Daybook, 13 January 2017

Friday the 13th. As I understand it, “13” is considered an unlucky number because Caesar lead the Legio XIII Gemina across the Rubicon, and it was thus with the 13th legion that the Roman Republic was effectively destroyed. I’ve also heard that the fact that the crucifixion was, by some folks figuring, on the 13th of the month, another reason people see the day as unlucky.

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

While doing my (honestly quite regular) search for rural churches this morning, I came across this church, St. Helens in Cliffe, Kent, England. Of especial interest to me is the second photograph, of the charnel house in its graveyard.

Charnel houses are places where human remains that turn up–skeletal remains dug up, unidentified bodies washed ashore, etc.–are kept until identifications can be made and proper burials take place. In many cases, they became simply depositories of unidentified skeletal remains that would be turned up when digging fresh graves, plowing fields, and the like.

Something else:

A search for books about charnel houses turned up a book of long poems by Conrad Aiken, whose work I do not know. To read this weekend, then, one of the poems from that collection, “The Charnel Rose”:

Daybook, 11 January 2017

Readings:

Something Beautiful, and Something Else:

As is well-recorded, I am a great lover of rural churches. This one, St-Just-in-Roseland in the parish of the same name in Cornwall, is especially lovely.

British legend has it that Joseph of Arimathea, whom tradition identifies as a tinsmith and tin merchant, came to Britain in the early years of the first century. Accompanying him was a young man from Nazareth. As this legend goes, Our Lord thus visited Britain in his lost years. This is the basis for William Blake’s romantic, counter-industrialist poem known as either “Jerusalem” or “And did those feet in ancient time,” which was set to music by Sir Hubert Perry during the Great War and became the patriotic anthem “Jerusalem”:

Inasmuch as Cornwall was one of the most significant tin mining sites in the world well into the 20th century, one version of this tradition holds that Joseph of Arimathea and Our Lord came to Cornwall on this voyage–and journeyed to the market town that was once where St-Just-in-Roseland now stands (other versions have them heading to Glastonbury, amongst other sites).

Whatever the historicity of the tale, this parish, a few miles south of the major Cornish city, Truro, it is very much a place I would like to visit:

(All photos from Wikimedia Commons)

Daybook, 9 January 2017

I’ve recently been doing some work on creating an actual workflow for how I read and discover things online, and how I engage and interact with them. It’s a work in progress, but it has pointed me to quite a few readings I wouldn’t have otherwise found. Today’s Daybook is largely a collection found via these new processes.

Readings:

Something Else:

Classical music done as 8-bit video game soundtracks (below is one of the several videos found in the article):

Aside

Quote and Comment, War and Turpentine

From page 25 of Stefan Hertmans’s War and Turpentine:

The world he grew up in before 1900 was full of smells that now have largely disappeared. A tannery gave off its tenacious stench in the thin September mist; the tenders with their loads of raw coal pulled in and out of the station in the dark winter months; the odor of horse droppings in the streets in the early-morning hours could create the illusion, for the half-slumbering boy by the drafty window, that he was in the countryside somewhere, as could the smell of hay, herbs, and grass that still pervaded the city. The penetrating odor of old wood and damp sackcloth prevailed in the dimly lit shops where salt, sugar, flour, and beans were still sold en vrac, in bulk, scooped into sacks and canisters brought by thew omen who shopped there. The closed courtyards smelled of Brussels sprout trimmings, horse manure scraped off the streets, and drying tobacco leaves. Describing his own grandmother, he said that her black apron–he called it a pinafore–smelled like the offal of young rabbits.

I’ve been reading War and Turpentine in starts and fits the last several days, in snatches caught when the baby is playing contentedly by herself. Last night I laid in bed and read and read and read, and am well into the second section of the novel. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

There are so many passages I could highlight, I could quote and comment upon, but this one, from fairly early on, sticks with me. The smell of a lost world–that’s a notion that resonates with me. Even in my childhood, 20, 25 years ago, even that recently ago, there is a world lost that I regain briefly, fleetingly, when I come across certain smells. Some smells still exist, and their world is not lost, but merely lost to me. Thus, that world is not lost, but I am lost; I am separated from that world, living in bizarre parallelism to something that surrounded me and against which I now find myself, willingly or accidentally, hermetically sealed, foreign, lost, separate.

The smell cigarettes smoked indoors looms large in my memory. I remember sitting at my grandmother’s kitchen table, at 10 or so, putting together a puzzle on a rainy Saturday afternoon. A man whom I did not know, but that I remember visiting with grandma a few times, sat there with us, putting together the puzzle with us; he chain-smoked cigarettes he tapped out of a pack he kept in his shirt pocket, his old, worn-out, 50-year-old sailor’s tattoo on his forearm twitched into unrecognizability as he put the puzzle together. Whenever I smell cigarettes, I think of that moment.

The smell of hot canvas, holding the sweat and stink of adolescent boys beneath pine trees at summer camp. The acrid and sulfurous smell of the swamp mixed with a crispness reminiscent of fresh linen that is the air around my maternal grandparents’ home. My indigent uncle still lives in that home, which should have been condemned some time ago. Whenever I go to visit him, I get out of the car and am overwhelmed by that smell as soon as I open the car door, and I suddenly remember an entire childhood and adolescence of summers spent there, how open and free everything felt, how perfect and wonderful. And I walk into the house, and I’m surprised, and even oppressed, by how small it is. This can’t be the same place, can it?

Thus, I know the feeling whereof Hertmans writes: the world is always the same place, inasmuch as it is ever retreating into the distance; mournfully lost, yet inescapable.

Brief Commentary–The Sharpshooter Blues

The Sharpshooter BluesThe Sharpshooter Blues by Lewis Nordan

This is the third of Nordan’s novels I’ve read–Wolf Whistle and Music of the Swamp were both books I very much enjoyed and found incredibly moving–and I went into this one fully prepared for Nordan’s literary gamesmanship. If you’ve never read Nordan, his “magical realism” can take you by surprise, and takes a bit of work to give oneself over into the logic of his work and world. And while that same kind of gamesmanship was at work in this novel, I found myself deeply frustrated by it, and ultimately felt that Nordan’s commitment to a particular aspect of his craft ultimately got in the way of the deeply emotional aspects of this novel. Nordan knows how to plumb the depths of the human heart, and he does it here, too; he just can’t get out of his own way in many places.

Nordan’s work always shows that he is fully versed in the myriad stereotypical tropes of the South and its literature, and in many ways his magical realism is a self-aware and ironic send-up of these tropes, so as to make the truths of his characters that much more significant and vital. It’s as if he sets out to make his works so bizarrely and intensely stereotypically Southern that we ultimately transcend both the Hollywood movie-stage and overly-romantic versions of the South and enter into a world more real, powerful, and truthful; in other words, a world that is, despite its strangeness, is more in line with the actual truth of life in the South and elsewhere. And while this is often done to great effect–and continues to be done to great effect in many places in this novel–the technique itself becomes obfuscating and confusing here.

For instance, we know from the opening pages that this novel concerns the murder of “two lovely children,” a murder that has been witnessed by “Hydro,” a mentally handicapped young man. Yet, as we move further into the novel, we learn about the children, we learn the details of the murder, and the “lovely children” seem neither lovely nor child-like. They are presented as something like a Hollywood Bonnie-and-Clyde, with black French berets and a predilection for solipsistic violence and abusive nymphomania. The “girl” is especially confusing, as Nordan’s descriptions of her physical self presents her as being a child from the waist up and some sort of perverse matron from the waist down, as if two different selves exist in her body. And maybe this is the point; maybe Nordan wants us to face the instability of identity or something of that sort, the ways in which who we are is defined by others, or something like that. And while this is a real possibility–the novel is very much interested in how popular culture, like comic books and pop music especially, shape how we understand ourselves and engage others–the bizarre, dreamlike way several characters are presented blurs any sort of real engagement with them and what truths they may hold. This is especially the case with the main plot, as it surrounds Hydro, his father, and the murder of the “two lovely children.” The character of the undertake (a sort of warmed-over Norman Bates) and the reveal of Hydro’s alter ego late in the book are similarly perplexing; at some point, Nordan’s technique just gets too far ahead of his purposes, and dream-like magical realism dissolves into bizarre nonsense that left me wondering if the book was worth finishing.

This is frustrating, as I thought several times of calling the book a failure and quitting; if I would have done that, I would have missed the many places where the book truly shines. At its best, The Sharpshooter Blues rehearses the tried-and-true territory of the interconnections between self, death, and sex (although a chapter devoted to a same-sex affair between two characters of no consequence to the novel on the whole seems shoe-horned in for no other purposes than checking an identity-politics box). The stories that spin off from the main plot are where the novel is strongest, and where Nordan’s ability to write black comedy that is achingly gorgeous and tragic and true via his magical realism technique shines brightest. A young brother and sister dealing with the consequences of their mother’s alcoholism and adultery and their father’s emotional distance is masterfully done, especially in a series of scenes connected to the children’s rescuing of half-drowned wild parrots that reveals a full complement of emotions inside the children. A lawman who confronts violence with the image of possible loss and present alienation from some of those whom he loves is powerful, and the stories of a self-created sharpshooter and his hoodoo-woman adoptive mother are wonderful, and the afore-alluded-to cuckold and his alcoholic wife are sad, beautiful characters. The main plot builds to a final scene of a funeral, and that may be one of the finest things Nordan ever wrote.

All this is to say, then: this is a good novel. But Nordan gets in his own way in several places here, keeping it from being a great novel. This is all the more frustrating because of the presence of some of his finest scenes and most intriguing characters.

Daybook, St. Nicholas’ Day 2016

Today the Church remembers St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra. The “real Santa Claus,” puncher of heretics, etc..

Readings:

Something Else:

Last night, I finished a strong novel called No Snakes in Iceland, by Jordan M. Poss, a community college history instructor by day and writer by night. It is an excellent book that mixes history, theology, and fantasy elements in a way that is reminiscent of excellent works of high fantasy, but without many of their excesses. In an appendix, Poss states that much of his work in the novel is derived from his reading of the Icelandic sagas, and I am myself interested in reading them now. I’m especially attracted to a saga called Gisli (or something like that), about an outlaw–Poss’s novel has made me quite interested in the Icelandic notion of outlawry. Looking around for it this morning, I happened across a novel called The Outlaw, which seems to be a part of a series of novels written by the late Victorian/Edwardian era historical novelist Maurice Hewlett that perform prose retellings of many of the Icelandic sagas. The Outlaw is Hewlett’s retelling of the Gisli saga:

Daybook, 1 December 2016

One of the most wonderful things about being the father of a small child is having her cuddle up against you as she ceases crying, knowing that she no longer needs to be upset about whatever things has made her upset. One of the most miserable things about being the father of a small child is when you try to comfort her in these ways, and she’ll have none of it. Sallie Jo has at least one molar coming in, and the poor girl is absolutely miserable. One of the most incredible things about being the father of a small child is how you eventually find yourself able to exist in relative peace and calmness whilst screaming is occurring but a few inches from your ear.

But on to today, as we begin a new month, and we take a brief pause to remember Nicholas Ferrar, the Founder of the Little Gidding Community and a man of great prayer and faith. I’m trying not to miss a single daily office or go a week without taking Communion at least once this liturgical year, and Deacon Ferrar’s example is both a challenge to me and a great inspiration to me, in how I order my life and arrange my home and family life.

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

I’ve been inspired recently to explore new-to-me music. Scruton’s talk on music (posted in the Daybook for St. Andrew’s Eve) inspired me to revisit the Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School with new appreciation and perspective, and this essay on forgotten American neoclassicists has opened up several new composers to me as well. Here is one such example of American neoclassicism, Walter Piston’s 2nd Symphony:

Finally, inasmuch as the aforementioned Nicholas Ferrar founded the community that lent a name to one of T.S. Eliot’s greatest poems, it is only appropriate to end with “Little Gidding” itself:

I

Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.
When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,
The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,
In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,
Reflecting in a watery mirror
A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.
And glow more intense than blaze of branch, or brazier,
Stirs the dumb spirit: no wind, but pentecostal fire
In the dark time of the year. Between melting and freezing
The soul’s sap quivers. There is no earth smell
Or smell of living thing. This is the spring time
But not in time’s covenant. Now the hedgerow
Is blanched for an hour with transitory blossom
Of snow, a bloom more sudden
Than that of summer, neither budding nor fading,
Not in the scheme of generation.
Where is the summer, the unimaginable Zero summer?

If you came this way,
Taking the route you would be likely to take
From the place you would be likely to come from,
If you came this way in may time, you would find the hedges
White again, in May, with voluptuary sweetness.
It would be the same at the end of the journey,
If you came at night like a broken king,
If you came by day not knowing what you came for,
It would be the same, when you leave the rough road
And turn behind the pig-sty to the dull facade
And the tombstone. And what you thought you came for
Is only a shell, a husk of meaning
From which the purpose breaks only when it is fulfilled
If at all. Either you had no purpose
Or the purpose is beyond the end you figured
And is altered in fulfilment. There are other places
Which also are the world’s end, some at the sea jaws,
Or over a dark lake, in a desert or a city–
But this is the nearest, in place and time,
Now and in England.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, or inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.

II

Ash on an old man’s sleeve
Is all the ash the burnt roses leave.
Dust in the air suspended
Marks the place where a story ended.
Dust inbreathed was a house-
The walls, the wainscot and the mouse,
The death of hope and despair,
This is the death of air.

There are flood and drouth
Over the eyes and in the mouth,
Dead water and dead sand
Contending for the upper hand.
The parched eviscerate soil
Gapes at the vanity of toil,
Laughs without mirth.
This is the death of earth.

Water and fire succeed
The town, the pasture and the weed.
Water and fire deride
The sacrifice that we denied.
Water and fire shall rot
The marred foundations we forgot,
Of sanctuary and choir.
This is the death of water and fire.

In the uncertain hour before the morning
Near the ending of interminable night
At the recurrent end of the unending
After the dark dove with the flickering tongue
Had passed below the horizon of his homing
While the dead leaves still rattled on like tin
Over the asphalt where no other sound was
Between three districts whence the smoke arose
I met one walking, loitering and hurried
As if blown towards me like the metal leaves
Before the urban dawn wind unresisting.
And as I fixed upon the down-turned face
That pointed scrutiny with which we challenge
The first-met stranger in the waning dusk
I caught the sudden look of some dead master
Whom I had known, forgotten, half recalled
Both one and many; in the brown baked features
The eyes of a familiar compound ghost
Both intimate and unidentifiable.
So I assumed a double part, and cried
And heard another’s voice cry: “What! are you here?”
Although we were not. I was still the same,
Knowing myself yet being someone other–
And he a face still forming; yet the words sufficed
To compel the recognition they preceded.
And so, compliant to the common wind,
Too strange to each other for misunderstanding,
In concord at this intersection time
Of meeting nowhere, no before and after,
We trod the pavement in a dead patrol.
I said: “The wonder that I feel is easy,
Yet ease is cause of wonder. Therefore speak:
I may not comprehend, may not remember.”
And he: “I am not eager to rehearse
My thoughts and theory which you have forgotten.
These things have served their purpose: let them be.
So with your own, and pray they be forgiven
By others, as I pray you to forgive
Both bad and good. Last season’s fruit is eaten
And the fullfed beast shall kick the empty pail.
For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
But, as the passage now presents no hindrance
To the spirit unappeased and peregrine
Between two worlds become much like each other,
So I find words I never thought to speak
In streets I never thought I should revisit
When I left my body on a distant shore.
Since our concern was speech, and speech impelled us
To purify the dialect of the tribe
And urge the mind to aftersight and foresight,
Let me disclose the gifts reserved for age
To set a crown upon your lifetime’s effort.
First, the cold fricton of expiring sense
Without enchantment, offering no promise
But bitter tastelessness of shadow fruit
As body and sould begin to fall asunder.
Second, the conscious impotence of rage
At human folly, and the laceration
Of laughter at what ceases to amuse.
And last, the rending pain of re-enactment
Of all that you have done, and been; the shame
Of things ill done and done to others’ harm
Which once you took for exercise of virtue.
Then fools’ approval stings, and honour stains.
From wrong to wrong the exasperated spirit
Proceeds, unless restored by that refining fire
Where you must move in measure, like a dancer.”
The day was breaking. In the disfigured street
He left me, with a kind of valediction,
And faded on the blowing of the horn.

III

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives – unflowering, between
The live and the dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation – not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as an attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could, loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.
Sin is Behovely, but
All shall be well, and
All manner of thing shall be well.
If I think, again, of this place,
And of people, not wholly commendable,
Of not immediate kin or kindness,
But of some peculiar genius,
All touched by a common genius,
United in the strife which divided them;
If I think of a king at nightfall,
Of three men, and more, on the scaffold
And a few who died forgotten
In other places, here and abroad,
And of one who died blind and quiet,
Why should we celebrate
These dead men more than the dying?
It is not to ring the bell backward
Nor is it an incantation
To summon the spectre of a Rose.
We cannot revive old factions
We cannot restore old policies
Or follow an antique drum.
These men, and those who opposed them
And those whom they opposed
Accept the constitution of silence
And are folded in a single party.
Whatever we inherit from the fortunate
We have taken from the defeated
What they had to leave us – a symbol:
A symbol perfected in death.
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
By the purification of the motive
In the ground of our beseeching.

IV

The dove descending breaks the air
With flame of incandescent terror
Of which the tongues declare
The one dischage from sin and error.
The only hope, or else despair
Lies in the choice of pyre of pyre-
To be redeemed from fire by fire.

Who then devised the torment? Love.
Love is the unfamiliar Name
Behind the hands that wove
The intolerable shirt of flame
Which human power cannot remove.
We only live, only suspire
Consumed by either fire or fire.

V

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make and end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.
The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments. So, while the light fails
On a winter’s afternoon, in a secluded chapel
History is now and England.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree

Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always–
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Daybook, St. Andrew’s Day 2016

Today the Church remembers St. Andrew, the first of the Apostles. This is one of the two days traditionally thought of as the Church’s “New Year.” The first Sunday of Advent is always, by definition, the Sunday closest to St. Andrew’s Day, either before or after. When it occurs after St. Andrew’s Day, then St. Andrew’s Day is the first day of the liturgical year. When the Sunday occurs before St. Andrew’s Day (like this year), then the first Sunday in Advent is the Christian’s “New Year’s Day.” The connection between the two is intentional, of course, with call of the first Apostle suggesting a starting point for the Faith, and the season of anticipating the coming of Christ–both at Christmas and at the fulfillment of time–points us to the primary, Incarnational basis of the Faith.

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

Apropos of the last reading, Entrance to the Wood, by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, ca. 1825:

700px-jean-baptiste_camille_corot_-_entree_du_bois_a_ville_davraySomething Else:

I’ve read some Vernon Lee before, and found her Hortus Vitae to be rather charming. Here is Limbo, the collection of essays briefly mentioned in a reading for today. I look forward to reading through it at my leisure over the next few days.

Daybook, St. Andrew Eve 2016

It’s St. Andrew Eve on the Western Kalendar; in 21st century America, it’s also something called “Giving Tuesday,” a charitable response to the year-end consumerist latter-day traditions of “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday.” Quite apropos, I commend to you a charitable organization I truly love, The Society of St. Andrew. Basing their work on the Biblical principle of “gleaning,” SoStA gathers together food that farmers are unable to sell to grocers and other distributors, and that would thus become wasted food, and distributes it to local food pantries and the like. My wife worked for a while at a food bank, and SoStA was one of their primary sources of fresh produce to be distributed amongst the needy.

Readings:

Something Else:

Sir Roger Scruton on classical music in 2016.

Daybook, 18 November 2016

[N.B.: I spent quite a bit of time yesterday working on some of the new things I’m adding to the site, especially the “library.” There will be quite a bit of work to come there in the next few weeks; check back with frequency if you find interesting those same things I find interesting.]

Readings:

Something Beautiful:

The piece on bogs reminded me of Seamus Heaney, whose poetry I read with a couple of good friends a couple of years ago, and whose work I like to revisit from time to time.

Today’s a good day to hear Heaney himself read “Digging” and read “The Grauballe Man”:

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep
the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel
like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.
His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.
The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat
that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.
Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?
And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face
in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,
but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,
hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed
on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.