday when hearing my friend James Krueger (Mons Nubifer Sanctus) say that God creates freely and so can make a free creation that is itself free to create and be fruitful--as it says in Genesis, "let the earth put forth" and "let the waters bring forth."

    The Foliate Head
    UK: Stanza Press, 2012
    Green man by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
    Maddy Aldis-Evans photograph,
    water spout, Kelmarsh St. Denys, Northamptonshire

    If the foliate head precedes Christianity in Europe (a thing we do not know one way or another), there's certainly a reason why it followed men and women into churches and cathedrals; the generative, bringing-forth head must have fit the transformed world. And if it did not precede Christianity, the head must have seemed a good thing to bring into a changed world for the first time. Either way, it appeared somehow right to a medieval Christian to sculpt a greening face. Likewise, the image must have met the approval of priests and architects.

    A green head is at one with the purposes of the God as revealed in Genesis, fulfilling the injunction of fruitfulness. Mouth (or sometimes nose) breathes out leaves, breathes out the spirit of creation. The head that puts forth leafy breath is usually male, sometimes a woman, sometimes a creature, sometimes a crowned king. Thanks again to James for the reminder that "spirit" and "breath" are the same word in Hebrew and Greek, and for the thought that the late-created human being in Genesis is a microcosm of creation, combining and holding earth ("dust") and intellect and spirit as one.

    This idea of a person as microcosm is a lens through which we can approach the foliate head even more clearly. "I am a little world made cunningly," says Donne, years later but in harmony with his medieval forebears and the Genesis story. How does the idea of microcosm as lens work, and why might a medieval Christian find a foliate head perfectly congenial with the words heard on the Sabbath? First, in a green man or woman we find the image of God, for Genesis tells us that each human being is made in God's image. Each person (green or not) is also, then, a kind of microcosm of God. Second, God in turn is known through the Creation. Each human being is also a microcosm of Creation, created from dust, mind, and breath of life. As a result, each person has the potential of reflecting back God's nature and Creation. In that way, a man or woman may become creative and fruitful (like the foliate head), living in harmony with the purposes of God.

    But these are very strange portrayals of human beings. What might a head sprouting leaves have said to a medieval Christian about life lived as a reflection of God and Creation? I suggest that it might have told the observer to live a larger life that was more expansive, more creative, and more like God. That's a lot to ask of anybody, much less a medieval peasant. Yet such an urging is a natural outgrowth from the power displayed by foliate heads. These green images from churches and cathedrals are full of energy, sometimes almost lost in a thicket-sphere of leaves. They are wildly alive, vital and strong. Nothing is stinted. Everything flourishes. All these statements would have worked for a medieval Christian as ways of describing the powers of God and Creation. From an alien yet human head--the microcosmic image of world and God--a torrent of free creation bursts forth, spilling with leafy, lavish Niagaras of new life. The foliate head says in its green speech, then and now, go and be like me. 

    * * *
    Green man collaborations: Clive Hicks-Jenkins

    Marly and I are friends that have long shared an interest in this subject, and so it was only ever going to be a matter of time before we collaborated on a 'foliate' project. In fact come to think of it, the first book we did together, her novel of twindom and life in a forest, Val/Orson, also had an underlying 'foliate' theme, and so did our last, her epic narrative poem Thaliad. You'll find that in time that no matter how deeply you mine them, the best subjects return over and over again to inspire.  --Clive Hicks-Jenkins to Timothy Hoover, who is exploring the ways of the green man in mask-like constructions made form natural materials

    A foliate Thalia
    (art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins)
    Clive Hicks-Jenkins,
    green man from The Foliate Head.

    Tuesday, March 18, 2014

    The Ministry of Sanctioned Words teaches our children--

    MSW proclamation! 
    So I promise now that the newspaper and this website will not be reviewing any book which is explicitly aimed at just girls, or just boys. Nor will The Independent’s books section. And nor will the children’s books blog at
    The Ministry of Sanctioned Words continues on its mission to tell us what words are acceptable and what words are unacceptable. The Independent (UK) now informs the world  that it will no longer review "boy books" or "girl books" because they know what boys and girls like ought to read better than boys and girls do, and so in future they will only review--tada!--unisex books. Because The Independent knows better than you do what your sons and daughters ought to read. Got that? Good. Now go on your way, confident in the knowledge that The Ministry of Sanctioned Words cares for you and your children and knows what they should think and how they should choose books.

    Plenty of boys and girls would cross reading lines of all sorts--genre, age categories, gender--if we quit categorizing absolutely everything and creating more and more new age levels. I wish children today could browse in a big, chaotic library without divisions and labels. That's the kind of library that was on offer when I was growing up, and I read plenty of varied books of all sorts, including books that The Independent would call "boy books."

    The Independent against "boy and girl books"

    But let's go back to The Independent and the issue of "boy and girl books." Little Johnny doesn't much like to read and has to be lured into a world he likes? Let's take away the few stories he does like--say, ones with native Americans clambering around on rocks and sometimes shooting things or communicating strangely with bears, a prehistoric boy who learns to carve after he is maimed, pioneer boys who run wild on the prairie... Those happen to be the sort of books my third child liked. My eldest son was a history book reader, but he also liked some historical "boy stories," and he adored Tolkien. Oops. Neither of my sons would be allowed to read what he liked under the rule of The Independent, which is evidently ambitious of transforming into an organ of The Ministry of Sanctioned Words. Meanwhile, my daughter didn't mind reading a boy-dominated book in the least. Nor did she mind a girl-dominated book. She just cared whether the book could be called good, and she preferred fantasy.

    The Example of LOTR

    Now let's go back to Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings, a book that all three of my children liked; it clearly falls outside the category of "unisex book." Tolkien's complex tale is almost completely dominated by male hobbits and wizards, male humans and elves with the occasional side female (okay, Galadriel is powerful, I grant you, and Eowyn seems like a specific person, and Shelob--well, Shelob is quite a "she"), male ents who have lost their entwives, male orcs who never get any wives at all, ticked-off male ghosts, male furrin fighters from distant parts, etc. Auden defended the book as "part of a literary tradition of reinterpreting ancient archetypes to create a modern mythology," but it was primarily a male-dominated myth, despite the presence of a few female characters (The New Yorker.)

    A lot of people like The Lord of the Rings. A poll conducted by Waterstone's bookstores and BBC4 found that readers in the UK thought The Lord of the Rings the greatest book of the twentieth century. This finding displeased some and pleased others. As Auden said, some find it "a masterpiece of its genre," while others "cannot abide it") An Amazon poll put the book as the best of the millenium (Salon.) (I somehow can't imagine that degree of rabidness pleasing Tolkien, a student of early languages and literatures.) Yet under The Independent's new rules, Tolkien would not be eligible for review.

    Dear Independent, please review on merit

    Independent, you are one of many papers I read when I'm on the hunt for reviews; I have read books editor Rebecca Davis. But this change is a bad idea. Why not stick to reviewing books on their merits? Toss out the categories and just divide the sheep (good books) from the goats (not-so-good to downright-terrible books.) Reviewing on merit is an old idea but still a good one--it's like a worn but still-useful proverb. Tried. True.
    * * *
    The Great Big Book of Snot for Boys

    Update: Thanks to the daily Prufrock News, I can tell you that Ron Dreher has already posted a note about this interesting development. Moreover, his post has a much more fetching title: "Stand Up for The Great Big Book of Snot for Boys!" Interestingly, we both have a familial concern for boy books. Studies have shown that boys can be very particular about what they read, while girls tend to be wide readers who will accept what we call "boy books"--I think it was Orange Prize research that showed the same about men and women.

    * * *
    Coming up. Green men. Have a request?

    Coming up next, maybe... A few days ago I wrote a post solving (purporting to solve) that insoluble puzzle, why green men are on churches and cathedrals. I'll upload it in a day or two. And I'm taking requests, questions, and general suggestions for future posts.

    * * *
    Love or loathe the Ministry? 

    Click on the Ministry tag below for more recent developments
    in the public sphere and inside the ivory tower--

    Saturday, March 15, 2014

    "Entertainment Weekly," loving "Catherwood"--

    CATHERWOOD. Marly Youmans. A heart-stopping novel about a mother lost in the woods with her 1-year-old. It's insanity that no one's made a movie out of this. Entertainment Weekly, p. 42.  March 14, 2014
    And here it is again as part of Entertainment Weekly's  "10 Most Criminally Underrated Books." Click and see! And thank you very much, EW staff.

    Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition
    The publishing history of Catherwood (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996) is that it arrived at FSG on a Monday and was bought for a first edition hardcover by editor Elizabeth Dyssegaard two mornings later. That's fast. I always felt that it was a great triumph to make a Danish executive editor stay up late and weep. It went into paperback with the newly-revived Bard imprint (but subsequently HarperCollins collapsed and restructured, so that was the end of Bard.) And the book was translated into Spanish, French, and German. One month my agent had a rush of seven queries about movie rights and then sold one-year rights to director Stacey Title and actor Jonathan Penner, but they didn't raise quite enough money for the project. Still, I was innocent enough to dream that everything would be easy from then on. The book was a Literary Guild alternate and had splendid reviews in splendid places, some of which you may see here.

    Hat tips:
    Bard edition

    Thank you to publisher/editor Gordon Van Gelder of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for telling writer Jeffrey Ford about this and asking him to send on the word, and then for sending me a xerox so I could see for myself. Either Cooperstown does not carry Entertainment Weekly, or else it sells out immediately!

    Also, thank you to writer Melinda Jane Harrison for telling me what was in the text while I was still curious. Because a person--this person--is always curious. Thank you to Gary Dietz for the online link. And thanks to all you others who wrote to tell me!

    Friday, March 14, 2014

    Epiphany: gold, frankincense, and podcasts

    Originally posted on January 6th, 2014.

    "Puck in Spring," from The Foliate Head (Stanza Press, 2012)

    "Ship of Trees," from The Foliate Head (Stanza Press, 2012)

    "Clock of the Moon and Stars, from The Foliate Head (Stanza Press, 2012)

    "In the Shadow of the Jasmine," from The Foliate Head (Stanza Press, 2012)

    "I Heard Their Wings Like the Sound of Many Waters,"
    The Foliate Head (Stanza Press, 2012)

    Order direct from Stanza Press, UK
    or via UK indies and affiliates
    or by special order in the U. S.
    Signed copies available in many North Carolina indie bookshops

    * * *
    These samples of interior and exterior art are by artist
    Clive Hicks-Jenkins

    Back cover image

    Thursday, March 13, 2014

    Zander, Montana, and The Ministry of Sanctioned Words


    * * *
    For the latest word-controlling proclamations 
    from the Ministry of Sanctioned Words, see here.

    As it is the clear and simple duty for poets and novelists in all times and all places to stand for absolute, wild, untrammeled freedom of speech on behalf of their narrators and characters, I draw my weird line in the sand right here in opposing the recent fracases caused by those in the academic community and elsewhere who would strive to create and rule The Ministry of Sanctioned Words. This line has nothing to do with whether banned words are "nice" and everything to do with the power of literature, whose makers have long stood against the dictatorial hive-minds of the world.

    * * *

    Zander and Montana are texting their friends, talking, and drinking lattes at a corner table in a freshly-renovated lounge at Alastair College.

    Zander: Do you ever think about the abyss? I mean, like, space and death and stuff like that.
    Montana: I hate philosophy. I went to two classes and dropped. I prefer thingness, you know--like a pebble. Something heavy in the hand. Tactile.
    Zander: But just imagine being dead.
    Montana: Um. No.
    Zander:  Or like the weeping angels got you, tossed you back in time. Use your brain!
    Montana [Silence]
    Zander: Well?
    Montana: I dunno. It's no good.
    Zander: What?
    Montana (laughs): My brain, you nutcase!
    Zander: Hey, shh--you'll be reported to the Ministry of Sanctioned Words.
    Montana (drops her phone and fumbles around to pick it up): What Ministry of Sanctioned Words?
    Zander: Shh. The Ministry. Haven't you seen the "oppressive impact" posters? At first there were only two or three around campus, but now they're like everywhere. Even in the toilets.
    Montana: You're making it all up--maybe not the abyss but the Ministry of Sock-puppet Words.
    Zander (lowers his voice): No, you'll get hauled off for questioning if you use words like crazy, girl, you guys, wuss, lame, retarded, gimp--
    Montana (shouts): Gimp!
    Zander (jerks back and looks around): Shhhh!
    Montana (irritated): I'm a budding novelist. I want to write the Great American Novel. How can I do without a word like gimp? It's a really good word. I mean, it's so full of gimposity--it's like essence of gimpness. My characters need to use words with gristle and blood and muscle, not some white-bread, Wonder-loaf words. Would Herman Melville let them take away the gristle words? No, he would not! You are crazy.
    Zander: I'm going to have to move to another table if you don't shut up.
    Montana: What?
    Zander (leaning close and whispering): Shhh. Don't say crazy. 
    Montana (stares for a long time before speaking): So what do you say instead of crazy?
    Zander: Like, "person with a mental health challenge" or "person with a cognitive disfunction."
    Montana: What?
    Zander: What what?
    Montana: You have a cognitive disfunction?
    Zander: Of course not. Didn't you go to the last town hall meeting on campus? About how the culture is racist and patriarchal and even transphobic! Homophobic. Ableist. Symmetricalist. Humorlessnessist. Cellulitist. Orbist. Ageist. Heterosexist! Folliculatist. Honestly, Montana, I really like you a lot, but--
    Montana interrupts, making a loud sucking noise with her straw before she crumples up her cup, smiling. She leans close to Zander, making a little twirly motion with her finger close to her ear as she speaks.
    Montana: Derp-a-derp-a-derp-a-derp-a-derp.

    Wednesday, March 12, 2014

    Painting, cooking, alchemy--

    detail, "The House Opposite," Leonora Carrington

    from Susan L. Aberth, Leonora Carrington: Surrealism, Alchemy and Art.

    The relation of cooking and art production, according to Chadwick, is of central concern to the artist:
    The prominent place given to the cauldron in Celtic myth and Grail legend had long fascinated Carrington, as had alchemical descriptions of the gentle cooking of substances placed in egg-shaped vessels. She has related alchemical processes to those of both painting and cooking, carefully selecting a metaphor that unites the traditional woman's occupation as nourisher of the species with that of the magical transformation of form and color that takes place in the artist's creative process, nourishing the spirit (pp. 68-69).

    Tuesday, March 11, 2014

    A Sandbergian Modest Proposal

    Jeanne d'Arc on campaign.
    Unknown earlysixteenth-century artist.
    Bossy is a word that started life referring to a swelling (as, say, a raised area on the skin) or to those nail-like studs on, say, a sixteenth-century shield. It isn't recorded as a name for a cow (round and often swollen creatures!) until the 1840's, and it didn't migrate to become a name for a domineering woman until the 1880's. Is it coincidence that the 1880's were a very important time for suffragettes? I doubt it.

    Billionaire Sheryl Sandberg and her famous word-knight followers wish to ban the word bossy, so I hope from her position of might she will forgive me for teasing her a little! Because I expect she'll have the usual absurd results that attend the efforts of people who want to rule our words because language is like water and rushes and falls where it will. But it's curious to see her in armor with her bossy posse, tilting at a windmill. I is, inevitably, a rather ridiculous sight when there are so many problems in this world that are better worth the effort of a quest and campaign.

    Language is a greater power than any billionaire can wield. History tells us that where language is forced underground, it will, like water, burst out in some surprising way elsewhere. Who knows where bossy will go next, now that she has hailed its powers in public? I don't give Ms. Sandberg much hope of victory in her knightly quest to pursue and skewer a word.

    What's next? Surely a male billionaire will put on cuirass and helm and gauntlets and go tilt at that primarily guy-related term of endearment, asshole...

    A Sandbergian Modest Proposal

    Elsewhere, pre-teen girls and women are beaten by the police for not wearing the proper hair covering. So let's ban bossy.

    Elsewhere, women's faces must be hidden from the light of day because "the face of a woman is a source of corruption." So let's ban bossy.

    Elsewhere, little girls finish their narrow educations at the age of eight. So let's ban bossy.

    Elsewhere, a young woman was raped and destroyed internally by a phallus in the form of an iron bar. So let's ban bossy.

    Elsewhere, three women were imprisoned for years in a private home and one forced to give birth in a toddler's inflatable pool. So let's ban bossy.

    Worldwide, women with HIV acquire their disease primarily from longterm partners and the inability to exert any control over a husband or partner's choice not to use protection. So let's ban bossy.

    Worldwide, 603 million women live where domestic violence is no crime. So let's ban bossy.

    Worldwide, women comprise 9% of the police force. So let's ban bossy.

    Saturday, March 08, 2014

    Tiger Lily proverbs

    Detail, Clive Hicks-Jenkins, rear jacket of Glimmerglass.
    This minotaur has flowers and lovely tiger lily spots!

    Here are some tweedly, fiddly morning posts from the Twitterlands, all in one place. And this is what comes of thinking about Leonora Carrington and surrealism when one wakes up... I put together these portmanteau proverbs in a spirit of play and send them out especially to my college friend, poet and painter Mary Boxley Bullington,* who had me rooting about in Carrington's paintings yesterday and looking for "a painting about a saint I'd never heard of." He turned out to be Dagobert, and the painting Les Distractions de Dagobert. That would be Dagobert II, mind you!

    Fair lady goes a-borrowing, goes a-sorrowing.
    In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man must go to the mountain.
    Let the dead bury a bowl of cherries.
    Many are called but just fade away.
    The leopard does not change on the other side of the fence.
    The devil looks after his own early bird.
    One half of the world does not know shrouds have no pockets.
    Time will tell the road to hell.
    Success has many fathers, while failure rots from the head down.
    That which does not kill us shames the Devil.
    Wonders will never reap the whirlwind.
    The hand that rocks the cradle is always the last to know.
    The price of liberty does not change its spots.
    There's many a good tune played on an old fool.
    Walnuts and pears, there's nowt so queer as folk!
    Time and tide run with the hare, and hunt with the hounds.
    You can't have your cake and get blood out of a stone.
    You are never too old to have too much of a good thing.
    When the going gets tough, you gain on the roundabouts.
    Where there's a will, there's sauce for the gander.
    The opera ain't over until the fat lady is a dead Indian.
    The apple never falls just before the dawn.
    Talk of the devil, as stupid does.
    The age of miracles is golden.
    A silk purse from a sow's ear never did anyone any good.
    The best-laid schemes of mice are more ways of killing a cat.
    Pride goes nine times to the devil.
    Let the dead move mountains.
    A cat may look at Caesar's wife.
    A golden key can open all that glisters.
    Better the Devil you know than the Devil bearing gifts.
    Don't let the bastards burn your bridges behind you.
    Eggs in one basket butter no parsnips.
    Strike while the iron is golden.
    People who live in glass houses carry a big stick.
    Nine tailors make a summer.
    Music has charms, is an island.
    Life is just a bowl of beer and skittles.
    Never speak ill of the mother of invention.
    A child that's born on the Sabbath day comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.
    Mighty oaks make light work.
    A drowning man will clutch at a king.
    Many hands are made in heaven.
    Let not the sun go down on your sleeping dogs.
    It's no use locking the stable door after the early bird catches the worm.
    Misery loves March winds and April showers.
    It's better to light a candle than to catch a thief.
    Ignorance is the sincerest form of flattery.
    Many a true word is the root of all evil.
    If wishes were horses, there'd be no work for tinkers.
    He who sups with the Devil deals you lemons.
    If God has meant us to fly, he'd have a long spoon.
    He who sups with the Devil calls the tune.
    Genius is an infinite capacity for silver lining.
    Fools rush in where angels butter no parsnips.
    Don't teach your Grandma to upset the apple cart.
    Behind every great man there's the Ides of March.
    Every dog has his castle.
    Don't put the cart before birds of a feather.
    Don't wash your dirty linen in fire with fire.

    *Having wandered by facebook, I see that Ms. Mary Boxley Bullington likes best these two tiger lily proverbs: "One half of the world does not know that shrouds have no pockets" and "You can't have your cake and get blood out of a stone." Oh, and "Never speak ill of the mother of invention." If you don't know her art, I suggest you find her on facebook here, where you can see many of her paintings. She is an exuberant artist, her paintings full of energy and well worth a purchase. She also has a blogspot page here, though it's not up to date.

    Friday, March 07, 2014

    "Sing whatever is well made"

    Courtesy of and Lieven Volckaert of Belgium.
    I found this in my blogger drafts folder--I wonder, what book was it that inspired this little rant? I must have thought it was too over the top to publish. Or perhaps I thought it would hurt somebody's feelings. I can be a downright wimp, as I am a kindly soul and also a Southerner brought up to be awash in empathy and guilt. I suppose it can't hurt anybody's feelings now that I've forgotten the book, so I can be as wimpy as I like. Well, here it is . . . Nothing like a bit of scalding rant!

    * * *

    Have you ever picked up a bestselling book so very dreadful in its derivative story and incoherent, tin-eared writing that it cleaves your heart to think that such things are our native culture, and what masses of people run after like the unfortunate, cute, suicidal, cliff-mad lemmings in Disney's 1950's White Wilderness? Just now I accidentally tripped and fell into such a book, and for about fifteen minutes I was in how long, O Lord, how long mode, caught up in Swift's savage indignation and unable to accept the ways of a world that shines up dross to be slick gold and ignores the well-made in favor of the "All out of shape from toe to top" (Yeats, "Under Ben Bulben").

    Actually I felt more dramatic than that--more like a maddened-by-frustration Ignác Fülöp Semmelweis, who tried to teach nineteenth-century doctors that handwashing could save many women from childbed fever mortality, but who was ignored and committed to an asylum, where he died two weeks later after being professionally beaten by the guards. There's an epic comparison for you!

    That's all.


    Downright full of calm acceptance and irrational hope for the future of the world and its arts and letters...