Posted in Female Author, Male Author, Poetry

Book ~ Beowulf

Cover for Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, featuring the head and shoulders of a figure (including the face) covered entirely in chain mail.
Cover of Beowulf, translated by Maria Dahvana Headley. The bright blue cover features a dragon intertwined with a red Gothic font B with a gold crown atop,

The first time I read Beowulf was in college, in a history class rather than a literature class. It was a prose translation, probably the ubiquitous one by E. Talbot Donaldson. I came away not very impressed. That mass market paperback hasn’t survived my occasional library culls, even though the notes from the class have (due more to the art on the back of the notebook). The class, History of the Middle Ages, emphasized what the social value might have been for its original audience: an ideal leader is one who is brave, generous, and, most importantly, tied to his community.

I gave Beowulf a second chance when Seamus Heaney’s translation was published. I was already familiar with Heaney as a poet, and it seemed to me that there was probably some literary value to the poem that I hadn’t seen previously. I love Heaney’s translation and it’s become a work I reread every-so-often. When I sat down to Beowulf a couple weeks ago, I got curious about Marie Dahvana Headley’s 2020 translation and queued it up in audio book form.

In Headley’s introduction, she states that she wished to provide a more female forward translation of Beowulf. It’s true, the original author fails to give any details to the women and gives only negative attributes to Grendel’s mother. Headley also wanted to liven up and modernized the language of the poem. What would Beowulf sound like if it were being told today by the dude at the end of the bar, three drinks in?

I’m not sure Headley is entirely successful in either of these two goals. I’m going address the language first, because I realized that is why I reread Beowulf. It’s not for the story (even though I like competent heroes) or the literary value* or even to chew on the interplay of Judaism/Christianity within the narrative. I reread Beowulf, Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf, for the language. For me, his translation does feel like an old seaman telling a (tall) tale to a bar full of serious fisherman who want a story of honor and derring-do because their profession is full of mundane danger. That said, I think Headley’s hip-hoppy “Bro” tone could have worked if it were consistent and avoided references that are already past date (yes, like “hashtag blessed” (Also, I looked at excerpts from the printed version, why isn’t it written as “#blessed”? I call the publishers cowards here.)). As it is, I feel like Vin Diesel is the only person who could read this aloud and even out the grandeur and the gutter.

On the second point, I’m going to recuse myself: I only listened to Headley’s translation to just after Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother. (The language was that jarring.) While Headley does make efforts to point out that many of the women in Beowulf, queens even, aren’t given the names and lineages similar to male characters, there doesn’t seem to be much done to make Grendel’s mother less of a monster. And that’s fine with me. I’m assuming that translations, including Headley’s, have been generally faithful and there just isn’t much to work with. Grendel and his mother are spawns of Cain. Though they anger and hunger and grieve, they are still the monsters of this piece and Beowulf, the hero.

*Co-current to my delve into Beowulf, I’ve been reading Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing lectures, which cover the nature of English literature. He touches on Beowulf:

The pretence that our glorious literature derives its lineage from “Beowulf” is in vulgar phrase ‘a put up job’; a falsehood grafted upon our text-books by Teutonic and Teutonising professors who can bring less evidence for it than will cover a threepenny-piece.

Posted in Male Author, Poetry

Review ~ Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost

Paradise Lost by John Milton

John Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of the greatest epic poems in the English language. It tells the story of the Fall of Man, a tale of immense drama and excitement, of rebellion and treachery, of innocence pitted against corruption, in which God and Satan fight a bitter battle for control of mankind’s destiny. The struggle rages across three worlds – heaven, hell, and earth – as Satan and his band of rebel angels plot their revenge against God. At the center of the conflict are Adam and Eve, who are motivated by all too human temptations but whose ultimate downfall is unyielding love.

Marked by Milton’s characteristic erudition, Paradise Lost is a work epic both in scale and, notoriously, in ambition. For nearly 350 years, it has held generation upon generation of audiences in rapt attention, and its profound influence can be seen in almost every corner of Western culture.

via Goodreads

This is a reread of Paradise Lost. I originally read it in college in my Milton class. Back then, I read from a doorstop edition of Milton’s Complete Poems and Major Prose. This time around, I used Dartmouth College’s online edition.

There are a couple of hurdles to reading Paradise Lost:

First, it’s poetry, and poetry freaks people out. Especially long, epic poems. But the thing to remember is: while line breaks occur more often, punctuation still marks where thoughts start and stop. The first stanza of book 1 is twenty-six lines long and is one sentence. But there are plenty commas, semicolons, and even a couple of colons to break up the stream.

Second, much of the poem is really dialogue, so you need to pay attention to the beginnings, ends, and shorter stanzas because those are the ornate dialogue tags. In my paper edition, I annotated who was speaking and the ends of sentences.

Third, there are weird spellings for words. “Tast” instead of “taste.” There are a lot of heav’ns and flow’ds and th’s, which lend to a spoken reading. A lot of excess “th”s, and “ie”s for “y”s. I’m not saying these are difficult issues, but it one more thing to wade through.

Fourth, there are allusions galore. This might be a biblical story, being told by the actors in the midst of it (God, Satan, several angels, Adam), but Milton pulls from Greek and Roman myths, parts of the Bible that would be chronologically later, Shakespeare (I believe), and other contemporary texts in order to add depth and scope. Nothing was off-limits. I’d like to think if Milton were writing this today, he’d roll in some Lovecraftian mythos. The Dartmouth online edition is very helpful in regards to these last two points. It provides mouse-over spelling corrections and hyperlinked annotations.

I decided to read Paradise Lost again due to the FrankenSlam! challenge. It is one of the three manuscripts that the monster happens to read as his education. Presumably, these manuscripts were also Mary Shelley’s basis for the monster as a character. Given the amount of allusions that do require some familiarity with other texts, I’d think that monster might have been lost much of the time while reading Paradise Lost. Even so, there are repeated themes of parentage, sins, and punishments which the monster would find compelling.

Satan saw himself as a near equal to God and in God’s good graces until he was demoted for God’s son. His subsequent rebellion leads to punishment and more perceived slights as God places man as a higher being than Satan and his rebel angels. Later, when God punishes man with “death,” the punishment feels like a compromise being made by a capricious father. Man whines about not asking to be created at all.

Did I request thee, Maker, from my Clay
To mould me Man, did I sollicite thee
From darkness to promote me,

Book 10, lines 743-745

It’s this quote that is Frankenstein‘s epigraph. I can see where the monster might by turns identify with Satan and also with man.

Personally, I generally enjoyed this reread. It’s been over twenty years since the first time and I have more stuff rattling around my head now, including a more recent reading of Frankenstein. Honestly, I find Milton is at his best when armies are heading into battle. I previously under-appreciated Book 6 when Raphael tells his side of the battle with against Satan’s angels. Satan, of course, gets all the good lines, and most of the manuscript, but this section of Raphael telling Adam about the conflict, kind of on the sly, is one of the more vivid passages.

Posted in Male Author, Poetry

Poetry Pit Stop #1

On Saturday morning, I went to Bookmans, the big, local second-hand book store. I browsed, but the only book that wanted to come home with me was Wind Song, a slim volume of Carl Sandburg’s poetry. Many of these are poems that I could probably find online, but I like poetry in books.

On Saturday evening, I decided I wanted to expand my magic library from one shelf to two. This meant displacing most of the books on the second shelf. Some ended up in the closet. A stack of Russian lit ended up atop boxes of paperbacks. And a collection of mostly unread poetry books ended up in the bedroom. “I should start reading poetry on regular basis,” I thought. “Maybe one or two poems a day.”

So that’s my plan. And maybe once a month I’ll share my favorite poems from the previous reading period.

So, the first poem:

Sandburg fits this time of the year for me. Summer is just beginning to recede and I’m reminded of my “good old days” of going off to college in Lincoln, which seemed like it was out on the prairie to me.

Posted in Male Author, Poetry, Short Story

Catch-Up: Deal Me A Witchy Horror

season-of-the-witch-button-2016Season of the Witch

“The Dunwich Horror” by H.P. Lovecraft

I’m still not a fan of the cosmicism of Cthulhu mythos, but I’m slowly gaining some appreciation for Lovecraft. Partly, this might be because I’ve been reading some of Lovecraft’s influences. His tales make more sense to me in the context of Ambrose Bierce and Arthur Machen—I just read The Great God Pan not too long ago!

The tale is slowly told, but less dry than some of Lovecraft’s stories. It’s told from an aspect of history. Within the story the events are the Dunwich Horror of 1928, as though a few years past…and seemingly leaving room for the Dunwich Horror of 1929…1930… And indeed the horror lives on. The horror genre is filled with mystical books, tentacled beasts, and backwater towns filled with inbred families. But the Horror also brought to mind a scene from one of my favorite science fiction movies:

Even the odd sound track evokes Lovecraft’s whippoorwills.


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis
What is Deal Me In?

“The Ghost to His Ladye Love” by W.S. Gilbert

Card picked: Three of Spades
From: Masterpieces of Terror and the Unknown, edited by Marvin Kaye

Not a story this week, but a poem. W.S. is the Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan fame. Published in 1869, this poem is full of Halloween trappings:

Fair Phantom, come! The moon’s awake.
The owl hoots gaily from its brake.
The blithesome bat’s a-wing.
Come, soar to yonder silent clouds;
The ether teems with peoples shrouds:
We’ll fly the lightsome spectre crowds,
Thou cloudy, clammy thing!

It’s a fun, rather sweet poem; the type of thing I would expect Gomez Addams to send to Morticia as a Valentine.*

As with many poems written by Gilbert, “The Ghost to His Ladye Love” found a second life in one of Gilbert & Sullivan’s musicals:

* Fun fact: My first date with Eric was on Halloween. We’ll be celebrating our 19th anniversary this year!

RIPXI Info | Reviews

Posted in Male Author, Poetry

Review ~ Yevgeny Onegin

This book was provided to me by Pushkin Press via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Cover via Goodreads

Yevgeny Onegin by Alexander Pushkin, translated by A. D. P. Briggs

Eugene Onegin is the master work of the poet whom Russians regard as the fountainhead of their literature. Set in 1820s imperial Russia, Pushkin’s novel in verse follows the emotions and destiny of three men – Onegin the bored fop, Lensky the minor elegiast, and a stylized Pushkin himself – and the fates and affections of three women – Tatyana the provincial beauty, her sister Olga, and Pushkin’s mercurial Muse. Engaging, full of suspense, and varied in tone, it also portrays a large cast of other characters and offers the reader many literary, philosophical, and autobiographical digressions, often in a highly satirical vein. Eugene Onegin was Pushkin’s own favourite work, and it shows him attempting to transform himself from a romantic poet into a realistic novelist. This new translation seeks to retain both the literal sense and the poetic music of the original, and capture the poem’s spontaneity and wit. The introduction examines several ways of reading the novel, and text is richly annotated. (via Goodreads)

One of the first things that Briggs does, something that isn’t retained in the above Goodreads blurb, is revert to the more Russian version of “Eugene”—Yevgeny. He does this because, well, it sounds better. It has better rhythm. Try it out loud: Yev-gen-y On-e-gin.  There’s a rise and fall to that. Better than Eu-gene On-e-gin. But I got the feeling from Briggs’ introduction that if the Anglicized Eugene worked better that’s what he’d have used. That’s the style of his translation and that, he argues, is the most Pushkin way of translating Yevgeny Onegin.

Pushkin is the most highly respected of Russian poets, and he is so probably because he wasn’t high and mighty about the language. Briggs points out that the original novel length poem is written in a combination of high and low Russian with a dash of French. It’s written in iambic pentameter, but Pushkin made the rhyme scheme his own, but wasn’t a slave to perfect rhyme.  It’s Pushkin’s use of what works that almost gives the poem an English sensibility. This is what Briggs tries to bring out in his translation.

I’ve read other translations of Yevgeny Onegin. I have the Nabokov version, but it’s in one of the dusty boxes in my closet. I didn’t feel like digging it out, but I remember it feeling quite serious. The story *is* a bit grim, but Briggs’ light translation also makes it enjoyable. Pushkin is poking fun at the blazĂ©, ball-going, dueling culture of Onegin’s world and is inviting us as readers to commiserate. Briggs’ translation is accessible and very readable. I recommend it.

Publishing info, my copy: ePub format, Pushkin Press, July 12, 2016
Acquired: April 2016, NetGalley
Genre: Poetry, Literary

Posted in Male Author, Poetry, Short Story

Mini Reviews, Vol. 4 ~ The Joys of Literary Tangents

Assignment #2 for the Frankenstein MOOC was discussion-board-based. The focus for Week 3 is going to be the literary references and allusions that Shelley uses. These things led me down an enjoyable literary rabbit hole over the weekend. I read all of these in the kitchen of my brother-in-law’s house. We live in great times when I can access three classics in as much time as it takes to type the titles into the search bar.

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Engraving by Gustave Doré
“Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I’ll be honest, after only one reading, there’s a lot I’m missing in this poem. Obviously, there is a Frankenstein connection involving sea-going misadventures and, I do believe, Shelley quotes the poem. Otherwise…themes of the consequences of actions? “Rime” seems to rely on the supernatural to dole out retribution, though Frankenstein’s creature is so super-human that he might as well be supernatural. I’ll give “Rime” another read after I finish Frankenstein.

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Harry Clarke’s 1919 illustration
“A Descent into the Maelström” by Edgar Allan Poe

Not at all connected to Frankenstein, but I was reminded of it while reading “Rime of the Ancient Mariner.”  It can be noted that “Maelström” and “Rime” do share structural features with Frankenstein—the frame story. The mariner in “Maelström” is relating his story to some poor schlub who is afraid of heights, while the ancient mariner in Coleridge’s poem waylaid a  wedding guest (an interesting choice). In Frankenstein, we’re being told the tale by the mariner (Walton) who is relating the story Victor Frankenstein tells (who is relating the tale told to him by the monster…). “Maelström” is pretty tense once it gets going, but it has a slow start. It’s often counted as one of Poe’s ratiocination tales because the narrator figures out how to save himself through the observation of what’s going on around him.

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All the foreign language editions had better covers.
“Herbert West––Reanimator” by H. P. Lovecraft

Lovecraft is not my favorite weird author, but he has his place in the pantheon of horror. Someone on the MOOC discussion board mentioned Herbert West and, while I’ve seen the Stuart Gordon film, I hadn’t read the source material. There is definitely a few similarities between Herbert West and Victor Frankenstein. Both are interested in the reanimation of the dead and both pay for their transgressions against nature in the end. The difference is after West runs away from his first horrid creation, he tries again. And again. And again.

“Herbert West—Reanimator” is actually a set of six stories that were originally serialized. Lovecraft didn’t care for the tales (presumably written for the money) and they are considered some of Lovecraft’s poorest work (according to Wikipedia). Personally, I like these better than the other Lovecraft stories I’ve read. They are less ornate and move along at a good pace. The only problem? If you have any doubt about how racist Lovecraft can be, read the third installment, “Six Shots by Moonlight.” Or, you know, don’t.

Posted in Female Author, Poetry

Summer Reading ~ Citizen


I’m appropriating Mondays for short reviews of my summer reads (I’m behind in reviewing all the books I’d like to review) and for my weekly preview.

What I Read Last Week

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

Cover via Goodreads

Claudia Rankine’s bold new book recounts mounting racial aggressions in ongoing encounters in twenty-first-century daily life and in the media. Some of these encounters are slights, seeming slips of the tongue, and some are intentional offensives in the classroom, at the supermarket, at home, on the tennis court with Serena Williams and the soccer field with Zinedine Zidane, online, on TV–everywhere, all the time. The accumulative stresses come to bear on a person’s ability to speak, perform, and stay alive. Our addressability is tied to the state of our belonging, Rankine argues, as are our assumptions and expectations of citizenship. In essay, image, and poetry, Citizen is a powerful testament to the individual and collective effects of racism in our contemporary, often named “post-race” society. (via Goodreads)

On my list as part of the Estella Project and due to a discussion about poetry recently at the Socratic Salon. (The Socratic Salon also has a discussion of Citizen, which I hadn’t read until this morning.)

This is hard for me to “review” because I feel like I’m just some white girl blathering on about something she knows nothing about. Which is pretty much true. But Citizen did shift my paradigm. I was struggling to wrap my head around the notion of accumulation until I came up with this: I tried to imagine what it would be like to go around wearing a sandwich board sign listing every attribute I have and belief I hold that someone could be prejudiced against. And I was born wearing that sign and I don’t ever get to take it off. What would it be like to live with those automatic negative judgements being made against me *everyday* by *everyone*? I don’t get the benefit of doubt. Part of me feels cowardly for not having to wear that sign and another part of me is extremely thankful.


What I’m Reading This Week

  • From my gothic list (fiction): The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
  • From my Abbott Project list (nonfiction): The Linking Rings by James David Robenalt
  • Shorts: “Next Gen Species – The Chip” by Jason Cole and “Catskin” by Kelly Link
  • Although I suspect that this list will be interrupted by It’s What I Do by Lynsay Addario becoming available at the library.
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