Friday, August 30, 2013

Summer 2013: The Platypus Travels Part XL

Our travels now are ended.  These our pictures,
As I foretold you, were all pixels and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And, like the baseless fabric of this blog-p'st,
The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.  We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Summer travels 2013: Italy and New England 

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

New England Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXXIX

Where did it all go?  I grew up on a lake.  I'd show it to you, but the developer has walled it off with houses and let the trees and scrub grow so tall it's hard to see.  Maybe that was wise of him.  People did go down there and make trouble.  Besides, land that isn't developed doesn't turn a profit.  It's a reality of this world that loving something doesn't make it yours, especially in one of the wealthiest states in the unionBut perhaps there's a world with a different reality where love is the very coin of the realm.  In that world, I will walk the hills and vales of Naugatuk in Autumn when the leaves burn like fire in the presence of the LORD.

When these things are washed away
The River will keep flowing
Wei la lei
And the daughters of the River God
Will sing
Qui Transtulit Sustinet

Monday, August 26, 2013

New England Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXXVIII

The Green.  At the heart of any New England village was the "common" or "village green."  Flanking the green would be a Congregational church at one end and an Episcopal church at the other.  Then there would be a burial ground and the most important homes and buildings.  This is my green, or simply The Green.  We drove past this little patch of grass multiple times each day.  I still don't know why it has a statue of an amazon smiting a lion, but I don't have to.  Humans lived for millennia without knowing why the sun rose.  Finding out would only add to the wonder.
 The Congregational church, right where it should be.  My apologies for the power lines.  There are still places in the U.S. where modernity is tacked on as an afterthought.
The Episcopal church sporting its new dome.  The original was gray from a fire that started when the sexton decided to shoot pigeons off the roof and his rifle wadding ignited cupola.
 And the burial ground.
 A fit place for a ghost to go and a place where I felt at home.  We're both waiting for the eschaton.
 A reminder that child mortality was high even among the wealthy a little more than a century ago.
Two of the older stones in the cemetery.  The Beardslies are still on their farm.
Graveyards are gardens, and like gardens they all have their little treasures.  I never thought to find this little bit of masonic opulence.
 I walked among the graves at night,
And felt them all about me,
Strangers, friends
And the somber father laid
His arm about my shoulder
And the weak maid placed a
Hand upon my arm
About my legs, a cloud of
Little fingers pressed
And all whispered:

Courage sir!  For today we light a fire that will not soon be put out.

And all their faces were:

Burning, burning, burning.
God help me, I cannot burn!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

New England Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXXVII


We're all formed by the places we grew up in.  There's greater continuity between past and present in New England.  It's like Jackson's vision of Tolkien's Shire: things are made to endure ... passing down from one generation to the next.  I'd like to say that there's always been a Baggins at Bag End and there always will be...  Moving back to the idea of continuity, the church is like the library: a Victorian original with a modern edition discretely added in a way that doesn't detract from the beauty of the older structure.  As with the building, so with the worship and theology.  Places form people and this place and this people formed me.

It was a Thursday.  The pews were empty, but I knew the place and the place knew me.  On our way out, my wife spied a curious thing: a tiny clump of red leaves on a green tree.  I miss you too...

Burning, burning, burning
Tell me, are the leaves still burning;
Can they teach me how to burn? 

Saturday, August 24, 2013

2013 Seven Heavens of Summer Reading: The Platypus Reads Part CCXLIV

The summer is coming to a close (though the weather down here will be in the 80s and 90s until November).  That means it's time again for the Seven Heavens of Summer Reading awards.  These awards were created in honor of Michael Wards' groundbreaking book Planet Narnia which asserts that Lewis ordered his famous children's series around the seven planets of medieval cosmology.  Following this idea, I award seven books from my summer reading list that best exemplify the virtues of the seven planets.  Following the "summer reading" label at the bottom of this post will link you the lists of prior award winners.  Without further ado, let's get to it.

Moon: This year's winner for the planet of change and madness has to be Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.  Following the adventures of three board editors to create the ultimate conspiracy theory is enough to blur the boundaries of reality for anyone.

Mercury: For the wordsmith's heaven, the award must go to The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner.  It's got Tolkien and the OED.  Need I say more?

Venus: We have a two-time winner for the planet of love and creation: The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Hawthorne took the award for Luna in 2008 when I was caught by the interplay of immutable stone and all too mutable human character.  This year, I've been struck by Hawthorne's meditations on the biblical account of Man's creation and fall and the way he juxtaposes the two couples to explore whether a felix culpa was necessary for human maturation.

Sun: The planet of scholars always seems to go to an Inkling or someone writing about an Inkling.  Happily, there's no need this year for two award winners as C.S. Lewis' An Experiment in Criticism pretty clearly sweeps the field.  This late-career attempt to reconcile subjective literary experience with an objective understanding of aesthetics is a must read for anyone seeking a deeper appreciation of the written word.

Mars: For unleashing the dogs of war, this award goes to Jim Lacey's reconstruction of the battle of Marathon in First Clash.  This book is not just about an ancient battle, however, it also seeks to reignite the conflict over the history and nature of Western military supremacy begun by Victor Davis Hanson.

Jupiter: There's an unusually strong field this year for the planet of kings.  Past winner, The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian is back in the lists again along with Terry Brooks' aptly named First King of Shannara.  Never to be ignored is the tale of the return of the King-Under-the-Mountain in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.  The field has to make way, however, before a contender that can claim a double kingship.  The Fall of Arthur gives us a picture of the Once and Future King as only the King of epic fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien could deliver it.

Saturn: The planet of endings assumes its place at the end of the list.  This bleak sphere fits well with The Fall of Arthur or the Pyrrhic victory of First King of Shannara.  This year's award goes to a work that is only really ominous when seen in context, Agatha Christie's penultimate Poirot novel Elephants Can Remember.

There you have it: 2013 Seven Heavens of Summer Reading Awards.  Runners up include The Power of the Ring, Spartan Reflections, C.S. Lewis: A Life, Worldly Saints, The Hobbit, The Phoenix and the Carpet, First King of Shannara, and The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.  We'll see you next summer with another round of carefree seasonal reading!

New England Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXXVI

The library.  I had to ask directions to find it, but I got a cordial "welcome back" from the Walgreen's clerk.  As you can imagine, I spent a good deal of time here as a kid.  Walking the halls of old library, very little had changed (the reference section had been reordered to open up the reading room and create a Young Adult section).  All my favorite books were where I remembered them.  I even found the exact copy of The Talismans of Shannara that I read all those years ago.  This little building (and the new wing cleverly imbedded in the hill beneath it) represent all that's best in civic space: beautiful but restrained architecture filled with worthy things for the common good.  So let me take you on a little tour of one of my favorite places.  There are no ghosts that I know of, except me.
 The Reading Room, sitting immediately under the curved roof on the left side of the building.
 The clock in the corner dates from the 16th century.
To the right is the old entry-way (no longer used).  Forward is now the Young Adult section.
 A view of the beautiful wooden roof over the Reading Room (stupid florescent lights).
 The stacks in what was once the core of the old library.  Below is the Connecticut room where works of local and historical interest are stored.  I am the only ghost haunting this room.
 Exterior of the building looking at the back of the Reading Room.
 Light and Law.  Very Victorian.  Below, you can see a side view of the old building's tower with just the corner of the new building in view.  The final picture is the view out over the Housatonic River Valley behind the library.
It was a rainy day when we came to visit.  The old town knew me even if no one else did.

I cannot trade
My hands are empty
All I have are these
Broken memories
Little fragments red and gold
And the scent of maple smoke
Rising from forgotten chimneys in the valley of the soul

Friday, August 23, 2013

New England Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXXV

View of the Housatonic River from Indian Wells State Park.  We're here.

And as I pondered
By the pilgrim path
So many feet had trod,
Far away,
The daughters of the river god
Still sang:

Wei la lei
Wei la lei

I who have known Shepaug, and Pomperaug, Naugatuk,
I catch the good pastor's tears,
For his daughter's
To Kahnawake,
To La Prairie,
And will not return.

Wei wei la
Wei wei la la

I knew the little mill town when the
Robber baron smiled
He tried to sway me
Captain of industry
But I was a good girl
But I was a good girl

Wei la la
Wei la

O daughters of the river,
Tell me
For you know
And only
the rumor
Reaches me
In Babylon
In La Prarie:
Are the leaves still burning,
Tell me, are the leaves still burning?
Can they teach me how to burn?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Conan: The People of the Black Circle: The Platypus Reads Part CCXLIII

After a renewed spate of reading, I am happy to be able to return to this series of posts with a review of Robert E. Howard's first Conan novella: The People of the Black Circle as found in the collection The Bloody Crown of Conan.  Those who are unfamiliar with this work and wish to keep its contents a surprise should not read on.

*Begin Review*

Conan the Cimmerian explodes back onto the page after a series of mediocre performances.  Following The Devil in Iron, we find our hero pushing ever further east beyond the Himelians and into Afguhlistan and the lands beyond.  This is Conan's first truly "oriental" adventure, and opens up new territory both geographic and literary.  As an "oriental adventure,"  The People of the Black Circle imports into Conan's world all the paraphernalia of the genre: mystics, mesmerism, dangerous hill men and plotting viziers. In literary terms, this was the longest Conan tale to date at the time of its composition.  As Patrice Louinet notes in his essay Hyborian Genesis, The People of the Black Circle is not merely a long short story but an actual novella with all the plot complexity that entails.

Looking a little deeper, I believe we can see the ghost of Edgar Rice Burroughs haunting the style, varied and evocative locations, and pacing of this exotic adventure.  I'm thinking particularly of A Princess of Mars.  There's also room for a little of Lovecraft's cosmic horror as Yasmina is forced to relive all her previous lives from cosmic soup to Devi of Vendhya.  This cocktail of furious pacing and mysterious intrigue places The People of the Black Circle among Howard's best stuff.  As you'd expect then, I think this story casts a long literary shadow.  Turning from influences to influencing, The People of the Black Circle echoes in at least two of Fritz Leiber's tales.  The treacherous rock that nearly kills Conan upon assaulting the adept's tower seems to have inspired a similar episode in The Howling Tower, and their seem to be numerous homages in Stardock.  In addition, the Master's transformation into a snake surely wormed its way into the orgy scene of Conan the Barbarian.

Moving from story to characters, it seems important that we don't begin the story with Conan.  The greater the distance between Conan and the audience, the more legendary his deeds become.  It's the same principle employed in the fourth season of Samurai Jack where the hero's distance from the audience makes him feel almost a force of nature in some episodes.  Howard also uses the story to continue to evolve Conan's idiosyncratic ethics.  Where the burly adventurer shows very little feeling towards his subordinates in earlier stories like The Queen of the Black Coast, Conan has a strong sense of loyalty towards the volatile Afghuli tribesmen that he leads.  All this serves to fill the gap between the "bastardly" opportunistic Conan of Black Colossus and the benevolent monarch of The Scarlet Citadel.  However, while he refuses to engage in any of the raping part of "raping and pillaging," Conan's attitude towards women remains chauvinist in the extreme though it is clear that Yasmina, like Belit, wins his admiration and respect in the end.  Speaking of Yasmina, the Devi has more in common with Burroughs' Dejah Thoris than the cringing violets that Conan often encounters (though she, in a moment of weakness, almost succumbs to the Cimmerian's inexplicable charms).  In the end, it is both protagonists sense of duty, especially as opposed to the antagonists' treachery, that unites the work and gives it its Anthony Hope-esque ending (in which there is perhaps also a foreshadow of the ending of Conan the Destroyer?).

Perhaps the major problem with the work, from a storytelling angle, is simply that there isn't more of it.  Yasmina has real potential as a character, but I doubt we'll see any more of her.  The Master with his four strange adepts could have been worked up into wonderful recurring villains, but they're nicely finished off by the end.  This is the kind of thing that happens writing episodically to pay the bills.  Howard had the taste for novel-writing, however, and The People of the Black Circle helped teach him the craft.  Some of Howard's longer works are coming down the pipe.  As I get time to read them, I'll pass on what I think to you. 

New England Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXXIV

What's left of Grampa's garden.

My grandmother was packing up the family farm when went out to visit.  It's a wise move as she spends most of the year in Florida.  Those of us who could make it came over for pizza (and it was good pizza) and memories.  During a lull, I slipped out of the house to snap a few pictures and say my own goodbyes.


I think I will go out today
and stand upon the rock
With the valley all below me
Burning leaves of red and gold,
Purple maple smoke
I will go and see eternity
The eschatological moment wrapped
In a snow globe on the mantelpiece
Or a postcard off the rack

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

New England Reflections (Cont.): The Platypus Travels Part XXXIII

What is home to you?  What is tree, water, house?  When you see the words, what picture comes to mind?  We're getting closer now.

My wife had never been to Connecticut.  On trying to think what would give her the right picture, my family came up with Essex.  Essex is a venerable town on the banks of the Connecticut River still boasting streets of houses from the early nineteenth century.  Many of them are up for sale by Sotheby's and Chrisite's.  Essex is also home to the Griswold Inn, the oldest continually running tavern in the United States.  The bar of this rambling establishment is actually fashioned out of an old ship boiler.  We puttered around here for an afternoon taking in the sites and enjoying a particularly good little ice cream stand.  There were no issues with parking and no issues with traffic, just sails, and ships, and rows white-washed houses.

Et en Arcadia Ego...

Little brother, little brother
When Hesiod sang
Then the nymphs of Helycon came
and danced
The rivers lapped their banks
as that bard sang
The works and days and ways
of men
Who know the time for planting
And the way to make a wheel
And how to sing a song for
poor Athamas
Dead and gone