Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Slamming into the Moon

The news this morning tells us that NASA is planning to drive two spacecraft into the moon's southern pole, hoping the impact will reveal whether there is hidden water ice there. The idea is cheap, fast, and well-designed. Speaking as a friend to engineers, I don't think the small impact is likely to do any more actual damage than a couple of meteorites would: and the moon is already covered with craters. And as Tony Colaprete at NASA's Ames Research Center was quoted as saying, this is a thoroughly "economical" solution. I played engineer's advocate with our art editor this morning and received for a response:

I still think hurting the moon is no-no. She is the symbol for our lady (call her what you will: Mary, Isis, Hera).

And I have to admit, speaking as a poet and student of folklore rather than as a friend to engineers, I'm appalled at the symbolism of the act. It's actually rather a barbaric and typically-NASA/white-male-engineer notion. If you think about it, slamming a long metal phallic object into our lady's vulnerable place sounds an awful lot like a rape. So much for kindly orbiting and courting the moon prior to a gentle thrust through the thin barrier of her barely detectable atmosphere. I don't like the symbolism of this new trend in space exploration. Consider how much our cultural consciousness was defined by past symbolic acts of astronomical exploration - Armstrong's one small step, for instance. We cannot pretend ignorance to the effect that our symbols have on our minds and hearts. To quote Gene Wolfe, author of The Book of the New Sun:

We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges.

So it was with the symbolic action of that one small first step onto the moon - with Armstrong's words conveying both the humility of that one step and the pride in the achievements of a race. Now, as we struggle to come to terms with the way we are using and misusing our natural environment, what will be the eventual cultural penalty of a more symbolically violent act?

My intent here is not to sensationalize (the media has already done that well enough) - merely to recognize that the moon is a central folkloric and mythic figure, remaining so even today, and therefore the way in which we interact with the moon will have rippling effect on our understanding of ourselves and of the inter-relationship of ourselves and our world. I'd be curious to hear responses from both poets and astronomers, who after all are sisters, and both in love with the moon. And also from everyone else...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

White Kangaroo

Dear readers,

I am moving (carrying with me my books as a snail its house) and will not be blogging quite as frequently over the next week or two, though I do plan to jump in when I can and review a couple of wonderful myth and folklore projects that are currently underway - so please check in. There are some great things happening, and we'll point to a few of them.

Meanwhile, here is a picture for the day to get imaginations rolling - not quite an ugly duckling, in fact rather beautiful, though albinos in any species are extremely susceptible to flu and illness - there is probably a story in this:

The source of the photograph is the nature gallery of Narciso Jaramillo.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Story of Schmuel, the Tailor of Klimovich

Dear readers, my fiancee and I had the great blessing tonight of seeing the Broadway musical The Last Five Years live, courtesy of my future sister-in-law and her husband. It is a beautiful musical; I was especially struck by a folktale embedded in the midst of it: "the story of Schmuel, the tailor of Klimovich," as told by Jamie the novelist, one of the play's two unhappy-in-love characters. The tale concerns dreams and nostalgia and the desire to turn back time - whether for an artist, a lover, or a people. You can hear a snatch of the music here. And here are the lyrics; without the melody and the acting, the tale is only half itself, but I hope you enjoy it as much as I did:

Schmuel would work till half-past ten at his tailor shop in Klimovich
Get up at dawn and start again with the hems and pins and twist
Forty-one years had come and gone at his tailor shop in Klimovich
Watching the winters soldier on, there was one thing Schmuel missed

"If I only had time," old Schmuel said
"I would build the dress that's in my head
A dress to fire
The mad desire
Of girls from here to Minsk
But I have no more hours left to sew"
Then the clock upon the wall began to glow...

And the clock said:
"Na na na na, na na na
Oh Schmuel, you'll get to be happy!
Na na na na, na na na
I give you unlimited time!
Na na na na, na na na
So Schmuel, go sew and be happy!"
But Schmuel said
"No, no, it's not my lot
I've gotta make do with the time I've got"

Schmuel was done at half-past ten and he said "Good night, old Klimovich"
Put on his coat to go, but then the clock cried, "Wait! Not yet!
Even though you're not wise or rich
You're the finest man in Klimovich
Listen up, Schmuel
Make one stitch and you'll see what you get"

But Schmuel said
"Clock, it's much too late
I'm at peace with life
I accept my fate..."
But the clock said
"Schmuel! One stitch and you will
Unlock the dreams you've lost!"
So Schmuel, with reluctance, took his thread
He pulled a bolt of velvet and said
"I should take out my teeth and go to bed
I'm sitting here with talking clocks instead!"

And the clock said:
"Na na na na, na na na
Oh Schmuel, you'll get to be happy!
Na na na na, na na na,
I give you unlimited time
Na na na na, na na na
Just do it and you can be happy!"

So Schmuel put the thread through the needle's eye
And the moon stared down from a starless sky
And he pushed the thread through the velvet black
And he looked, and the clock was turning...back

So he grabbed his shears and he cut some lace
As the hands moved left on the old clock's face
And his fingers flew and the fabric swirled
It was nine-fifteen all around the world

Every cut and stitch was a perfect fit
As if God Himself were controlling it—
And Schmuel cried through a rush of tears
"Take me back! Take me back all forty-one years!"

And on it went down that silent street
Till Schmuel's dress was at last complete
And he stretched his arms
And he closed his eyes
And the morning sun finally started to rise

And the dress he made on that endless night
Was a dress that would make any soul take flight
Not a swatch, not a skein had gone to waste
Every ribbon and button ideally placed
And sewn into the seams were forty-one seasons of dreams
Dreams that you could feel
Coming real

And that very dress, so the papers swore
Was the dress a girl in Odessa wore
On the day she promised forevermore
To love a young man named Schmuel
Who only one day before
Had knocked at her kitchen door

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Land of the Dreamers

Happy Valentine's Day, dear readers (or happy and brave anti-Valentine's Day for those of you who are single). Our love gift to you from Dante's Heart will be news of a new art gallery online. One of our artists from Issue 1 (see A Trade With The Devil in Issue 1 of Dante's Heart) has created a beautiful site to share her work. Beautifully titled Land of the Dreamers, Isabella's site features Dutch art in a stark and often exhilarating style. Upon entering the site, you will be confronted with a map drawn up in a fashion reminiscent of those old aerial illustrations of Neverland. A click in the right place can take you to Witchtown or to Elf Woods or the Isle of Giants. Definitely stop by and explore the gallery - the artwork and the site are lovingly made, and the best of the work is rich with detail and nuance, with small touches resonant with old folk tales, while the black and white of Isabella's work conveys something of the mystery and nostalgia of old woodcuts. For instance, The Wicked Witch Under the Willow, below.

In keeping with our recent discussion of wolf folklore, a portrait of a wolf and a maiden dancing to the sound of a phonograph can be found in the "Animal Kingdom" section of the gallery (one of my own favorite sections).

There is a welcoming feel to the site, as though Isabella is inviting you into the strangeness and wonder of her vision of the world. Visit, and then post a comment here and let us know what you thought.

Isabella does commissions, wedding and birthcard service, and illustrations to favorite stories.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Physicists love fairy tales, too

Our art editor sent me a Live Science editorial this morning - by Chris Gorski of the American Institute of Physics. It is the same type of fun-loving, insightful, if decidedly nerdy editorial one usually sees from renowned physicists - much like the often-forwarded description of what would happen to Santa Claus were he sleigh-riding around the globe while bound by the laws of physics. Some bookworms may worry that sitting around a table chatting about what it would take to actually make a flying carpet fly might deprive the tale of its magic, but those bookworms are not me. Having grown up with an engineer for a brother, I can recognize the wild imagination of that kind of mind. So when a physicist tells you that "scientists have figured out a way to bend sound waves around an object and, can even prevent the escape of all sounds created inside a given area (important for keeping a transformed, singing mermaid from being heard)," don't just dismiss it as a scientist's need to ground everything in a bedrock of reality. Instead, celebrate the tinkering inventiveness and creativity of a man or woman who just cannot listen to a telling of The Little Mermaid without trying to find a way to make the story actually happen. That isn't scientific dryness, that's play - of the most exciting kind. Some years ago my brother and I watched The Fellowship of the Ring in the theater. I had grown up on the book and was aswim with ideas of how to make a Middle-Earth - that is, how to tell the story of a beautiful imaginary or "secondary" world, but one better and deeper and more exciting than Tolkien's. (Not that there's all that much chance of that.) My brother, on the other hand, was inspired to try to figure out how one could actually go about genetically engineering Orcs, and how they would feed and breed, and what it would take to give them bat wings, and such. Were our responses substantively any different?

An interesting article, anyway!

By the way, the book pictured in this post is a Rumpelstiltskin illustrated by Paul Zelinsky. I picked up a copy recently and I love it - the paintings let all the wild and quirky magic of this fairy tale shine through. Find a copy!

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Questions about Wolves

(This breathtakingly ominous illustration is The Big Bad Wolf by the Colorado artist Graham Francoise, whose work you can view on this blog.)

Andrew's comment in response to my post about Cerberus has me thinking more about wolves and about the folklore of the wolf. It is almost difficult to come up with a folkloric figure so controversial and so pervasive as the wolf. So let me do three things in this post today: a challenge to you, a question, and finally, a poem to catch the edge of the mind and get everyone thinking about wolves.

First, the challenge:

I want to ask for writing or art having to do with the folklore of the wolf. Whether it's Little Red Riding Hood or the decimation of the Arctic or Fenris chained by the gods, send your best unpublished paintings, photography, fiction, poetry, lyrics, essays to - and spread the word. I will put together a formal call for submissions shortly. In the event that we receive enough submissions of quality focused on wolf folklore, we will put out a special issue of Dante's Heart devoted to the subject. This would be exciting! I'm especially interested in finding out where we are, here at the near start of the 21st century, in looking at wolves as potent, alarming, or attractive creatures, figures, and symbols. What does the wolf mean to us today, and what do past stories or art about wolves mean to us today? This is our challenge to you: send us your answers!

I want to do a little research into the relationship of dog to wolf in ancient Greece - especially as related to Cerberus. So I toss out this inquiry: what do our readers know? What did the wolf mean to ancient Greece? Post your answers below, and I will bring what I find out back to the blog as I can.

A few instances I can think of: Herodotus telling us that among the Black Sea peoples, there are medicine men who at each full moon take on the form of a wolf and dig up fresh graves. (In this way Herodotus emphasizes the wildness of those "barbarian" tribes.) Another: the dark hounds that come at the crossroads by the dark of the moon with Hecate.

To whet one's appetite for material on wolves, here is a poem by Cole Swensen, a poet I admire greatly, from Such Rich Hour:

Beyond our aesthetic pleasure at the beauty of the poem and our intellectual pleasure at the challenge it poises to our assumptions about how to read a poem, what visceral, emotional reaction does the situation described within the poem provoke in us? Horror? Wonder? Fear? A Greenpeace advocate's outrage at the villainies ascribed to an animal? Queasiness?

One needs almost a moment of silence after hearing such a poem.

Consider the pathos and folklore of the starving, ravenous wolf. Those who are children of the 80s may remember the attack of the starving wolves in The Wilderness Family; those who know their Tolkien may remember how the hobbits told a story from their grandfathers that had acquired almost folkloric status: the white wolves crossing the Brandywine River to attack their Shire homes during the Long Winter when the river froze over. Possibly Tolkien's story is a remnant of the British memory of the Great Snow or the Great Frost. The Great Frosts were repeated bad winters during the Little Ice Age when the Thames would freeze over and the poor would die in their unheated hovels and the wolves would howl in their hunger right outside the streets of London itself. That was before factories and foundries heated up the world.

I should note here that my own childhood memory of wolves and of wolf stories is contradictory: one, the more noble and sorrowful portrait of the wolf in Never Cry Wolf, a creature vanishing, and two, the raw terror of myself as a child watching the green eyes in the dark of that terrible wolf in The Neverending Story. How is our culture today conflicted over wolves?

Thursday, February 7, 2008


Dear friends,

Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday are just passed. In my tradition it is now Lent; this is not the time for remembering the disadvantaged (for the good woman or the good man, that time is every moment), but for remembering to remember the disadvantaged. The world today is cruel with horrors; the world has always been. In the spirit of Lent, I offer a brief passage excerpted from Les Miserables, a novel in the structure of a folktale. It is a speech by a bishop, which I admire for its directness, its poetry, its lack of sentimentality, its brevity, and its honesty, and its message speaks to us whatever faith we are of and whether we are observing Lent, or not. And though the subject of the speech is France of the early nineteenth century, there are many parts of the world to which this same subject now applies: Rwanda, where there are few wells; Nepal, where there are few orphanages; Haiti, where there are few homes that consist of more than a blanket; and the inner cities of half a hundred municipalities in our own nation. And there are places in the world that have little time or hope left for the experience of wonder, or where the folktales and hero myths that sustain a people are being forgotten along with the languages they have been told in.

The translation is by Norman Denny.

My brothers and friends, there are in France thirteen hundred and twenty thousand peasant cottages which have only three outlets, eighteen hundred and seventeen thousand which have only two, a door and one window, and three hundred and forty-six thousand which have only a door. This is due to something known as the tax on doors and windows. Consider the fate of poor families, old women and young children, living in those hovels, the fevers and other maladies! God gives air to mankind and the law sells it. I do not assail the law but I give thanks to God. In Isere, in Var, and in the upper and lower Alps the peasants do not even possess barrows but carry the dung on their backs. They have no candles but burn twigs and lengths of rope steeped in resin. That is what happens throughout the highlands of Dauphine. They make bread every six months, baking it over a fire of dried dung. In winter they break the loaves with a hatchet and soak the bread for twenty-four hours before it can be eaten. My brothers, be merciful. Consider the sufferings of those around you.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Sleeping Elf beautiful.

I've written the artist - who resides in Melbourne, Australia, but who also keeps shop at deviantart as Burgundy Phoenix - to ask if she is a puppeteer. I am in awe. What craftsmanship! What imagination! Now I must go catch my breath.

Dante's Heart Poetry Contest

Great news! We are launching a poetry contest for Fall 2008: click here for the contest guidelines. Ever Saskya, author of The Porch is a Journey Different from the House, will judge the contest. There is a small entry fee; first prize will receive $125 + publication in Dante's Heart: A Journal of Myth, Fairytale, Folklore and Fantasy; second prize will receive $75 + publication; and third prize will receive honorable mention + publication.

The contest looks for contemporary and vital poetry that speaks to the mission of Dante's Heart and that is concerned with the experience of wonder or with myth (whether in relation to culture, language, politics, ars poetica, etc.).

Entries are due November 2008 - this is the early news! Please spread the word - we look forward to an exciting competition and to being invigorated and challenged by the entries.

Daniel Fusch
Editor, Dante's Heart

P.S. The art piece above is grace 2 by Joel Harrison - which I have shamelessly borrowed for this blog post because I happened into it today and was startled and delighted, and had to share the piece with others who might be interested.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Earth, Sea, and Sky: or, Marvels of the Universe

That's the title of a beautiful late nineteenth-century book that I found in the back of a library a few years ago and that I haven't told nearly enough people about. It is a treasure. Remember Bastian Balthazar Bux's eyes when he stumbled through Mr. Coreandor's bookshop and just had to open up The Neverending Story? Those were my eyes when I found this old, dusty, leatherbound volume, with its over 300 engravings and its innumerable pages. The book offers short anecdotes on "all that is wonderful on the globe, in the waters, or in the starry heavens." The language of the book is Victorian and yet not - there is a vitality to its descriptions that is almost desperate. For example, in describing the earthquake that overtook Lisbon a few centuries ago, the book declares of such earthquakes: They bury mountains as we bury the dead.

In the aftermath of this decade's upheavals in Indonesia and Pakistan, we better than our fathers and mothers, perhaps, can feel the full horror and awe of that sentence. Although: what do we, who are here comfortably or somewhat comfortably blogging, know of that? Ask those starving among the bodies about horror.

But this is my favorite of all the books of that century. It is beautiful beyond hope. Take the first paragraph, for example, of one chapter:

There are beautiful creatures in the great deep with colors as gorgeous as those of butterflies; moreover, like butterflies, some of them have wings and rise like birds from the surface of the sea.

How well I remember a crossing from the white cliffs of Dover to Calais many years ago by ferry. I had never seen a flying fish, but that night by moonlight I saw three flashing above the darkness of water beside the ferry, carried so far north by some wild warm current. I watched them, rapt, as the first child must once have watched the first butterflies. And when I stumbled down onto the docks with my French pocket dictionary and a few coins in my pocket, all my mind was consumed by the thought: What beautiful things there are in the sea!

These days, thanks to the existence of the Internet, you can find a copy of Earth, Sea, and Sky on ebay or alibris, though once it must have taken a treasure hunt indeed.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Cherokee Stories

The last few years have seen something that to me is very beautiful: living, current tellings of Cherokee stories - as well as those of other American Indian nations - available to wider audiences. No more the dry anthropologies of the late nineteenth century: these narratives of myth and folklore are bright and vivid in their colors, alive, current, real. Barbara Duncan's Living Stories of the Cherokee - which transcribes the tales of active storytellers in the Eastern Cherokee Band in North Carolina (storytellers who tell their tales at schools or at council meetings, or just on Saturday afternoons on the porch) - is a monument in literary anthropology. Its authenticity and vitality is due to: 1) the fact that Barbara Duncan lived in Cherokee, North Carolina - she was not an outsider brought in; and 2) she treats each story as both story and record, rather than as just one or the other: in this, she grasps something central to this culture's storytelling. Definitely take a look: it is a passionate book.

Also - recent years have seen a surge in children's books - with such art! - telling the old stories: the story of the first strawberries, for instance, is beautifully told and beautifully painted in Bruchac and Vojtech's book:

I wish I had the last painting in that book scanned to offer here, but you will have to buy or borrow the book. It is a breathtaking illustration: the man and the woman together, reunited by the strawberries, and holding the berries cupped in their hands together, their faces lit with the soft red glow of the shining fruit.

These books mean a great deal to me personally. Strawberries and a few other "leftovers" from past generations had great significance in the house in which I grew up, though often without much definition - all that was left of that segment of our heritage. To this day I keep strawberries in the house, by the door or on the mantel - though it was not until I was a teenager that I knew why.

Impersonally, as an admirer of folklorists and all artists and scholars of mythopoeia, I celebrate these books as a great gift to this generation.

Also, take a look at what's coming in Cherokee, North Carolina: this nation has no casino - instead, vibrant drama, a museum, a cultural center. Somehow throughout the brutality of the centuries this people has kept its dignity and its stories and by doing so has remained a people. It is something to be admired and celebrated, and it is a wondrous thing that a wider audience is now listening to their musicians and their storytellers. We are traveling further around the circle of Time.