Friday, September 22, 2017

The Garden of History: Vikings, Saxons, Christians Versus Barbarians, and Why What Happened in the Ninth Century Meant So Much For All of Us English Speakers Today


        Speak to me not of thrones. Speak to me of Vikings.
        It’s the stories that matter. Stories teach us. They always have.
        So forget about endless wars, conspiracies and power rivalries by ruthless wannabes in Throne land — I bet you thought I was talking about D.C. — and learn about the stories that mattered.
        I’m talking about “The Last Kingdom.”
        Here’s the history behind what has become my favorite series in the era of Binge TV. Way back in the 9th century AD (habitually called ‘the Dark Ages’) the North men, or Norse — those traders, pirates and raiders who hailed in the lands we now call Scandinavia and are generally known today as Vikings — were well established in the northern part of England. In the latter part of that century fresh waves of raiders and invaders from the continental North, whom Saxon England simply called “the Danes,” began attacking the Christianized Saxon kingdoms of the relatively wealthy south of England. East Anglia, the southeast of England (where Danish influence is still felt today), fell to a Danish warrior king who then quickly moved against Mercia, the ‘heart of England.’ When Mercia, including London, fell as well, Wessex knew itself to be “the last kingdom” of the island’s seven kingdoms still under Saxon rule.
        After some four centuries of “owning the ground” (by Winston Churchill’s count)* the Saxons faced the prospect of losing the upper-hand in their country and possibly even extermination.
        Ninth century Saxons were well are that their own ancestors gained control of England (along with the Angles, who gave their name to the language and the country where it was spoken) in the same way the Danes were now doing it: raids, then full-scale invasions, then settlement.
        What happened next was the emergence of England’s true national hero, Alfred the Great.
        (St. George, for the record, is a fiction borrowed from the Middle East. King Arthur is a wonderful mythic — as opposed to historically founded — hero who supposedly rallied the Celtic Britons to fight off the then-barbarian Saxons while representing all that was noble in a lost age. The Britons’ struggle proved unsuccessful.)
        Alfred, one of whose most attractive qualities is his creation of the county’s first ‘library’ through his collection of scrolls containing reports assembled from intelligence agents throughout the country, managed to unify Saxons from all the kingdoms to stand against the fearsome invaders and persevere their nation in a lengthy struggle.
        At a low point in this struggle, after a surprise attack scattered his forces and deprived him of his capital ‘city’ (wooden huts within a surrounding wall), Alfred hid from the Danes in the marshes and was presumed dead. Recovering health, he put out a call for all men of England to rally at a point known to them, less apparent to the Danes, and his reputation proved sufficient to bring an army together on the spot. He then maneuvered the Danish warrior kings into a single defining battle on the plain of Ethandum and defeated them in the year 878 AD.
        That’s a long time ago. We know of these dates, and these events, because Alfred began the practice of instructing scribes to write down what happened.
        This victory did not permanently end the Danish threat and the island remained divided for much of a century between English rule and Danish rule (a region termed the Danelaw), but the England we recognize today — and the English language, which I confess is the single biggest point for me — was preserved from a worse fate by the actions of a single, outstanding leader. I can’t think of many other such examples.
        Rome fell. Ancient Greece faded. The United States was the product of a generation of gifted leaders.
        The story of how Alfred the Great saved England from Norse rule in those ‘dark’ early days is the story I expected to encounter in the BBC production and Netflix edition (which took over the second season) called “The Last Kingdom.” For anyone attracted by the challenge of depicting life in those hard to imagine “dark ages,” that seemed more than enough of a story.
        But then I didn’t know anything about a warrior called Uhtred, son of Uhtred, of Bebbanburg, who proves to be central figure in “The Last Kingdom.”
        That’s probably because he’s fictional.
        Perhaps he’s based on some actual figure of whom only fragmentary reports remain, or perhaps he is wholly the invention of the fertile pen of Bernard Cornwell, on whose historical novels this series is based. Either way, as the action hero of an historical saga, he’s a lord of attractions.
        First off, he’s an orphan. Orphans are unique, special cases, others. Lacking living parents and strong family connections, their survival is not guaranteed. They are self-made people by definition. Uhtred is the son of his town’s lord, a kind of minor king. When his father is killed by the Danes, Uhtred becomes the lost heir of a royal line: the click bait of a thousand romance tales. Shakespeare would have liked this plot.
        Further, he’s both Saxon and Dane. Born Saxon in Bebbanburg, in the nation’s unsettled north, he’s baptized as Christian, but determined from early boyhood to be a warrior. As the curtain opens on “The Last Kingdom,” a raiding party of Danes lands on the shore near his town and in a matter of a few minutes our hero loses his older brother (Bebbanburg’s heir apparent) and then sees his father and most of town’s fighting men mowed down in an open battle that shows the Saxons are no match for either the advanced tactics or fighting skill of the ferocious Danes.
        After this battle, Uhtred is taken as a slave by a prominent Danish warrior who raises him within his own family and comes to consider him a son. In this capacity, a Saxon who knows Danish ways, Uhtred arrives at Alfred’s court at just the right moment to advise him on how to meet the potentially fatal Danish threat.
        As Uhtred himself declares at the beginning of each episode: “Everything is destiny.”
        Uhtred is at liberty to play this role because at the dawn of his own brawny manhood, his adopted Danish family is slaughtered in a sneak attack by a rival warrior with a grudge. Yes, there are good Danes and bad ones. To its credit, this series takes a more nuanced view of its times and setting and characters of both nations than, I suspect, a straightforwarded hagiography of Alfred the Great — the story I initially expected — could have managed.
        And while “The Last Kingdom” is a story of kingship, it’s also a warrior’s story.
        Violence, revenge, sword fighting, long hair and beards, both cold and hot-blooded killing loom as the show’s themes and memes, and find play in in the story arcs that flow from its opening cries. Despite the often excessive, and sometimes distressingly casual bloodletting by barbarians (and Christians) wielding steel weapons against unarmored flesh, the show’s atmosphere seldom remains grim. In addition to being the archetypal gifted warrior (near-death escapes in every episode), our hero Uhtred has a sense of both humor and justice, an appreciation for women, and a bedrock loyalty to those to whom he is pledged likely to win emotional attachment from any viewer with a heart.
        And if we don’t wish our hearts attached, then why do we watch these things?
        Then, to add to its surface attractions, the show is landscaped in a beautiful unsullied England — green valleys and wooded hills (though the obsessive English gardening, I notice, hasn’t quite taken hold yet). The mood, among both Christians and pagans, is more often rough and ready rather than crude or nasty. Warrior-guys on both sides laugh a lot, tease each other, drink themselves silly, eye the women and are put in their place by them; while the leaders contemplate, plan, chronicle, and (in Alfred’s case) invent the use of the ‘letter’ as an effective means of communication. The main female characters are smart and capable, particularly the fighting nun who attaches herself to Uhtred’s most dangerous missions.
        And all this shouting, bonhomie, and bloody hand-to-hand combat serves the appealingly subversive notion of a ferociously embraced love of life, particularly evident in the Danes (who seem to accept their own will be short) and in our Saxon-born adopted Dane.
        The production even comes up with a weird, savagely sung and yodeled soundtrack that sounds to me absolutely like the world of our saga feels.
        All this works as entertainment and ‘story,’ but I make a case for the value of the history portrayed here as well. Though the Alfred depicted here is not always ‘good’ — his kingly virtues include a ruthless use of the few for the benefit of the many; and his Christian piety often comes across as ethical blindness, especially regarding the pagan Uhtred — his ‘greatness’ lay in saving a world of which we and many others are cultural inheritors.
        If Saxon England had disappeared into obscurity during the time of the Vikings, along with its laws, values, nascent civil society, infant institutions (such the ‘witan’ council, the seed of Parliament) and still forming language, I do not believe we would be better for it today. Admittedly, I cannot imagine what we would be.
        The United States of America, it is worth remembering, did not invent the world in 1789, despite out ceaseless clamor for ‘constitutional’ this and ‘founders’ that. This country, like all countries and all societies, owes its debts to the past. During Alfred’s time, at least in part because of his actions — and for that matter because of the Danish invasion — England had to get organized in order to survive.
        I believe that’s something this country is still trying to do.
(*From “The Birth of Britain” by WinstonChurchill, 1956, Barnes and Noble edition.)

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Garden of Verse: Ordinary Surprises, Metaphysical Stickers, and a Dream-Time Meeting in September's Verse-Virtual




These are some of the poems I enjoyed reading this month on September's Verse-Virtual.
            Robert Wexelblatt's affecting "Father and Daughter," a description presented with dreamlike clarity of a generational encounter that never took place. The details of the setting for the imagined meeting include
"...a wrought-iron bench that looks French,
dazzlingly white in a summer afternoon
saturated with sun.  It could be a scene
from a technicolor film of a
Henry James garden party.  The emerald
grass is smooth as a new pool table, not
one bald spot or weed."
            The scene is kind of paradise of lost possibilities. A visionary, moving poem.
            This poem also appears in the final story of Wexeblatt's new book of short fiction entitled "Petites Suites," just out from Blaze VOX. (Here's a link:  https://www.amazon.com/Petites-Suites-Robert-Wexelblatt/dp/160964302X/ref=sr_1_4?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1505848487&sr=1-4&keywords=Petites+Suites )
           
            The world of fathers and families also provides the material for Paul Brookes' "This Dad Never Only Considers," an account of a father's scrupulously systematic turn of mind that, we learn, is bequeathed to his son. The poet reveals, in a tonal mixture of confession and modest pride,
"My dad and I bring the whole going on
to a brief stop as others
who wish to get on, hoot, cringe,
whistle and toot their dismay."
I particularly like the fine run of edgy, cinematic of verbs "hoot, cringe, whistle and toot" in this stanza. I also admire the poem's long sentences, dotted with serial commas and subordinate modifiers, suggestive of the prose style of an earlier day.

            Some writers like names. Some are phrase makers. An element of making and finding the comic and telling absurdities of our own days on the planet runs through Jefferson Carter's three September poems. In a poem about finding a wise "EAR" to tell your problems too, we read
"So what if your third wife bought
a bottle of perfume called Shake It,
Shake It, SeƱora?" 
            This piece of listening to the universe stops me short. Where can I find a bottle of perfume called "Shake it, Shake it, Senora"? I live too quiet a life.
            The poem titled "Sticker" begins by asking us how we imagine our prehistoric ancestors sitting around the campfire, and then to perform a similar hypothetical act of seeing our similarly reduced future selves. The poem concludes with the killer line:
"Or did you imagine a sticker
on your war club, exhorting you
& your sleepy tribesmen to be kind?"

            John Morgan's "November Surprise" depicts the emergence of a butterfly at what seems to be the wrong time of year in Fairbanks, Alaska, "ten below and ice-mist on the river."
            A butterfly in such circumstances inevitably assumes a large burden of meaning for a creature made almost of nothing. "Its wings," the poem tells,
"like paisley, red and brown, quiver
as it paws the pane, embodiment of
summer in late fall."
            A beautiful piece of description.
            I leave the fine last line of this "November Surprise" unspoiled.
           
            Wings and weather take flight also in Kate Sontag's poem "Made of bee wings and the breath of sun” (the title attributed to V-V poet Michael Minassian). The poem conflates the "return" of a mother, two years departed, with the unseasonable presence of a wasp "appearing/
out of what winter crack in the world lightheaded?"
            Written in the high style of extended comparison, this poem reminds me (at least) of the poems of the Metaphysical school, elegant in tone and diction. Once again I'll leave the lovely concluding phrases for the reader to discover.
        
             I took considerable pleasure in reading Joan Colby's generous handful of "Ordinary Saints." What a great idea for a series of poems! For instance, "SAINT POSTAL CLERK," whose habits as enumerated by the poet are entirely familiar and yet have never struck me, the impatient customer-to-be, as anything but tedious -- one of those poor fellows evoked here:
"Lines stamping with irritation as you calmly display
A catalog of offerings to the undecided."
            In "SAINT BARTENDER," the poet discover an embarrassment of verbal riches, similar to the bartender's own "forty eight kinds of Craft Beer." These oft-repeated acts of mixing and dispensing point to comparisons skillfully evoked in lines such as:
"Saint of closing time
Stacking the glassware, standing like a priest
In the ornate mirrored altar... "

            These are inspiring poems, these gifts of September, along with so many others. Here's a link to the issue: http://www.verse-virtual.com/poems-and-articles.html

Monday, September 18, 2017

The Garden of American History: When the "Men on Boats" Are Mostly Women



            How do you write a play about some historical event important in its time, of interest today because of its time, without the naive celebratory tone of the history textbook or a neo-Marxist condemnation of the entire enterprise on ideological grounds? And also without limiting your cast of characters to the brave, occasionally squabbling 19th century white men who did the deed?
            The SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of  "Men on Boats" by Jaclyn Backhaus meets all those challengers. Directed by Dawn Simmons, the production fills the play's boats -- manned in 1869 by army veterans, adventurers, a lone English tourist (in over his head, so to speak) and led by a one-armed river-running specialist and Civil War casualty John Wesley Powell -- with a racially mixed cast of young actors and, mainly (eight out of ten), actresses.
            This bold casting choice means that the play is not merely a tale of what happened when Americans first succeeded in exploring the length of the Colorado River from Wyoming through the magnificently walled Grand Canyon. It's also a tale of who we are today, with women and African-Americans (and immigrants from everywhere else) doing their share, and then some, of rowing our boats and keeping us all afloat.
            The Powell expedition was a product of particular moment in American history. The four boats were carried by train from Chicago to a convenient disembarkation point in Wyoming in May of 1869, just two weeks after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed. Seven members of the expedition were Civil War veterans. Most of the crew was recruited by Powell among the mountain men he encountered en route to his starting point. Powell lost his right arm after being shot in the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. A professor of geology, he had explored rivers from childhood, rafting the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
            A scientist with a youthful sense of adventure that struck playwright Backhaus, who draws on Powell's journal for her play's factual basis, as remarkably and rather wonderfully childlike in a man who has seen and suffered from that worst of adult inventions, war. Her play's playful tone "sprung from a place of childhood" she discovered in his journal, the only preserved acciubnt of the expedition. "He taps into that kind of role," Backhaus states in an interview that appears in the SpeakEasy program notes, "because there's a natural childlike curiosity to wanting to know more about the world."
            When, as playgoers, we think of what to expect from a play about a historical event, we are likely to picture a few drawn-from-life figures in the role of the play's main characters, whose differing ideas or ambitions or world view or other conflicts will carry the plot toward some sort of crisis and resolution.
            But in "Men on Boats," the occasions of conflict between Powell and navigator William Dunn, are a secondary element, though they lead to a dramatic confrontation before the
river journey's triumphant conclusion. Instead, the piece's principal action and much of its charm lies in the crew's vigorously theatrical confrontation of a river we cannot see. Its spirit, humor, and the expression of that youthful wonder Backhaus found in Powell's journal lies in the cast's ability to make their characters transparent and their embrace of the challenge of riding a wild river play as a species of life-threatening fun. They are, in some sense, though danger threatens at every turn in the river, and hunger sticks in its own oar, kids on an truly excellent adventure.
            Interestingly, "Men in Boats" has been compared to "Hamilton," the interview tells us, because the racially mixed and mostly female casting raises the question of who gets to tell our country's stories. Backhuas says her play raises the question "What men and women and people do we want as part of our collective history?"
            Her play also provides for an encounter with local Native Americans, giving those who suffered from a white nation's drive to explore an entire continent -- their home before the Europeans came -- an opportunity to cast a cold eye on the "government" that sponsors this expedition. 
            The chief take-away for the audience, to my mind, is the pure pleasure of experiencing a brilliantly imaginative theater piece delivered by a lively and talented young cast that manages to convey that childlike sense of wonder in a spectacular, death-defying journey.

Monday, September 11, 2017

The Garden of the Seasons: Last weeks of Summer Still Do Their Best to Keep Us Outdoors



Warmer today, nearly the middle of September, than most of August was. Balmy here, catastrophic in Florida. That's the short-term of weather. Meanwhile the long-term march of climate shortens our days, brings apples and pumpkins to market -- and causes us to brood about the implications of a pair of unusually fierce storms.
            We brightened up the late summer flower garden this year with a Datura plant, whose intricate layered shades of deep purple and white-tending violet begin opening from the bud only after dark. By next morning the blossom is mostly open. The blossom opens more fully, revealing more of the internal layering over the next day or two at most, then swiftly decays.
              It's an event. The round, alien-looking seed pods left behind are striking as well. You can see a couple of them a little in the photo at the top of the page. I'm pretty much going to leave those seeds alone because they're poisonous, as are the flowers. Maybe that's why they're also called "devil's trumpets."
              I suppose things with attractive surfaces and hidden dangers get that sort of name.

             Along with the Datura we grouped some other annuals in pots in a flat, stonedust-covered space we call the patio extension; petunias, vinca, marigolds, cosmos, scaveola, whatever looked good in the garden centers (pictured in the fifth photo down).
            Among the perennials that bloom this time of year are anemone (second photo down). They put up with a lot of shade and keep blooming year after year. Having computer searched for pictures that look like what we're growing, I conclude that we have the Japanese Anemone, a "hardy, late summer to fall-blooming perennial."
               Not all of the plants we have bloom in the delicate pink color pictured here. Some have a classic robust pink flower. Others bloom almost completely white.
             Here's a grower's description of the Japanese Anemone: "Pale rose to mauve, 5-petaled, slightly cup-shaped flowers with distinctive yellow stamens rise on long, narrow, branching stems above basal growth of dark green foliage. Flower stems grow 2-3 feet tall by bloom time Prefers full sun to part shade and well-drained, fertile soil." (monticelloshop.org)
            This plant grows well in our region probably because it was found in China. Plants from North Asia do well in North America because the climates are similar. It was probably given the name "japonica" because that was the brand of choice among Western plant hunters in the 19th century. This flower came to the US in 1844.
            A plant authority from early in the last century, Harriet Keeler wrote, “the autumnal equinox comes and goes, but the Anemones bloom on, careless of threatening skies or pinching cold.”
            Actually some of our anemone plants started blooming in the middle of August. Usually our plants take turns blooming, extending their season, as our commentator noted, some weeks into official autumn.  
            Other bloomers that bright up late summer are the red-flowering Sweet William, the third photo down. The Rose of Sharom (fourth photo), blooming pinkly against our flimsy fence. The garden fence plan (not "a wall") calls for a living fence of various shrubs filling in all interior and undoubtedly getting in each other's way. Two kinds of tall phlox are pictured in the sixth photo down. The plant with two-toned flowers is definitely a favorite. 
The last photo yellow tansy flowers, a native wildflower in these parts. Behind it is the vegetable garden.