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Tuesday, October 08, 2019


Photos by Laurie Kearns.
The Red King at the Green Toad.

UPCOMING: Clive Hicks-Jenkins has been showing me images for the next book, a novel, this week; he writes a bit about us, the book, and his other illumination work HERE.

Tuesday, October 01, 2019

Next reading: Oneonta - Green Toad

                    October 5 Saturday 2:00 p.m.
  Marly Youmans reading from The Book of the Red King
                     GREEN TOAD BOOKSTORE
                    198 Main St. Oneonta, NY 13820
                                  (607) 433-8898

I forgot to take any pictures at my North Carolina events for The Book of the Red King. But here's an article (thank you, Megan Pociask) about my reading at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro that has a teeny-weeny head of moi! There I am, talking away above a few giant heads...

One of many charming vignettes
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales,
maker of many beautiful things,
including the cover/jacket
and interior art
for The Book of the Red King

Friday, September 27, 2019

Hands across enchanted seas

Clive Hicks-Jenkins
vignette on Tomoe River paper
for Charis in the World of Wonders

Often I am asked about what it's like to work--I always think the verb should be dance--with artist Clive Hicks-Jenkins. He has illuminated and beautified my books for a long time now. I often thought of us as metaphysical twins (I can't remember who first came up with that thought) when we first tumbled into correspondence. The first year of exchanging letters was so inspiring! It's marvelous when you meet a person who inspires you and whom you inspire in turn.

But the image above relates to the sort of small, surprising occurrence that happens when I'm "with" Clive, even if he is across Atlantic in Wales. Sometimes we're walking around in our old houses--Clive's Ty Isaf and my Prentiss Cottage--and pondering each other's work. So magical! And odd things happen as a result. Unexpected elements coalesce. Some are tiny but curious. Like the bird in leaves. A few days ago I told Clive that I had a Pennsylvania Dutch hex sign on my bedroom door as a child that reminded me so much of this piece. That's perhaps not wholly surprising, as Clive is using samplers as inspiration, and folk motifs often have some commonality. It seemed an interesting linkage since there is a thread and threat of witchcraft in Charis in the World of Wonders. So the book secretly holds an image that appears protective to me. Of Charis? Of the reader? Of me?

And when I stopped overnight in Middletown, VA on my way north from North Carolina, I had an evening adventure related to the image. I was staying at the 1797 Wayside Inn and went out for a ramble. I stopped by an antique shop that was a log house (built by German settlers who raised eight children there.) Although it was already late, the shop was open. I picked out a few gifts. Outside was a passionate, pleasantly unruly cottage garden, and I learned that there was a bigger garden with winding paths and night-blooming cereus plants and lilies and much more in the back. Though it was growing quite dark, I asked if Crystal (she credited her husband with the garden's design) would show me their garden. The paths were lovely, intermittently lit by solar lamps and huge open moonflowers. And there in the garden I was surprised by a hex sign exactly like the one that had hung on my bedroom door--an image I had not seen in decades--so that a sudden necklace of images flashed into my mind, its beads pilfered from Middletown, Virginia and Cullowhee, North Carolina and Aberystwyth, Wales.

And I guess that's one part of the half-hidden secret of why we like to dance together. Somehow when I'm in a Clivean-Marlyan mode, congruence seems to increase, and not just a congruence of minds. Surprise happens: things happen that suggest that the world is a more enchanted, spark-lit, symbolic place than we commonly know. It's as if we are turning around a hidden center, that we live in a place of abundance. And for moments I'm more congruent with the deep shapes and patterns of the world, and I feel heart-struck and tied in spirit to someone on the other side of the sea.

Log House Antiques and Collectibles in Middletown, Virginia

* * *

Novelist Midori Snyder asked me for "Praise for Dark Movements Toy Theatre" for the Journal of Mythic Arts. Although I write mostly formal poetry, I have a whole group of praise poems that draw on a Yoruban form and Hebrew parallelism, and this is one of that sequence. 

The poem has the Mari Lwyd flickering in thorn trees and Yeats in the form of a silver bird and the Starlight Torch and Book of Moon and two friends in a white tent and lots of cheeses! And pie. And of course we dance. Enjoy!

* * *


I've mentioned Charis, but I'm sure she wants you to be better acquainted with the Red King and the Fool and Precious Wentletrap! It's out there in our Wonderland with a BUY ME Alice-label tied around its pages. So why not skip lunch and support beautiful small presses like Phoenicia Publishing?



So strange to move quickly from summer lands to fall... Today the world looks even more symbolic and enchanted to me, a bright autumn sun streaming through dying red and yellow leaves as if through annealed glass. 

This glorious and transcendent place 
--George Herbert

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

The Red King dancing with Charis

Preparatory sketch 
Clive Hicks-Jenkins

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, from facebook: "A tiny and rough-ish drawing from my current project-book for Marly Youmans’ new novel ‘Charis in the World of Wonders’. The project-book contains several suggestions to the editorial board for the cover, one of which has now been selected and signed-off on, plus a stitchwork-inspired bestiary as a starting point for the planned fifteen chapter headings, tailpieces and vignettes, among which is this owl."

* * *

Now is the time of the King and the Fool, and to celebrate Clive's gorgeous art for that collection of poetry, but I could not resist sharing this little bit of next year's novel... A future vignette for a chapter heading. Below, a bit of the current book from Phoenicia Publishing. 

* * * * *

Saturday, September 21, 2019

Monday, August 19, 2019

Sampler, The Book of the Red King

I'm offering a sampler of poems from the new book for anyone who sends me his or her email address. The collection is 150+ pages, so it'll be just a taste of an awfully big sequence. 

* * *

Most requests have come in via social media messaging, but if you would like a sampler, you can request in any of these ways: a twitter private message; a facebook private message; an email; and even a request left here. I can see your address and then not approve it to be posted, so that you remain private, or else you can use the sneaky anti-bot mode of  You [at] your site [dot] com.

* * *

The sampler is also available as part of the current newsletter. You may sign up for The Rollipoke in the right-hand column.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

The Fool and the Red King beyond pre-orders

Interior and hardcover jacket or paperback cover art
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales
* * *
Marly Youmans
The Book of the Red King
Montreal, Canada: Phoenicia Publishing (20 July 2019)
155 pages

Phoenicia Publishing hardcover and paperback pre-orders are officially over, though discount links are still up (love, frolics, and thank you to all who ordered!), and the poetry collection is now available via Amazon, bookstores, etc. Please think about supporting my poems and Phoenicia, a stellar small press, brainchild of Elizabeth Adams. We are properly and ecstatically grateful when you do... (And who wouldn't want a piece of Clivean illumination, too?)

Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing
155 pages
"Youmans (@marlyyoumans), who lives in upstate New York, has just published a stunning collection of poems that comprise “The Book Of The Red King" --"The Book Of The Red King’ a stunning collection of poems" | via Biblio File, from Dan Barnett, Book Columnist, Chico Enterprise-Record, 18 July 2019

"Marly Youmans is brilliant, perhaps a genius. Her poems tell a story, offering us a vision of, well, I would say the Trinity, but that is only one possible interpretation. After a difficult and sometimes dangerous journey, a Red King, a Fool, and Precious Wentletrap converge into one, a resurrection that is heavenly. Is it true, or is it fable or fairytale? "When I want to write a new book," she has said, "I run across the land and leap off the edge of the known world." Her formal poems are impeccable and include sestinas, villanelles, rondels, rhyming schemes she may have invented, and perfect metrical patterns. Every poet can learn from this poet, and the reader—the reader will be spellbound." --Kelly Cherry, poet, novelist, and former Poet Laureate of Virginia

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Secret/poem + Induction weekend

a new blank verse poem up at The North American Anglican...
Take a look? You can even comment, it appears...

notes from the Saturday of Induction weekend
at The Baseball Hall of Fame...

Escaped to Glimmerglass State Park with Michael and child no. 3 for a break from Baseball Hall of Fame induction-weekend madness. We planned to paddle about in Otsego Lake. First though, we (i.e. the handy husband) started a big happy heap of briquets to grill steaks. How pleasant it all sounds!

Abruptly (such things are always so sudden!), the sky decided to change its colors, and a mighty horizontal torrent of wind (bearing rain so thick the grass looked streaked with white) decided to join our formerly-idyllic party. A brilliant, zappy electric storm broke the afternoon into pieces with blazing jolts and extravagant smashings of crockery. 

The Amish all got their horses and black buggies joined up and left us, clipping away at a fast pace, babes in arms and little children peering out the back windows.

We raced about and slung everything back in the truck except the fire. 

The big maple shading our picnic table snapped apart; half crashed downward and knocked over another tree. Impressive! How lucky we were to have the modicum of sense that sent us to the truck.

The rain slowed to a patter. Foolish, dauntless, and edged with optimism, we carted the picnic supplies back to our now wet and leaf-surrounded table. To try once more!

Then. The whole rackety ruckus started up again... 

We laughed. We tossed everything back in the truck once more. We abandoned our magnificent steak-pyre of burning charcoal that somehow had continued all its merry activity in spite of rain. What was left of the tree must have sheltered the grill.

After asome dithering and laughter, we drove home again. No rain. So we walked the length of Cooperstown's Main St., winding through the tourists in their striped baseball uniforms and baseball T-shirts and baseball hats and eating street food instead of steaks. I had a pizza slice from a portable brick oven that had rolled all the way from the New York City, and afterward an ice cream sandwich made by the ice cream fanatics at our Route 20 Dairyland under the willow trees. Saw many gawk-worthy tourists scenes. Saw many unfortunate small children of baseball fans plastered to their strollers by heat and entirely too much baseball. 

Child no. 3 ate six fried oreos for dessert and survived with no ill effects. This news seemed especially notable.

An unusually large number of police, state police, sheriff staff, and mysterious men in black-windowed vans were in evidence. And I noted a prodigious number of tourists who love sports but who evidently don't do any themselves. Or perhaps it was simply too many fried oreos...

So much for avoiding the crush! Happy induction weekend, y'all...

Thursday, July 18, 2019

First pre-pub review!

"Youmans (@marlyyoumans), who lives in upstate New York, has just published a stunning collection of poems that comprise “The Book Of The Red King” ($15.95 in paperback from Phoenicia Publishing,, illustrated by Clive Hicks-Jenkins." --Dan Barnett, Book Columnist, Chico Enterprise-Record

Read the whole review HERE.

Also picked up by World News: HERE.

Pre-order discounts at Phoenicia Publishing end after tomorrow....

And The Rollipoke Newsletter, no. 12, is now O-U-T!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

5 more PP-preorder days--

Art by the great Clive Hicks-Jenkins of Wales.
Design by Elizabeth Adams.

Five days left to pre-order The Book of the Red King in hardcover or paperback from Phoenicia Publishing, nab a discount, and support the small press directly. (Hardcovers will only be available from the publisher; paperbacks will be available widely.)


"Marly Youmans is brilliant, perhaps a genius. Her poems tell a story, offering us a vision of, well, I would say the Trinity, but that is only one possible interpretation. After a difficult and sometimes dangerous journey, a Red King, a Fool, and Precious Wentletrap converge into one, a resurrection that is heavenly. Is it true, or is it fable or fairytale? "When I want to write a new book," she has said, "I run across the land and leap off the edge of the known world." Her formal poems are impeccable and include sestinas, villanelles, rondels, rhyming schemes she may have invented, and perfect metrical patterns. Every poet can learn from this poet, and the reader—the reader will be spellbound."
--Kelly Cherry, poet, novelist, and former Poet Laureate of Virginia

"The Book of the Red King by Marly Youmans is an ambitious, magical book about the nature of power and language.  The Red King and the Fool, while they control different realms, make us consider whether it is better to rule on earth or in one’s imagination. In these gorgeous poems, Youmans makes the case for both.  Whatever side we take, Youmans reminds us of the paradox in each.  Even if we side with the Fool in this world of “hurt joy,” we are left with the realm of poetry.   It is not a bad trade.  For those who love well-formed poems and for those who love fantasy, this is a must-read and a distinctive, evocative voice. There is no one like Marly Youmans."
--Kim Bridgford, celebrated poet, editor, and director of the global conference, Poetry by the Sea

"Marly Youmans occupies an imaginative space that straddles both the present and the mythological past. It is the territory of Yeats and Tolkien, and Youmans shares not only a taste for primal imagery with these great poets, but also their love of rhyme, rhythm and sound."
--A. M. Juster, award-winning poet and translator


Clive with St. George, the dragon, maiden,
and his late, lamented little jackanapes...

Clive Hicks-Jenkins was born in Newport, south Wales, in 1951. The early part of his career was as a choreographer and stage director. In the 1990s he turned away from theatre to concentrate on painting. He has been praised by critics in The Independent, Modern Painters and Art Review. Simon Callow has called him ‘one of the most individual and complete artists of our time' and Nicholas Usherwood in Galleries has described his work as ‘reflective, expressive painting of the highest order.’

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Midsummer reads

Despite rushing-about, despite progeny, despite getting ready for The Book of the Red King, and despite celebrating the 4th of July over three days of barbecues and events and fireworks, I have been managing to do a little reading. And as it is feeling good, I thought to share the list. Please add your own midsummer list in the comments if you're reading something you like...

Irene McManus, Dreamscapes: The Art of Juan González (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1994.) I picked this up at The Village of Cooperstown Library and was so fascinated by the artist's symbology and concerns (a father who came out as gay and became HIV+ in the 1980's, a man obsessed by Catholic imagery from his Cuban childhood, a painter who shows theatricality and love of tiny stage sets and shrines in his paintings and drawings versus a strong meditative tendency, a master of trompe l'oeil, a reader with a love of poetry, particularly Garcia Lorca's poems, a myth-maker especially down to Narcissus--with mirrors and doublings--and Orpheus, a symbolist who is sometimes clear and sometimes hermetic, a visionary concerned with psychological and spiritual states) that I ordered my own copy. While it's clear that he was influenced by certain contemporaries and movements (his Minimalist-influenced pieces are surely my favorites from that particular corner of the art world), he is strongly drawn by European art made for cathedral and church settings and also by Vermeer and Rembrandt and other Dutch Golden Age painters.

And González has made me go back to Federico García Lorca, Collected Poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002). And as I always say, rereading is the best reading.

David Lyle Jeffrey, In the Beauty of Holiness: Art and the Bible in Western Culture (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2017.) I ordered this beautiful volume because of John Wilson's review, which is here: "David Lyle Jeffrey's Unpopular Project." I'm on page 25 and liking the book very much. And one thing I just learned that I like a lot is that the Hebrew word for artistic creativity is chokma-lev, or wise-heartedness. I'll have to aspire to that! Here's some praise from John Wilson: "Jeffrey is a scholar who could easily intimidate readers with his erudition: master of many languages, ancient and modern; equally knowledgeable about literature and the visual arts; and intimately familiar, above all, with Scripture. Open his book at random and read a few pages: You’ll be stunned by the sheer range of his learning. And yet, unlike many of his academic peers, he doesn’t employ a style designed to exclude all but a handful of readers fluent in this or that jargon."

Wow. Crack-stroke of lightning, almost simultaneous with the thunder... Where was I? Hmm. I'm doing my third book event for my women's group (a group focused on creating and attending events related to arts and religion for going-on-two years now.) And the next discussion is of readings from Kathleen Raine, Richard Wilbur, Charles Causley, and Elizabeth Jennings. So of course I am reading those four to get ready. (Past readings: Frederick Buechner's little masterpiece, Godric; and The Cloud of Unknowing in the new Carmen Acevedo Butcher translation from Shambhala.) Oh, and I've just reviewed a book of poems and a novel by Valerie Nieman for North Carolina Literary Review. And that was an interesting assignment for me, as those of us who write poetry and fiction are the in the minority, and an even smaller minority of us write either a book-length poem (see Poochigian below) or a book-length series of poems (Nieman's Leopard Lady, out from Press53 in Winston-Salem, 2018, and Jeffery Beam, below.) As I have done both (Thaliad and The Book of the Red King), I'm always glad to encounter new examples.

Thinking about an unusual book form in a current read...

Jeffery Beam has long been a devotee of beauty, and his Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements is one of the prettiest books to appear in recent years. This poetry collection is another in the realm of the book-length series of poems, and is also an addition to the world of ekphrastic poetry. It is a book of free verse responses to paintings--and since the art is intricately tied together in a series, naturally the poems are as well. And internally they are held together, elaborate parallelism often binding the lines, so there is a kind of macrocosmic and microcosmic structure in the form.

Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements display a different way of thinking about what a book of poetry is, and it strikes me that the book is determined to create its own audience--that is, to create the reader's understanding and sympathy for the project--through what is included. Short excerpts from Lindsay Clarke and Joseph Campbell serve as a kind of preface, nudging us in a desired direction. The poems and art form the core of the book, but they are followed by three essays about the poetry and the art. So the book itself teaches how to read it, and also how to look at the art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins... Then there's a whole other dimension to the book in which music and poems join in the CD. It's an interesting and rare way of looking at the making of a poetry collection, and one that must have taken a lot of love and care.

Here's a sample that goes with the weather outside...


Delicate thief!
I thought your roar something
children imagined in a storm
Instead you light up the night meteoric
I hear you flash
Then all quiet

Currently on the starlit nightstand of poetry:

Ned Balbo, 3 Nights of the Perseids 2018 Richard Wilbur Award
  (Evansville, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2019)
Jeffery Beam, Spectral Pegasus / Dark Movements (thank you to Jeffery)
   Higganum, CT: Kin Press, 2019
   Includes reproductions of art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. And a CD with poems and music!
Maryann Corbett, Mid Evil 2014 Richard Wilbur Award
     (Evansville, Indiana: University of Indiana Press, 2014)
Jeanne Larsen, What Penelope Chooses (thank you to Jeanne) 2017 Cider Press Review Award
   (San Diego, CA: Cider Press Review, 2019)
Amit Majmudar, Dothead
   (New York: Borzoi Book, Knopf, 2016)
A. E. Stallings, Like (thank you to Ashley Cooper)
   (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2018)
Aaron Poochigian, Mr. Either/Or 
   (Wilkes-Barre, PA: Etruscan Press, 2017)



sirens croon among birds: a small crane, twin
gulls wheeling. Out there on the mast Odysseus
hangs hog-roped, neck a twist, his chin wrenched down.
What binds him is inescapable, & white.
Oh the blue blues, oh naked women's sweet
bone-black hips, oh shoreline's flame-green flames.
Look: in a mirror that is & is not beyond
this hanging objet's frame, a mob. But with honey
-comb our great hearted man stopped up soft ears.
He'll make it to Ithaka, after all. A poem,
then, not about cosseting steep-walled shames. No threnody.
Poem of the trickster's survival. Poem of how
we do go forward. Of shuddering bodies, compassed.

It's always curious how certain threads coalesce in the world of letters. I'm still pondering the current combination on the loom of literary time, of which Jeanne Larsen's book is a part. Why re-think Homer now? Along with Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls, and Madeline Miller’s Circe, Jeanne Larsen's twisty, jazzy poems in What Penelope Chooses question (interrogate would be the hip critic's word) that composite, passed-down voice we call Homer. 

Even more than in Wilson's translation, which makes the Homeric line something different, more tense and compact by compression into iambic pentameter, Larsen's lines are tightened, broken, contemporary, full of frisky language play. Try these: nasty / sassy queasy peephole; beagle-brained square-jawed skull-thickener; poly-vocal fingers; sea dog, pollywog, old tarpaulin, / storm-scoured gob; blood-streaky, breached; nerve-zap yearning; clit / -whipped; PTSD blues; future snarled, blue-screened, timed-out. The poems question not just Homer but also form and what language is suited to a trickster--cheerfully tossing out not just the Homeric line but also pulling into new, wild shapes the sonnet form to which Larsen nods.

The freedom of time-leaping and the frolicsome language remind me a bit of Christopher Logue's unfinished versions--or "accounts," as he called them--of the Illiad, War Music. But as with Barker, Miller, and Wilson, a different sort of metamorphosis is underway. What was at the margins or not conceived to be worth sustained attention now gleams under a light: torn, ignored, or cast-off women; autistic (!) Polyphemus who loves his "nubbly" ram; a tapestry- and Homer-unweaving Penelope who may have had "a few brawly boys, a fickle maid" in her bed. What is at the margin takes stage, becomes center.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Pre-orders begin! The Book of the Red King

The Book of the Red King. 

Hardcover jacket or paperback cover and interior illuminations
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.

Offered in hardcover and paperback editions;
both available for special pre-order through July 15,
directly from Phoenicia Publishing via PayPal or credit card.
* * *
Please see my updated page for the book HERE.
Blurbs from Kelly Cherry, Kim Bridgford, A. M. Juster
Information about the book, author, and illuminator
* * *

See the Phoenicia Publishing catalogue page to order HERE.


Note to Rollipokers pilfered from The Rollipoke News:

Please think hard about supporting this book--in some ways the nearest to me of all my books, the poems having appeared as a great, rejoicing flood of surprise--from the wonderful Phoenicia Publishing of Montreal, the small-press brainchild of Elizabeth Adams. It will make me happy if you do, as the Red King, the Fool, and Precious Wentletrap are eager to leap from their world to yours.

Clive's harpy
from the interior illuminations!

Thank you to Micah Mattix and Prufrock News 
for mentioning the book in Friday's newsletter!

Monday, June 03, 2019

"Carolina Prize Writing Contest Judges Announced, Deadline Approaching" - The Grey Area News

Carolina Prize Writing Contest Judges Announced, Deadline Approaching - The Grey Area News: By Donna Campbell Smith

The Franklin County Arts Council’s Writers’ Guild is sponsoring its fifth annual Carolina Prize Writing Contest.  It is open to writers of any age and location for previously unpublished (this includes online publication) poetry, short stories, essays or creative non-fiction....

Judging the poetry division is award-winning author Marly Youmans, who is a native of the Carolinas, currently living in Cooperstown, New York. Forthcoming from Phoenicia Publishing in mid-2019, The Book of the Red King is her fifth book of poetry. Her prior poetry books are The Foliate Head (UK: Stanza Press), Thaliad (Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing), The Throne of Psyche (Mercer University Press), and Claire (LSU.) She has also published nine novels; next year will see publication of a tenth, Charis in the World of Wonders.

The prose judge is E. M. Jerkins. She describes herself as a wife, and mother of three from Charlotte, NC. She received her B.A. in mass communications from North Carolina Central University and has written and published three novels: Reach, If Ever a Time, and Where the Ground Cries Out. Ersula also owns Write-Hand Publishing, LLC, a company designed to aid in the production of all things literary.

Click the link for more info! And thanks to writer Kim Beall, who asked. Who is Kim? Answer: "a member of the Franklin County Writers Guild, an author of contemporary southern gothic fantasy who is so very grateful to have discovered I can't throw a rock without hitting another wordsmith here in the rural wilds of The Writingest State."

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

The lure of the Red King

Art by Kim Vanderheiden.

Here is just one of twelve works
made by artist Kim Vanderheiden
in response to a single poem from The Book of the Red King
Am I astonished? Yes, I am astonished.
Where possible, readings

will be accompanied by images of art-in-response 
by Kim, Clive Hicks-Jenkins (my longtime book-illuminator),
and Mary Boxley Bullington.

What a deeply touching thing to have serious artists 
surprise me with wonderful pictures
before the book even appears
from Phoenicia Publishing of Montreal,
under the 
guidance of Elizabeth Adams,
publisher of beautiful books.

What a marvelous
and joyful 
and entirely unexpected

The Red King approaches.
The Fool is singing on his journey.
And Precious Wentletrap is wandering the moon path.

Pub date comes near! 

Friday, May 10, 2019

Red King has a Heffalump, it seems...

Pub date TBA soon... 

Here's one of the interior images for my The Book of the Red King poetry collection, one recently shared in The Rollipoke along with a cockatrice (!) and some poems about the Fool and the Red King... Interior and exterior art by Clive Hicks-Jenkins. Phoenicia Publishing

CC: twitter, facebook

Monday, May 06, 2019

Down and out in Cripplegate Ward

John Rocque's 1746 map of London, showing Grub Street in Cripplegate Ward, above and to the right of St. Giles and the Cripple-gate churchyard--running from Chiswell to Fore Street. Public domain, via Wikipedia 
I'm afraid there was no wondrous golden time for writers--oh, there were times when disparate talents came together in one region and vied with one another, but even then there was often jealousy and insufficient reward. Look back, and you find Robert Greene railing at that "shake scene" and "upstart crow," a Shakespeare "beautified" with pilfered feathers. Or look at the denizens of Grub Street, journalists and poets struggling to feed and house themselves in a poor bohemian quarter, only to be pilloried by that clever and amusing cripple, Alexander Pope.

In an essay for The New Republic, "Down and Out in the Gig Economy," Jacob Silverman (lovely name!) lodges a complaint that "freelance journalism is a monetized hobby," that it is nearly impossible to do more that "serve the whims of capital." Not only has he not found a secure, salaried perch, but he has learned a truth that many writers know--that it is quite possible to write a book that critics love but that does not sell, for reasons out of the writer's control. Well, I sympathize with his lot and agree that journalism is in a parlous way, that there were some brief, better years for essayists in the last century, and that it's difficult for a writer of any sort to find a happy niche. Publishing tends to be a winner-take-all scheme. Go to any airport bookstore and check out the Top 10 books on sale. There you go. Winner-take-almost-all!

Though I'd love for the writer's life to be easier and more straightforward, it is not these challenges that make me uneasy with "Down and Out" but the essay itself as revelation of how such disappointments may harm the writer, either for a period of time or permanently. Many, many writers have challenges like the ones Silverman names, and there are other, unmentioned disappointments that pop up unexpectedly--quirky, oddball twists of publishing fate. In the kingdom of writer-dooms, Melville has long been a hero of mine. Years after any notice was paid to him, an old man, he pursued the work it was given him to do, writing poems, writing Billy Budd. He endured the agony of being ignored and thought mad (and perhaps of being mad from neglect for a time), and yet he kept harrowing his piece of literary ground and planting new seed, even when no one remained to believe that what he made would mean anything in the world. He persisted. He won a victory, although he had no earthly reward for doing so. But I have known writers in similar situations whose minds and spirits were bent by lack of notice, lack of support, and who did not have the resilience to unbend. I won't say their names, but some drift into mind.

The dream of creating something strong and true matters to the soul. A strange joy, it burns in the mind. Resentment and bitterness will never help a work grow and achieve beauty. Putting words together in fresh patterns is a kind of alchemy that transforms the inner being of the writer--creation may make the self larger and more resilient on the inside. Yet self-poisoning by resentment and bitterness remains a risk for any maker. To a writer, young or old, I'd say that there's no shame in pursuing some other dream if resentment becomes a blight, just as there's no shame in keeping on despite self-judgment or the world's judgment, and in striving to pierce the cloud of bitterness...

* * *

Thursday, May 02, 2019

Symbols and Pronouns, Ships and Women

Hervé Cozanet,The bow and the figure
of schooner Recouvrance in Brest, 2006

Creative Commons - Share Alike 3.0
Sourced via Wikipedia
Symbols often explain some underlying shape of the world as it has been understood for millennia. History can suggest how long a symbol has been present. Language refers to and reveals those symbols. And language is a curious thing. Looked at closely, it can reveal some deep-lying meaning that we hardly notice but which says something important about the world. 

Historical fact shows us that a ship was seldom regarded as merely an object, that it was associated with vigorous life and with myth. Eyes were painted on Greek and Phoenician ships. Roman goddesses and gods found a place on the bow. Viking ships were led by dragons. Once the keel extended into a stem in the sixteenth century, figureheads appeared in wild variety--deities, eagles, unicorns and lions, women, and men. Eventually the military sailing ship and its figureheads vanished. 

Not only was a ship not regarded as a mere object, it was commonly regarded as female. Is this something a post-post-modern ideology needs to stamp out? Or is it part of a foundational, mythic pattern--a symbolic richness passed down to us from our ancestors?

The body of the ship, like the body of a woman, may hold and shelter and nourish human beings who are carried for a period of time. No doubt many bad puns have been made about a female ship carrying seamen, but that does not mean the meaning of ship-as-woman is not deep, not meaningful. At the end of their stay in the womb or in what is called the "belly" of a ship, barring miscarriage or shipwreck, people are born out of a dark womb. In the days of sailing ships, their journey took months. This shape of a long journey ending in a kind of birth into the light is as plain and simple and unabashedly clear a pattern as is the portrayal of stalwart prairie mother Ántonia, her children rushing up out of the doorway of a sod house near the close of Willa Cather's My Ántonia

Sometimes historical ships became connected to notable, literal births. The first Pilgrim baby born in the New World was born on a ship that is part of American mythology, the Mayflower. (Susanna White gave birth to her son as the Mayflower lay at anchor at Cape Cod; another baby, Oceanus Hopkins, was born mid-way across the seas to Elizabeth Fisher Hopkins. The names given to the infants show that the births were seen in a symbolic light.) That sailing ships were used sometimes for cruel, evil purposes that opposed life--carrying slaves in the Middle Passage, for example--does not abolish the underlying pattern, though it makes the shape tragic.

Changing a long-held traditional symbolic pattern is tricky, particularly when the change is bowing to ideology and abrupt change. Jargon and what William Stringfellow called "rhetorical wantonness" are signs of what used to be commonly (now uncommonly) called the powers and principalities, who are always attempting to wrest power for themselves. What are powers and principalities but rulers, authorities, forces, groups that wish to wield power. Sometimes we become the powers and principalities.

In "Every Pronoun Must Go," Theodore Dalrymple shares why objectors seek to change the pronoun:
The Scottish Maritime Museum, dedicated to the history of the country’s shipbuilding industry, has decided that it will no longer use the words she and her to refer to ships, but rather it and its. This is in response to feminists, who have defaced plaques referring to ships as she or her. This change would negate centuries of tradition, during which the words traditionally used on launching a ship, “May God bless all who sail in her,” carried no connotation of insult or deprecation—rather the reverse. 
I expect that he implies here that virtually all those words are now to be ripped and rejected by opponents; "all who sail" are, I suppose, still safe.

At this interesting juncture in Western history, it's not one whit surprising to any of us that protestors (or museums weary of vandalized signs) want to get rid of a pronoun. Only a much-sheltered ostrich could have failed to notice the ongoing pronoun wars. But what is it we jettison when we toss she-ships into the sea? What do we lose? 

Surely we should ask.

Longed-for and prayed-for over millennia of risky births and frequent female shipwreck of childbirth, the image of a woman carrying her infant burden safely to its final destination in the world is what made the wooden womb of a ship into a "she." Long-ago sailing, too, was treacherous and a cause for women to lift up prayers and hopes for sons and husbands. Now women and men may both be sailors, and the voyage is safer than before. But in those earlier times, adventuring sailors might never come home safe in their wooden wombs, just as infants might be miscarried or never emerge from the mother's womb. And every old graveyard tells its sad stories of young women who died in childbirth. In each case, the ship or the body of the mother, safe passage was deeply desired by both men and women but often thwarted. 

Let's go back to the times of baby Peregrine. Early records from the Provincetown and Massachusetts Bay colonies make clear that a Pilgrim or Puritan woman in childbirth was regarded as a person called on to act with heroism. She was called to an adventure she might not survive. The achieving of a "good birth" or a "good death" (if the "good birth" proved impossible) through her labor was something that women thought a great deal about and wished for. In an era when our thoughts about maternity are colored by modern changes in medicine, such thoughts may seem strange. But in all times preceding the past century, a safe pregnancy and childbirth was still regarded as an infinitely precious gift. We still see remnants of that attitude in some high risk pregnancies and in the way women who have given birth feel the need to share their childbirth story--a journey of a baby from the amniotic seas to light, a journey of a woman toward a new phase of life--with others.

We still participate in ancient patterns of life that cannot be thrown away without ending human history. Life is still conceived of as a journey. We all arrived in this place by sailing the inward, female sea to our destination on a nine-month journey. The image of secure passage for the sailor in the ship fused with the image of the child in the womb is neither oppressive nor meaningless but one of many foundational, mythic images of our world, passed down by a long chain of ancestors through the millennia.

Vulkano, Figurehead of the Seute Deern (Schiff, 1919) 2003
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