30 June 2016

writing update & some l'engle.

Image from Amazon.
Music: Songs from As You Like It, the RSC and Laura Marling / Sunny Spells & Scattered Showers, Solas.

Tea: Orange oolong with milk & honey. Questionable.

Word count: 5100.


So it's just typical that the same week I published the "life of Christ" roundup post I would read Madeleine L'Engle's The Sphinx at Dawn. If I'd found it just a few days earlier, it would have demanded a (high) place on the rankings.

Published in 1982, this is a set of two short stories for children, "Pakko's Camel" and "The Sphinx at Dawn." They're about a boy named Yos who's an immigrant living with his parents in Egypt. Yos is short for Yesoshuah. Yep! I've been reading a lot of short stories lately, and I think a good short story is a higher form than a good novel; the reduced length might seem that there's less room to go wrong, but in fact it only means that anything you do get wrong will stand out even more. These are really good short stories, the kind that get hardly anything wrong. I loved "Pakko's Camel," but my favorite was "The Sphinx at Dawn," which is about Yos having a riddle contest with the Sphinx. It's note-perfect, with deliberate shades of Tolkien.

I'll be up front with you: there's nothing much here in the way of incident, which appears to have frustrated reviewers. That's because they aren't about plot but about character and world. They're not allegories, either—indeed, I think the best thing about them is how straightforward they are, their willingness to be literal even (especially) about the supernatural.

So. Imagine, if you will, the gospel of Matthew as written by Lloyd Alexander. (In his Arkadians or Lukas-Kasha mode rather than his Prydain mode. Come talk to me about Lloyd Alexander!) Imagine the child Christ being friends with a talking camel and a time-traveling unicorn. (So actually not Alexander at all then, because in his hands the camel would be a cat.) Then imagine that but written with a subdued lyricism that feels wholly reverent without ever crossing the line into either stiffness or soppiness. Imagine a deep knowledge of Old Testament history combined with an awareness of Greek drama and mythology. L'Engle is subtle, funny, entirely magical.

These stories are about what it would mean for a child to be the sinless embodiment of love, but also a real kid. Yos is very obviously still growing and learning; he's confused and uncertain, he loves his parents and he's got a good sense of humor. We're always advised not to write about protagonists without flaws, and so a Christian writing fiction about Jesus is going to run into some fairly obvious problems. L'Engle succeeded I think because she agreed with one of my own deeply-held convictions, which is that good is a good deal more interesting—and evil a good deal duller—than is commonly supposed.

I miss Madeleine L'Engle. This book is shockingly unknown; I wish I'd read it younger, and I can't believe it's out of print. It's not for everyone, but if your sensibilities align at all with mine you'll probably like it. It's short, and you ought to read it if you can get your hands on it.

29 June 2016

writing update.

Music: Songs for As You Like It, the RSC & Laura Marling.

Tea (pictured): Hot Cinnamon Sunset, with milk and honey.

Word count: 3030.


Recently I've been writing in the living room, at my father's desk, working on the theory that more work gets done when I'm not in the same room as my bed. And, glory be, I've been making real progress. No, I'm not going to talk (much) here about the project, not at this stage anyway. I'm of the mind that it's possible to jinx a story by writing about it instead of using your energy to just write it. But I will say that it's a short story, it's about Greek mythology, and it's coming along better than anything I've written in ages.

In lieu of prose to share, here's a few literary limericks.

(I know. I spoil you.)

There was a cartoonist called Ware
Who set to all houseguests a dare:
"When you've finished my Corrigan
You'll have the floor again!
Till then it is I who'll declare."

A fellow called Mr. McCloud
Said, "Please dispel this great crowd.
When they've all gone away
I'll draw comics all day,
But with them here I'm terribly cowed."

There once was a Dansker called Søren
Whose reflections were frightfully borin'.
Though I'm reading his work
I still think he's a jerk—
It's just that the rain outside's pourin'.

A lively young person of Porlock,
Suspected of being a warlock,
Replied, “Nonsense, sir!
Such allure I abjure;
I can’t even open this door lock.”

There was a stout carl, one Geoff,
Who wrote poetry up till his death.
But then in his bed
A thought came to his head
And he wrote a prose retraction wherein he sought the mercy of God and repudiated all his vain and worldly verses, repenting of his sinful writing and begging Mary and the saints for grace.


Note 1: "Gershon Legman, who compiled the largest and most scholarly anthology, held that the true limerick as a folk form is always obscene, and cites similar opinions by Arnold Bennett and George Bernard Shaw,[6] describing the clean limerick as a "periodic fad and object of magazine contests, rarely rising above mediocrity". From a folkloric point of view, the form is essentially transgressive; violation of taboo is part of its function." The Wikipedia page on limericks is a veritable garden of delights, though as far as I'm concerned the real point of limericks is showing off your rhyming chops. (And your rhythmic chops, to a lesser extent.)

Note 2: I am in fact exceedingly fond of Kierkegaard.

Note 3: Wendy Cope is the master of the limerick. Please enjoy also the OEDILF (Omnificent English Dictionary in Limerick Form).

27 June 2016

fiction about the life of Christ: a definitive ranking.

This one book about Jesus' guardian angel. Oh, all right, I know what it's called; I just wanted to give you a second to enjoy the concept in its purest form. It's called Darien: Guardian Angel of Jesus, by Roger Elwood. I never read it, but we had it in my high school library and I've chortled over the jacket copy more than once.
It was over.

He had failed.

His mission had ended in utter disaster.

Assigned the great honor and daunting responsibility of being the guardian angel to the Son of God, he had begun with vigilance, hope, and commitment, but his hands had been tied at every turn. "Why, Lord? Why?" he groaned over and over as he grieved beside his master's body in the darkness of the tomb. Then he heard the voice of God speak again...

"Remove the stone...!"
The nineties were an incredible time. I still can't decide if I actually want to read this or not, but I adore the implication that Darien has no idea what the plan is. They just gave him the job to mess with him!

"Jason Zerillo Is an Annoying Prick," Robert Shearman. (Published at link as "Jason Zerillo, fl. 30 AD.") I enjoy Rob Shearman's writing usually but this one's a solid eh. It is clever and I can see what he's doing, but the characterization of Jesus is—it's not good, frankly, and even craftwise I feel like this is below Shearman's usual standard. I'd read it before, but I had to re-read it for this post because I remembered almost nothing about it. (Unlike the other Shearman story on this list, which is—it's almost too memorable.) Ultimately the thing is that there's a crucifixion and no resurrection; I wasn't planning on awarding very many points for doctrine on this list, but I have a few scruples left. 

All the Gospel movies I watched in high school Bible classes. So many white Christs. The only thing I remember about this lot is that during the nativity portion of one of them there was a rather sweet scene between Mary and Joseph, and my teacher said with no little satisfaction, "And that's why Jesus had brothers." You heard it here first, kids: St. Joseph the Worker was smokin'. (In fact it was ambiguous whether he meant "because St. Joseph was smokin'" or "because Mary and Joseph were massively into each other." Until I hear otherwise I'm going for a little from column A and a little from column B.)

The one I'm writing. I've been working at this off and on for a while, on the basis that no one else is going to write the one in my head so I might as well give it a crack. There was even a NaNoWriMo iteration of it, about which the less said the better. It focuses on John and Peter, because they're my favorites. It's got lines in like "Andrew gave Cephas a look I recognized. It meant, and had always meant, something like 'Simon, shut up until Dad/that Pharisee/Yeshua is out of earshot, please,'" which should give you some idea of the tone I'm aiming at. (At which I'm aiming.—Ed.) It's a thing in progress. Respect the thing.

The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare. This is the single dullest novel I've ever read.

"Tiny Deaths," Robert Shearman. I'd call this theological science fiction, but before that I might almost be moved to call it psychological horror. Starring Jesus, as after the crucifixion he goes through a series of reincarnations. I hardly think I need to say that I don't believe anything of the sort ever happened. This is... well, it's a hard story to write about. It's definitely not for everyone, and I can't really in good conscience recommend it. But—while it's tempting to dismiss it as blasphemy, and I should really like to do so, I can't shake this awful suspicion there's something genuinely beautiful and true going on there. It's a haunting story, and the point it makes about Jesus knowing intimately all our small and stupid lives and dying for us anyway is as true as anything even if the way it gets there is extremely debatable. It's almost a rebuttal, albeit a very strange sort, to Stevie Smith's "Was He Married?" which is a poem I've been thinking about off and on for years. I don't think there's much I can add beyond linking this thoughtful review.

Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt, Anne Rice. (There is a sequel, The Road to Cana, which I have not yet read.) This is a story about the child Christ, told from his own point of view. It's badly let down by the fact that Rice can't write convincing children. Hardly any of us can, especially as POV characters. Terry Pratchett could, though I'm not saying I'd want to see his take on the infant Christ. Otherwise it's... I think the best word is interesting, and also very well-researched. I don't mean to damn it with faint praise, there—I really enjoyed being able to see just how much research went into this. All the best things in it, though, come out of the medieval religious ballad tradition.

The entire medieval religious ballad tradition. We're leaving out the Christmas ones, but look up "St. Stephen and King Herod" sometime; it's insane. "The Bitter Withy" is a perennial favorite, of course, the story of how the nasty big boys wouldn't let Jesus play so he murdered them. And then Mary beat him—well, you would, wouldn't you? My favorite, though, is "Judas." It's one of the oldest surviving English folksongs, thirteenth century at least. It's in thirteenth-century English, too, so allow me to provide a brief prose translation.
On Maundy Thursday, Jesus rose up and said to Judas, "Judas, you've got to go into town and buy us bread for supper. Here's thirty pieces of silver. I suppose in the broad street you might meet some of your family!"

Judas waltzed off into town and ran into his wicked sister. "Judas," she said, "you deserve to be stoned for following a false prophet." 
"Shut up," said Judas, "if Jesus heard you he'd be avenged." 
The sister, fed up with all this, suggested that Judas take a nap. While he was napping, she pinched the silver off him and did a runner. When he woke up and realized Jesus' silver was gone he pulled on his hair so hard his scalp bled and everyone thought he was mad.

Then Pilate turned up. "Would you sell us Jesus?"

"I wouldn't sell my lord for anything," declares Judas, "except, ooh, hang on, I really do need to get back that thirty pieces of silver I owe him. I don't suppose...?"
...which may be the ultimate example of robbing Peter to pay Paul. I think you know the rest of the story; there's a brief scene in the upper room, but this is the meat of it. I really can't think why more groups don't do recordings of this. I think possibly Steeleye Span did one once, but then Steeleye Span have done everything. By the way, I don't want you thinking that I think that the medieval Christians who produced this song actually believed anything like it, and I don't want you going "ha, silly medieval Christians." They didn't necessarily believe something just because they sang about it, and the Dark Ages continue to be a myth. Still, it's an insane story. Here's someone singing it.

"The Exercise of Virtue," "Storm Clouds," and "Some Secrets in a Privacy Forever Ours," tree_and_leaf. Yes, those links are to a fanfic archive. Mock not, lest ye be mocked. Tree_and_leaf writes great fanfiction about religion—they (I don't know their gender for certain and I'm trying to break myself of the habit of assuming all fanfic writers are women) have also done lovely variations on "Susan Pevensie finds God" and "an Evangelical who thinks magic is of the devil gets her Hogwarts letter." The Narnia one is my favorite—the author shows signs not only of liking and understanding Susan but of liking and understanding Lewis, if you can credit it. "The Exercise of Virtue" focuses on the Syro-Phoenician woman, "Storm Clouds" is about the calming of the storm, and "Some Secrets in a Privacy Forever Ours" is about John after the resurrection. They're wonderfully human stories, moving and funny all at once, and the disciple snark is excellent. I think I detect more than a bit of Dorothy Sayers in these.
"Rabbi," growled Peter from behind an oar—and it was obvious that he would have yelled had he had breath—"It is my professional opinion that I'm perfectly justified in being bloody terrified, because we are all going to die very soon unless some sort of miracle happens."

"Oh you of little faith," said Jesus, sounding vaguely disappointed. "Doesn't my professional opinion count for anything?"
"Yeshua," Unapologetic, Francis Spufford. This book is a defense of Christian feeling (whereas an apologetic is a defense of Christian thought), and Spufford describes the life of Christ as a story that Christians have instead of an argument. He devotes this chapter to a fictionalized account which functions as a short story on its own and which I could well imagine appealing to people who couldn't be bothered to read the whole book—or indeed people who would be horribly offended by the whole book; in many ways this chapter is one of the most orthodox bits of Unapologetic, and Spufford is in general much stronger on Jesus than he is on God. (And, rather surprisingly, he's not much good on the disciples at all.) Lines like this:
So tell me, teacher, says a solid citizen, as the remains of the baked eggplant are cleared away, what must I do to be saved? Yeshua's gaze slides across the tapestries, the silver bowls for washing guests' feet, the candlestick blessed by the Chief Priest of the temple himself. I'd get rid of this lot for a start, he says.
are great bits of writing, and as close as I've ever come to reading the Gospel novel that exists in my head. (Because if I'm honest what I really want is a novel written by someone with all my aesthetic sensibilities but, also, the writing skill which in my case I have not got.)

The Man Born to Be King, Dorothy L. Sayers.
A cycle of radio plays on the life of Christ; I should very much like to see/hear them performed, but they're terribly good even in print. Her colloquial language took more guts then than it would now, and it pays off, and if I don't remember very many details about the plays themselves I think that's down more to me than to her. She's very good on Pilate and the thief on the cross, and very good indeed on Lazarus. (He's a bit suicidal. It really really works.) I'm planning a re-read as soon as possible.
LAZARUS: I love you dearly. To say that I would die for you is nothing. I would almost be ready to live for you if you asked me.
JOHN: Oh, Master, hold him to that promise. Look, Lazarus, you have made your sister cry.

"Friday Morning," Sydney Carter. He's best known for "Lord of the Dance," of course, but I think even that song much as I love it doesn't get across just how much Carter got it. Again, to cite Francis Spufford—Christians have stories instead of arguments. This is the best story I know about the Problem of Evil.
"To hell with Jehovah," to the carpenter I said.
"I wish that a carpenter had made the world instead.

Goodbye and good luck to you, our ways will soon divide.
Remember me in heaven, the man you hung beside.
It's God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me,"
I said to the carpenter, a-hanging on the tree.
Here's N.T. Wright singing it. I'd quite like to sing that in chapel, but I don't think you're allowed to say "to hell with Jehovah" in Edman Chapel or indeed anywhere on Wheaton's campus. Blessed shame.

And there it is. It should go without saying that this ranking isn't anything like as definitive as it amuses me to pretend it is, and that especially when it comes to my favorites it can be shuffled around a bit and I'd still put my name to it gladly. Also, I haven't read anything like all the work on the subject that exists, and when I've read more I'll certainly provide updates on them. Suggestions from the floor are more than welcome; they'll go onto the to-do list and eventually into the rankings. I won't read Philip Pullman's one, though, as I've been practicing self-love. (Joke, more or less. Don't look at me like that; it's still not so vile a sin as self-neglecting.)

Taste, as ever, exists on a Cartesian plane where the axes are "respect" and "affection." I may need at some stage to go three-dimensional and add a z axis for "agreement," creating among other things the options "I agree with you but I don't like or respect you" and "I like and respect you but you're wrong." Plotting all these stories out might be instructive: I have quite a bit of respect for "Tiny Deaths" as a piece of craft if not as a piece of theology, but whether I like it on any given day is a toss-up; I adore the medieval ballad tradition but I'm afraid I don't always take it very seriously. (Chronological snobbery?) I don't like The Bronze Bow and I don't think it's very good either. The top [edit for clarity: by top I mean best—as in top of the list—rather than the physical top of the post] three or four here, though, I both like and respect and can recommend without hesitation.

And if you object to anything about my rankings, I am as always ready to fight it out in the comments.

24 June 2016

poetry friday: fanfare for the makers.

Recently I've been watching BBC2 sitcom Rev. It focuses on Adam Smallbone, the hapless vicar of St. Saviour's in the Marshes, an inner-city London church. It's a bit, a very little bit, like a contemporary version of Susan Howatch's Starbridge novels if they were funnier and much less sexy and everyone in them was a great deal less competent. Adam's a disaster of a person, and he definitely doesn't deserve his wife (played by Olivia Colman, who continues—marvelously—to be in everything), but he's trying really hard and for all its cynicism the show takes his faith and his calling seriously. There's terrifying Evangelicals, terrifying overachieving curates, and a terrifying Archdeacon. And Adam's own congregation, which is as terrifying as it is tiny. It's not a perfect show: like many comedies it needs more sympathetic women, and Adam desperately needs to shape up. Still, I like it a lot. I couldn't possibly choose a favorite episode. Maybe the Christmas episode? But I love the one with the Evangelicals; not sure if I've actually met Darren, but he's definitely a friend of a friend.

At some stage I'm going to do a proper post about the show, with screencaps and analysis and all that nonsense. At the moment though, I just want to share a poem that Adam quotes a few lines of in the first season: "Fanfare for the Makers," by Louis MacNeice. I've not read much (any) MacNeice and haven't a volume of his poetry on hand. Fortunately, this show has fans who've put the poem on the internet. I source from one such:
A cloud of witnesses. To whom? To what?
To the small fire that never leaves the sky.
To the great fire that boils the daily pot.

To all the things we are not remembered by,
Which we remember and bless. To all the things
That will not notice when we die,
Yet lend the passing moment words and wings.

So fanfare for the Makers: who compose
A book of words or deeds who runs may write
As many who do run, as a family grows
At times like sunflowers turning towards the light.

As sometimes in the blackout and the raids
One joke composed an island in the night.
As sometimes one man's kindness pervades

A room or house or village, as sometimes
Merely to tighten screws or sharpen blades
Can catch a meaning, as to hear the chimes

At midnight means to share them, as one man
In old age plants an avenue of limes
And before they bloom can smell them, before they span

The road can walk beneath the perfected arch,
The merest greenprint when the lives began
Of those who walk there with him, as in default

Of coffee men grind acorns, as in despite
Of all assaults conscripts counter assault,
As mothers sit up late night after night

Moulding a life, as miners day by day
Descend blind shafts, as a boy may flaunt his kite
In an empty nonchalant sky, as anglers play

Their fish, as workers work and can take pride
In spending sweat before they draw their pay.
As horsemen fashion horses while they ride,

As climbers climb a peak because it is there,
As life can be confirmed even in suicide:
To make is such. Let us make. And set the weather fair.
It's an ode to the world at large, and to all the quiet loves and competencies that fill it and keep it running. I love that although it's about making, MacNeice doesn't restrict the definition of that to things we would conventionally recognize as quote creativity unquote. The whole world is full of creative acts if you know where to look for them, and it's only unfortunate that so many people don't. "Molding a life," your own or a child's, is a creative act. The reference to suicide at the end—well, I don't know quite what to do with that, except to recognize that it takes some thinking and that it's a poem worth thinking about. (A poem about which it is worthwhile to think.—Ed.)

And to return to Rev: There's a scene in a later episode where Adam is discussing preferment with his reader Nigel, and says that he really isn't interested in being a bishop or a dean—he just wants to be a good parish priest. Nigel doesn't believe him of course, but the line rang very true to me. I think the use of this poem expresses something fundamental about Adam, or about who he'd like to be. (Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself? I will, with God's help.) This celebration of the tiny vital things that make up the world reminds me of another favorite, Charles Reznikoff's "Te Deum":
Not because of victories
I sing,
having none,
but for the common sunshine,
the breeze,
the largess of the spring.

Not for victory
but for the day's work done
as well as I was able;
not for a seat upon the dais
but at the common table.
(I'm trying to keep length here under control, but see also "Alive Together" and "Doing Laundry on the Last Day of the World" and "Great Things Have Happened." I often think how good I would be at compiling anthologies.)

This seems to be an animating principle for a lot of fiction I love—it's at the heart of Call the Midwife and of Terry Pratchett's Tiffany Aching novels, and it's there in Connie Wills' insistence that "History was indeed controlled by blind forces, as well as character and courage and treachery and love. And accident and random chance. And stray bullets and telegrams and tips. And cats." (The particular line is from To Say Nothing of the Dog, but Willis affirms the principle over and over again.) It reminds me too of Ursula Vernon's recent essay on gardening and how "often it comes down to one person who kept something small but important from being lost forever."

And so what we have is making, in all its forms. What is there to do but make, what but "compose / a book of words" or "tighten screws or sharpen blades" or even to plant "an avenue of limes"? What but find our own work and do it quietly, lovingly, just as well as ever we can? What but witness, and bless, a world that doesn't seem to notice us? It's not about saving the world, exactly, except perhaps in the sense that he who saves one life saves the world entire—it's about delivering a child, planting seeds in a garden you never get to see, rescuing a cat. (NB: rescuing a cat is the plot of To Say Nothing of the Dog. Read it; it's good.) Let us make. And set the weather fair.


22 June 2016

two recipes, somewhat adapted.

A while ago I made these "chaidoodles" from Butter Me Up, Brooklyn. They were good, but I don't make many cookies—they always seem like so much effort, and there are so few cookie recipes I really love. The best thing that came of these was that after making them I had leftover chai doodle sugar; I tried it in my tea and fell in love with the result, and though I've never made the cookies again I regularly make a batch of the sugar and keep it in a jar next to the other tea things. We have real chai regularly, but it takes time to make and this is an easier way to get the fix.
  • one cup (220 g) sugar
  • one and a half teaspoons cinnamon
  • one teaspoon ginger
  • one teaspoon cardamom
  • half a teaspoon nutmeg
  • half a teaspoon black pepper
  • half a teaspoon allspice
  • a quarter teaspoon cloves
Those are the basic amounts, and the amounts pictured, but I generally make a double recipe. There's no reason not to make extra, since it lasts forever. Use in any tea in place of ordinary sugar—I'd recommend going for a slightly smaller amount than you usually do since this has a stronger flavor. I'm reliably informed it's good in coffee too, but I haven't tried that myself because coffee is revolting.

The other thing I've been making recently is granola. The base of my recipe is Cookie and Kate's Cranberry Orange Granola, but you have freedom of conscience with regard to basically everything except the oats and the ratio of solids to liquids. And even then—I was making a batch the other day and found that I didn't have as many oats as I'd thought. I made up the difference with powdered milk, whole wheat flour, and cornmeal. A success story! My one dogma is that I disagree strongly with the instruction to use one teaspoon of sea salt or three-fourths of a tablespoon of table salt. I've always used a full teaspoon of table salt; as far as I'm concerned, one of the strengths of this granola is its saltiness and you'd be a fool! a fool I say! if you did anything to compromise that.

Cookie and Kate prescribe orange, cranberries, pecans, and cinnamon; my most recent endeavor, and I think the best I've managed, used lime, apricot, almonds, and cardamom. It works with any citrus (I've also used lemon and tangerine), any nuts (I always use almonds), any dried fruit. The fruit can be increased, reduced, or jettisoned. You can even lose some or all of the nuts if you must, though you'd do well to make up the difference with extra oats. The olive oil could be coconut oil, I guess, if you're into that? The honey could definitely be maple syrup.

All together, now: in necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas. With pleasure I now present In Dubiis Libertas Granola.
  • no less than a tablespoon citrus zest
  • three tablespoons sugar
  • four cups oats
  • one and a half cups raw nuts
  • half a teaspoon cinnamon (or other spice)
  • one teaspoon salt (be generous)
  • half a cup olive oil
  • half a cup honey
  • one cup dried fruit

Preheat to 350 Farenheit. Mix the zest with your sugar, rubbing it with your fingers to release the oils. Then put it into a larger bowl and add the oats, nuts, cinnamon, and salt. Mix well before adding the liquid, and then mix again. Bake for twenty-two minutes on a large baking sheet, and stir halfway through. If you like it clumpy, use the back of your spoon to press it down after stirring, and after removing it from the oven let it cool in the pan before you disturb it. Definitely cool it completely before adding fruit. Eat with yogurt, milk, or in handfuls while wandering through the kitchen. A banana would not be ill-advised.

NB: I bake for twenty-two minutes and it almost always comes out with a few burned bits. I have no idea whether this will happen to you or not, but to be honest I'm kind of into it. I like bitter flavors. If you don't, maybe watch it more carefully than I do? Or line the sheet with baking paper.

(Who thinks I should start a recipe blog called In Dubiis Libertas?)

20 June 2016

by no means!

Image from Amazon.
Grace makes itself abound. There is no need—and no way—of forcing its hand.

Which is why, then, the Apostle begins verse two with God forbid (mē génoito). There is a problem of translation here. The "God forbid" of the King James Version catches the urgency of the Greek, but the word God simply isn't in the original: that just says something like "Let it not happen!" Other versions render it in various ways. The Revised Standard Version says, "By no means!"—which catches Saint Paul's meaning better, but sounds far too relaxed. And the Vulgate translates it Absit, which means, literally, "Let it be absent!"

I propose, therefore, that we cut our losses, capitalize on the distinctive merits of each of these several versions, and combine the result in one new rendering. Let us keep the urgent negativity of the KJV's God forbid!, the almost Yiddish nuance of It shouldn't happen! in the original Greek, the refreshing note of Get out of here with that jazz! from the Latin Absit, and the sense of simple, literal impossibility in the RSV's By no means!—meaning, there just isn't any way. The locution that seems to me best suited to combine them all is the phrase No way! as it came to be used in the sixties and early seventies (Would you vote for Richard Nixon? No way!). Accordingly, my version reads as follows: Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? Baby, there just ain't no way! How shall we who are dead to sin live any longer therein?
—Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three.

To be filed under: things my Greek professors this year would definitely not have let me get away with in my translations. This book is delightful—intelligent, self-aware, shocking, funny, kind. I'm not nearly finished with it, but I loved (of course) The Supper of the Lamb and Fr Capon is proving to be just as eloquent here on law and grace as he was there on onions and puff pastry. Further updates forthcoming.

16 June 2016

a softer tardis.

A word of explanation, though not of apology, for today's bit of folly. While it existed—it ended last year—A Softer World was the best comic on the web. It was a strange little poem-comic—always artistic, often funny, and sometimes deeply depressing. It consisted of photos, taken by Emily Horne, with text by Joey Comeau over them. Among fans of the comic, it's quite common to create remixes. Images from existing strips are removed and then replaced with images from (usually) a TV show to whose characters the text is applicable. I did some Doctor Who ones a while back, and I'm posting them today by way of fulfilling my promise to write here about Who. (I'm also drafting a post on robots and humanism, so. Watch this space!)

Click to embiggen. If you enjoy, do let me know; I have ideas for more.

621 // The Greatest Show in the Galaxy

568 // The Curse of Fenric
364 // the seventh Doctor
680 // The TV Movie

940 // The Night of the Doctor
635 // The Eleventh Hour
721 // The Beast Below
901 // Vincent and the Doctor
869 // the eleventh Doctor

14 June 2016


Kennings are one of the most important parts of Anglo-Saxon poetry (she said, with all the novice's baseless confidence). A kind of metaphor and a kind of riddle, they consist of two words which serve to replace a more concrete single noun. Often they can take a moment to figure out, and to think about them at all is to enter into a peculiarly delightful puzzle-logic whereby the human body is a bone-house, a good king is a ring-giver, a snake is a valley-fish. The Anglo-Saxons loved riddles, and I submit that this is why they produced such great poetry.

To ken is to know. I've no idea if a genuine etymological connection exists (It does. Do your research.—Ed.) but still I wonder if a kenning is a knowing. I wonder if you can fit together metaphor without knowing intimately the thing you wish to describe, or if anyone can know anything without the poet's guidance. Certainly I wonder if I ever knew the sea until I knew it at last, with the Beowulf poet, as hron-rād: whale-road. This is among my happiest memories, as it happens. Two summers ago I was seventeen and scared stupid, and I spent a day riding shotgun as my dad drove through eastern Kentucky and told me about Beowulf. Just the two of us. My mother and brother were in another car, driven by the family friend whose cabin we were visiting. I gazed out the window and he explained kennings and caesurae and alliterative verse as we wound through and around those ancient sloping hills. I asked for a modern English example of caesura; we both stopped to think, and in a small-town grocery store we said "admit impediments. Love is not love" at almost precisely the same moment.

God as father, θεός ὁ πατήρ, pater noster, is a metaphor no less than the sea as a road, and I'm lucky beyond luck that my life has been such that I understand this metaphor as it is meant. If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him?

"Hron-rād" is one of the best gifts I've ever been given. It struck me at the time, and has ever since, with that kind of electric rightness you sometimes find in very great poetry, evoking both the cold Danish sea and the lovely wild Caribbean I knew already. Of course the sea is a road for the whales, and of course such a juxtaposition of the vast and the literally down-to-earth is the best way to name that homely threatening murderous nourishing expanse. Watch me now, piling up adjectives to try and recreate what an anonymous scop more than a millennium ago did in six letters and a hyphen. And like all great metaphors it works both ways: the word evokes the thing, and now when I stand by the sea the word is what comes to mind.

Pause for a tedious discourse on the signifier and the signified. Resume.

I recently read Lauren Winner's last-but-one book (her best yet, by my lights) Still. She claims it isn't a memoir. The author being dead and the text being right here before me, a memoir is just what it is, albeit rather an unusual and non-narrative one. Among its many treasures, it contains a brief passage on kennings, here in reference to the poetry of Emily Dickinson. I'm not certain that all of the two-word descriptors of God which Winner points to—gigantic sum, tender pioneer, brave beloved—are what you would technically refer to as kennings. Then again, this is because I am what you would technically refer to as a pedant. In any case literary analysis was scarcely the point of the exercise. Winner's point is that she sees in Dickinson's metaphor a deep knowing of God, a knowing she rather envies:
You have to know Jesus well, closely, to call him the giver of the Gigantic Sum. 
You must know him well to reach for him with words like Tender Pioneer. 
One day maybe I will know Jesus well enough to ken.
Metaphor arising from understanding. Understanding that grows from other people's metaphors. Dickinson's understanding transferred over time and space, in a poetry that makes the top come off your head. Dame Julian called Christ our "endless bliss," our "true mother," "the ground of our beseeching." Eliot called him "wounded surgeon," and Hopkins "thou Terrible." This is of course without the pictures that Scripture provides—God is a crooked judge, a friend you borrow bread from at midnight, a woman measuring out yeast. What is any of this but metaphor, puzzle, joke? What is a parable, if not a riddle?

Who borrows bread at midnight?

(Parables, says Frederick Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking, "are really jokes in their way, at least part of whose point seems to be that a silly question deserves a silly answer.")

This bit is important. I do not love metaphor and riddles and poetry because they are a way towards God. It could never work that way around and, while I'm an expert at the missionary parlor game of turning random images into sermon illustrations, I sincerely hope that this isn't what I'm doing here. Poetry for me is a way to God because I already love it, for itself, and because God in his mercy chooses to speak to me in the language I know best. God's not an American, you see; he speaks more than one language. (Joke. Don't write in.)

"The road to heaven," says Fr. Robert Capon in his magnificent cookbook The Supper of the Lamb, "does not run from the world but through it." Through reading poetry and kneading dough, through long walks and good talks. Through embracing thoroughly our humanity here and now. Through, heaven help us, Beowulf. Even Screwtape knew that "the deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point with which the Enemy has furnished him." Christ plays in ten thousand places, and "play" is just the word.

He's having (forgive me) a whale of a time.

(if you cast your gaze to the sidebar you'll notice I've installed an email feed. I've no idea how it works, but do give it a whirl if you're interested in keeping up with my writing here!)

10 June 2016

poetry friday: on the radio + words to adam.

Thys ys how yt doth werke
Thou art yonge til thou art nat
Thou lovest til thou do nat
Thou triest til thou kanst nat

Thou laughest til thou crye
Thou cryest til thou laughe
And everichon moot breathen
Until hire dyinge breathe

Nay, thys ys how yt werketh
Thou peerst ynside thyself
Thou takst the thinges that thee liken
And tryest to like the thinges ytaak

And thanne takest the love thou hast ymaad
And place yt ynto sum
Sum oon elses herte
Pumpinge sum oon elses bloode

And stridinge arm yn arme
Thou prayst yt take no harme
Yet even yf yt doth
Thou shalt but do yt al agayne

And on the radyo
Thou herest 'Novembir Rayne'
The solo ys prettye longe
But lo: the swete refrayne

Ye listen to yt twyce
For the DJ ys asleepe

Thys hath been Geoffrey Chauceres adaptacioun of 'On the Radyo' by Regine de Spektor
— @LeVostreGC (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

Well, someone needed to put it all in one place. It's too good not to share, so this is me preserving the tradition. I've come to the conclusion that there's two ways to achieve immortality in poetry if you're not a great poet yourself: you can get them to fall madly in love with you and pine for years, or you can annoy them so much that they write a bit of immortal verse about how annoying you are. We can't all be Beatrice di Folco Portinari; some of us are Adam Pinkhurst. Or, to put it a very slightly nother way, some of us are muses and some of us are copyists. I have no illusions about my prospects.
Adam scriveyn, if ever it thee bifalle
Boece or Troylus for to wryten newe,
Under thy long lokkes thou most have the scalle,
But after my makyng thow wryte more trewe;
So ofte adaye I mot thy werk renewe,
It to correcte and eke to rubbe and scrape,
And al is thorugh thy negligence and rape.
(And once more with footnotes.)

In any case I love @LeVostreGC more than most things, and it never ceases to delight me that the musical tastes of the account align so well with my own. (Figure 2.) This is almost certainly my favorite Spektor song. Everichon moot breathen until hire dyinge breathe!

Roundup? Roundup.

6 June 2016

"so help me I will turn this entire pilgrimage around": the Harry Bailey story.

no apologies, no explanations, just questionable fanfiction.

Geoff, riding near the back, idly surveys the company. The little groupings that have developed are very interesting; he’s beginning to think he ought to go into travel writing. The Clerk seems to have struck up a friendship with Parson wossname, probably on the basis that they are both enormous frickin nerds. (Geoff is also an enormous frickin nerd, but finds it expedient to keep this under wraps.) The Ploughman—Geoff has been privately thinking of him as Piers—is a timid sort, not much inclined to talk to anyone but his brother; even so he seems content to listen to the Clerk growing very animated about something or other. Aristotle, looks like. Nearby, the Knight is giving his Squire what looks to be a rather different sort of lecture; the kid’s squirming.

Most everyone else is listening to the Cook tell a story. They’re clustered in identifiable patterns—the women ride together, Robin and Oswald are as far apart as they can be and both still hear the Cook, no one wants to get too near the Summoner—but there’s not much conversation happening.

“So,” the Cook’s saying, “Perkin's friend's hot wife. She kept a store, like, for looks? But that’s definitely not how she made her actual living, if you know what I mean.” He leers at no one in particular.

Robin lets out a drunken cheer and nearly falls off his horse. One of the nuns, the one Geoff thinks of as the Other Nun, looks bemused, until Alison murmurs something in her ear and embarrassed comprehension dawns. Alison, for her part, rolls her eyes, then grabs the communal wine bottle from the Pardoner and takes an enormous swig.

Meanwhile Harry Bailey is nearer the back performing a rather half-hearted headcount and steadfastly ignoring the Cook. “Seven-and-twenty, eight-and-twenty. Nine-and-twenty. Yes?”

“You’re forgetting the Priests,” says Geoff, helpfully.

“God's bones,” says Harry. “Okay, shut up everyone. Shut up!” He waits for everyone to grow more or less quiet, and then says, “Has anyone seen the Priests?”

There is a general shaking of heads. “The Nuns ought to know,” says Alison sensibly.

The Nuns do not know. “They’re grown men,” Eglantine says. “We thought they could keep track of themselves. You can’t expect us to always know where they are.”

"Whatever," says the Squire, earning a rather disapproving look from his father. "Dad and I’d notice right away if our Yeoman went missing.”

The Yeoman, it transpires, has in fact gone missing. Also nobody knows what’s happened to the Franklin, and Geoff rather suspects that Harry counted the Monk at least twice.

“And besides that there were definitely more than twenty-nine of us to start with,” the Merchant says mildly, but no one listens to him, even though one might reasonably expect a merchant to be good with numbers. (If one didn’t know about the crippling debt; Geoff knows, but he’s fairly sure no one else does.) It doesn’t help that no one can reliably remember what his name is.

“So help me,” says Harry very loudly, “I will turn this entire pilgrimage around if I have to.”

(and of the hoost's tale was made namoore. it's rather a one-note joke which would collapse if I prolonged it any further, and also I'm working on a real project inspired by the Tales. I understand that manuscript fragments are where it's at anyway?)

3 June 2016

may linkblog.

Jo Walton's poetry is always worth reading, but her recent Saint Malo sonnets are especially—achingly—lovely.

Where the Icons Aren't Yet Dry.

Bicycles Built Based on People’s Attempts to Draw Them From Memory.

Before leaving for home, I picked up Robert Lowell's prose translation of Prometheus Bound from the free book shelf in the English department, because I love Aeschylus and because I always like to travel with slender paperbacks. About a week ago I finally sat down and read it. I haven't read any other translations of the Aeschylus so I can't speak to it on that score, but it's a genuinely stunning play. The volume I read is out of print, but the full text is available online, free and legal. It's only short, and anyone interested in Greek mythology at all really ought to read it.

"John Keats never read a word of Chapman's Homer. Here I stake my claim." This entire piece is golden, and I cackled continuously as I read it out loud to my father, but I lost it at "Since time immemorial, people have wanted to know, is there a book that can make you feel like Cortez," and then again at "Chapman: A land of contrasts."

An apropos Wondermark: ah jeez are you creating content again.

This Black Books fanvid, set to Tim Minchin's "The Good Book," is very old indeed, but it's an excellent one and I've only just got into the show, so.

Over on Tor.com, Mari Ness discusses the Frog Prince folklore tradition—which, as usual, is much weirder than anyone remembers. Also, a list of sci-fi related non-fiction, none of which I've read and a lot of which looks delightful and important. Criticism!

Planning to make these lime bars with saffron sometime soon if not actually today. With turmeric instead of saffron, though, a substitution I always make; who on earth keeps saffron in the house, and why?