Wednesday, May 31, 2006


I'm sure most people already know about this, but just in case -- I introduced a friend to this site today and it seems like the perfect thing, and not simply for the disaffected college students these demotivational posters are suggested for:

We have here a wide variety of things we are familiar with in academia. For example -- Ambition.

A perennial favorite of mine, Bitterness.

Here's the perfect poster for anyone studying for oral exams, or writing a dissertation.

This one's good for those who are always optimistic about what they can accomplish.

Another one that I adore, for those who haven't slept in a week and still have grading to do.

Perfect because procrastination is half of my life.

This one is perfect for anyone who teaches.

And finally, this one. Given my last post, and all my time spent watching stars...clearly I love it.

Despair, Inc. :-(

Pure genius.


Tuesday, May 30, 2006


So I've finally made the journey south. This summer -- or at least, for the month of June -- I'm working in the library at the small, southern university I graduated from in 2004, which is conveniently located in the town I grew up in, not ten minutes from my parents' house. It's a job I've done for five summers running now, and I love it. I made my first trip in to campus today, and there was something so indescribably comforting about coming back to the library I practically lived in as an undergrad.

The familiarity of the library, and the books it houses, are important to me -- it's centering. My old room at home is the same way. It's always so interesting to be in my room again, with all the books that didn't make the trek north with me. It's a good chance to remember all the things that used to be so compelling for me. Tonight, instead of finishing the reading for the upcoming WVU Old English summer seminar (which starts Thursday, I'm so psyched!), I've been browsing through Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

Once upon a time, before I'd discovered teaching literature was a possible career goal, I wanted to be an astrophysicist. Granted this was in 8th and 9th grade -- before I realized that A.)It required Math, B.)It required really hard theoretical Math, and, most importantly, C.)I can't do anything beyond relatively simple algebra. I hadn't yet been moved from honors math classes to a course that basically repeated the semester of Algebra II that I bombed. By college, I'd learned my lesson, of course -- an English/History double major, I managed to convince a wary curriculum committee that my two semesters of music theory were more than sufficient to cover the basic math requirement. But in those blissful years before I discovered that Science is usually Math, I was convinced I would study the stars.

Looking back, my "engagement," if it can be called that, with astronomy was pretty obviously a cover for something else, something far more familiar to my actual career path. I didn't love the idea of studying the stars as much as I loved studying the stories that those stars could tell, and that were told about them. It was, in a way, an evolution of my first interest in mythology, and the stories of the constellations. I lived to go to planetariums on school fieldtrips when I was younger, where they'd tell stories and you'd see the night sky projected on a curved ceiling. After going to planetariums became distinctly "uncool" I would sit outside for hours looking at the sky. I read everything I could get my hands on about stories of how constellations came to be.

Now, paging through Sagan's book again years later (I think I read it when I was 16), I realize what it was that struck me most. There's a possibility in Sagan that seems driven by his ability to weave a story out of the world, and out of the universe. I honestly have no idea what kind of regard the scientific community has for him today. I've only managed to re-read snippets of him myself this evening -- Old English calls, and I'm eager to get to work on that as well. But I've paused for a moment over some of the more poetic moments of Sagan and realized that sometimes I'm not so sure literature and science are not in the same business, to some degree at least. There are more numbers in hard-core science, of course. But the science that I've loved -- whether it contained stories of stars or stories of dinosaurs -- isn't number driven. It's narrative driven. The science that has moved me was never a question of gravitational forces or the mechanisms behind a pulsar. The science I loved was always a story -- the beginning of a universe in a Big Bang, and the red shift we can read to see that it's still moving.

About halfway through the book, Sagan writes: "What are the stars? Such questions are as natural as an infant's smile. We have always asked them. What is different about our time is that at last we know some of the answers. Books and libraries provide a ready means for finding out what those answers are. In biology there is a principle of powerful if imperfect applicability called recapitulation: in our individual embryonic development we retrace the evolutionary history of the species. There is, I think, a kind of recapitulation that occurs in our individual intellectual developments as well. We unconsciously retrace the thoughts of our remote ancestors. Imagine a time before science, a time before libraries. Imagine a time hundreds of thousands of years ago. We were then just about as smart, just as curious, just as involved in things social and sexual. But the experiments has not yet been done, the inventions had not yet been made. It was the childhood of genus Homo. Imagine the time when fire was first discovered. What were human lives like then? What did our ancestors believe the stars were?"

He goes on, but I think the part that struck me is there. We retrace our common footprints. We share something, even with those in the distant past, and we can hope to share something with those in the distant future. It's a connectedness -- a possibility. For some reason I want to press Sagan on the idea of answers -- to quote e e cummings, I'd have to wish the world "Always the beautiful answer that asks a more beautiful question." But that's beside the point -- and I daresay that science already does. There's another short section that I marked when I read Cosmos last, all those years ago which is particularly striking: "Part of the resistance to Darwin and Wallace derives from our difficulty in imagining the passage of the millennia, much less the aeons. What does seventy million year mean to beings who live only one-millionth as long? We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever."

This all connects, strangely enough, to Old English, and to my career choice as medievalist. Summer always feels a little lost for me -- too much time to think, too much time to reflect. It's always a necessary reflection, even if it's often not terribly comfortable. But in the busyness of an academic semester, I'm often too busy doing to wonder what the doing is worth. However, when I find myself back at summertime, settling in to my work on my own once more -- there's time to doubt what worth there can be in reading old books. There's another post in here somewhere, about a series of articles in an old volume of PMLA that I read a few weeks ago, but for tonight I have to leave it -- I need more time to figure that one out. Not that I'll ever figure "it" out, per se. I plan to be negotiating this one for years. But for now I think, in re-reading Sagan, it's that one line that catches me most -- We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it is forever.

It recalls to mind one of my first experiences of really enjoying Old English. I remember reading Wanderer the first time, and marvelling at the depth of the loss that poem expresses so poignantly -- the way in which it could resonate with me, a college student living at least a thousand years later on a continent that hadn't been discovered at the time the poem was composed. How even in the Old English, the lines expressing that loss could still speak, still have, in a sense, a voice -- Hu seo þrag gewat, / genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære. How that time darkened, vanished under night's helm, as if it never were.

I heard, and hear, in those half lines a voice that wants to live on beyond its singular life. Reading it was a really changing moment. To reference my favorite modern author of late (Forster) -- "Only Connect." For me, those lines inthe wanderer were a moment of connection -- artificial, perhaps, and never really complete, but still there. And if you can connect to something 1000 years old, how can you help connecting to something that lives in the same time as yourself? Something which ultimately passes in the twinkling of an eye? A butterfly -- or a human being?

Ursula LeGuin once said that a story "is one of the most basic tools invented by the mind of man, for the purpose of gaining understanding." The story science could tell us is that we're connected. To the planet we're killing every day. To the acres of rain forest we've annihilated. To the children dying, in Africa, in Asia, in streets all over the world. To soldiers and civilians dying in wars they didn't start or want, for causes as nebulous as a new-formed galaxy.

Thinking about memorial day yesterday and the posts of Ancrene Wiseass and Heo Cwaeth on the subject, at the events all over the world and at the tragic consequences of the actions of one species on not only the many but on itself -- stories become all the more important for me. They can conceal facts with fiction, certainly, and that's a hazard. But what I hear in so many of the stories of the past (though not all), and the present is a call to recognition -- oddly Levinasian in one sense, but it can be as simply stated as a line from the Lion King -- we are all connected. It's an odd lesson, given that its origins gathered from sources as distant as Carl Sagan and the Wanderer. But maybe it's one that's worth passing on.

(more old english next time -- perhaps even from WVU!)


Friday, May 26, 2006

Finnish Heavy Metal

So, technically this doesn't have a lot to do with Old English. However, when the truly bizarre comes onto your computer screen, looks you in the eye, and then starts singing heavy metal...well, you kind of have to talk about it.

A few weeks back, in an article I am now very sad to say is only available via Times Select, the New York Times talked about Finland's concern that their representative in the pop music contest Eurovision was a "heavy metal mock-satanic" band named Lordi. On their homepage (or rather, on the homepage I could find that isn't the one I just linked to, which is associated with Eurovision), Lordi describes their origins thusly: "Amen the unstoppable mummy, Enary the manipulative Valkyrie, Kalma the biker-zombie from hell, and Kita the alien man-beast with with the combined strengths of all the beasts known to man. Led by Lordi, this true last gang in town armed themselves with guitars and killer songs. And then there was sound! Once you wake up from the Monsterician Dream you'll know at least one thing. Monsters have more fun."

Granted, this is the original group -- Kalma and Enary are, alas, no longer with the band. They've been replaced by Ox and Awa, a hell bull and a vampire countess respectively. Not a bad trade for a biker-zombie, though I personally liked the idea of a Valkyrie.

What's fascinating here is that this is pretty singable stuff. I'm not known for my musical taste (I like an eclectic assortment ranging from R.E.M. to Sondheim to Gregorian Chant), but when I heard Lordi, I was quite impressed with the fact that this was not simply what my 10th grade English teacher would have called "no tune and hollerin'" music. This is the type of music that gets stuck in your head. Which is a little surprising, given that the lead guitarist is a mummy. I've yet to figure out what Lordi is, other than his description as a "biomechanic man." But this is great stuff (or at least the two songs I've listened to so far are great). The song that won them Eurovision was "Hard Rock Hallelujah" -- a really cool single with lyrics like "Rock and roll angels, bring thine hard rock hallelujah".

Even more intriguing, however, is their single Would You Love a Monsterman? (click on the link to see it at Now, I've been morbidly curious about monsters since the X-Files, which premiered when I was still in grade school, thus warping my world relatively early, though I wasn't allowed to watch it till high school. Aliens, flukemen -- you name it, I loved it. They scared the heck out of me then -- and, to be honest, still do. Certain episodes are nearly unwatchable if it's after dark. But anyway, this vague obsession with monsters was refined into a more academically inclined pursuit when, in one of my seminars last year, my professor gave us Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's "Monster Culture (Seven Theses)" -- the introduction to the volume Monster Theory-- which is really one of the more interesting pieces I've read thus far in graduate school. It's been quite productive as a way of thinking through certain Old English texts. It also has the tendency to make certain things -- like Lordi -- far more interesting to me than they normally would be.

Particularly when there are lyrics like the ones for this "Would you love a monsterman" song: "Would you love a monsterman, could you understand beauty of the beast?" and "Yeah I would slay, yeah I would maim, yeah I would vanish in thin air and reappear again."

Not to mention: "You don't know why we passed you by, you search for something never found along these lines -- someday you may turn around and terrify -- you can't deny, you crucify..." and "all that you get is much less you deserve, leaving for now, someday I may return..."

For some reason it also reminds me of Labyrinth, that Jim Henson movie starring a very young Jennifer Connelly and a very disturbingly compelling David Bowie as the Goblin King Jareth..."just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave."

Or, to quote Cohen on a relevant point brought to mind by all this -- "fear of the monster is really a kind of desire."

All that to say -- though it's vaguely un-nerving, and I'm still not sure what to think of it, I'm rather compelled to pick up a copy of Monsterician Dream or Arockalypse.

Because when a vampire countess, an Egyptian mummy, a hell-bull, an alien man-beast and a biomechanic man start to play hypnotically good rock songs -- well, let's face it, it's pretty hard to turn away.


Thursday, May 25, 2006

Old English Opera

Yes, you heard me right. I'd heard about this long ago, but when it came over the Ansax listserv this morning, I just had to smile all over again: Grendel, the Opera!.

Apparently Allen Frantzen will be reviewing it for the Old English Newsletter . I'm looking forward to the review too.

I'll have to look into seeing it somehow (how is a great question, but this is going to be phenomenal...) -- Old English, as opera, just doesn't come along every day!


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

light reading

A good friend lent me The Gun Seller recently. I'm over halfway through (amazing for me, given that I'm terribly slow at reading fun books) -- and it's phenomenal. Funny, exciting -- it's just great. Best book I've read in awhile. I'm eager to see how it ends.

Another wonderful reason to love Hugh Laurie, even if House is losing a bit of its touch. Speaking of which -- season finale tonight!


Old English Poetry and Translation (part one)

One of the books we read in the British Modernism class I was TA for last fall was A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. I'd studied it before, in the last modern British Literature class I took, back in my sophomore year of college. I'd loved it then, too, and the chance to return to it, and to lead discussion sections on it, was something I looked forward to immensely.

From the first day of class, however, I realized I was picking up entirely different things -- it helps that, for this college class, I'd underlined everything in really bright pink pen, which makes those distinctions pretty obvious visually as well as intellectually. A large part of this was the focus of the class itself: one of my favorite aspects of grad school is that no two profs ever teach the same book in the same way. My professor in the fall set a fascinating tone for our time with Forster when she began with the observation of the plethora of negatives that open the book. Chapter 1 begins "Except for the Marabar Caves -- and they are twenty miles off -- the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary." The focus on negatives continues through the first chapter, which although it’s only about three pages long, creates an atmosphere of sorts that continues to the final words of the novel -- "no, not there." The effect -- at least for me, and I know from friends' reactions to the novel that mine is by no means the only reaction -- is that the novel seems to be in stasis, a place of expectation without promise of fulfillment, what Forster articulates when he describes India at page 150 of the Harcourt edition: "She calls "Come" through her hundred mouths, through objects ridiculous and august. But come to what? She has never defined. She is not a promise, only an appeal."

There are, of course, a hundred problems with the novel that I'm in no way expert enough to talk about in any capacity. But what fascinated me with regards to Forster is that, when I was reading the introduction to Richard Hamer's A Choice of Anglo-Saxon Verse (which a friend gave me ages ago and I'm only just now sitting down to look through), A Passage to India immediately sprang to mind. From Hamer's "General Account": "Only about 30,000 lines of Old English poetry survive; many of the poems which do are fragmentary, and we know the poets and places and dates of composition of almost none of them. Most of the extant verse is known from manuscripts written in Wessex at the end of the tenth century, though in many cases the poems must have been composed long before in other parts of the country, and much of the copying is demonstrably more or less inaccurate. No major works and few minor ones survive in more than one copy, so that the correction of errors and the reconstruction of originals is extremely difficult and often quite impossible. The selection of what has survived has depended entirely on the chances which have caused this manuscript rather than that to escape fire and the other hazards of time. Yet despite all these disadvantages we still possess a body of poetry which contains a quantity of work of the highest standard and whose variety is astonishing."

Aside from the value judgements (what is work of the highest standard when you don't have much to go on?), I think Hamer, writing in 1970, raises several interesting points about this poetry. The most important for me, however, is the number of negative constructions in this excerpt -- no authors, dates, places, inaccurate copying, no major works and few minor ones in more than one copy, impossible corrections. Further, the sense of the arbitrary Hamer leaves with this paragraph-- the phrase that comes to mind (and I think I'm lifting this phrase from Greenfield's work on Wanderer, but I'm not certain) is "vagaries of Wyrd." We've inherited a body of texts that is, at its most basic level, incomplete. This is certainly true of most bodies of text -- they are not whole, there are always references to works that do not survive. However, Old English is different somehow.

It's haunting, in a way -- as Hamer says "The selection of what has survived has depended entirely on the chances which have caused this manuscript rather than that to escape fire and the other hazards of time." Fire is a formidable enemy of the written word. But it's interesting for other reasons, too -- fire is a weapon of choice for the draca, the wyrm -- the dragon that kills Beowulf, in a story that itself was almost consumed by fire. Old English is, in some degree, defined by what is not -- what did not survive, what we do not know. Some of the most moving of the poems are about loss – things that do not last, a life that is irrevocably læne or lent. It's odd that a culture, and the field that studies it, can both be so defined by what is no longer -- and by what we cannot truly understand or translate (what is aelfscinu? When the Anglo-Saxons said enta geweorc, just how monstrous were those giants?).

There was a line in Forster that really registered for me this time through the novel. I'd marked it when I read the book in college, but I hadn't remembered it as important until I re-read: "Perhaps life is a mystery, not a muddle; they could not tell. Perhaps the hundred Indias which fuss and sqabble so tiresomely are one, and the universe they mirror is one. They had not the apparatus for judging." The context is in a conversation between Adela and Fielding about the Marabar caves, her experience of them, Mrs. Moore's experience of them -- the caves destroy language, in a sense – reducing everything said within them to a resounding “boum.” Adela can offer no explanation of the caves, Mrs. Moore’s transformation from devout Christian to existentialist – she has not the apparatus for judging that, no more than she can understand anything deeper about life. Something about this line reminds me of the process of studying Old English literature. So much of my work is focused on gaining some sort of apparatus for understanding -- some way to measure, or explore more effectively what I'm looking at, moving beyond the instinctual love that I can't help feeling.

The poetry (and the prose for that matter!) of the Anglo-Saxons comes to us in translation. Old English, whatever PhD language requirements might say, is a foreign language, and like French or Italian or any other modern language, sometimes it's the faux amis (to recall a phrase my French teacher in high school used to use all the time) that trip you up. The valences of meaning that modern English elides somewhat or entirely. The ghostliness of gæstlic, that is combined with horror and dread is the example that comes to mind from my work on Wanderer. There are many others, some of which I'll catalog in future parts of this topic (when I can recall them -- my mind just came up entirely blank, which is a little disturbing...).

Yeah, I think I'll have fun this summer with my reading of Old English...answering this weird call that is, to use Forster's phrase, "never a promise, only an appeal." Or trying to discern an answer to the question Old English seems to ask me (were Calvino to be my muse for a moment) -- "like Thebes through the mouth of the sphinx."

to be continued...assuming I ever actually start getting work done, that is!


Friday, May 19, 2006

Handing down stories

A few weeks ago, JJC posted on Fairy Mounds and British Literature. At the time I remember thinking that it had been a long time since I'd thought about Welsh mythology -- and that I'd forgotten until I read that post how incredibly interesting I'd found it "back in the day."

Flash forward to nearly a month later. I'm taking a train up the Hudson tomorrow to visit some of my relatives -- including my 8 year old cousin, who's having his birthday party. So yesterday I found myself in one of my favorite places to go -- the children's book store in my neighborhood -- trying to think what book I would have loved at that age.

I settled on Lloyd Alexander's The Book of Three, the first in the Chronicles of Prydain series. Now, I never would have come up with that book as a fulfillment of my birthday present quest had I not discovered the other day (while organizing my files so that beginning this orals thing will be less painful, or at least more organized) a disk with all of my high school papers on it. Slightly painful, of course -- I really thought I knew stuff in those days. It's amusing to look back on oneself as a teenager. However, also in amidst all those papers for religion (ah, catholic school) and history and English classes, I found the paper that (if asked) I would point to as the first time I knew I wanted to go into English. It's this silly thing on Welsh mythology -- as it appeared in Lloyd Alexander's books, and in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion. It's a terrible paper, as far as academic papers go -- but it's clear from the writing (and the length) that I was fascinated.

I still remember reading the Mabinogion the first time, when I was researching, in what had to be the most dry translation *ever* -- I was in love from the first page. It's the story of Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed, and how he formed an alliance with Arawn, the King of Annwn, by trading places with him and killing his enemy, Hafgan. It's been ages since I read it, but I still remember tracking down and reading countless encyclopedia articles and books that made references to Arawn, or Annwn -- trying to get a clearer picture of what this Otherworld was imagined to be. Where I couldn't find sources, I would fill in the blanks with my imagination. This being the era of my flirtation with fiction writing (a short-lived but heartfelt affair of my high school years), I remember a number of stories that I wrote about Annwn and its inhabitants -- I even tried to map it, a la Tolkien's Middle Earth map (and more from imagination than from actual sources!).

That paper, and the willingness of my high school English prof. to let me go wild with a project that was clearly too large in scope and far beyond my analytical abilities at the time, is something I can look back to fondly as a first in several regards. It was my first "real" English paper, with research and sources and an "argument" (though it wasn't exactly nuanced!). It was my first foray into medieval works, too, though I'm not sure I knew that at the time, as I was far more interested in the time of the myths than the times in which they were created or written down. It was also the first real research I did. It wasn't highly skilled research by any stretch of the imagination -- but it was the first research I'd done that I was truly passionate about pursuing.

I wrote that paper nearly ten years ago now. I read the books even longer ago than that. But I look back to that moment of discovery -- my first encounter with Annwn in Alexander's stories, and my first quest to track that Otherworld down and explore it -- and I can still feel the thrill I got from the possibilities of that world, and the fun I had in researching it, losing myself in the old stories.

As I hand down Alexander's stories to a cousin that reminds me more than a little of myself at the same age -- I can't help but wonder if this book might one day start a quest for him...and where that quest might lead.


Wednesday, May 17, 2006

I'm already learning from orals reading....

...and I haven't even finished compiling my lists!

OK, that's not quite true. The lists themselves (with the exception of the Chaucer list, which is "RIVERSIDE CHAUCER" and five secondary works) are actually all typed up with bibliographical info and everything. It's my justifications I'm not quite done with yet. Ah well. Should be done before I go to bed tonight. Or rather, it has to be done before I go to bed tonight.

BUT I did find the most fascinating thing *EVER* when I was searching for Old English texts. I'm sure I'm the last to know about it, because let's face it, the edition was published 7 years ago, but did you know that there's an Old English Gospel of Mary??????

Talk about cool. Granted, it's just about Mary -- her childhood, birth, life, assumption, etc. But still. Gospels that didn't make the cut fascinate me. This orals list is looking like more fun by the day.


Tuesday, May 16, 2006

I've found myself in the interesting position of having to read a book by Friday (or by very soon after). It's interesting because it's not a work book, and I rarely have deadlines for non-school-related reading.

I made the (possible) mistake of telling a friend I'd read Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code before I saw the movie.

Note that I've had zero interest in reading the book. I read Angels and Demons in a single night my senior year of college (I had a paper due and, well, I really like procrastinating). I even read about the first fifty pages of The DaVinci Code back in the days when I was fairly serious about working out, and it was the perfect size to fit in the bookholder on my favorite exercise bike. Then I put down the book I was told repeatedly people couldn't put down. In the years since its publication, I've never been able to get up sufficient interest to pick it back up.

I'm not really up on all the controversy surrounding it -- but I thought this article in The New Yorker was quite interesting. For lack of anything more interesting to write about until my orals lists are constructed (and I have a deadline of tomorrow) -- here's the link.

I wish I could come up with some nice scholarly thing to say about it, but those (as well as many non-scholarly responses) abound on the net and elsewhere. So my single contribution to the DaVinci Code discussion may seem slightly mundane and superficial, but I assure you it is no laughing matter:

What on earth did they do to Tom Hanks' hair?!?!?


And for those in the NE who are getting pounded by the storms out there (this is starting to remind me of the particularly soggy October we had this past year) -- good luck keeping dry. I think we'll probably all need it.


Saturday, May 13, 2006

Saturday Morning non-Medieval Reading

This year I found a way to stay sane that I hadn't tried last year. Reading. Who knew that after reading for hours and hours each week I would in fact enjoy reading for pleasure. I figured that if I was enjoying my work it was enough.

Aside from the poetry of bp Nichol, which is work-related in that I spend way too much time thinking about how it functions, this year I found a new name to list among my favorite authors: Italo Calvino. A friend of mine had recommended The Baron in the Trees a while back, when she was studying Calvino -- I finally picked that up, nearly three years after her initial recommendation. After a particularly fascinating talk on Marco Polo, however, I decided it was time to read Invisible Cities. So for today's non-medieval reading, an excerpt from the prologue to the third section of the book. The structure of Invisible Cities is fascinating -- it consists of descriptions of cities that Marco Polo tells to Kublai Khan, the cities of the vast empire that the Khan has never seen. These descriptions are interspersed with italicized sections that describe the interactions and words of Marco Polo and the Khan. It's a book with moments of incredible poignancy and beauty -- certain phrases will stay with me for days after I read it. This section was one of them:

Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo's cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each city Marco described to him, the Great Khan's mind set out on its own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them.

Marco, meanwhile, continued reporting his journey, but the emperor was no longer listening.

Kublai interrupted him: "From now on I shall describe the cities and you will tell me if they exist and are as I have conceived them. I shall begin by asking you about a city of stairs, exposed to the sirocco, on a half-moon bay. Now I shall list some of the wonders it contains: a glass tank high as a cathedral so people can follow the swimming and the flying of the swallow fish and draw auguries from them; a palm tree which plays the harp with its fronds in the wind; a square with a horseshoe marble table around it, a marble tablecloth, set with foods and beverages also of marble."

"Sire, your mind has been wandering. This is precisely the city I was telling you about when you interrupted me."

"You know it? Where is it? What is its name?"

"It has neither name nor place. I shall repeat the reason why I was describing it to you: from the number of imaginable cities we must exclude those whose elements are assembled without a connecting thread, an inner rule, a perspective, a discourse. With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire, or its reverse, a fear. Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else."

"I have neither desires nor fears," the Khan declared; "and my dreams are composed either by my mind or by chance."

"Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or of chance, but neither one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours."

"Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx."

~from Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities, p. 43-4


Friday, May 12, 2006

Ride singing forth!

When one cleans house after a semester, one can find the most fascinating things.

Take for example, this proverb of Alfred that I found while looking for a copy of the Old English Visio Pauli. It's the 14th proverb, according to what I have scrawled in the front of a notebook -- I have no idea if I transcribed it correctly (my terrible handwriting repeatedly amazes me), but it's

þus queþ Alured:

If þu hauest seorewe
ne seye hit nohht þan arewe
seye hit þine sadelbowe
and ryd þe singinde forþ…

I have the distinct feeling this is early Middle English (I'll double check it next time I'm in the EETS sections of the library), and thus I'm rather ill-equipped to translate -- if anyone out there sees mistakes let me know! But based on other translations of this proverb that I've read, I'd have to guess at it being something close to this:

If you have a sorrow,
say it not to the arrow
say it to your saddlebow
and ride singing forth.

I particularly love the last line -- in the old form it retains a meter that's just beautiful. And it's such a perfect expression of the ethos pervading so much of Old English poetry (I nearly said heroic poetry, but I don't think that's really an adequate category, somehow).

In its vaguely elegiac quality that seems eclipsed by a refusal to remain in a static mourning, it reminds me of Theoden's death in Lord of the Rings (I was heartbroken they cut it out, as it's one of my favorite lines in the book): "A grim morn, a glad day, and a golden sunset."

Something of an echo, perhaps, though it's not necessarily surface-level resemblance -- ride singing forth.


Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Just another reason... love Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert:

The phrase "cruel and magically unusual" (to refer to the punishment of a life sentence in David Blaine's bubble -- with David Blaine!) is one of them. It's a tribute to how tired I was last night that I can't remember either who said it or to whom it was referring.

But either way, they are fantastic.


In other news, I have finally gotten around to writing a reading list. Not my orals lists -- although my advisor and I set a meeting date for that, and it will be next Thursday (which makes it clear that I now have weekend plans). No, this is my summer reading list. Like two of my orals lists, it even has sublists. I'll post sublist one now...I'm still drawing up sublist two, so that will be a few days.

List: Summer Reading, Non-Orals

Justification: I spent most of the year reading poetry, much of which was in another language and from 1000 years or so ago. Then I talked about it, and sometimes even wrote papers about it. If I don't read something slightly lighter (or at least with less of a deadline!) I'll go nuts. Plus I have some academic books I'm looking forward to reading, and I happen to think of that as pleasure reading...

Sublist One: Legitimate Procrastination

These are, in no particular order, academically oriented books that in a perfect world I would have time to read this summer. I'm fully aware that there is no way this will happen: what with my orals lists to compose and read, I will need to save my academic reading attention-span (which gets shorter by the day, given that it varies inversely with regards to the amount of sunlight and pretty weather there is) for getting through some of those texts. But a girl can dream.

Reality Fictions by Robert M. Stein.
I'm interested in this book for a variety of reasons -- not the least of which is the fascinating interplay of Romance and History as genres.

Ruling Women: Queenship and Gender in Anglo-Saxon England by Stacy S. Klein.
Clearly -- how could I not love a book on the subject of women in Anglo-Saxon England?

A Place to Believe in: Locating Medieval Landscapes by Clare A. Lees (ed.) and Gillian R. Overing (ed.)
I've been waiting on this book since at least last November, when I heard Overing read a portion of the introduction. In addition to promising some fascinating readings of landscape in various medieval cultures -- it has what has become one of my favorite academic book titles of all time.

Hybridity, Identity and Monstrosity in Medieval Britain: On Difficult Middles by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen.
Given my affinity for monsters and hybridity -- this is an obvious choice.

The vision of history in early Britain: from Gildas to Geoffrey of Monmouth by Robert W. Hanning
Though I've read a chapter or two from this book, I think it's time to read through the whole thing.

The Martyrology, Books 3 and 4 by bp Nichol
Nichol is one of my current favorite reads, modern poetry-wise. For more of him, you can go to this site , which has the entirety of The Martyrology available online. The first two books are amazing with their attention to language and its play -- I can't wait to get into the next two. quote that's representative of why I love his work: "a kind of being writing is"

Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas by Jacques Derrida.
Something I've been meaning to read for awhile. It was assigned as optional reading a year ago for one course I was in -- and I opted out of more than a quick skim of it, only to become very, very interested in questions of hospitality later. Figures.

Totality and Infinity by Emmanuel Levinas
Having read the required excerpts only (back when I was supposed to read the Derrida), I'm looking forward to finishing this one. Fascinating stuff.

Mechthild of Magdeburg and Her Book: Gender and the Making of Textual Authority by Sara S. Poor
Time to return to secondary work on mystics...this is one of the mystics I've been meaning to read for awhile, particularly as I'm quite interested in questions of gender and religious authority -- and how both are constructed. Not to mention, I find the question of mysticism and gender particularly appealing given that it was so often the case that women mystics would cover up their experiences (whatever those experiences were -- another question that I'm incredibly fascinated with, and one that seems to elude all attempts to understand or really address it) until they simply had to write, forced by illness to let out the secret they'd been keeping for so though their own bodies became the medium through which their experience would be heard, if they refused to inscribe it differently.

The Book of Memory by Mary J. Carruthers
Another book I've wanted to read for awhile, that doesn't really have a place on any of the orals lists.

and in that vaguely sinful genre of re-reading academic books (because I read them for classes and feel like the reading was too rushed...):

To The Glory of Her Sex by Joan M. Ferrante
This is one of my favorite books on women in the Middle Ages. I'm particularly fond of the treatment of the pastourella tradition, and the trobairitz. I'm also in a particularly feminist phase right now and so the energy in Ferrante's book is good fuel for that. A nice book to return to.

Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History by Amy Hollywood
Read this last year as part of a course on mystics -- contains some of the most interesting juxtapositions of modern theoretical texts with medieval that I've read, and the writing is just phenomenal.

The Differend by Jean-Francois Lyotard
I didn't put this book to good use the first time I read it in terms of my own work, but I loved it all the same. So I think it makes sense to read it through again -- for the enjoyment, and maybe to assuage this nagging feeling that it's a key text for what I'm working on now...

Coming soon...

Sublist Two: Reading for Sanity

A list dominated by science fiction and poetry.

And...the orals list-writing process.
(a.k.a., for the list I turn in, I have to write something more than "Old English Corpus and Major Articles and Books" -- which means I'll be doing some major perusal of bibliographies in the next few days.)


Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Kzoo, Round Four

...Four trips to Kalamazoo in five years. And I've managed to survive every one of them.

A good conference -- a nice chance to catch up with colleagues, though I really should have made it to more Anglo-Saxon oriented sessions. I did manage a few fascinating ones, though, including the ASSC session, in which I learned that the colloquy was interesting. I'm so glad I found this out -- I've only ever read it in the context of my first Old English class: "here is some easy Old English to prove that you can read this stuff." To find such a fascinating take on it from Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe was phenomenal. Also went to a great roundtable on "Is Beowulf Postmodern Yet?" -- an interesting question, and one I think that's quite relevant, particularly to my own work. The dance was quite a bit of fun as well, though I didn't last quite as late as I usually do...

I missed out on Middle English read aloud (and they were doing Tale of Gareth, too...). First time I've missed that in a few years. I also learned that there actually is quite little to do in Kzoo besides the conference, though I found yet another nice restaurant to enjoy : Old Peninsula Brewpub and Restaurant. They had some fascinating beers -- my favorite being the Red Raspberry (a combination of Sunset Beer, which is kind of caramel flavored, and Raspberry wheat beer).

I managed to add a good number of books to my personal reading list -- which at some point I'll probably post. However, I made it back to NY with only one purchase (a miracle!!).

I also learned, while driving the 12.5 hours to and from Michigan, that there are certain things one should never say in the car, as they may induce panic in one's colleague. For example, when navigating for your colleague, if she is driving, do not respond to the name of a city with "but that's in the opposite direction." Another bad comment: "What the heck road are we on?"

But yes. We survived the long journey, and I am now safe and sound at home. More soon, that might even have to do with Old English...

Oh, and in other news -- David Blaine survived. But he didn't break the record. Sigh. The whole thing kind of sets off my claustrophobia, though...


Friday, May 05, 2006

Morning in Michigan

Ah, the joys of giving a paper on Thursday morning. You get to Michigan, wake up, give a quick talk and realize that -- you now have until Sunday to just exist in the beauty that is Kalamazoo. And this year has been good so far.

I gave my paper at 10 AM after staying up until 2 trying to decide how much of it really needed to be changed last-minute. Yeah, there were a lot of pencilled-in sentences this year. There was only one minor heart attack, when I thought -- mistakenly -- that I'd left the second page of the paper in my dorm room. Other than that, all went smoothly. I didn't even stumble over the Old English!

I missed out on the blogger gathering due to email problems, which was sad. I console myself, however, with the fabulous t-shirt of a Viking woodchuck, with "How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?" in what looks like Old Icelandic (it having been a semester since I've looked at Old Icelandic I was only 99% sure). That and the "You Might Be A Medievalist If..." --when faced with a difficult situation you ask yourself "What would Beowulf do?"

Probably the least logical thing possible, so long as it involves feats of incredible strength and copious violence. Double points for dragons fought by yourself.

Off to a Friday at Kalamazoo! And a desperate attempt to avoid the book exhibit -- it's amazing how many books suddenly seem to be really, really important for my orals...


Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Two Years Down...

Four more to go, assuming all goes according to schedule (riiiiiiiight). As of yesterday at 6 pm, classes are officially over for the year, bringing my second year of graduate school to a close. It was a fitting way to end it, too. A wonderful class, a wonderful topic, two wonderful professors...and the paper was even done. To top it all off, by the time I got to class, I'd been up for nearly 36 hours.

Yes, I have officially pulled my first graduate school all-nighter.

Back in college, this would have been highly unsurprising. I pulled fairly regular all-nighters in those days. But I've found that sleeping makes me saner, and so lost the habit once I graduated. Who knew that the graduate school edition would be so...less stressful. I know that must sound mad. But I think it's that in college I pulled an all nighter because I didn't have a choice in the matter -- the paper had to get done by tomorrow, the test was at 9 AM, whatever. This time it was so calm. I didn't have to stay up -- I could have turned in the paper today, finished it up yesterday and last night. But for some reason -- I really just wanted to keep working on the paper, finish it before I lost track of the threads that held together my analysis. I was really into the research I did for it, and really enjoyed the text I was working with.

Actually, I'm still a little taken aback at how much fun I had writing this paper. To be honest, I never thought I'd start being interested in religious writing. Or at least not the really religious stuff, like Saints' Lives and the ilk. Give me troubadours, Marie de France, the Wanderer, Beowulf. How, given that for years now I've tried to avoid texts that were explicitly religious, I ever managed to become a medievalist is a good question. This semester has been different though. I can track it back to a paper I was required to write on Judith. After that short paper, sacred texts were suddenly interesting. The Visio Pauli. Exodus and Daniel. The Dream of the Rood (ok, so I already loved that poem). The Voyage of Brendan. It was all fascinating.

But for this class I realized I simply couldn't write another paper on Old Provencal -- after two semesters of Troubadours I really needed to focus in on something I hadn't done, and doing a different anonymous trobairitz poem didn't quite cut it. And so I discovered Clemence of Barking's Life of Saint Catherine. What a complex...and moreover really, really cool!!...text. Catherine of Alexandria is an educated woman -- the first conversion she performs that is shown in the text is a result of a debate she has with 50 of the most learned philosophers in the world. She has a sense of her own status intellectually, too, which makes her even more interesting. Add that to the fact that she's funny in a rather sarcastic way at times -- when offered a marble statue of herself by the emperor Maxentius, who promises it shall be in the temple to be worshipped by all, she asks him how he will convince the birds not to land on her. She also has a wonderful line about what offering dogs might make. She's resourceful and intelligent -- I heard in her voice the same resolution I always find in Castelloza. That sense of "I know what's right for me, regardless of what you have to say about it" (note to self: need to write a post about the trobairitz. Absolutely necessary.) And the connections between Catherine's intellectual status and that of her author Clemence were great too. Clemence is a talented poet -- she has several passages in which the sheer word play is fascinating -- her command of language is impressive. Who ever knew Saints Lives could be so amazing? I'm so glad I've discovered this.

For a great collection of links to resources on Clemence, you can go here. And I'd have to highly recommend Jocelyn Wogan-Browne's work on her, particularly “‘Clerc u lai, muïne u dame’: women and Anglo-Norman hagiography in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries” in Women and Literature in Britain, 1150-1500 ed. Carol M. Meale. Such a great piece. She also has a book, Saints' Lives and Women's Literary Culture 1150-1300 which is a great resource.

In other news...I'm leaving for Kalamazoo tonight. Well, actually I'm just going to a friend's house, and we're leaving at 6 AM to make the trek. This will be only the second time I've driven to Michigan -- last time was two years ago, and though it was a blast, 14 hours in the car was a little much. I don't know what it is, but somehow 11 hours just seems friendlier. I could fill pages about my love for this conference (and upon my return may well do so) -- but for now I'll just say I'm looking forward to it. And I love giving my paper on Thursday -- afterwards, I have the whole conference to relax and enjoy being surrounded by medieval studies! There's so much energy there -- I always return home ready to get back to my work, with a renewed sense of excitement that somehow only Kalamazoo can provide...not to mention the new books!!

Oh, and one more thing: many thanks to JJC, Dr. Virago and King Alfred for the warm welcome to the world of academic blogs. I think this phenomenon is really exciting -- not to mention really important -- so I'm excited to be a part of it!