Oz Hardwick, ed. New Crops from Old Fields: Eight Medievalist Poets. York, UK: Stairwell Books, 2015.
Reviewed by Julie A. Chappell (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Through their introductions and poetic offerings, the eight medievalist poets gathered in this volume reflect upon the sacred and the profane in the physical and spiritual remnants of the medieval world so important to their lives and work, and, as Jane Chance notes about her own poetry, the poems they tender uncover “the Naked truth inside” each poet.
Jane Beal captures the essence of the simultaneous distinction between and union of being a medievalist and a poet: “As a medievalist, I must translate older forms of English, French, and Latin . . . into modern English. As a lyric poet, I must translate emotion and the memory of experience from my heart to my reader. In both cases, translation is a key that opens new doors” (5). As both medieval scholars and poets, we are compelled to ‘carry across’ past times, memory, place, emotion, and experience to others. Beal’s poetry crosses over from the medieval languages and literary allusions that propel each piece to the more tangible and familiar human emotions that permeate her poetry and her medieval sources. Beal’s travels in the holy land are encapsulated in a poem made up entirely of questions—“Where are you from?” “Are you married?” “Have you been to Bethlehem?” “When will you return to Israel?”—not only relating her memories of moments of experience but also the reality of the collision of the ancient, the medieval, and the modern worlds, of the ordinary and the extraordinary that we encounter as we search for our truths. In one poem, her Speaker encounters a “far-walking pilgrim” a “shadow-walker.” This elicits a reflection and a question: “What shape does the shadow of my life form / when I take my stand in the light of God?” A devout faith seems to resonate from and to guide her poetry as it did the poets of the medieval world whose work informs Beal’s own.
Jane Chance’s scholar’s eye not only provides the reader with the background of her sources of inspiration for each poem but her own interpretation of the inner workings of her poetry as well. In her poems, we encounter such medieval and human drama and emotion as the reluctant second son, newly knighted who must slay the dragon of paternal impatience and skepticism even as he prays his future hinges on luck in love rather than prowess in arms. In another piece, we hear voices—the stone of a castle and the woman “awaiting rescue” becoming one—reminding us of the voices of most, if not all, of the women of medieval romance (and life) which we have found sometimes nearly irretrievable from within the books that bind them for all time. One of the most moving of Chance’s poems juxtaposes a medieval abbey with the modern cafe that faces it, a posture most medievalists have found themselves in in one medieval city or another. In Chance’s poem, a woman sits “sipping coffee” but finds herself not just confronting the abbey but a riot of feelings. Abelard’s ‘calamities’ serve as fodder for the pathos she imagines in the life of the “laughing woman” she sees. Yet, as the woman in the cafe rushes away, as if chased by her own dark thoughts, the “she” of the final stanza embodies both women with their “joy” and “regrets.” Chance’s learned imagination fills every line of her poems where medieval knights and ladies, magic and marvelous beasts vie with modern lyric egos, all in the thrall of desire, dreams, regrets, and the weight of woven texts of symbolic stature.
Pam Clements entices all five of our senses as she entwines Nature and spirituality effortlessly in her poems. We walk into a forest to encounter the green man and to hear Hildegarde’s lyrical voice speaking to “the cosmos.” We discover St. Kevin’s Irish valley as worthy of the contemplation of God and of watching “a river of foxgloves . . . waking the ruins” of the monastic churches and tower. As she reflects on a modern painting that, itself, comingles medieval and modern images of knights and castles, “moat and portcullis,” a figure holds “a rounded object” / (palette, frisbee, paten, Grail?),” a postmodern pastiche of “damaged, things / unfinished.” A Norse and Celtic legend blends the natural world with the human in metamorphosis where humans transform into seals. The Speaker watches with envy as “one dolphin kick / slides past humanity,” and the transformed breaks the constrictions not only of human form but also of human society. Here, no bathing suits are needed and “fat becomes warmth,” and we hear a cacophony of “barking” from the lovely silkies lying “flank to flank ... in noisy caucus.” Clements returns us to the magical medieval world in “Vivien/Merlin,” eschewing the kind or cruel judgment of Vivien’s entrapment of Merlin. In this poem, the Speaker wakes in the roots and vines of an oak tree instead of a stone tower. Nature and spirit mingle in the consciousness of both medieval characters who seem to become one “I,” mourning the loss of time and magic in a world now filled with “bent metal citadels” instead of oak trees, nightjars, and owls. In another poem, the Old English alliterative line is suffused with white owls swooping like “virtual Vikings invading our shores” but, ultimately, here only to “bask in winter sun.” Longing infuses every line as we follow a wanderer out of place and time. Just at the right moment, a line from the Old English poem which inspired this modern one jars the ear in conflict with its modern descendant, leaving the “drifter” of this poem more forlorn and the reader in aching, yet reluctant empathy with the dissonance of displacement. A visit to a monastic choir stall explores the collision of the sacred and the profane in the medieval world as we recognize with the Speaker the physical and spiritual relief of the misericords, where the “pious perched / atop grotesques” and we, ‘hear’ a fart and “snicker,” enjoying the tension between the sacred and the profane relief.
Oz Hardwick [pictured] revisits the misericord juxtaposing the medieval grotesque carvings with another solemn ceremony, but modern this time. A funeral procession being watched by the Speaker imagines the “sadness” and “tears” alongside “goats and grimaces,” “naked women mounting naked men.” We cannot look away from either as, again, “someone farts” inside the sacred silence of the choir. Hardwick’s life in one of the most medieval of modern cities, York incites him to conjure up the green man, sensual and seductive as he “kisses spring / into lithe limbs waking from winter” until the very next poem where “The Green Man Sleeps” and in his sleeping, is a harbinger of winter’s death of “barren buds, / a court of worms.” We recall the great Yorkshire mystic Richard Rolle’s fire of love as a supplicant in another poem prays for that which is most difficult to achieve in any age, “the heart’s bright kindling, / the understanding beyond understanding.” York’s Viking history again appears in a piece that echoes the Old Norse Vestrfararvisur. In contrast to the warriors who wage bloody battles with “sharp swords,” we hear the voice of a skald recounting his dependency on his “word-wave,” on “gaining /grace of place” “proud” that his “one word resolves all riddles.” True Thomas, a witega, prophesies darkly of a world always in disorder; a doom sealed by our “chains to market” and imminent “In your time and mine and the time between.” The legend of Merlin’s Tree comes alive in one poem in dark visions of natural and human-contrived devastation. Hardwick’s final poem recalls “The Seafarer,” and his Speaker also experiences “earfoðhwil” and “bitre breostceare” but gathers humble gifts along the way to vie for God’s grace at the “door.”
M. Wendy Hennequin conjures up Old English laments with classic kennings as she simultaneously revisits the sorrow of Andromache while infusing her with power. This Andromache bears the translation of her Greek name, “Man Battle,” and is now an Amazon warrior, longing for her “sword-brother” (Hector) and the power of her people as it once was. A beautifully crafted poem in perfect imitation of Old English riddles produces three riddles that are smart, modern, and fun to read. Don’t look at the answers until you’re sure you know what these riddles describe! Another poem explores the idea of the chivalric code in its extreme as a bard, coming to Arthur’s court at “Christmastide,” tells the story of the seriously bloody rescue of a damsel in distress by Gawain, Kay, and Bedivere. The story unknown to Arthur, he turns for verification to the knights themselves, who stand nearly mute and will only agree what they did was “just.” Hennequin’s ballad reveals a scribe, alone but deftly and joyously writing of kings and queens and reveling in the brilliant colors on the vellum. This piece closes with a very medieval “envoi to St. Katherine” asking for “grace,” “mercy,” and “might” from this patroness of scribes. Hennequin returns to explore Andromache’s state of sorrow, in the pathetic image created by the repeated line, “Andromache beside the window waits.” This is no Amazon princess but a frail human woman caught in a vicious downturn of Fortune’s wheel.
A.J. Odasso notes that she is “unable to separate the act of writing from the act of dreaming.” Consequently, her poems take us into a dream-world in which we must negotiate the real and imagined in each poem. In one, we inhabit the mind of an orphan searching and grieving; another takes a journey through the tragic past and uncertain future of time where the Speaker seems bereft of hope in the shattering of a cup (set up in an epigraph quoting Hawking’s A Brief History of Time). We follow an emotionally bankrupt Speaker into a dream of loss and despair that, yet, is not totally devoid of hope. Odasso’s ekphrastic poem, responding to a Chagall lithograph of the same title, creates a dream-like vision of Chagall’s abstractions deftly captured in only eight lines. Her second meditation on time relies on our reading of the earlier poem where hope is revived as the cup and time, once shattered, “began to mend.” Another dream vision of barrenness, then birth, startles us with a dark but perverse practicality when “Mother” wraps and stores newborn twins in “an ice-rimed grave” to “keep till we return.” The final poem is true to its title, “Postscript” to the subject of the Hawking-inspired poems invoking the shattered life of the past that must be put to rest.
Joe Martyn Ricke brings poetic verve to his poems, and, in a response to the fifteenth-century “Adam lay ibowndyn,” Ricke applauds Eve’s inquisitive spirit and Adam’s devotion to her that made them the humans we are, embracing our “felix culpa,” while the lyric ego sings “with Harry Belafonte.” Ricke playfully catalogues the three faces of Mary Magdalene as she appears in medieval interpretations as one or all of the women named Mary appearing in the Gospels of Mark, Luke, and John with a final brush with her ‘lost gospel’ union with Christ himself. Ricke’s ekphrastic offering, responding to a twelfth-century wooden statue of the Virgin and Child (gone missing from this medieval artifact), evokes the iconoclasm of the reforming zeal of the sixteenth century as well as the twelfth-century cult of the Virgin. In another poem, we experience a ritual celebration of Our Lady deep in the heart of Mexico and the overpowering scents, sounds, and emotions such a spectacle can still elicit with an “envoy” to a medieval man, a single man, whose ecstatic vision carried him to sainthood, albeit more than 400 years after his death. In his final poem, Ricke gives us that which delights him most about the Middle Ages, the “bloody, grotesque, physical side of late medieval spirituality.” In his unfettered hands, the images of stigmata and blood ooze from the lines of this poem.
Hannah Stone’s poetry finishes this volume and returns us to the idea that “all poetry is a translation of sorts.” Her first poem empathizes with and honors the early desert hermits whose physical sacrifices, including eschewing sleep, turned them into “bones already half spirit,” in their quest for the “holy flame.” An archaeological find displayed in Worcester Cathedral provides Stone with an ekphrastic contribution in which her Speaker contemplates the life and death of the remnants of the life of a medieval pilgrim—boots, staff, and cockleshell badge. Considering scientific musings about his headless remains (captured in a photograph but not in the glass case), the Speaker wonders how he must have tortured his body to save his soul. Her found poem chooses and weaves the words of Richard Rolle, “capturing the flavour” of his instructive exhortations to stay “unsullied” so as to “fly straight to the love and contemplation of God” with Nature (the bee) as God’s model of virtue. Medieval alliterative lines infuse a modern prose poem with poetic vitality allowing us to feel as well as see the nervous, stuttering flight of a lone sparrow as it struggles for freedom from manmade spaces. Her poem about blindness of the losses in Gaza is fraught with the darkness at human frailty as the sestina forces the images of “Gaza’s murdered” in our face so that we must bear witness to the “Great deliverer” as the “girls’ and boys’ / last moments flare in shameful spotlight.” The piety inherent in a medieval Book of Hours is lithely lifted from a poem in which sensually suggestive language is counterpoint to our expectations. In another playful poem giving voice to a medieval “cathedral rodent catcher,” our suspicions about feline omniscience are confirmed. This cat brings to life the diverse inhabitants and their diversions—amorous, holy, and mercenary—giving him “barely a minute’s peace till dusk” when he can return to the mice, those “devious little bastards,” he’s bound to dispatch. Stone’s final piece and the last of this volume sets holy men’s physical discomfort from asserting “doctrines” that “don’t sit comfortably” against the physically freeing observations of “a walker” enjoying God’s grandeur in the quintessential English landscape.
The “old fields” of medieval literature and history lovingly ploughed and sown with fresh seeds from modern hands have engendered delightful and inspiring “new crops” that will refresh any who partake of these evocative, powerful, and revealing poetic medievalisms.
Julie A. Chappell
Tarleton State University