Thursday, February 22, 2018

Proverbial snows

Illumination by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.
Village scene for Thaliad (Phoenicia Publishing)


Everything feels  semi-proverbial this morning--the snow, the glass of water, the tea, the memories of the day before...

The world went to all the trouble to summon up a warm wind for some hours yesterday and melt the snow heaps. Evidently that was in order to make a more lovely snowfall today.

Persistence, the grain of dust that may flower into crystal.

If someone of intelligence and curiosity arrives in a village, he will inevitably be described by some as a man of mystery and condemned for the same.

You can tell when people are at last starting to recover from a hard flu when the complaints increase.

If you attempt to help a madwoman, you will go to three destinations you did not expect, but in the end she will run into the dark.

For someone of the South, the nature of falling snow is always dream.

A thick, greenish glass inscribed with faint vegetative motifs makes the water more beautiful.

A poet is without honor in a tiny village. This is for the best.

Snowflakes are dust-hearted and return to dust.

Tea with lavender and milk.

Here is a secret I will not tell, folded like origami, so small that it can never be unfolded by human fingers.

In snow, the birds may call from all corners of the sky but remain invisible; this is mystery.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Idle post, with squirrels

Photo by H. Dominque Abedsxc.hu
The Squirrels have won the Battle between the Squirrels and the Cardinals and their allies the Juncos. They have wrested the roof from the expensive, supposedly indestructible magic house, and have shaken all the seeds from the other feeder. The snow is black with seeds, and the roly-poly squirrels have dashed homeward. Their fur is shiny, their tails are lush: they look like fat, quick-changing ribbons, crossing the yard at the highest speed they can manage, given their feasting on black oil sunflower seeds.

The Cardinals and Juncos now have the abandoned field and are gleaning from what remains. Off in the distance, a chipmunk pokes its head up out of snow--a comical little face looks around, checking for the kestrels who occasionally dart in to dine in the back yard.

All morning I have been sitting by the big kitchen windows and rearranging the poems in the cut version of The Book of the Red King--that is, putting them in the right order in the digital copy, a wearisome, fiddly job. I take a break to delete the ever-entertaining and idiotic blog spam. While I'm there, I notice the stats, and am not one whit surprised to find that this is my most popular post ever (aside from another post that was spam-attacked, but that's not readers.) Still, five thousand reads for a idle moment's quick blog post seems a lot. Time to take a better break and march around in the snow and ice, see and talk to some winter-bundled human beings...

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

A. I. (After Internet)

     Out for dinner with another writer, I said, "I think I've forgotten how to read."
     "Yes!" he replied, pointing his knife. "Everybody has."
     "No, really," I said. "I mean I actually can't do it any more."
      He nodded: "Nobody can read like they used to. But nobody wants to talk about it."
          --Michael Harris, "I have forgotten how to read," Globe and Mail

Going on a twitter and facebook fast...

Ash Valentine


Here's an ashy Valentine in honor of the conjunction of Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day... an unusual marriage. It's an illumination by Clive Hicks-Jenkins from Thaliad (Montreal: Phoenicia Press, 2012.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

A symbolic world and the children who played at slaughtering

Gold guilder of Mainz elector archbishop John II of Nassau
(minted around 1400 in Höchst) Wikipedia
A rather  peculiar post in honor of Shrove Tuesday

For various reasons--most of them deadlines--I have not been reading as much as usual this year. One thing I have been slowly reading is the Jack Zipes translation of the original collection by the Brothers Grimm. Many of these stories would soon be cleaned up or swept right out of existence in later editions. They are not romantic enough to suit the brothers, or else they are crude and violent.

Here's one that made me stop and reread. It has an oddly specific location, rather than a once-upon-a-time and far-away realm, that makes a reader wonder. Did the story have a source in life (a thing we can never know), and might it be the sort of oral tale that is symbolic, packed with compressed wisdom? (The second story under the title involves three dead children and two dead parents, but it is firmly back in the time and place of "There once was.")

How Some Children Played at Slaughtering
I

In a city named Franecker, located in West Friesland, some young boys and girls between the ages of five and six happened to be playing with one another. They chose one boy to play a butcher, another boy to play was to be a cook, and a third boy was to be a pig. Then they chose one girl to be a cook and another girl her assistant. The assistant was to catch the blood of the pig in a little bowl so they could make sausages. As agreed, the butcher now fell upon the little boy playing the pig, threw him to the ground, and slit his throat open with a knife, while the assistant cook caught the blood in her little bowl.

A councilman was walking nearby and saw this wretched act. He immediately took the butcher with him and led him into the house of the mayor, who instantly summoned the entire council. They deliberated about this incident and did not know what they should do to the boy, for they realized it had all been part of a children's game. One of the councilmen, an old wise man, advised the chief judge to take a beautiful red apple in one hand and a Rhenish gulden in the other. Then he was to call the boy and stretch out his hands to him. If the boy took the apple, he was to be set free. If he took the gulden, he was to be killed. The judge took the wise man's advice, and the boy grabbed the apple with a laugh. Thus he was set free without any punishment.

*

I've seen a number of commentaries on this, mostly brief, and they tend to suggest that this is a cautionary tale underlining issues of accountability in childhood. Some suggest that it is one of those tales intended for adults. I wonder. In a more primitive setting of a one- or two-room house, say, exactly how often were adult stories segregated from children's stories? How often today do we see children at movies that seem too "old" for them? Isn't it common, even in a home setting, for children to hear or see things that are meant for an older audience, big brothers or sisters or parents?

What happens if we look at a folk story like this not as simply a cautionary tale but as part of a world that sees all acts as important and events as symbolic? That's not the world most of us live in today, but it is what the world looked like to a great many people in the past.

The story gives us an image of sacrifice but a strange one: we have the perverse picture of a little girl of 4 or 5 catching another child's blood in a little bowl. In a symbolic light, the account immediately links up with another image of catching blood in a container. By the late 12th century, the Holy Grail was first depicted as a drinking vessel from the Last Supper. Moreover, Joseph of Arimathea was supposed to lift the grail at the crucifixion in order to catch Christ's blood. So we have a sacrifice, a major element in Western culture, where someone catches blood in a vessel.

Oral stories tend to be symbolic, packed creations that reflect culture. An early listener may well have found that the story of the poor little boy-pig made the mind spring back to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and another "bowl" or chalice of blood. After all, these tiny children who want to play at making sausages are enacting the sacrifice of innocence, and the sacrifice of innocence on the cross would have been an important piece of goods in the spiritual cupboard of medieval man and woman.

Even though the child has done a terrible thing and so makes a very weird sort of analogy to Christ, the mayor's council and the confusion on passing judgment may also have reminded listeners of the arrest of Christ. There is a similar awareness of the little butcher's essential innocence. At 5 or 6, he is not at "the age of knowledge" as yet. So the councilmen feel at an impasse, all but "the wise old man."

In symbolic terms, who is the "wise old man" who offers the choice between a lovely round piece of fruit and a round gold coin? In those same terms, what is the choice extended to the boy? And what is the apple, what the coin?

In the garden of Eden, God allows the innocent Adam and Eve to "eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden." But they may not eat of the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil; they may not pluck "the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die" (NRSV.)

The Solomonic wise old councilman stands in the place of God, offering two sorts of gifts to the innocent. The little butcher picks from "the fruit of the trees in the garden" in reaching for the apple. The gold coin he does not choose is allied to the fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Why? Choice of the round gold would disprove his innocence and mean his death, just as reaching for the fruit from the fatal tree means being cast out of innocence and into a world where death exists for Adam and Eve. So the gold coin is a symbolic object that conjures both the fruit and the intrusion of death into the lives of Adam and Eve but also the condemnation to labor in Genesis because we know that coins are the fruit of, the payment for labor. So the little boy, still acting in innocence, picks life over death. The lovely round apple is more alluring to him than gold, which some day he will have to earn by "the sweat of his brow."

Perhaps in a larger sense, the story put before medieval listeners the pain of death or the choice of larger life. Larger life in spiritual, symbolic terms would be found in the remembrance of Christ's sacrifice, the acknowledgement of sin, and the ongoing effort to choose rightly. In the words of the fourteenth century Wycliffe bible, "Behold thou, that today I have set forth in thy sight life and good, and, on the contrary, death and evil...  I have set forth before you life and death, good and evil, blessing and curses; and so choose thou life" (Deuteronomy 30: 15, 19.)

*

And on that note, a happy Mardi Gras, Pancake Day, Carnaval, and Shrove Tuesday to you!

Photo by Joseph Valentine, sxc.hu
*

Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. "How Some Children Played at Slaughtering." In The Complete First Edition, The Original Folk & Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, translated by Jack Zipes, pp. 78-79. Princeton University Press, 2014. Original German: Grimm, Jacob, and Wilhelm Grimm. "Wie Kinder Schlachtens miteinander gespielt haben." In Kinder- und Hausmärchen gesammelt durch die Brüder Grimm, Vol. 1, 101-03. Berlin: Realschulbuchhandlung, 1812.

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Fairy stories

Adrienne Ségur illustration for "Prince Ivan, the Infant
Ogres, and the Little Sister of the Sun,"
from The Snow Queen and Other Stories, 
an over-sized Golden Book I loved as a child.
Still do!
I've neglected the blog because I was busy polishing a novel--and still am neglecting it because I am cutting (ouch!) a certain long manuscript of poems for publication later this year. (It will be announced this spring.) So far I have cut 33 poems. It gets harder as I go on, as I do not want to destroy either the sense of another world that is central to the poems, the variety of forms, or the narrative arc of the Fool among his curious friends.

In lieu of sharing more, I'm just going to toss out a recommendation and say that I enjoyed this interesting translation of Russian-born Ivan Ilyin's 1934 lecture, "The Spiritual Meaning of Stories." If you like Tolkien's "On Fairy Stories," you might like this piece. The philosopher's words have been translated by Nicholas Kotar, a young writer, translator, and conductor of the men's choir at the Jordanville Monastery and Seminary, just a snowy skip and slide away from me. Evidently he writes fantasy inspired by Russian fairy tales.

Side note: The Russian Orthodox stauropegic monastery in Jordanville is well worth a visit if you're ever in the hinterlands of central New York. The first time I was there, I was with my husband, who wanted to visit the grave of a priest he met while a medical student, but I've been back since. A lovely thing about a monastery and church planted nowhere is the magical coming-upon those golden domes in the wilds, and discovering frescoes and icons, color and gold.

Here's a clip from Ivan Ilyin's talk:  So, don’t listen to a fairy tale in the bright light of day or with your prosaic and wing-less consciousness. Listen to a fairy tale in the evening or at light, in the magical darkness that removes familiarity from things and gives them a new, unexpected, mysterious form. You should listen to fairy tales with the dusky consciousness between sleeping and waking. Listen from the depth of your unconscious mind, where your soul lives like a child, where it’s childishly “stupid” and isn’t ashamed of its stupidity, where it enters into the story with complete seriousness and a passion of hope and despair, not even remembering that it’s all make believe.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Quora-doodling

Thalia, by Clive Hicks-Jenkins,
from my post-apocalyptic adventure
in blank verse, Thaliad
(Montreal: Phoenicia Publishing, 2012)
Clive is the answer to one
of the questions below.

I am busy scouring a novel and so offer a few Quora doodles in lieu of a proper post. These were written in little corners of time and often constitute a break from something larger--or you might say that they constitute part of that writerly tradition, avoidance of work! Writers being such oddly-feathered birds, avoidance of work often means more writing. The questions answered fall into the realms of writing, mythology, and painting; some are serious answers, some less so.


Fiction, poetry, painting, and mythology


Your answer to Is there a book with old paintings and their stories?
Your answer to My parents hate/are scared of some of my art pieces and don't want me to create more similar types. How should I justify my means of painting them?

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A few more leafy heads--


I was under the impression that The Foliate Head (UK: Stanza Press) second printing was entirely cleaned out, but you can order a heavily discounted copy today: £2.00 instead of £15.00. Illuminations by Clive Hicks-Jenkins.