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Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Rollipoke flies again!

Sweet little birds
by Clive Hicks-Jenkins,
made as extra decorations
for French flaps

That peculiar little newsletter about my writings, The Rollipoke, went out this afternoon (no. 15: Surprises!) News about the upcoming novel, Charis in the World of Wonders (Ignatius Press), and about the new book of poems, The Book of the Red King (Phoenicia Publishing.)

Craving your very own Rollipoke? Fly here. 

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Christmas thoughts on painting and symbol...

Detail, Zanobi Strozzi, c.1433.
(Perhaps with some figure work by Fra Angelico?)
Predella to an altarpiece.
Tempera with gold on wood.
Wikipedia Creative Commons licence.
Image donated to CC by the Met.

* * *
                                           Oh Thou, whose glorious, yet contracted light,
                                           Wrapt in night's mantle, stole into a manger;
                                           Since my dark soul and brutish is Thy right,
                                           To man of all beasts be not Thou a stranger
                                                 --from George Herbert, "Christmas" (I), 1633

I've long been friends with painters, and I love wandering among drawings and paintings. I have a particular affection for medieval paintings, and for the iconography of that era. One thing I especially find intriguing about medieval religious paintings is that the images possessed a function that was far more vital than that of paintings today. A painter in our time often wishes to have his or her painting in a static or traveling group show or a solo show. The painter desires to have images appear in an article or review, and longs to achieve the status of seeing his or her own paintings housed permanently in a museum. I dearly love to visit museums and would never dismiss them. But a medieval painter's labors joined a great variety of other crafted works to beautify and inspire in churches, cathedrals, synagogues, shrines, and castles. Art meant skill to make significant, beautiful creations. And many an artisan felt himself to be such a maker, part of a great body of people crafting and incarnating a house or way-station for God. Afterward, the made things were intimately connected to the highest spiritual feelings of many people, and they became an essential part of worship. Paintings, carvings, and sculpted pieces have frequently ended up in our museum collections, where they now have a more limited existence, drained of prior life and power, but yet... they once had that earlier glory. The symbolism in medieval paintings and icons likewise held meaning and a living power, where for most viewers today it remains merely a colorful mystery. 

So here's my Christmas greeting, rife with symbol and beauty: an adoration scene with ox and ass portraying the yoking of clean and unclean, centered on the infant Jesus. This iconography is extra-biblical, though reflected in St. Peter's highly symbolic dream of a sheet of clean and unclean foods let down from heaven. Such yokings reflect the baby's bringing of clean (Jewish) and unclean (Gentile) peoples together under the rule of Christ. Meanwhile the baby who binds the earthly and divine is radiant and haloed in gold, the metal at the top of the medieval hierarchy of metals. Perhaps he is so nearly naked and so radiant because painters of the era were inspired by a mystical vision from the prior century. St. Bridget of Sweden saw the baby lying naked on the ground, transfigured by light. 

St. Bridget may also be the source of the portrayal of Mary in prayer--and of her oddly blonde hair as well. Meanwhile, Joseph is less important, smaller, set back, crossing his arms in the attitude of one receiving a blessing. Mary wears a robe of heavenly, royal blue that discloses red, the color linked to Pentecost and the influx of the Holy Spirit. In Joseph, the colors are reversed. I imagine that for a Medieval viewer, the link from red to blood and martyrdom would have been clear as well--the fact that this strange, surprising child is born to die a martyr's death. Mary and Joseph are both serious-faced, befitting their role as guardians of the Messiah and the womb-tomb suggestions of the picture. I'm a little puzzled about the angels, as eleven is a peculiar choice, given medieval numerology. But there is another medieval piece that gives us eleven angels, the wonderful Wilton Diptych (and it has been argued that its heavenly court parallels Joseph's dream with sun, moon, and eleven stars, with Joseph himself honored as the twelfth.)

As in many medieval portrayals of the Nativity, the scene takes place before the shelter of a cave. The visual link between womb and tomb runs back to certain Neolithic passage tombs, and probably earlier. The womb is a place of transformation leading to new birth; the Christian vision of the tomb is also one of transformation and rebirth. The image of the cave (a mix of natural and altered stone) also reminds the viewer of the placing of the body of Christ in the cave (rock-hewn) tomb of Joseph of Arimathea. A cave being a piercing of the hard substance of the world by an ethereal body of air, the shape also suggests the divine that has come to pierce through the material world, and to be pierced in turn. The two support poles before the cave and the single bole of a tree may well have suggested the three "trees" on Golgotha to a medieval man or woman versed in the symbolism of the time. The tree is flourishing, again emblematic of new life. Far in the background, seven (a number of fullness and completion) towers on a hill and points the way toward heaven.

So there you go--a medieval Christmas card.
Have a joyous Christmas Eve and Day.

The Met site states that this tempera painting was originally attributed to the marvelous Fra Angelico but is now thought to be by his pupil, Zanobi Strozzi. Strozzi is known for his illuminations.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Updatery: Red King news

Illumination by Clive Hicks-Jenkins
for The Book of the Red King, 172 pp.
(Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing, 2019)
Wee note to encourage the Fool, the Red King, and Precious Wentletrap: Writer Jessica Hooten Wilson (winner of the very big deal, tthe Hiett Prize in the Humanities) has published a review of The Book of the Red King in Fathom. I have updated the page for The Book of the Red King, which now contains an except from her article and helpful comments from: poet and novelist Fred Chappell; reviewer Dan Barnett; poet and novelist Kelly Cherry; longtime editor of Books and Culture, John Wilson; novelist Scott G. F. Bailey; poet and translator Michael Juster; poet and director of Poetry by the Sea, Kim Bridgford; poet Sally Thomas; poet Ray Oliver; poet and novelist Sebastian Doubinsky; and poet Jeffery Beam.

And that parade of names is bright and shiny, a good celebration for the Red King.

All posts about books are the little bottle in Alice's hand that says Drink Me. I hope you will. I promise that you, like Alice, can find that life is surprising and that you may, indeed, change in size, at least on the inside.

A few more images from Clive!
The book is available directly from Phoenicia Publishing 
in hardcover or paperback, and from (pb) Amazon, indies, etc. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Dream diary: "Birthday"

Last night several of my children were spending the night, and my daughter was cold in her room; I turned up the heat and about six in the morning had the most intricate writer's nightmare. I dreamed that I was young and in a class with John Gardner. (Why? The only person I know who has talked at length about what John Gardner meant to him as a teacher is Jeffrey Ford, so I don't know a lot about Gardner as a teacher other than what Jeff has said. And certainly not whether Gardner had an affinity to cats...)

We were to discuss a story called "Birthday." It seems we were at Brown, in a classroom in a nineteenth-century house. Gardner was seated behind a bullet-gray metal desk; he became threatening to the class as time passed, and kept opening the top right drawer in a way that made people uneasy. They seemed to feel that he might soon brandish a weapon. But I was sitting beside and oddly near the desk and kept craning to see what was inside. Neatly arranged boxes full of brightly colored pushpins, round-headed short pins, and other small shapes filled the drawer. It looked rather like some Modernist mosaic, but more complicated.

People began to get up and leave. Soon police surrounded the building. I was trying to comfort Gardner, who at some point (understandably so) transformed himself into a cat (a pleasant-looking Tenniel gray tiger) and curled up in what must have been the desire to protect himself from the world. I held him in my arms close to my face, and though he scratched at me several times in agitation, he did not attempt to flee away from me and hide. A single remaining classmate tried to call for help.

Noises came from below; perhaps some sort of rescue was beginning, but it made me strangely uneasy. I got up and began climbing upward through the house and took refuge on what I believe was the third floor, the cat still in my arms close to my face. I opened a closet and crept inside to lie down, my head and torso and the cat inside its shelter.

Robots were combing the house, spraying pesticide. The remaining classmate tried to call her mother on her cell phone, but could not get through. (Perhaps because there were no cell phones when Gardner was alive?) After a while, she lay down on the floor of the room and did not stir. The house was full of the stink of pesticide.

I told the cat a secret, that today was really and truly my birthday. Gardner-cat seemed quite interested and stirred and nosed at me, but of course he was a cat now, and not a talking Cheshire cat, so I was glad that he understood but knew that he could not tell me what moved in his mind.

A lady robot, also gun-metal gray but with shocking-pink eyes chartreuse neon hair, entered the room and began spraying the corners of the room. She rolled to the closet and began spraying the cat in my arms and me. Being a writer and a dreamer to boot, I was able to change my point of view to a more limited omniscient view and see the death of cat-Gardner and girl from above. A few classmates filtered into the building later on and announced (though ineffectually) their displeasure at what had happened. The room stank of cat piss. The girl and cat were still dead, but it was a sunny day without robots, though yellow tape and policemen were still outside.

Sunday, December 08, 2019

What writers do and do not want for Christmas etc.

Aiieee! Cowflop! This is 100-proof bogus nonsense. What writers want for Christmas or the holiday of their preference is for you to read one (or more!) of their books (preferably after buying, as numbers help them sell the next book to a publisher) and then to ramble around in their created worlds. Also, they want dratted Amazon etc. reviews because those things are helpful to the book, and writers are all about serving the book. What they do not want are things like mugs, literary insult charts, literary temporary tattoos, and storytelling card games. Well, maybe they want a nice fountain pen...

See some proper additions from other writers (some poets and writers of fiction and nonfiction) in the comments below.

Also, from novelist Midori Snyder (via twitter), this: "Time left alone, to lie on the couch and imagine plots." Dawdley, day-dreamy time, yes.

And writer Laura Argiri brings up one of my weaknesses on facebook: "They seem unaware that they can so easily score with the writer in question's favorite form of caffeine or chocolate. No need to order all this silly stuff that will go straight to the recipient's neighborhood thrift...." Chocolate!

Sunday, December 01, 2019

Event change

PLEASE NOTE NEW DATE                         
December 15 Sunday 3:00
Reading,  The Book of the Red King

22 Main Street
Downstairs meeting room 

Interior decoration at right by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.