Monday, July 21, 2014

The Weight of Mountains

I used to believe that there were only two kinds of places one could end up: a place near the sea or a place in the mountains. For years I scoured the dark reaches of my soul trying to discern if I was "of the mountains" or "of the ocean." 

Colorado, USA
Through my adolescence and early twenties, I was convinced that my heart needed the constancy of waves, my feet baptized daily in salt water. I was convinced that I had been born "of the ocean" and this notion was partly responsible for my relocation to a costal town in western Costa Rica at age 18.

There I lived a mere 8 degrees off the invisible line of the equator, about 50 feet from the high tide of the Pacific Ocean. The sun rose every day at 6am and set every afternoon at 6pm; a dry season was mirrored by a wet season. Once in a while, I would wake up to a crimson beach: the red tide, a cycle of blooms in under the water's surface. There was a balance of life there that revolved around the rhythm of the ocean. I had fallen effortlessly into that rhythm and thought I'd never leave.

Guanacaste, Costa Rica
It has been a year since my feet touched seawater and almost ten years since my last trip to Costa Rica. I now live along the foot of a mountain range - in the dry shadow of the green-felted, pine covered Rockies. The mountains have their own rhythm: bears come down the slopes in spring and retreat along with the flower blossoms, with the first crisp wind of winter. The vertical orientation of the landscape draws my eyes upward, towards the deep, open sky.

Since arriving in Colorado, I've had to revisit my decision and ask myself again: of the sea or of the mountains? 

...And then yesterday I saw this documentary poetic masterpiece:

"The Weight of Mountains" is a short documentary on the life cycle of mountains - a thing I'd never considered before. Temujin Doran is the creator of this film and here he has delicately balanced geological data with prose, still images of tall and far-away mountains with close-up shots of tiny movement covering these giants. Please watch full screen.

After watching this, it seemed that there aren't only two places a person can end up. Probably, in fact, there are many, many places you can end up. But that anywhere I find myself, I am either traveling to or emerging from sea or the sky, pushing upwards against rock or sliding gently into dark blue water. 

Until next time - keep rustling!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

On Horse, In Saddle

After almost four full months of silence I am finally back on the horse, firmly in the blogging saddle, grasping the reigns of recreational writing. Several significant life events have kept me away from the blogosphere for these past couple of months, but I have missed it so much and am really glad to now be back!

By way of reintroducing myself after this lengthy hiatus, I thought it would be fun to share some of what I've been reading recently - both for pleasure and for work. I hope you find something that interests you!

Our kitchen table, on any given morning...
Research for my dissertation has been taking some interesting twists and turns. I've been looking at various accounts of journeys to the afterlife, composed by writers from across the Mediterranean region. The way in which these cross-cultural narratives intersect seems to provide insight into Mediterranean perceptions of the afterlife and, in particular, the extent to which these divine spaces of the afterlife were accessible to the living.

My new best friends.
One medieval narrative of divine space seems of particular interest, as it extends across several geographic and linguistic communities. The narrative, retold throughout the region and down through the ages, leads the reader into a dark and mysterious cave in the northeastern region of Ireland.

The cave was known as Saint Patrick's Purgatory and was said to have been the earthly site of Purgatory. This concrete physical location became a vastly important pilgrimage site for both natives of Ireland as well as curious travelers. These pilgrimages continue to take place, and in fact you can go yourself if you like, although the cave itself was filled in during the mid-XVIII century and replaced with a chapel.

Books from left to right: The Voyage of Saint Brendan - Journey to the Promised Land, trans. John O'Meara; Viaje al Purgatorio by Ramón de Perellós; Visions of Heaven and Hell Before Dante by Eileen Gardener
I recently read a version of this narrative that fascinated me, written by the Catalan diplomat, Ramón de Perellós, right-hand man to king Juan I of Aragón (XIV century). Following the king's sudden death in a hunting accident, Perellós made the journey to the cave of purgatory in Ireland, in hopes of speaking with the deceased king and discovering the fate of his soul. This appeared to be, then, a diplomatic journey to Purgatory, aimed at settling a matter of State. The yellow book in the photo above is a modern copy of his 1397 account, Journey to Purgatory (my translation).

In spite of the stated purpose for the journey, Perellós' account of covers little of his encounter with the deceased king he successfully visited in purgatory, glossing over a brief conversation in which Perellós confirms that, indeed, the king died in an accident and was destined for paradise after purging the final stains of venial sins.

Perellós went into great detail, however, about the demons that accosted him, the dark and narrow tunnels he traveled through, the immense joy and relief he experienced upon arriving in the anteroom to heaven, and the dread and tearful departure he made from there, returning to the mouth of the cave and the rest of the world to go on living. Rather than recount a "diplomatic mission" (albeit a cosmic one), Perellós ends up with a travel diary that includes detailed descriptions of evil and divine space.

What makes Journey to Purgatory so different from Dante's Divine Comedy is that Perellós' journey has been historically documented and was considered to be not a work of poetry but an autobiographical composition by a respected courtier. Perellós brought several companions with him, received several letters of recommendation from French and British monarchs, documented his expenses and the stops he made along the way; in other words, historians can confirm that he actually did travel to Ireland and actually did enter the cave thought to be the mouth of Purgatory. The way his work was read and interpreted would've differed greatly from the way people read and interpreted Dante. ...More on Perellós to come!

The beauty of painted vellum and historiated initial letters.
When not reading about caves and demons, much of my pleasure reading has been centered on how medieval texts were made, stored, and circulated. I have subsequently spent a good deal of time in the Special Collections Library, taking advantage of their collection of pre-modern manuscripts.

If you are interested in learning more about how manuscripts were made prior to the advent of the printing press, check out this fantastic video produced by the Getty Museum: 

Finally, because making one's way through histories of purgatory and heaven and hell can be daunting, it is important to temper the heaviosity with puppies. That's right. PUPPIES. I'm not just talking about the adorable youtube snugglers that steal my heart on a daily basis, I'm talking about medieval pets. Thank goodness I found Kathleen Walker-Meikle's well-researched and thoughtfully written volume, Medieval Pets (2012).  

Two of the books at the top of my pleasure reading stack.
I wish I could read two things at once so that I could get to these all the many wonderful books I've collected before the summer slips away and the Fall semester takes over my life. The good news is that I will certainly not lack for good reading adventures to share with you, dear petticoat rustlers! More to come soon on the beauty of vellum, the foul stench of hell, the promise of purgatory, the lives of Portuguese clerics, the medieval Mediterranean identity, and of course, puppies.....

Book stacks unnumbered!
Until next time -- keep rustling!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

In Dog Years

My dog and I, almost 10 years ago, walking into the Pacific Ocean. 
Today was my dog Buju's 10th birthday. This is a significant milestone - he's 70 in dog years! I met Buju while walking along the Pacific coast in Costa Rica what seems like several lifetimes ago. My life was very different then; I was 18 and just starting to learn Spanish. I was on my own for my first time, playing violin and waiting tables in a small coastal town. My world was full of uncertainty, a fact which lead to not a small number of missteps.

At 18, I allowed initial gut reactions to guide my decision-making process. This was a process that, although on the one hand had significant drawbacks, on the other hand had glorious and unexpected triumphs. Inviting Buju into my life was definitely one of the triumphant decisions I made because not only have I been able to watch him grow into the great dog that he is, but also because he immediately set about making me into a better person with his humble, unwavering presence.
Inquisitive nose, floppy paws
Together, we have lived 8 degrees off the equator in Costa Rica, in the Arizona desert, and in my native Wisconsin. He has been a steadfast traveling companion, a watchdog over many sad nights filled with tears, and the comic relief in tense moments. He always wants to be near me when I am reading, which gave me the solace and fortitude I needed in the many late nights I spent in preparation for my Masters Exams last year.

His guileless gaze greets me everyday, his intense curiosity forces me to breath fresh air no matter what the weather. And that's Buju: making me better, no matter what the weather.
The art of the nap
I wrote a lot of poetry as an adolescent and into my early 20s. I haven't written anything in a very long time, but I thought in honor of Buju's special day, I'd write a little something dedicated to him...

The cautious tilt of earth
brings you closer to
a season
of shedding.

The lingering flavor of bones –
tiny deaths of squirrels
and memories
of autumn.

The persistent dents of your dreams
pressed onto the aging foam 
of the raft 
on which you drift in sleep.

The kettle in the morning –
Whines before it whistles;
A daily pricking up
of ears.

Your face observing my breakfast
from the rounding
and rounding
of my knee.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Medieval Manuscripts in the Digital Age

Matteo da Milano (active 1492-1523) - Getty
The sturdy vellum pages of pre- and early- modern manuscripts will likely prove capable of outliving our current digital processing systems, which have already been reinvented several times in the span of the last three decades. Crafted with extraordinary skill and care, these old manuscripts have for centuries preserved images and texts essential to understanding our artistic and cultural heritage legacy. The materials used in their creation has allowed them to weather the passage of a significant amount of time without falling apart.

I remember going to the Special Collections library and, for my first time, touching a book from the 17th-century. I gingerly approached the cradle in which it rested, trying not to even breathe on it, for fear that I'd somehow ruin it. A professor who had arranged the trip to the library leaned in and said something to the effect of: "Go ahead, turn the page. These things are quite durable. Vellum: undoubtedly a superior technology." 

It's true, of course, that vellum and rag-paper used in the early modern period remains a far stronger material than the thin sheets of paper on which books are now printed. These manuscripts were also hand-sown, hand-bound into leather, and sometimes even hand-painting with incredible miniatures. 

Although the bookmaking methods of the early modern period may have resulted in more resilient book objects, the digital age has been making those texts more and more readily available for study and enjoyment. As an increasing number of medieval manuscripts are digitized and sent into the world via the Internet, the more opportunity there is for discovery. 

Discovery of these digitized manuscripts is significantly helped along by museum websites and blogs dedicated to the subject. For example, if you're not following Sexy Codicology, you're missing out. Their blog highlights at least one manuscript a week, exploring it with high resolution images of the text and its miniatures. They also have a sister project, the Digitized Medieval Manuscripts Maps (DMMmaps) project, which allows viewers to interact with maps and texts as well as contribute data, via their crowd-source format. 
Court workshop of Ludwig I of Lignite - Getty 
Recently, over at the DMMmaps blog, they did a piece on the Getty collection of digitized manuscripts. It is a treat for the eyes, complete with images and video of some of the many incredible book objects the Getty has in its collection. 

I am thrilled that modern technology allows for such an incredible level of accessibility to these manuscripts, but at the same time I resent looking at them on the computer (not least because it means universities are more apt to withhold travel funding now that texts magically appear on the Internet for free). Seeing these old books in person - smelling them, seeing their enormous physical weight, touching the binding where the hands of a 16th-century bookbinder sewed together the folios - its all part of the way the book is read. 
Unknown illuminator - "The Lamb Defeating the Ten Kings" (c. 1220-35) - Getty 
I am grateful to have a world of images at my fingertips through my computer, but I am also increasingly aware that reading a book is more than making sense of the words and images on the page... it is reading what went into making the page, binding the pages together, where the ink came from and how it flowed out into words, how hundreds of brush strokes and gold leaf made an image, hiding inside a letter "R" come to life. 

Recently, I watched a documentary on the making of museum-grade copies of one of the world's most treasured atlases, which hails from a slightly later time period than the texts pictured above. Nevertheless, I highly recommend taking a peek at this fascinating story, that tells of both the atlas' original creation and its modern re-creation in facsimile. 

There is an almost meditative quality about the slow and meticulous processes of producing a book you know will be able to last for a long time into the future. The original context in which the Atlas Blaeu Van der Hem was produced required hours upon hours of artists, working at their craft, traveling across oceans into completely unknown lands. I like that here, the folks reproducing the Atlas Blaeu go through a slow and meticulous process also, but in a completely modern way. They travel into the field of digital technology and emerge with a new/old book that has apparently married the last 600 years of bookmaking methods.
Unknown illuminator -
"Inhabited initial letter 'B'"
(c. 1153) - Getty 
This is one of those stories that gives me hope that the digital age is likely very compatible with the study and appreciation of medieval texts. Which is good news, because I've been drooling over the Getty images all weekend. 
What are your favorite old books? Have you ever had the chance to read from a book several hundred years old? 
Until next time - keep rustling!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Spring is Like a Perhaps Hand

Allegory of Spring by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1482
Spring is nearly upon us. To celebrate: e.e. cummings and Renaissance paintings featuring the spirit of the season.

"Spring is like a perhaps hand" - e.e. cummings

Spring is like a perhaps hand
(which comes carefully
out of Nowhere) arranging
a window, into which people look (while
people stare
arranging and changing placing
carefully there a strange
thins and a known thing here) and

changing everything carefully

spring is like a perhaps
Hand in a window
(carefully to
and fro moving New and
Old things, while
people stare carefully
moving a perhaps
fraction of a flower here placing
an inch of air there) and

without breaking anything.

Spring by Pieter Brueghel the Younger, c. 1622-35
[in Just -] - e.e. cummings

in Just-
spring         when the world is mud-
luscious the little
lame balloonman

whistles       far      and wee

and eddieandbill come
running from marbles and
piracies and it's

when the world is puddle-wonderful

the queer
old balloon man whistles
far      and         wee
and bettyandisbel come dancing

from hop-scotch and jump-rope and




balloonMan       whistles


Nymph of Spring by Lucas Cranach the Younger, c. 1545-50

Until next time - keep rustling!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Ghost Lovers

Orpheus and Eurydice by Sir Edward John Poynter (19th century)
The last couple of posts (here, here, and here) have dealt with the way in which love and death are intertwined in Renaissance literature, provoking melodramatic liebestod finales to a host of 15th and 16th century narratives. In the process of considering these narratives in which the desire to love lead to a desire for death, however, I was reminded of the stories in which death failed to create an insurmountable boundary for the lovers. The surge in popularity of classical Greek mythology in humanist Renaissance Europe makes me think that it would not be a huge leap of faith to assume the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice was fresh in the minds of poets and authors composing sentimental romances.

Orpheus is prepared to descend to the underworld to bring back his lover, not accepting death as the final act of his love story. But in his refusal to accept Eurydice's death, he confirms its permanence, looking back over his shoulder to catch a glimpse of her ghost materializing behind him. In popular folk narratives, stories in which lovers return from the grave for one final visit are not uncommon. This "one final visit," I believe, can be seen to function in two ways. On the one hand, the ghost returns to comfort their lover and properly say goodbye. On the other hand, it affirms the finality and permanence of death's grip, ending with the ghost vanishing back into the realm of the dead.
Orpheus and Eurydice on the Banks of the Styx by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope (19th century)
Although none of the 15th century Iberian stories that I've looked at over the past week narrate a lover returned from the dead, I do recall an Irish folksong that my mother always used to sing when I was little. It is a night visiting song, in which the ghost of a young woman's lover who died at sea wakes her one night to say one last farewell.

Here is a nice version of the song:

A similar tale is recounted in "The Night Visiting Song" by Luke Kelly:

These are potent stories that emerge across many cultures and historical periods. I recently stumbled across a cajun-French song from Louisiana, "Pa Janvier," performed beautifully by the International Blues Express. The song is a sorrowful appeal to Father January (Pa Janvier), the allegorical figure for winter, whose icy cold wind stole the health and life of a young woman. The song is the lament of the young woman's lover who has survived her, and he pleads with Father January to return to him his love.

They were recorded doing the song by the 78 Project, a husband and wife duo traveling the country recording traditional musicians on a 78 recording machine, very much in the style of Alan Lomax. Take a listen to these incredible musicians (who hail from the American Delta and West Africa) perform the doleful tune for their recording session:

Do you know any night visiting songs? What are your favorite tales of ghost lovers?

Until next time - keep rustling!

Friday, March 28, 2014

They Stand on the Earth and They Cast Their Own Shadows

Detail from Masaccio's painting of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve in the Brancacci Chapel

The many star-crossed lovers of yesterday's post may have come from different literary traditions, but they were all unified by the way in which suffering and desire became hopelessly and fatally tangled in their stories. These tragedies, unfolding at the intersection of pleasure and pain, presented themselves as not only believable love stories but natural ones. The sentimental romances and lyric of the late-Medieval/early-Renaissance Mediterranean make it seem hauntingly natural that the birth of love should lead to the death of lovers.
Masaccio's painting of
Adam and Eve in the
Brancacci Chapel

In grappling with what makes death and desire so inextricably linked in the literary production of this time period, I decided my research needed to go back to the beginning - all the way to the beginning - in order to ascertain the origin of this link. And by "the beginning," I mean the book of Genesis.

The story of Adam and Eve sheds a great deal of light on the connection of desire and death. As a result of their expulsion, they became mortal and died. But at this same moment death becomes their reality, they are born into their humanity and therefore sexuality. As Adam and Eve leave the garden, they experience a sudden awareness of their bodies. This awareness inspires both a tragic self-consciousness full of shame and a thrilling awakening to the possibilities of material connection with one another. In the story of Adam and Eve the origin of human death and suffering is also the origin of human sexuality.

Although it was not the love Adam and Eve had for one another that caused their suffering, as is the case in the sentimental romances, their relationship was defined by the moment in which they became fully human and began experiencing together love, suffering, and death. This confused and terrible moment of leaving Eden unites Adam and Eve (archetypes of all women and men) in both love and death forever.

Patricia Grieve, in her book Desire and Death in the Sentimental Romance, has referred to love and death as the two great mysteries of humanity and thus as necessarily occurring side-by-side in literary representation: "As the two great topics of poetry - unsolvable mysteries both - it is no surprise that [love and death] should appear with great frequency in literature."

Masaccio, the Italian painter of the 15th-century, had a profound influence on other painters of his century and on the Renaissance in general. His depiction of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve in the Brancacci Chapel eloquently narrates a scene of great suffering and great beauty, all embodied by the human form.

When renowned art historian and critic, Sister Wendy, contemplated this image, she noted how representational it was of the overarching ethos of the Renaissance. To the denizens of the Renaissance world, humanity was dignified, in spite of the suffering and grief with which it also constantly had to contend. "They stand on the earth and they cast their own shadows," Sister Wendy said, "that's what the Renaissance was about: humanity as upright, suffering but responsible."

This insight, I believe, is crucial to understanding the link between desire and death in Renaissance works of literature. The overwhelming feelings of love experienced by the protagonists of 15th-century sentimental romances were invariably accompanied by a sense of immense responsibility owed to the object of their feelings. Love allowed the protagonist to encounter the eternal for the first time - feeling love was connecting with a never-ending current of human emotion. But the precarious business of ensuring that their love was fully requited by the object of their desire endangered their experience of the "eternal" nature of love. This caused great anxiety and suffering until it seemed their only recourse was to experience eternity in the only other bodily way available: death.

To hear the rest of Sister Wendy's incredibly preceptive discussion of Masaccio's painting, watch this video from minutes 2:00 - 5:00. If you happen to have 30 minutes available, I highly recommend watching the entire episode.

Until next time - kept rustling!