“Silken mist outside the window, frogs and newts slip in the dark…”

[A few weeks ago, after more than 20 years in Washington, D.C., I picked up and moved to a quiet, rural corner of Maryland. I’d just finished learning about medieval calendar poems while translating an under-studied example of this little-read genre, so I thought: why not document my time in the country with a similar work of my own? Twelve times in the next year, between other posts about books and medievalism, I’ll sum up the month that was—starting, in the meantime, with a praefatio. To read all posts in this series, click the “Beallsville Calendar” subject tag.]

THE BEALLSVILLE CALENDAR

PROLOGUE

Cold constellations, labors, and crops,
Weathered omens and wind-bitten names—
Whatever they measured, the meter and rhyme
Of living seasons had ceased for me.
Hunched and sagging, like half an arch
Fated to hang in a freezing ruin,
Aching to fall, I almost forgot
That an arch made whole is half a wheel,
And wheels can turn. I took and read
An old calendar in careful Latin,
And before my fluency fluttered away
As tiny bats tumble from the eaves
In sheer silence, I sat with a monk
Whose furrowed words I enwound with my own.
The remarkable grace of mediaeval poets
Is to make you wonder what more could be true.
The city said not to—so somewhere between
The sigh explicit and a sincere amen,
I slumped at last, and slipped away.

I never knew the names of the stars.
They no longer mattered; nothing prevailed
For fear or entreaty in the frozen sky
But utter, awful, empty space,
And even that fell; forms behind it
Staggered forward: stoop-necked vultures
Caroled their wake for a crumpled doe.
“In this blood and muscle, all manner of thing
Shall be well,” they whistled. “Waste is a sin.”
Then they sundered their guts, disgorging as one
A holy flood of hook-backed crickets,
Mold-white toads and mummified bats,
And shrieking moths in shrouds of fire
Swirled from their mouths. As sweet breezes
Inflamed the void, I faced the gulf
And heard, everywhere, exhalation,
The ashen pop of paper wings.
Those fledgling stars burned stranger to me
Than the ones that fell. I wonder now
If I even witnessed an ending at all.

I wandered, amazed, for a while in the dusk
Newly born, toward a house they forbade me to enter.
A line of lanterns lit up the world:
I walked their course through a wood, where I saw
A second house in a sunburst grove.
Blinding cobwebs curtained the path,
And another was there. Not understanding,
I echoed her call as she came to the door:
They made me an offer, and I said yes.

13 thoughts on ““Silken mist outside the window, frogs and newts slip in the dark…”

  1. Thanks, T.D. I’m using, at least for now, a liberalized version of the rules for metrical and alliterative half-lines the Anglo-Saxons used for nearly all of their recorded poetry. Not that anyone needs to know that! I just like how it allows for each line to have its own staggered, irregular rhythm but suggests the overarching formal system to the listener’s ear.

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  2. I love it! It’s beautiful! And all the more beautiful because I’ve returned to my own country roots. I live “in town” but then it’s still so rural a guest was surprised I called it that. Yesterday a big chunk of my tree fell over my fence and across my neighbor’s driveway. I used a pruning saw to cut it up while chatting with my neighbor… It was hot and surprisingly humid and a lovely night to be outside sawing a branch with her, and laughing that her husband probably had a chain saw somewhere. Tonight I helped an Amish man at the store to light the lanterns on his buggy as his matches apparently fell out of his pocket. These kinds of experiences didn’t happen when I lived in the big city, or even in the suburbs. I’m so delighted you’re in your new environment!

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  3. Thanks for stopping by, Kathy! I don’t quite know where all this is going, but I’ll be doing my best to see things as they are—through my own dramatic filters, certainly, but hopefully without romanticizing or misrepresenting my new surroundings. I expect to unravel a mystery or two in the months ahead. In the meantime, stay tuned—the September installment will be up soon.

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  4. Just came back to read this again; I’m deeply impressed and love the imagery and language, it’s so rich and colourful and intriguing. Admiring also of your committing to a poem a month in this way, it’s a lovely idea and I look forward to the continuing of it.

    Glad the move is going well; a time may come, as it has for us, when you find you will need the stimulus of plunging into an urban life again from time to time, but you certainly seem to be benefiting from the change now.

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  5. Thanks, Lucy! Coming from someone who has the French countryside to beguile her, your reaction is high praise indeed.

    Fortunately, we’re a little over an hour outside the city. I’ll be going back to visit friends and to take language lessons, but it’s a little too far for a workday whim, and for now that’s good; it’s nice to realize that one is never too old for something new.

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  6. Beautiful words! I’m a firm believer in living close to nature and yet being able to take a jaunt in the city every now and then. A bit of both has been good for me over the years. I am looking forward to reading about your mystery solving …

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  7. Danke sehr! I’m glad the prologue beguiled you. Every day out here brings some tiny new surprise; let’s hope I can spin these into worthwhile words.

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  8. Like the weirdness of “sundered their guts, disgorging as one
    A holy flood of hook-backed crickets,
    Mold-white toads and mummified bats,
    And shrieking moths in shrouds of fire
    Swirled from their mouths.”

    And the whole idea of a loose half-line structure…

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  9. Thanks, Marly! I’m doing my best to exploit the benefits of these sorts of lines. I like that the alliteration and the tetrameter convey a strong sense of form without my having to fall back on either pentameter or rhyme—and the textbook rules for anacrusis in this form make it easier to stretch a line that needs to extend its reach juuust a bit…

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  10. Have you thought about fooling with other ancient forms? If it’s not secret, what? It’s something I really like and think about a good bit.

    So you wanted something a little looser, a little sneakier in its use of form?

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  11. Okay, you didn’t want to answer that question! I am wondering why you think more of anacrusis rather than simply variant feet. Shall have to look at the opening of your lines a little more.

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  12. Whoops—sorry. I thought I replied to your initial comment in email, but now I’m thinking I just imagined it!

    In terms of ancient forms, I’ve fiddled with a metrical adaptation of quantitative elegiac couplets. The result was “Saudade,” a poem in the gargoyle book, and while I like the way it turned out, I just don’t see it having much potential in English—although it did make me aware of the fact that thinking hard about vowel length can enhance a poem in interesting ways. (German poets are especially sharp at understanding the impact of long vowels.)

    As far as the anacrusis goes, I’m trying to use it according to the rules set forth in the main Old English textbook, which specifies five (or six) types of half-lines and the places where anacrusis—in some cases a great deal of it—is acceptable. The rules don’t quite cover the full range of actual Old English meter, which has turned out to be more complex in the surviving poems, but I’m having fun with the textbook rules. In some cases, it’s an interesting challenge to make sure the reader doesn’t stress the wrong thing, and it’s made me aware of how variable the stresses in modern English sentences are. I’m developing an instinct for it, but I’ve yet to be able to articulate it. Maybe by the end of this, I will…

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