Monday, July 30, 2007

Heroes for the Future

I stumbled on a website today that made me think that my slight ill-ease with the current plethora of Beowulf movies might be well-founded.

One of my problems with Beowulf as it is so often encountered -- and I know we've all beaten Charles McGrath horse to death at this point -- is that it seems so flat. In fact, that's why, heretically, I liked the recent Beowulf and Grendel. Thinking about the film, I wrote:

Beowulf and Grendel is not the poem I, and perhaps some of you readers, study or have studied. Yet I wonder if it’s not a certain aspect of that poem, refracted through time, to show a side of it the Old English did not, or could not, fully articulate. As Tolkien once said, the characters of the Anglo Saxon epic go forth to fight “the battle that ends for all, even kings and champions, in darkness.” In this movie, night comes down on monsters and heroes alike – and the withered remnants of their lives, like the enshrined head of Grendel’s dad, serve as stories for those who remain. It’s making sense of it that we must struggle with – and in the end it can only make sense for us at our moment. Beowulf and Grendel is, then, that rendering – one more chance for us to make sense of story of long ago. One more chance to see the “Outsider” in his many forms – and perhaps, if for only a moment, to go Outside our own fortressed thoughts to meet him.

What I seemed to be grappling with then, and what I'm grappling with now, is the way in which we inherit heroes. The ways in which Beowulf stands as a venerated homage to the idea that heroism necessitates violent conflict -- that heroes need someone or something to destroy in order to truly be heroes.

Martin Firrell has begun a large-scale public art project with Nathan Fillion (of Firefly), called Hero. Currently there are three parts, which bring together Fillion's reflections and conversations (and footage of the interview as well as other images of him) with words, written both by Firrell and by people who sent them in via email and a blog for the project.

Based in Firrell's idea that words can be relevant, the "Hero" project is fascinating -- and I was surprised to feel its relevance not only to a world where violence has become so much a part of every-day life, but also to the literature that world is currently resurrecting in movie form, the literature I study.

The need for a new model of heroism is a necessity: and I think the part of Firrell's early project that I'm most interested to see develop (and which, if you're patient, you can hear parts of here in an interview for a show that seems to usually be about Firefly) is how Firrell will move beyond the masculine-centeredness of the project as it now stands. He seems committed to doing so - and for his project to succeed it seems that it will have to.

It reminds me of a beautiful Brian Andreas print that reads "Anyone can slay a dragon, he told me, but try waking up every morning & loving the world all over again. That's what takes a real hero."

I'd be interested to hear opinions of this project -- and perhaps most of all, how it intersects our work as Anglo-Saxonists. I wonder what sorts of responsibility we have -- to the texts we study and to the students we give them to -- vis a vis this problem of what it means to be a hero, and what Beowulf, particularly in his politically aware incarnations perhaps, might be able to teach us...

and one of these days I'll get back to my orals reading notes -- I'm making progress, but nothing that seems to make it here...


Thursday, July 26, 2007

Skip Prosser (1950-2007): Rest in Peace

It's a sad day to be a Demon Deacon. I depart from my more medieval-oriented blogging to report that Wake Forest Basketball Coach Skip Prosser passed away today, after apparently having a heart attack. I found out approximately five minutes ago, here in ZSR library. This article confirms it.

I don't know how to react -- Prosser was coach for most of my time at Wake, and he managed to pull together a team (and a school, really) still a bit lost from losing Dave Odom. I remember him as a classy guy -- he never let the fans get out of hand in the games I attended, and I know I respected him for that.

It was one of my joys, each time I was home, to see him at the nine AM mass at the church my family attends. Invariably, he was always there.

Coach Prosser had 2 sons, about 2 and 3 years older than me respectively. He was one of the best coaches Wake Forest ever had, and I know we'll all miss him. I offer my condolences to his family and friends, and know that the WFU community will remember them, and Coach Prosser in their thoughts in the coming days and weeks.

Sigh. Not a good day to be a Demon Deacon. Not a good day at all.

EditLink to Coach Prosser's Bio. He was 56 years old.

Further edit The Winston Salem Journal has an article up about Coach Prosser's death.

Further edit: I know this is an odd story to follow so closely, given that this blog is oriented toward the medieval. However, as an alumna, and someone who spends nearly all of her time at the university when there's a chance to do so, I also know how close-knit the Wake Forest community is, and I know that we're all going to feel this in the coming days and weeks. ESPN has coverage of Coach Prosser's passing, and also some beautiful tribute footage. Again, my heart goes out to his family.

Wake Forest's Press Release, and the front page at the University's Website.

Another Wake Forest Demon Deacon mourns the sudden loss of Coach Prosser. Remembers one of Coach's signature lines, too -- "Meet me on the quad at midnight" -- referencing the Wake Forest tradition of rolling the quad after a big game.

Final Edit, Sunday July 29th. Funeral plans for Coach Prosser have been announced, with the viewing Monday and funeral Tuesday evening. I found a tribute to Coach on facebookwhen I logged in today. The final picture is very moving -- at midnight, about 200 students, professors, alumni and members of the community met on the quad, to roll the quad one last time for Coach Prosser. I never really participated in that tradition -- it wasn't really me during university, to put it mildly -- but Thursday night it seemed important to be there.

It's strange to watch this community mourn a loss, and simultaneously celebrate the man who occasions such mourning. In some ways, I thought I'd left Wake Forest three years ago, and that my pilgrimages back to Reynolda campus in winter and summer were a matter of convenience only -- after all, my parents still live in here. This week, however, I realized that Wake's a bigger part of me than I knew. Friends, in town this weekend for a wedding, reminded me of the strange friendships that crop up in Wake Forest -- linking members of classes as far removed as '97, '98, and '04 -- not to mention the older generations of professors and graduates (sometimes professors who were graduates!) who have their own interconnections in addition to our little group of friends. I hate that I only realized these wonderful connections at such a sad time. But I'm grateful to have them. And in some ways, it's reassuring to know that I haven't left Wake Forest, not really -- because I take it with me, regardless of where I go.

Things will slowly return to normal on campus -- the TP on the quad is already disintegrating from the rain this weekend, and the world of college life will go on as the freshmen come to campus in a few weeks. But I know the community -- Wake Forest, Winston-Salem -- will be different from now on, though perhaps the change will in time become invisible, a sort of rift not quite seen but always felt. Skip Prosser was a man who had time for other people -- regardless of their inclination towards sports. And I hope our small community has learned the lessons Coach taught us -- most of all, never to delay gratitude. And I'd imagine that when we meet -- in person or in spirit -- on the Wake Forest quad at midnight after a game in the coming years, a part of that atmosphere will always be gratitude for a person who really did make a difference in a community. Not by saving the world -- but simply by making the place where he lived and moved a little better by his presence.

And in those moments where his quick wit or kind wisdom would have been most appreciated -- we'll always know how much Coach Prosser means to Wake Forest. And when we meet on the quad at midnight after a game -- we'll always remember, and be grateful.

And now, I return to blogging Old English and the final countdown to my exams.


Wednesday, July 25, 2007

And So It Begins...again.

Beowulf's hitting the big screen. Yes again.

Today I stumbled across this
review at the LA Times
quite accidentally. And quotes like this make me nervous:

Adapted from the oldest story in the English language, "Beowulf" is a hyper violent and highly sexualized tale of the warrior Beowulf (Ray Winstone) who must slay the monster Grendel (Crispin Glover). Later, Grendel's mother (Jolie) seduces Beowulf so that she can produce a replacement heir that will allow her to reestablish her dominion over the kingdom. (Hence, Giiiif meee sonnn.)

As do quotes like this, which, speaking of a fight between Beowulf and Grendel, make it seem more like the wrestling scene from D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love:

His knack for a good scrap is on show in one of the film's pivotal fight scenes when Beowulf battles Grendel in the nude, mano a beast-o. ("Bob asked if he had to be nude, but we said, 'It's in the poem,' " Gaiman explained.) So in a crafty bit of staging to allow a PG-13 rating, Beowulf's naughty bits are obfuscated by random objects in the foreground. It's more subtle and subdued, but shadows, swords, mead flagons and shoulders block all in a sequence not unlike the prankish cloaking device used in "Austin Powers" films.

I trust Neil Gaiman. Kind of. The way I trust Orson Scott Card, or Disney animators. The man's capable of genius, and hardly every fails.

I just worry more when it's a story I love this much.

Then again, I liked Beowulf and Grendel (see post link above). So I don't know that I'm the best judge of these things. So here goes, Neil Gaiman. I'm trusting you. Give me a Beowulf I'll be not entirely disappointed with.

Click here for the disappointingly spare movie site.

Then check out Neil Gaiman's fantastic blog and website. There's a lot on the new movie Stardust, which will be released August 10, I think. Can't wait for that...


Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter and Time, Part II

Yes, I stayed up until 5 AM reading on Saturday morning. No, I didn't finish until quite late in the evening -- and as my mom put it as I wandered towards bed early this morning, "welcome to the "Old Farts Club," which apparently includes in its activities not staying up to finish things you've been waiting years for. No spoilers in this post, just some tangled thoughts on time, and what I wanted so badly in my written exams to call "the time of reading."

It's funny, that now that "we know everything," as JK Rowling has put it, I'm feeling a bit sad. Not disappointed--if there's one thing I didn't think The Deathly Hallows approached even once it was disappointing--but sad. Lost, as it were.

I think I'm already feeling nostalgic for Harry Potter.

I've been reading the books since sometime in college, when I finally overcame my "Kids' books are dumb" thing. And I liked Harry Potter. I disparaged the series often (for length, for unwieldiness, for their hodge-podge of half-used mythology, for the debt Rowling clearly owes to Tolkien...etc), but I think it was because I felt bad liking something so much that wasn't "high literature." Tolkien I could make an excuse for: He's one of "us," an academic, a man who wrote a book to house languages he dreamed up in the spare time left him from writing one of the most influential (if often too much so) articles on Beowulf in the 20th century

What I forgot in all of this is one simple thing, of which I was reminded during a dinner table discussion with my family when I was still about half-way from the finale's close. Literature is what survives, what remains. As much as literature is a constructed category -- it depends, as it is passed down, so much on chance. Take the Ruin, for example.* So much of our engagement with this poem is predicated on the things about it which we cannot know. Literally a ruined text, we can only proceed on fragments of the poem -- and so our supposition that this is Anglo-Saxon poetry, Anglo-Saxon literature, is based on an incomplete object, a text that will never be whole. We can't really say its status in the time of its writing -- but it, and many other poems left to us, were similarly fragmented in an 18th century fire, and we'll never know what texts we lost.

The fragments of the past are something we engage in collecting, enshrining, fearful of what might happen if they pass away. And I don't think that's a bad thing. But there's a simultaneous necessity, one I think Rowling points to strongly in her final book -- the responsibility of humans to one another. The responsibility of living, thinking beings to one another.

And so I feel -- ironically, perhaps, but truthfully -- exiled at the end of this long series, which began so long ago. I didn't know about Harry Potter before September 11th 2001. But it was first published in this country in the fall of 1998, when I was only a sophomore in high school. I wrote here about Ron Silliman's beautiful review of the movie, which was so evocative in its description of the way the movies illustrate the effect of time, and their connection to photographs and film which present images out of the past. I was particularly moved by these lines of Silliman's review:

There was a world once, all of these objects say to us, in which so much had not always already happened. In which the irrevocable, that irreversible flow chart, had not already occurred, with all the consequences that can never be undone.

For me, the Harry Potter series will always be connected to the terrible aftershocks of a single day in September of my sophomore year of college. It's a tangled web of problems and forces, questions that aren't easily answered and "enemies" that aren't easily recognized or understood. And that description isn't just for one or the other, the books or the wars being fought in the real world.

But the one unfailing tenet in these books is that in a world where love is possible -- perhaps there was still hope. Hope that "good" could triumph over "evil". Not without pain, not without loss. And not without questions, terrible questions that have no easy answers. But the premise, it seems, of these books is that the better side of what it means to be human can win out over the side that is cruel.

I don't know if these books will ever be called "literature" -- I won't be around in a time that can make those distinctions. Doubtless there are many worthier books by less known authors that might deserve that distinction more than Rowling.

But it seems to me they're part of a tradition of narratives written that argue there is still hope. And maybe it's the childish part of me -- but when such distinctions are made, I hope the lessons of Harry Potter do remain: That choices matter more than talents. That every living thing deserves respect. That people can change, and are often more than what they seem. That sacrifices made for love -- real love, whatever that is -- are worth something. That that same love can "save" people, help them become more humane, help them recognize that we have so much to love each other for.

I can't return to the world of Harry Potter again for the first time. I don't know if I'll ever pass it on to children who will encounter it anew, meeting Harry and his friends and their magical world as if it were the first time those books have ever been opened. And I know the time of their readings will be different from those of my own -- though for better or worse I don't know. What I do know is that the time of these books -- a well-loved refuge for me and many as we navigated the end of one millennium and the blood-stained beginning of another -- have many things to teach the readers to whom one passes them on.

And I sincerely hope I do. Because for all its many pitfalls -- perhaps the greatest gifts we can give to each other are at once the simplest and most elusive things we have: hope, and love.

One final note: As I was getting ready to head to bed Saturday evening, my younger sister, GMH, who had been reading the book all day too, knocked on my door.

"I'm glad we've been expelled from Hogwarts, Kate."

I was confused, and asked her why.

"Because now we can stop worrying about Harry's world, and start fixing our own."

And maybe there's some truth in that, for all of us who've grown up (though not all at the same ages) with the Boy Who Lived.

Back to our regularly scheduled orals reading reports sometime early this week.

*-Thanks are due to both my brilliant little sister -- formerly Opera Sis on this blog, now GMH (who survived reading not only Harry Potter but this post in one day), and LJS, for forcing me to clarify my thinking on the part of this about literature.


Friday, July 20, 2007

Welcome to the Metaverse

I'm referencing Neal Stephenson's fantastic science fiction work Snow Crash in my title, but what I'm really talking about is this: Photosynth demonstration. Looks like a fantastic resource.

Thank you to Jenny Davidson of Light Reading for the link.

Now go forth and read Isaac Asimov's fantastic short story The Last Question. Odd combination, n'est-ce pas?


Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The "countdown" began awhile ago, but now I can officially say: oral exam date is set. September 6th from 2 to 4 pm. I could count it down in hours now if I wanted. But I won't.

I'll admit to a little nervous twinge when I saw that. I've been waiting to schedule this thing for so long I'm not quite sure what to think that I know not only a day but a time. The positive: I'm teaching beforehand. And as it's only the second day, I'll be in the segment of the course I've invariably been most fond of over the past year -- the part about monsters. But yes. Now it's just a day at a time, and remembering that (as a particularly wise colleague of mine said to me a few weeks ago) this isn't "a destination, a deadline or a monument" (I quote, which said friend I hope won't mind, because it was just too good to paraphrase). It's just the day where I have to sit down with my advisers, tell them where I've been, what I've found there, and where I'm going next.

And as Julian of Norwich so wisely said: And all manner of thing shall be well.

This post jumps ahead of another one I've started writing, on my experience translating the prologue to the Anglo-Norman Seint Aedward le Reis, and I'd imagine that once it's done it will also have more to do with the process of trying to translate a language that is not only a bit bizarrely categorized (French of England demonstrates that fact quite nicely), but which also has the distinction of being a language I haven't technically learned. I also just started in on Bob Stein's Reality Fictions, a book I've been meaning to read for an age and am only just now getting to. I think this might be an academic book so good I read most of it in one sitting. That's a rare feat. But yes: more on that as well, next time. For now, I go to read.


Monday, July 16, 2007

Harry Potter and Time

I've been reading Ron Silliman's blog for awhile now, and so have come to both enjoy and expect its brilliant thought on poetry and the world. Today's post, it seems, speaks to some of the issues of time that have been discussed -- here and also over at In the Middle of late, though from a very different subject matter. His post today reviewing the new Harry Potter film is well worth a read, for wonderfully interesting insights on both the films and on time. An excerpt:

This is the intersection between film & time, something that has fascinated both photographers & their critics almost since the dawn of daguerreotypes. We see a star, say, Judy Garland frozen at a particular moment in her adolescence in The Wizard of Oz, even knowing full well what a sodden mess she later made of her adult life, but in this scene, this film, she is for all purposes perfect. The intersection works other ways as well. Think of how many times in recent years you’ve seen some old film with a pre-Lord of the Rings Viggo Mortensen in it, playing some sleazy young thug. You may have seen the film, or parts of it, a half dozen times on the telly, never before paying attention to this secondary role whose actor seems to have been selected for his ability to convey sliminess. Or the next time you see To Kill a Mockingbird, note Robert Duvall as Boo Radley, or catch Harrison Ford as a young officer in the opening scenes of Apocalypse Now, or both Ford and Duvall in minor spots, Duvall technically uncredited even, in Francis Ford Coppola’s great detective drama, The Conversation.

It doesn’t need to be film, or cinema, to create these effects. Any photograph of Abraham Lincoln, for example, carries this effect, or any still of JFK & Jackie in the convertible in Dallas before that turn onto Elm Street. Or even a photo of the New York skyline with the twin towers still intact. Or maybe a sun-bleached Polaroid with your dead grandparents, or an uncle who died before you were born. There was a world once, all of these objects say to us, in which so much had not always already happened. In which the irrevocable, that irreversible flow chart, had not already occurred, with all the consequences that can never be undone.

HP5, as the critics have all noted, is a much darker film. Potter is, as he says, “angry all the time.” Ron Weasley has his own surly moments, as does Nigel Longbottom. It’s the dark night of the teen years, only in this fable the dysfunctionality of the family (fabulously figured by Sirius Black’s literal family tree, many of its faces burned or blackened by scandal & conflict, the worst yet to come) is weighted with the whole axis of good & evil. In the portraits that invariably decorate the walls of this film, old Hogwarts faculty, dead ancestors, even kittens move & blink & meow. So also in the aging of its cast, this curious & flawed film franchise manages to figure its most powerful message, that of time.

It's an inspiring piece -- one I'm still too busy to address with the attention it deserves. But I was caught by his words -- particularly There was a world once, all of these objects say to us, in which so much had not always already happened. In which the irrevocable, that irreversible flow chart, had not already occurred, with all the consequences that can never be undone. He catches here part of the difficulty in deciphering the messages (intended or not) bequeathed to us by the past. There is a way in which these representations are never simply objects -- they become, in their own right, the sign of a world already past. Yet, caught momentarily in a picture or a film -- those of us who live always already after glimpse a moment where things still could have gone differently, where the world as we know it was still in the process of becoming. A temporal oddness asserts itself (at least, it does in my mind, which is by no means representative!): the intuition of a world in which our present becomings will have already passed. The knowledge that we're not immune to the effects of time. All commonplace thoughts, until they're brought home in a striking vision of a world that could have become differently.


Saturday, July 14, 2007

The Shakespeare Code

I suppose it's a little off-topic for a blog on Old English, but I couldn't help but post these lines. Tonight, Sci-Fi Channel showed the second Doctor Who episode of the third series, entitled The Shakespeare Code. Quick summary: The Doctor takes Martha on "just one" trip on the TARDIS. They show up in 1599 in Shakespeare's London. They meet Shakespeare, who's writing a play called Love's Labours Won. Chaos and really awesome lines ensue.

Anyway: bar-none, these are my favorite lines from the show. You may need to watch the episode to get it -- lucky for me someone else found this as hysterical as I did.

for those without it, a transcript:

Shakespeare: So tell me of Freedonia, where women can be doctors, writers, actors?
Martha: This country's ruled by a woman.
Shakespeare: Ah, she's royal, that's God's business -- though you are a royal beauty.
Martha: Whoa, nelly! I know for a fact you've got a wife in the country.
Shakespeare: But, Martha, this is town.
The Doctor: (hurrying them on) Come on, we can all have a good flirt later!
Shakespeare: Is that a promise, Doctor?
The Doctor: (sigh) 57 academics just punched the air. Now MOVE!
absolutely priceless. Just another reason Doctor Who is awesome.


Friday, July 13, 2007

Moments with the Mandelbaum Collection

As I enjoy my "Summer of Reading II" in North Carolina, I'm pursuing my usual form of paid employment -- physical processing for the massive manuscript collection of Kenan Professor of Humanities Allen Mandelbaum.

As discussions about history, futurism, time and Lindow Man raise questions over at In the Middle, I was struck to find this beauty in the folders I was sorting through today:

At first, I found this appropriate -- Professor Mandelbaum writes everything by hand, of course there would be a floppy disk! Of course, then the obvious flaw in that statement became apparent: this was technology back in the day, in fact, these were once the height of technology. Now all our technological present is built on the "floppy" disks of yore. In a way, though distinctly not human, this technology carries with it a literal message from the past (the afterword to Professor Mandelbaum's book) but also a more figurative one -- sometimes information (data, narratives of data) can become inaccessible, even in this day and age. I suppose there's a way to get at the writing on this disk -- but who wants to go that far out of their way. It's in the book -- isn't it? I've made several summers now of scouring various versions of Professor Mandelbaum's manuscripts -- but when I come across a disk, it's a kind of blank space. I'll believe the label.

I wonder what someone from 1000 years hence would think of an accidentally preserved floppy disk.


Thursday, July 12, 2007

CFP: Columbia University Medieval Guild Conference

One of the things that's great about being a medievalist in Columbia's English Dept. is the sense of community and tradition that has been handed down through the years. One part of that tradition is the Medieval Guild Conference, put on each year by three or four intrepid graduate students. October 2007 will mark the 18th annual conference. This year's CFP just came out (and I'd imagine some of you have already seen / will be seeing this in your email inbox soon), and it looks like yet another great conference -- expand this post to see the call!

The title of the conference is Medieval Bodies: Traversing Sex and Gender in the Middle Ages, and the keynote speaker is Karma Lochrie. If the format holds there's usually a panel of professors who participate in a Methodology panel. Last year's was particularly lively, and I'd imagine this year's will follow suit. The date is October 13th 2007 -- a Saturday. For information about conferences put on by the Guild in the past few years (as well as other Guild-related materials!), click here (the CFP will be accessible there shortly). For the CFP -- please click on the "read more" below!

Columbia University Annual Medieval Guild Graduate Student Conference

Medieval Bodies: Traversing Sex and Gender in the Middle Ages

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Keynote Speaker: Professor Karma Lochrie

The graduate students of the Columbia University Department of
English and Comparative Literature invite twenty-minute papers
addressing the topic of bodies/ traversing sex and gender in the
Middle Ages for their annual conference.

Possible topics may include:

-- Traversing Bodily Boundaries: bodily/ textual boundaries; transgender bodies; human and inhuman assemblages and gender; sacred transformations; gendered spaces; inheritance and bodies: mothering, fathering, and nurturing

-- Materiality and Gendered Bodies: veiling, bodily marking, circumcision, and similar practices; the marked / sexed body; transformative gendered objects: relics et. al; sumptuary culture and gender

-- Performance and Gender: sacred performances of gender; sex, texts and literacy; gendered literary communities; gossip, rumors and gender; cross-dressing and transgressive performance; costume and gender; queer studies and homosocial relationships; friendship, troth, and honor; masculinity/femininity and violence; war and gender

We will consider all papers on the topic of bodies/ traversing sex and gender in the Middle Ages and encourage interdisciplinary submissions. To be considered for the program, please send an abstract (250 words maximum), along with your contact information, including active e-mail address, street address and phone number, and
any requests for audio-visual equipment. Submissions must be received by August 20, 2007 to be given full consideration for inclusion in the program. For more information, contact

Conference Organizers: Elizabeth Bonnette, Jessica Fenn, Brigit McGuire


Wednesday, July 11, 2007

There's hope for my inner ten-year-old yet...

Posting at three in the morning might seem a bit strange for someone who will be at Wake Forest's Library again in a mere 4.5 hours. But when offered, last minute, a trip to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the jaded graduate student in me dissipated, and all notions of a 6.30 AM wake up time fell away.

And the funny part is -- I thought I wouldn't see this movie. That this fifth film would finally be the time I sat back and watched the hype from afar, only interested in how it goes because -- let's face it -- I can't wait for this damn series to be over. But from the moment the music started -- it was like the very first time. I was immersed in the world -- and I finally cared again. I found the movie moving. Worth the time, and worth how tired I'll be in a few hours.

I've always suspected my enduring interest and indeed affection for the Harry Potter novels is half to do with nostalgia for a time I thought someone would show up and tell me I was special, and half to do with a rather scathing article AS Byatt wrote about the books a few years back (if she belittled the books, and in such a terribly academic way, the contrariness in me had to like them). But for some reason this movie surprised me.

Yes, the books are unwieldy and could probably do with an editor who cut more of the secondary characters and plots. And perhaps the mythology isn't as complex or interesting as other fictional mythologies (there's an interesting set of words). But -- like so many things -- maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe it's what we do with it. Maybe it's the little kids who dress up, pretend to have magic, and hear (incidentally) Dumbledore's words to Harry -- that what matters isn't how similar Harry is to Voldemort, but how very, very different; in another book (and movie) that it's our choices, not our abilities, that determine who we are.

And that subtle distinction -- maybe, just maybe -- is worth staying up all night on the 20th to read The Deathly Hallows (two copies and three avid readers at home this month means the night owl -- me -- gets the late shift) least, for this 24-year-old kid.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

on poetry: Andrew Zawacki

Sitting on the sixth floor of the Wilson Wing in Wake Forest's ZSR Library, approaching page one hundred of Idea of the Vernacular (a fantastic edition of prologues edited by Jocelyn Wogan-Browne, Nicholas Watson, Andrew Taylor and Ruth Evans), I found myself haunted by a phrase. I'm cursed with a memory that picks up whole paragraphs from books I read, and endless scores from Disney movies play through my mind (product of a childhood spent reproducing them in the basement with my sisters) on any given day.

Back in March of 2006, I went to a poetry reading in NYC which featured two poets I'd list fairly high up on my list of poets I read in my spare time: Mark Strand, who was reading from Man and Camel, his newest collection, and Andrew Zawacki, who if I recall was reading something that was still in-progress. I've known Strand's work for awhile, but Zawacki was entirely new to me. The line running through my head today is his -- "fidelity to a language faithful only to itself." I've no idea if it's appeared anywhere in print yet, but I know I hope it does so, and soon, for with Geoffrey Hill's "not difference but strange likeness" (found by way of Christopher Jones' fantastic book that borrows its name from the line in "Mercian Hymns"), it's one of the few lines that sticks with me on a near-daily basis.

That said, a book I'm planning to read, and soon -- as soon as I can get my hands on it, in fact -- is Zawacki's Anabranch. Granted, two of my friends who happen to be poets recommended I read it...

an age ago. And of course, I was more than willing to entertain the suggestion and then go right back to the work I needed to get done more quickly, like reading for the exams that, ironically enough, I am still reading for today. Today, however, feeling haunted by that line and as though, perhaps, for all my Old English Verse Saints Lives I hadn't really been reading poetry these past few weeks, I ended up spending more time than I meant to looking up Zawacki's work.

I found out rather quickly, however, that for the moment, there will be no reading of Anabranch for me -- at least not immediately. Wake's library, though deep in terms of its collection of poetry, doesn't have it. I was disappointed, but not despondent -- after all, that's what they created interlibrary loan for! Unwilling to just let it go, however, I started looking online, to see what of his poetry I could find. My search did not go unrewarded, and hence my blog post today.

First: this page on UPNE's site for Anabranch. It features the poem "Credo," which I've heard friends mention but never read. I'm not sure I have words for this poem, and so perhaps it's best to let you discover it for yourselves, though I'd suggest you use this link to do so, as the other site loses the line breaks, which is a loss I can't tolerate. After all, a part of what makes this poem so beautiful is the fact that its lines follow one another in a manner both fluid and broken -- a manner that subtly reminds me of how tentative a thing belief (in anything) is.

"I believe / in the violence of not knowing" is the line that caught me. A hundred different timbres are possible in this line, and I can't read it the same way twice. Belief isn't necessarily comforting, nor is it necessarily meant to be so. Following on these lines: "I've seen a river lose its course / & join itself again, / watched it court / a stream & coax the stream / into its current, / & I have seen / rivers, not unlike / you, that failed to find / their way back." Again, it's only half as beautiful without the arrangement on the page -- but I think the sense is still there. There's a knowledge in these lines -- ostensibly of rivers -- but of rivers that are, in some sense, like whoever the "you" might refer to. The "you" is indistinct: but its presence (perhaps believed?) is part of the way in which the poem proceeds in its thinking. Weather and self and rivers and rain and "you" -- all of these are both connected and disconnected, distinct and whole entities that are the site of a kind of fracturing, an ending that is inscribed in the very belief that believes them. The final lines of the poem: "Let there be / no mistake: / I do not believe / things are reborn in fire. / They're consumed by fire / & fire has a life of its own."

Early meditations, but given that I'm going to be reading the whole of Anabranch as soon as it comes in -- I'm confident I'll have more to say about "Credo" once I've seen the entirety of the work it begins.

Edit: I always have more to say once I get home, but aside from the line of analysis I added above, I realized on the way home, this reminded me of the mystics. A kind of indistinct promise haunts this "Credo" -- it's like the line in deCerteau's The Mystic Fable - about Angelus Silesius, though this is clearly a completely different way of expressing the same conditionality -- perhaps not marked by mode or mood so much as tone:

In the middle of the seventeenth centuy, Angelus Silesius, whose poems aspired to the paternal word that would call him son used the conditional whenever he referred to that founding nomination, as if, by that suspensive modality, he were admitting that he already knew that what he awaited could no longer come and that he had nothing but the "consolation" of musical strophes repeating an aspiration while lulling a mourning to sleep.
That kind of belatedness isn't explicit in "Credo", but I think Zawacki's particular brand of the conditional -- the violence in not knowing, perhaps -- shares something with deCerteau's words. It goes beyond that both are beautiful -- but I'm still not sure I have words to articulate it. Anyone else want to give it a go? ---/end edit

The other thing I found on the internet was a review Zawacki wrote for the Boston Review of a book of poetry called Some Values of Landscape and Weather by Peter Gizzi. I thought the review by Zawacki was compelling, and the last lines highlighted what, for me, are two of the chief characteristics of a good writer. First: He has an ending that can take your breath away. Second: He is skilled in the art of juxtaposing words -- his own and others. So here's the last paragraph, for your perusal.

The fantasy of totality is foiled by “plural depth,” and the rival demands placed on ourselves should, whether leveled from outside or by ourselves, be acknowledged. “It’s good to not break in America,” Gizzi admits in his “Revival” for the late Gregory Corso, praising elsewhere what “might finally break us, and that is good.” According to Some Values of Landscape and Weather, we live generic yet singular, isolated yet shared lives that, though insufficient, somehow suffice nonetheless. That our days and nights constitute a fractured, finite, unfinished narrative running “upon a time / and goes like this” is not a new insight. Gizzi offers unique reasons, however, for putting the questions life poses into that other form of questioning known as the poem. Because “beauty walks this world.” Because “the earth is porous and we fall constantly.” Because “every thing is poetry here,” and “poetry can catch you in the headlights."

Consider me caught. Luckily, Gizzi's book is available -- along with Zawacki's earlier work, By Reason of Breakings -- in ZSR. Which means I have one more stop to make before I go home for the day, and a lovely evening of reading ahead.


Thursday, July 05, 2007

from the shores of Lake Erie

The logic of geography, the inexorable power of a city well situated, should mean that Buffalo can revive itself. How that will happen, when it will happen are puzzles beyond my telling. History has not been kind to other ports on inland seas. Trebizond, Alexandria, Trieste have never recovered their times of glory. But perhaps one can say something else about Buffalo in the company of these inland ports: that it will be named in the chronicle of places that have for a time dealt in fire and water, in the transforming elements of life.
~Nicholas Howe, Across an Inland Sea

It seems oddly appropriate that I'm writing this -- the 100th post I've written on this blog! -- from the shores of Lake Erie, while visiting with my father's family in Buffalo New York. These lines from Across an Inland Sea are always present for me when I look out over this immense body of water. It almost seems to be an ocean from the shore -- but I remember, years ago, going out on the lake with my grandfather in his boat. You could see clear down to the bottom. In my memory I see rock formations and gravel far off, seen through the glimmer of sunshine on the lake's surface -- a novel sight for me, as in all my childhood beach trips I'd never seen the bottom of the Atlantic. One side of the lake was Canada. The side with the smog, Grandpa joked, was Buffalo.

All these years later, I look out over the waters of Lake Erie. In winter, I like to think I know a little of what an an-haga must have seen in Anglo-Saxon England, as the lonely exile paddled with frozen hands through the ice-flecked waves. And as the sun sets over the lake in the summer, and gilds the ruins of a once-"great" city with gold, I can't help but wonder what the price is for such inland seas as Howe describes -- what consequences come with water and fire. In a way, perhaps this new Lake Erie -- the lake that was once declared dead -- already has been brought back, literally "revived." And though Buffalo's glory days were already over, the price of the lake's new life may well have been an inland port -- and the knowledge that survival nearly always means change.


Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Orals Reading: Saint Augustine and Time

I must have been listening to one of my many medieval-oriented podcasts when I heard someone say something about Saint Augustine being strangely modern. While I do not necessarily agree with that statement, I have to say that although the works of Augustine I read in the last week or so were not the most fun I’ve had in reading for my orals, they were certainly surprising. This post represents the first of my posts dedicated to writing up part of my orals reading in a coherent and helpful format, so the way in which I post about my orals readings will probably change as I become slightly more practiced. This is not exactly a form I’ve seen practiced much.

Discussion Texts: Saint Augustine, City of God (Part II only), The Confessions

Interest: the human experience of time in Augustine’s work.

Thinking about Augustine and time, I find it difficult to begin without referencing a section from Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative, Volume III: “The eternity of Jahweh is above all else the fidelity of the God of the Covenant, accompanying the history of his people” (265). Augustine’s thinking on time is, like many of the high points in both works, quite binary – there are two times, if you will, qualitatively different from one another. The first is what I would call Kairos, or time as experienced by God -- though I borrow the definition from Byzantine thinking. The second, Chronos, is the time of the human, the time of the world. I do not think, however, that Augustine thinks of this as a binary – rather, time as God experiences it is with the full meaning of the word kairos -- it is time in its fullness, literally, the right time: “In the eternal nothing is transient, but the whole is present” (Confessions 228).

The human experience of time, however, is limited. There is an inner man and an outer man – the outer man that perceives earthly things, and the inner man that is capable of seeing things for their eternal meanings, and interpreting them accordingly. The difficulty of this doubled-ness experienced by humans in time is that too often they can be lead astray via the surface of the world. Speaking of Manichean learning, Augustine explains: “but it was a mad and seductive ploy which ‘captured precious souls’ that do not yet know how to touch virtue at its depth and are easily deceived by surface appearances. It was only a shadow and simulation of virtue” (Confessions, 100). Similarly, his first encounter with Ambrose, when he goes to learn from him, is not for the beauty or worth of the teaching – rather, though Augustine has the opportunity to learn what was of value in Ambrose’s speech, his interest is wholly for the earthly – the beauty of rhetoric.

Augustine’s sense of this duality – usually between that which is deficient, and that which is endlessly whole – pervades his writing. The earthly city and the heavenly city present another example of this line of thinking. A striking line: “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God carried as far as contempt of self. In fact, the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord” (City of God, 593). The denial of the sufficiency of the earthly leads to a concept that is quite useful for Anglo-Saxon literature, as we find that for Augustine, even the City of God is, in a sense, doubled. There is the eternal city – the Heavenly City that exists from the beginning of time unto its end – and the City of God on pilgrimage in the world. These two will be reunited, as it were, at the end of “time” – or, more precisely, time as humans see it.

Hence there is a necessity, in Augustine’s view, for interpretation. I read De Doctrina Christiana as part of my minor list on forms of translation and translation theory, but its discussion of allegory is, clearly, important here, and presents another source for Augustine’s thinking on the inter-relationship between time as humans experience it and time as God experiences it. The City of God and its counterpart, the City of God on pilgrimage in the world are related allegorically, and so the historical narrative of the Hebrews in the Old Testament “always some foreshadowing of things to come, and are always to be interpreted with reference to Christ and his Church, which is the City of God. It has never failed to be foretold in prophecy from the beginning of the human race, and we now see the prophecy being fulfilled in all that happens” (652). However, Augustine leaves room for stories in the Bible that do not hold allegorical significance (a moment I found interesting – City of God, 715).

Single most interesting moment for me in the text? Well, there were two this time around. First – Augustine’s assertion that all humanity was descended from one ancestor so that all humans would recognize one another as kin.

Second: from City of God, 861:

Now the world, being like a confluence of waters, is obviously more full of danger than the other communities by reason of its greater size. To begin with, on this level the diversity of languages separates man from man. For if two men meet, and are forced by some compelling reason not to pass on but to stay in company, then if neither knows the other’s language, it is easier for dumb animals, even of different kinds, to associate together than these men, although both are human beings. For when men cannot communicate their thoughts to each other, simply because of difference of language, all the similarity of their common human nature is of no avail to unite them in fellowship.

And hence an exile from God and Heaven – is an exile in and from language. In language, because we are doomed to repeat words which do not sufficiently mean – from language, because we will always falter and fail when it comes to communication. These lines made me reassess the Babel myth – perhaps the text is attempting to fathom why God would leave humanity with so many different languages. The answer – I’m beginning to think – is that if there were but one language we would be (this is my hook into my earlier meditation on EPCOT center’s Spaceship Earth!) “no longer isolated, no longer alone.” The true pain of the Fall would then be assuaged. All this goes to show, once again, that everything I encounter finds its way back to the work I’m doing.

I’m sure my addled brain has nothing to do with this.