Monday, April 16, 2018

The rage against tips!

An interior illumination
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for my long-poem and epic adventure,
Thaliad (Phoenicia Publishing)
Amazon reviews: paperback
Hardcover only here
Why on earth do I sometimes fiddle around an answer a question on Quora when I could and probably should do a blog post? Who knows? Here's a Quora question I answered a moment ago, perhaps partly because I'm in a good mood and just wrote a poem when I should have been doing something else entirely, and perhaps partly because I still didn't want to do what I should have been doing.

(And here you can find more Quora-fritterings by me.)

"What are some tips on staying motivated enough to finish writing a book?"

Marly Youmans, novelist and poet
Answered 2m ago

I’m feeling a bit allergic to the word tips: no tip can make you finish writing a book. Only whatever it takes for you can make you finish. And only you can answer the question of what it is that might be whatever it takes for you. That is, you will (or will not, as it turns out) make use of your own inner drive, passion for playing with words, impetus, dogged refusal to stop, anger, joy, or whatever it is that lives and burns in you and will take you to the close.

But I will say that I have known some wonderfully gifted people who began many books and stories and never could finish anything. This was a sadness to me, but they lived other lives, and perhaps it was not a sadness to them. They gave writing books a try and then moved on.

The grand thing about finishing is not having a completed manuscript; it is that you are somehow larger on the inside than you were at the start, and also that only bringing a thing to completion teaches you what you need to know in order to write that book. That sounds circular, and it is. In the realm of making books, much is mysterious.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Family memories

Not the right movie, but the image will do--
1959, Castle's The Tingler 
with Vincent Price.
I've been sorting through boxes of papers, tossing much and often stopping to laugh at some child's drawing or my own notes on a past conversation or an old letter. Here's a note with Nate, my third child, age 5, dated 24 September, 2002. He's almost 21, so I guess that I can quit referring to him as Child no. 3 in blog posts!

                 *     *     *

When I took Nate to kindergarten this morning, I asked him if he wanted to put on his jacket.

Nate:  When my teeth are going up and down, it means I am cold. When my teeth are not going up and down, I'm not cold.

The beginning of wisdom, or something. Scarce as hens' teeth.

Also, some hours earlier, in bed:

Me: Hrrump?

Nate climbs in.

Me: Whassamatter?

Nate: I thought there were ghostes [GHOST-ez, Nate-plural of ghost]  sitting on the bed.

I burble comforting nonsense and go back to sleep.

Nate, still thinking hard, wakes me up: What are you afraid of?


(No doubt I am semi-comatose, as befits a mother of three after a long day.)

Nate: Buffaloes?

I wake up enough to laugh.

Nate: Or moving skeletons?

Which is odd because that's exactly what I was afraid of at the age of 5, my babysitters in Baton Rouge (a childless couple, friends of my parents) having let me see a movie about that very thing... Or was it Gramercy, and I a bit younger?

We didn't have a t.v. at our house, so I suppose it was pretty potent stuff for me, all those glarey-white bones clattering around on the screen. I remember clearly the hospital setting, a skeleton in the back seat of a car coming into life behind the doctor and a pretty nurse, and skeletons pushing baby carriages over a cliff. I expect that was especially horrifying, as I wasn't so many years out of being a baby myself.

Monday, April 09, 2018

The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx

"The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx" is up today at Autumn Sky Poetry Daily, where you can read poems, share, like--and where you can also find some other poems by me: "I Met My True Love Walking," "Epistle to F. D.," "Icarus, Icarus, Paratrooper," and "Landscape with Icefall." Thank you to editor Christine Klocek-Lim.

Today at Autumn Sky Poetry DAILY: The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx by Marly Youmans#poem #formalverse
The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx On the northern and the southern roads, He reveled, shooting at a bronze target, Pursuing lions and vast herds of beasts Until his chariot was a gold blur And horses changed to coursers of the wind. At noon, the young prince napped between the paws Of Horus-in-the-horizon, the Sphinx Who guards the sun and gates to the beyond. [ 138 more words ]

The Prince of Egypt and the Sphinx On the northern and the southern roads, He reveled, shooting at a bronze target, Pursuing lions and vast herds of beasts Until his chariot was a…

Wednesday, April 04, 2018


Matt Haig ‏ Verified account @matthaig1 Mar 29 More
Be nice if one day people realised writing fiction
was as hard as other art forms.
No celebrity says, hey, I'll write
a piano quartet for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra,
or I'll join Cirque du Soleil.
Always 'I'll write a novel'. *  **


* Tweet of the day.
** Little pleasures of the obscure mid-list writer.
*** “Only if we are secure in our beliefs can we see the comical side of the universe.” 
― Flannery O'Connor. Or some Carroll: "Callooh! Callay!" / He chortled in his joy. Or maybe more O'Connor: “There's many a bestseller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Fiddling with Water

By Source, Fair use,
I've never tried screen-writing (probably poems, stories, novels, and some nonfiction are quite enough), but a movie often makes me think about how I would write its story differently, even when it is hung with glittering nominations and awards. For example, The Shape of Water was a stylish, often ravishing-looking piece, a lovely Marvellian "green thought in a green shade," but I found myself wanting to tinker with its pieces: I wanted more transformation, metamorphosis, change. Such fiddling, of course, is none of my business, but who can stop a writer from playing with words and stories?

Obviously del Toro's tale (screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor) was indebted, among other sources, to the fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast, which in turn springs beautifully from the ancient Greek myth of the perfectly married body and soul, or Eros (Cupid or Amor) and his beloved, Psyche (Anima.) Portrayals of Eros and Psyche go back to the fourth century B. C. in Greece. (Apuleuis wrote the first full narrative of their story in Latin.)

And so I end up considering The Shape of Water in the light of Eros and Psyche, a story of metamorphosis, of a woman gaining strength as she passed through many trials, of two impossibly-different (one a winged god, one an earthly princess) strangers finding sacred union and giving birth to their child, Pleasure. Through her many tasks and her difficult journey to the Underworld, Psyche becomes more than she was, and at last she wins immortality and becomes the equal of Eros. Eros and Psyche has always been a story of the achievement of wholeness, and through the centuries it has been popular and multivalent, giving rise to varied and rich meanings. I played with the story some years ago in The Throne of Psyche, so I am guilty of adding to that heap of meanings.

Alphonese Legros, Cupid and Psyche (1867)
Public Domain / Wikipedia / Google Art Project

Toying, tinkering with a shape of water

What if the amphibian-with-powers was also, like the Greek god Eros, more complex, more human in his acts? That is, what if he appeared to have a soul, so that Elisa's discovery of his worth appeared more powerful?

What if he refrained from slashing flesh, munching on Giles's cats, and murdering those who do not understand what he is? (As is, it's a possibility that Strickland's harsh, cartoon view is a bit more accurate than the viewer would like--after all, the Amazonian fish-man repeatedly chooses to be violent, even though he is shown as powerful enough to make other choices.)

What if the amphibian lover performed a redemptive, possibly transformative act at the close, giving life and change (redemption? a speck or a peck of penitence?) to Strickland rather than simply killing a baddie drawn too firmly in cardboard? What if Strickland was transformed from something less to something more, and in the process the creature was also elevated to something more in Elisa's mind and in our minds?

The close gives us the pattern of death and resurrection, but the Amazonian is no god for Easter--he's a god for sex and death and a happily-ever-after we had better not examine too closely. For like Psyche, Elisa meets death and is changed somewhat (gills! whether brand new or simply opened because she was already part fish), but it's hard to puzzle out how she and her amphibian love will keep house together underwater in the Amazon.

What if, like Psyche, Elisa had a more complicated relationship with her lover, one that further developed the idea that she is fearful but learning who and what he is, that gave her uncertainty when others were fearful for her, and that showed her changing (in more than gills) to pursue her love?

What if the story was a kind of Eros and Psyche story without side tales that hammered home obvious messages about the patriarchy and How Bad and Illiberal American White People Especially Men Were Not So Long Ago (but now at least we who chose to see the movie are good and love everybody, even Amazonian monsters)? What if the movie didn't pat us on the back in this manner? What if the story didn't tell us how much better we viewers are now than people were before but made us long for our own transformation into something more beautiful and human?

What if...

Note: One of my favorite pieces about Guillermo del Toro is The New Yorker feature by Daniel Zalewski. See it here. And I would like to see a del Toro version of Lovecraft's At the Mountains of Madness...

Note no. 2: Maybe it's time to re-watch Pan's Labyrinth. And here's a documentary about the Pale Man, the Faun, the toad, and the stick-insect fairies.

The Minnie Youmans Place

From "19th-century farmhouse, Lexsy" by Brian Brown. This is grander than
my grandparents' house, but it is in Lexsy--my grandmother Kate once had
a fistfight with another woman in Lexsy, back when she lived there for a time.
Evidently Kate "Little Bear" was defending one of the children...
I am hoping Brian will not mind if I "borrow" his image, as he once
borrowed from one of my posts to illuminate something about
the house my maternal grandfather, a house builder, made for his wife
Be sure and visit his wonderful site, Vanishing South Georgia.
     It never belonged to my grandparents, even though they worked the land near Lexsy for decades, plowing with mules, shaping the resistant earth until gullies became flat and usable. Even the girls plowed, at least until the last baby came along. Preston and Kate labored as tenant sharecroppers in south Georgia, and if you have ever read James Agee's passionate Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or seen Walker Evans's photographs wedded to that prose, you have a hint of what that means. It was a postwar world, after all--why wouldn't the neighbors eat dirt, why wouldn't my father see his first jealous, throat-slitting murder before he was ten, why wouldn't he early on see the rural ways of sexual congress in a field, why wouldn't he run to join up with the Army Air Corps at 17?
       A long pale road of packed dust led by swamp and blackberry tangles: then a turn, and a visitor drove between fields of horse corn, tobacco, and cotton. The shack with its burst of trees in the midst of flat fields, its tumbledown outbuildings, the rusted stove that sometimes held rattlers, the gaudy flowers rioting from coffee cans, the half-fallen cedar with tiny scorpions in the cave underneath, the cloyingly sweet but tiny white blooms in the shining hedge that sheltered the porch from a blaze of sun: there is not one picture of the place. Not one. No one thought it worth the cost, I suppose. And later on the four-room house (living room, two bedrooms, kitchen--no bathroom, no hall, no closets or frills) was burned by vandals.
Public domain, Wikipedia. Walker Evans photograph of 3 sharecroppers,
Frank Tengle, Bud Fields, and Floyd Burroughs, Summer 1936
     Long ago I read Let Us Now Praise Famous Men as I biked around the perimeter of Ireland on my green Peugeot that German tourists fondled whenever I left it outside a pub. (They seemed to spring into being whenever I lashed the bike to a post.) I left the book behind somewhere in a Derry that, terrorized only hours before, was full of drifting smoke. I hope someone found the book, took it home, read, and passed it on.
     How I still wish there was a photograph somewhere! One of the reasons I wrote A Death at the White Camellia Orphanage was to make a sort of picture for myself. And it is a book where my family slips in--my grandfather's mixed race brothers (my great-grandfather Nathaniel Youmans/Yeomans sired twenty-two legitimate children and at least two illegitimate children, though doesn't know the half of it!) inspired the loss at the start of the book, and Pip contains elements of my father and one of my children. The well with ferns growing inside, the pomegranate trees, the chinaberries, the smolder of summer sun, the graveyard with its stones topped with shells: I wanted to keep those things, as much as I wanted to hold on to people.
     Some years past I went back to the site of Lexsy and then the Minnie farm. No one then lived in Lexsy; perhaps they have come back now, though I doubt it. The farm was now owned by an international corporation; there were signs meant to bar us from a place that was one of my loadstones in this life. My mother and I bumped down the road, still pale dirt, between the blackberry ravels, and turned down the drive toward the house. Nothing built by hands remained, not the shack, not the outbuildings, not the well. Doghobble ran wild in the yard. The chinaberries still stood in a messy row. The fields went on forever under the hot Georgia sky.

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
Ecclesiasticus 44:1 King James Bible

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Melt, you snows, melt!

Nor'easters dumping feet of snow, multiple family ER visits, care for the laid-up, busyness to the Nth power: it has been a monster of a Lent so far. In lieu of a proper post, here's a snip from Glimmerglass, a story about the rebirth of a woman in mid-life, Cynthia Sorrel, who thinks of herself as a failed painter, and set in a version of that semi-mythical village, Cooperstown. Ghosts! Faux European castles! Confusion between the real world and the fictional realm invented by James Fenimore Cooper! Etcetera. I picked a bit of a flood scene, since I am longing for our feet of snow to melt and leave me with no car-clearing, no shoveling...

And here's a little snip from a review by Tom Atherton that mentions the flood: "On the surface it’s a real-world drama about a woman’s later-life discovery of adventure, love, ambition, and artistry. In light of its concerns for both coming-of-age and the real rubbing against the magical, it’s fitting that much of the work is given over to images of thresholds being crossed, of locked doors being opened, and of rivers overflowing their banks. And while it’s a literary-critical truism to remark that the source material of many fairytales is much darker than their popular Disney-fied incarnations, Glimmerglass really is an adult fantasy, not in the sense that it’s violent and sexual (though this is an aspect of the text), but in its emotional complexities, and its themes of loss and redemption. It’s brilliantly well-written, shockingly raw, and transportingly—sometimes confusingly (but not in a bad way)—weird." (For more review clips, go here.)
     The art--dragon study, inner illuminations, and jacket images and lettering--is by the marvelous, bookish painter-and-more, Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales. Design by Mary-Frances Glover Burt of Burt and Burt of Atlanta. Published by Mercer University Press.

Mid-way in chapter 8, "The Spring Freshet"

       The creek surged above the bank—the boy was gone—and she flashed away, her feet sliding on patches of ice, past the cottage with its seven doors thrown wide, past the firs, and through the
gateway with its stone pedestals for ironwork arch and griffins.  A wave tangled with her feet, slammed her to the ground.  She picked herself up and raced on in deepening water; gaining the lake road, she jogged on a glaze of muddy liquid until she came to dry pavement.
       There she panted, hands on muddy knees, and surveyed the invasion of her domain.  The stream had flown through the cottage and out the other side, making a shallow lake of the lawn.  For an instant she saw the flooded grounds as magical—the reflective surface gleaming like a jewel, the cottage like a moated castle.
“All my things,” she whispered.
Though the high waters were already subsiding and draining out the doors, many of her pictures and the upholstered furniture might be ruined, even from such a brief soaking.  Had the tide overthrown her tables, broken what was breakable?  She dreaded the thought, recalling that when she had moved here, the chance of flood hadn’t seemed like such a risk.  Less than a year ago, loss had been nothing to her.  Just stuff, she thought, giving a one-sided smile.  Such a quick, fierce dousing wouldn’t ruin everything, surely.  Old photographs, family possessions:  those she couldn’t replace.
       Cynthia squatted at the edge, watching, until she remembered the painting of the boy and sprang up.  She dashed off, heels kicking up spray, slowing as she reached the lake around the house.  Chunks of ice, twigs, and leaf litter bobbled on the surface, and last year’s flattened grass shone green through the meltwater.  Cold lapped against her legs.
        Once a pair of small red dragons made her pause:  salamanders from the cellar!  Having struck the safety of a tree, they now groped upward and, like two drenched flames, sank into fissures of bark.
Inside, the flood was everywhere, though already the depth had sunk to only five or six inches.  The line of the watermark showed that the tide hurled through the open doors must have crested at about three feet.  She told herself that it could have been much worse, that perhaps it was best that the doors had been free to let the flood in and out again.  She slopped down the hall, rescuing a gilt-framed photograph, a set of overturned nesting tables, and a doll-sized dresser that had belonged to her mother.  When she reached the studio, she realized that it had taken the full force of the surge.  Drawings together with miniver, sable, and bristle brushes floated on foot-deep water.  Collecting her flotsam, she dumped it onto a worktable.  The old map chests full of sketches were safe, but anything half-finished had been torn away, the paints pitched out the door and scattered.  Her hand, blind in the murk, closed on a tube of Caput Mortum.  
The painting!  She hadn’t even dreamed that it might have vanished.  Water damage she could deal with, but not total loss.  She waded along the north side of the house, scanning the shadows for a patch of canvas.  It could be anywhere between the walls and the shore—it could even be in the lake, she realized, and perhaps, if face down, could fill with water and sink.
“I’ll swim if I have to,” she said, head bent, as if warning the opaque waters.
She skittered through the yard, twice stumbling to her knees but pushing off again.  Discolored where
the creek had tumbled its cargo, Glimmerglass was sprinkled with uprooted saplings, dead leaves,
and a lone pink plastic frisbee.  But nothing like a picture floated on the waves.  Sticks and stones clogged the mouth of the stream; with unslakable invention, the water continued to murmur its story and found fresh paths into the lake.
“The only thing I ever did that was any good!”
She crawled onto a heap of debris, peering through gaps, and began to work her way up the heavily pouring creek, poking into the depths with a stick.  Nothing.  Not until she came within a hundred yards of the house did she glimpse the oval of the boy’s face in a deep pool.  A mass of wood had forced much of the pell-mell plummet into a nearby channel, although innumerable fingerlets of water felt their way between and over logs.
The banks had been sheared away, so Cynthia climbed downward until she couldn’t find footing and abruptly sat, digging her nails into the muck for purchase until the steep wall collapsed, and she smashed sideways into meltwater.
Bubbles shot from her mouth as a branch raked her side.  She surfaced, choking and splashing, with clay squeezed in her fists.  Something about the clay, soft as raw hanks of flesh in her hands, made the thought of her own death come home to her.  Fright was in her like iron left to frost in the woods, with the nightmare of being overrun by a tumult of wood and water.  Blood made a jagged path down her ribs.  Cold tightened its grip until she gasped.
But she wouldn’t climb up; she wouldn’t crawl back home in fear.  She would claim the boy.
Gingerly she extended her legs, pedaling until her feet found an uneasy perch on the creek bed, and reached for the boy.  With a jerk, the canvas escaped from the grip of mud, though it didn’t float to the top as she had expected.  
Millais’ painting of the drowned Ophelia came into Cynthia’s mind as she looked at the boy’s heartbreaking, beautiful face and at the white hands glowing under water that was spring clear in places but deepened to mud and blackened emerald in others.  Strands of dissolved loam swirled across his chest.  She plunged her arms into ice cold and grappled with the canvas, struggling against earth and roots and the weight of water.  An answer to a question she hadn’t known to ask, memory and desire rose in her like a fountain and then a flood that ravished:  the boy’s backward glance from the hill; the receding shape, half-hidden in trees; Andrew, leaning with his hand on the hill door at Sea House or standing close to the juncture where stone walls yielded to the demand of earth; the sighting of the three beavers, who had perhaps just that day abandoned their dam and gone searching for a new home; Teddy, arm out, gesturing toward the last floes of ice on the lake; Hale, declaring mystery, Lydia in her hat; and even Iz, like a splinter-faced fire demon wrapped in a cocoon of smoke.
If there were tears, they were hidden by the force of spray; if there was regret, it slid away in the spill of pictures.
Mystery.  Something I’m meant to do.  Something remaining.  Enduring. 

Updated: my Catherwood page...

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Buddha, wondering...

Order by March 20 for a discounted price--
one for yourself, some for friends!

92 pgs, 6" x 9", paperback, 
publication date March 18, 2018
 Preorder price $13.50 US (reg $14.95)

Phoenicia Publishing (Montreal) has announced the forthcoming publication of Luisa Igloria's next book. I'm glad the news is out and, as I feel warmly toward both the publisher, Elizabeth Adams, and the poet herself, I am doing my little bit toward letting the world know.

Many of the 53 Buddha poems have appeared in initial form at Dave Bonta's Via Negativa site; the versions below are from that site. The book is her second with Phoenicia, and follows her 2014 publications, Night Willow (Phoenicia) and Ode to the Heart Smaller Than a Pencil Eraser, chosen by Mark Doty for the 2014 May Swenson Prize (Utah State University Press.)

While you're at Phoenicia (go!), sign up for the Phoenicia newsletter and take a look at the catalogue, the related art prints, and music. The publisher: "Please Sign Up  to receive news and exclusive special offers, 4-6  times per year, via email. In March, two subscribers will win a free copy of "The Buddha Wonders..." in a random drawing among our mailing list members."

The Buddha fills in job applications
Luisa A. Igloria March 28, 2014 

Almond the shape of my eyes; lotus
the width of my hips or the soft
inscrutability of a half-smile.
Virtue the act of sitting still,
going nowhere, being a stick-in-
the-mud. Or being pliable: sucking
the tummy in, filling it out with breath
or bread. Give me the bread, the bowl
of milk, honey from the hive, water
from the well, wine from the skin
that loosens all tongues and turns
every fool into a resident sage.

The Buddha listens
Luisa A. Igloria March 24, 2014

in the kitchen to a classical program
on the radio, one evening while cold rain pelts
the window before turning into pellets of ice—
And he thinks Mendelssohn’s Octet in E flat
Major, Op. 20 is the perfect soundtrack for this
moment— the violins and their upbow so quickly
spanning and gathering a range of feeling
he did not know still simmered under his skin.
Where did they come from: that flare of resentment,
that thorn of anger, the ache of loneliness
from a love he yearned for but could not have?
How is it possible to cultivate detachment
at the same time that one practices compassion?
He rinses his cup and saucer and sets them
on the rack to dry, his fingers lingering
in midair as if to trace the notes
that exit in the scherzo.

Dear Naga Buddha,
Luisa A. Igloria November 10, 2012 

how still, how still you sit
beneath the ticking of the seven-
headed tree; it’s hard to understand,
but just like ours, those tongues
have foraged along the ground
for leftovers, for milky drops
of immortality. O careless and
forgetful gods, you’ve crowned us
with accidents, spiked our appetites,
littered the way with detours
and false starts. No warnings issued
about sharp blades of grass that split
the ligaments in the mouth: and thus,
in dreams, the restless body turns
and hisses, even in brief repose.

Part for the whole
Luisa A. Igloria September 24, 2016 

For my birthday, my friend gave me
the stone head of a Buddha
brought back from her travels
to Nepal and India. My first,

she said, wrapping it in yards
of bubble wrap then hefting all
25 pounds of it into a box.
At home, I found a place for it

in one corner of the deck, next to
the patio set and green canvas umbrella.
Setting shallow terracotta pots of herbs
around it, I wondered where it once held

court: if it sat in a bamboo grove or nameless
village temple, its carved fingers curled,
touching. Its eyes don’t give anything away.
It doesn’t say what blasted the rest

of its anatomy, what saved it from complete
ruin in order for the soft bloom of green
to spread like the shadow of a milkweed
butterfly across the high cheekbones.

Luisa Igloria

Friday, February 23, 2018

Whelk by Elizabeth Adams. 12" x 10", $150

Elizabeth Adams has a newish art site with portfolio of drawings, watercolors, pastels, oils, acrylics, prints, and drawings. Still life, landscape (Iceland, Vermont, Quebec, New Zealand), and figurative work... Much of the work is for sale, and at reasonable prices. You can also check out her small, lovely publishing company, Phoenicia, and her blog journal, The Cassandra Pages.

Skorradalur, Iceland. Pastel, 63 x 21 cm, 2014.
(Private Collection, Iceland.)

Green Almonds. Watercolor, 4" x 4", 2017. $100.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Proverbial snows

Illumination by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Village scene for Thaliad (Phoenicia Publishing)

Everything feels  semi-proverbial this morning--the snow, the glass of water, the tea, the memories of the day before...

The world went to all the trouble to summon up a warm wind for some hours yesterday and melt the snow heaps. Evidently that was in order to make a more lovely snowfall today.

Persistence, the grain of dust that may flower into crystal.

If someone of intelligence and curiosity arrives in a village, he will inevitably be described by some as a man of mystery and condemned for the same.

You can tell when people are at last starting to recover from a hard flu when the complaints increase.

If you attempt to help a madwoman, you will go to three destinations you did not expect, but in the end she will run into the dark.

For someone of the South, the nature of falling snow is always dream.

A thick, greenish glass inscribed with faint vegetative motifs makes the water more beautiful.

A poet is without honor in a tiny village. This is for the best.

Snowflakes are dust-hearted and return to dust.

Tea with lavender and milk.

Here is a secret I will not tell, folded like origami, so small that it can never be unfolded by human fingers.

In snow, the birds may call from all corners of the sky but remain invisible; this is mystery.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Idle post, with squirrels

Photo by H. Dominque
The Squirrels have won the Battle between the Squirrels and the Cardinals and their allies the Juncos. They have wrested the roof from the expensive, supposedly indestructible magic house, and have shaken all the seeds from the other feeder. The snow is black with seeds, and the roly-poly squirrels have dashed homeward. Their fur is shiny, their tails are lush: they look like fat, quick-changing ribbons, crossing the yard at the highest speed they can manage, given their feasting on black oil sunflower seeds.

The Cardinals and Juncos now have the abandoned field and are gleaning from what remains. Off in the distance, a chipmunk pokes its head up out of snow--a comical little face looks around, checking for the kestrels who occasionally dart in to dine in the back yard.

All morning I have been sitting by the big kitchen windows and rearranging the poems in the cut version of The Book of the Red King--that is, putting them in the right order in the digital copy, a wearisome, fiddly job. I take a break to delete the ever-entertaining and idiotic blog spam. While I'm there, I notice the stats, and am not one whit surprised to find that this is my most popular post ever (aside from another post that was spam-attacked, but that's not readers.) Still, five thousand reads for a idle moment's quick blog post seems a lot. Time to take a better break and march around in the snow and ice, see and talk to some winter-bundled human beings...

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A. I. (After Internet)

     Out for dinner with another writer, I said, "I think I've forgotten how to read."
     "Yes!" he replied, pointing his knife. "Everybody has."
     "No, really," I said. "I mean I actually can't do it any more."
      He nodded: "Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it."
          --Michael Harris, "I have forgotten how to read," Globe and Mail

Going on a twitter and facebook fast...

Ash Valentine

Here's an ashy Valentine in honor of the conjunction of Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day... an unusual marriage. It's an illumination by Clive Hicks-Jenkins from Thaliad (Montreal: Phoenicia Press, 2012.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A symbolic world and the children who played at slaughtering

Gold guilder of Mainz elector archbishop John II of Nassau
(minted around 1400 in Höchst) Wikipedia
A rather  peculiar post in honor of Shrove Tuesday

For various reasons--most of them deadlines--I have not been reading as much as usual this year. One thing I have been slowly reading is the Jack Zipes translation of the original collection by the Brothers Grimm. Many of these stories would soon be cleaned up or swept right out of existence in later editions. They are not romantic enough to suit the brothers, or else they are crude and violent.

Here's one that made me stop and reread. It has an oddly specific location, rather than a once-upon-a-time and far-away realm, that makes a reader wonder. Did the story have a source in life (a thing we can never know), and might it be the sort of oral tale that is symbolic, packed with compressed wisdom? (The second story under the title involves three dead children and two dead parents, but it is firmly back in the time and place of "There once was.")

How Some Children Played at Slaughtering

In a city named Franecker, located in West Friesland, some young boys and girls between the ages of five and six happened to be playing with one another. They chose one boy to play a butcher, another boy to play was to be a cook, and a third boy was to be a pig. Then they chose one girl to be a cook and another girl her assistant. The assistant was to catch the blood of the pig in a little bowl so they could make sausages. As agreed, the butcher now fell upon the little boy playing the pig, threw him to the ground, and slit his throat open with a knife, while the assistant cook caught the blood in her little bowl.

A councilman was walking nearby and saw this wretched act. He immediately took the butcher with him and led him into the house of the mayor, who instantly summoned the entire council. They deliberated about this incident and did not know what they should do to the boy, for they realized it had all been part of a children's game. One of the councilmen, an old wise man, advised the chief judge to take a beautiful red apple in one hand and a Rhenish gulden in the other. Then he was to call the boy and stretch out his hands to him. If the boy took the apple, he was to be set free. If he took the gulden, he was to be killed. The judge took the wise man's advice, and the boy grabbed the apple with a laugh. Thus he was set free without any punishment.


I've seen a number of commentaries on this, mostly brief, and they tend to suggest that this is a cautionary tale underlining issues of accountability in childhood. Some suggest that it is one of those tales intended for adults. I wonder. In a more primitive setting of a one- or two-room house, say, exactly how often were adult stories segregated from children's stories? How often today do we see children at movies that seem too "old" for them? Isn't it common, even in a home setting, for children to hear or see things that are meant for an older audience, big brothers or sisters or parents?

What happens if we look at a folk story like this not as simply a cautionary tale but as part of a world that sees all acts as important and events as symbolic? That's not the world most of us live in today, but it is what the world looked like to a great many people in the past.

The story gives us an image of sacrifice but a strange one: we have the perverse picture of a little girl of 4 or 5 catching another child's blood in a little bowl. In a symbolic light, the account immediately links up with another image of catching blood in a container. By the late 12th century, the Holy Grail was first depicted as a drinking vessel from the Last Supper. Moreover, Joseph of Arimathea was supposed to lift the grail at the crucifixion in order to catch Christ's blood. So we have a sacrifice, a major element in Western culture, where someone catches blood in a vessel.

Oral stories tend to be symbolic, packed creations that reflect culture. An early listener may well have found that the story of the poor little boy-pig made the mind spring back to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and another "bowl" or chalice of blood. After all, these tiny children who want to play at making sausages are enacting the sacrifice of innocence, and the sacrifice of innocence on the cross would have been an important piece of goods in the spiritual cupboard of medieval man and woman.

Even though the child has done a terrible thing and so makes a very weird sort of analogy to Christ, the mayor's council and the confusion on passing judgment may also have reminded listeners of the arrest of Christ. There is a similar awareness of the little butcher's essential innocence. At 5 or 6, he is not at "the age of knowledge" as yet. So the councilmen feel at an impasse, all but "the wise old man."

In symbolic terms, who is the "wise old man" who offers the choice between a lovely round piece of fruit and a round gold coin? In those same terms, what is the choice extended to the boy? And what is the apple, what the coin?

In the garden of Eden, God allows the innocent Adam and Eve to "eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden." But they may not eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; they may not pluck "the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die" (NRSV.)

The Solomonic wise old councilman stands in the place of God, offering two sorts of gifts to the innocent. The little butcher picks from "the fruit of the trees in the garden" in reaching for the apple. The gold coin he does not choose is allied to the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why? Choice of the round gold would disprove his innocence and mean his death, just as reaching for the fruit from the fatal tree means being cast out of innocence and into a world where death exists for Adam and Eve. So the gold coin is a symbolic object that conjures both the fruit and the intrusion of death into the lives of Adam and Eve but also the condemnation to labor in Genesis because we know that coins are the fruit of, the payment for labor. So the little boy, still acting in innocence, picks life over death. The lovely round apple is more alluring to him than gold, which some day he will have to earn by "the sweat of his brow."

Perhaps in a larger sense, the story put before medieval listeners the pain of death or the choice of larger life. Larger life in spiritual, symbolic terms would be found in the remembrance of Christ's sacrifice, the acknowledgement of sin, and the ongoing effort to choose rightly. In the words of the fourteenth century Wycliffe bible, "Behold thou, that today I have set forth in thy sight life and good, and, on the contrary, death and evil...  I have set forth before you life and death, good and evil, blessing and curses; and so choose thou life" (Deuteronomy 30: 15, 19.)


And on that note, a happy Mardi Gras, Pancake Day, Carnaval, and Shrove Tuesday to you!

Photo by Joseph Valentine,

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering." In The Complete First Edition, The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes, pp. 78-79. Princeton University Press, 2014. Original German: Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. "Wie Kinder Schlachtens miteinander gespielt haben." In Kinder- und Hausmärchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm, Vol. 1, 101-03. Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1812.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Fairy stories

Adrienne Ségur illustration for "Prince Ivan, the Infant
Ogres, and the Little Sister of the Sun,"
from The Snow Queen and Other Stories, 
an over-sized Golden Book I loved as a child.
Still do!
I've neglected the blog because I was busy polishing a novel--and still am neglecting it because I am cutting (ouch!) a certain long manuscript of poems for publication later this year. (It will be announced this spring.) So far I have cut 33 poems. It gets harder as I go on, as I do not want to destroy either the sense of another world that is central to the poems, the variety of forms, or the narrative arc of the Fool among his curious friends.

In lieu of sharing more, I'm just going to toss out a recommendation and say that I enjoyed this interesting translation of Russian-born Ivan Ilyin's 1934 lecture, "The Spiritual Meaning of Stories." If you like Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories," you might like this piece. The philosopher's words have been translated by Nicholas Kotar, a young writer, translator, and conductor of the men's choir at the Jordanville Monastery and Seminary, just a snowy skip and slide away from me. Evidently he writes fantasy inspired by Russian fairy tales.

Side note: The Russian Orthodox stauropegic monastery in Jordanville is well worth a visit if you're ever in the hinterlands of central New York. The first time I was there, I was with my husband, who wanted to visit the grave of a priest he met while a medical student, but I've been back since. A lovely thing about a monastery and church planted nowhere is the magical coming-upon those golden domes in the wilds, and discovering frescoes and icons, color and gold.

Here's a clip from Ivan Ilyin's talk:  So, don’t listen to a fairy tale in the bright light of day or with your prosaic and wing-less consciousness. Listen to a fairy tale in the evening or at light, in the magical darkness that removes familiarity from things and gives them a new, unexpected, mysterious form. You should listen to fairy tales with the dusky consciousness between sleeping and waking. Listen from the depth of your unconscious mind, where your soul lives like a child, where it’s childishly “stupid” and isn’t ashamed of its stupidity, where it enters into the story with complete seriousness and a passion of hope and despair, not even remembering that it’s all make believe.

Friday, January 26, 2018


Thalia, by Clive Hicks-Jenkins,
from my post-apocalyptic adventure
in blank verse, Thaliad
(Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing, 2012)
Clive is the answer to one
of the questions below.

I am busy scouring a novel and so offer a few Quora doodles in lieu of a proper post. These were written in little corners of time and often constitute a break from something larger--or you might say that they constitute part of that writerly tradition, avoidance of work! Writers being such oddly-feathered birds, avoidance of work often means more writing. The questions answered fall into the realms of writing, mythology, and painting; some are serious answers, some less so.

Fiction, poetry, painting, and mythology

Your answer to Is there a book with old paintings and their stories?
Your answer to My parents hate/are scared of some of my art pieces and don't want me to create more similar types. How should I justify my means of painting them?