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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

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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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