Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Major Poems and Selected Prose by Algernon Charles Swinburne

 

Major Poems and Selected ProseMajor Poems and Selected Prose by Algernon Charles Swinburne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One would think, given the title Major Poems and Selected Prose that the main focus of any good, thorough review would be on the poetry.

This is neither a good nor a thorough review. There's just not enough time, and I don't have the energy to do a meaningful analysis. Swinburne is just too BIG! But there are notable highlights which I must . . . highlight . . . notably . . . nevermind.

We begin with poetry, of course. Swinburne's epic tragic poem "Atalanta in Calydon" is representative of much of his work as it seems to have little to do with Atalanta or Calydon, only as Atalanta is a prompt, of sorts, to Meleager's ultimately fatal actions. Normally, I'm not big on introductions that effectively spoil the entire story before it happens, but in this case, it helped a great deal to be able to understand what was actually happening throughout.

As one might expect, the intertwined themes of Eros and Thanatos predominate throughout. For an example of the admixture of both, I quote, in full, "Anima Anceps":

Till death have broken
Sweet life's love-token,
Till all be spoken
That shall be said.
What dost thou praying,
O soul, and playing
With song and saying,
Things flown and fled?
For this we know not -
That fresh springs flow not
And fresh friefs grow not
When men are dead;
When strange years cover
Lover and lover,
And joys are over
And tears are shed.

If one day's sorrow
Mar the day's morrow -
If man's life borrow
And man's death pay -
If souls once taken,
If lives once shaken,
Arise, awaken,
By night, by day -
Why with strong crying
And years of sighing,
Living and dying,
Fast ye and pray?
For all your weeping,
Waking and sleeping,
Death comes to reaping
And takes away.

Though time rend after
Roof-tree from rafter,
A little laughter
Is much more worth
Than thus to measure
The hour, the treasure,
The pain, the pleasure,
The death, the birth
Grief, when days alter,
Like joy shall falter;
Song-book and psalter,
Mourning and mirth.
Live like the swallow;
Seek not to follow
Where earth is hollow
Under the earth.


Among this and other gems, "Dolores" is one of the more amazing long-ish poems I've read. Again, it's easy to see why Swinburne is so renowned among poets. I don't know that I could write such a beautiful, despairing, mocking, and yearning poem if I took the rest of my life to do it. Brilliant.

And though Swinburne's archaic language and structure can sometimes be off-putting, at other times, he is melodious. "On the Cliffs," for example, is as much a song as a poem. Its sibilance is astounding and fluid. It feels natural, like poetry often doesn't.

Though death and love are frequent foci of attention, the strain of atheism is strong throughout Swinburne's work, an odd thing for a poem written in 1880. Odd as in rare, not as in "bizarre". Swinburne was openly antagonistic to religion in a way that wouldn't be expressed with any regularity until after the Great War.

The masterpiece in this volume is the long epic poem "Tristram of Lyonesse," which requires an attention and stamina like that of reading Ulysses or anything by Beckett. It exacts a toll on the brain! And yet, it is a rewarding, bittersweet opus on love, betrayal, and tragedy.

Confession: I have "wronged" a couple of people in my life. Two, specifically, that I can remember. Many, many years ago. But my actions still sting. When I read Iseult's lament herein, that sting returned, after, what, 35 years now? Such is the power of good poetry. Good poetry digs deep, and sometimes it hurts like hell.

Swinburne might be considered a straight-up Romantic poet, but "A Nympholept," a sort of hymn to the god Pan and, hence, to the winsomeness of Nature, is as thoroughly a Symbolist piece as I've ever read. This would pair well with a good long stare at a Gustave Moreau painting, for sure.

After the poetry is a mixture of criticism, essays, and what must be short pieces of fiction (unless I misread and they are sensationalized early journalism, but I think not). Swinburne's first critical essay here is absolutely scathing and brutal. He tries to pass it off as an unemotional exercise meant to help the poet in question, but the shots he takes are lethal, if on the mark.

Swinburne's review of Les Fleurs du Mal is pretty good.

Mine's better.

While reading his essays, I had a bit of serendipity: last month my wife and I visited the Chicago Institute of Art, which hosts Dante Gabriel Rossetti's "Beata Beatrix". And herein is an essay, heretofore unknown to me, by Swinburne about, among other things, that very painting. It's got me thinking about how the internet has made such art widely available, but how tawdry jpegs are in comparison to seeing the artwork in person. Is such ready access to art a good thing if the secondhand reproduction is so poor and if it is impossible to adequately represent the piece on a screen, given the subtleties of the original? Discuss . . .

Finally, one last quote from the book that I found amusing and true, from a piece that is an exceprt from Swinburne's erotic novel Lesbia Brandon:

It's odd that words should change so just by being put into rhyme. They get teeth and bite; they take fire and burn.

Indeed they do.

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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Complete Stories by Mary Butts

 

The Complete StoriesThe Complete Stories by Mary Butts
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Occasionally, very occasionally, one stumbles across a writer whose writing changes one's entire outlook on the act and product of writing itself. There are various degrees of such a revelation, and I've discovered these insights several times. But once in a long while, a very long while, another's writing fundamentally cracks an author's foundation, forcing them to look at their own output with new eyes. It's not just a function of imposter syndrome (believe me, I experienced that when I started graduate school - I still reel a bit from that experience, twenty years gone now), it is a serious reconsideration of the craft of writing, a hard look at the deep structure, the longue durée, if you will, of one's writing history. Mary Butts' The Complete Stories has caused such a paradigm shift in me.

Now, I don't desire to mimic her exquisite work. She has her voice(s) and I have mine. But reading Butts' writing has caused serious self-reflection on the craft of my own writing - not the placement of verbs, the number of adjectives to use, the clever use of a semicolon, but the thought process that comes long before the pen actually bleeds onto the paper and the act of sounding out both the phraseology and subtle meaning of the words chosen. Reading this book is causing me to think much more carefully about my writing. This does not, however, mean that I plan on showing more restraint in my writing (as one book reviewer publicly advised that I do many years ago . . . what was his name? I forget. The world has forgotten). On the contrary, I feel a sense of impending freedom, a return to some of the vigor of my more experimental works, but with a more steady, sure hand.

What is it that has caused this epiphany? Honestly, it's hard to tell. It's not the subject matter, which is usually a social situation of some kind or another, oftentimes within or involving a group of bohemian artists and decadence (though long after the demise of Bohemia as an independent kingdom and the decadent movement). It's not the characters, though I thought the characterizations were good, sometimes great - I would LOVE to see an entire novel or perhaps even more of the main antagonist (and he is just that) in "Honey, Get Your Gun". It's not the setting - often Paris from the 1920s to the 1930s (?) is interesting enough, but not so astounding as, say, Berlin during the same period. It's not the plots; many of these stories seem essentially plotless or the plot is so subtle as to be barely detectable.

Honestly, the subtlety itself may be the "it" I am looking for. It can be thoroughly off-putting at first, but once one has caught the rhythm of a Mary Butts story, one knows one is ensconced in it. There really is no escape, once you've given yourself up to the mystery. And I mean that quite literally - not mystery as a genre (there is precious little of that ilk here), but the mystery of "just what the heck am I reading?" followed by the slowly dawning realization that . . . it just doesn't matter! If you allow yourself into these stories, you will often come out of the other end not knowing exactly what happened, but knowing that something significant happened, maybe even something with meaning. The fact that you will continue to quiz yourself on what the meaning is . . . well, that in and of itself gives the story some meaning, doesn't it?

As I review my notes to the stories, I see more question marks than in any other review I've done. The Complete Stories is baffling, frustratingly so, at times. But the fact that so many of these short tales have lingered in my mind so long and so powerfully, attests to their staying power, despite (or perhaps because of) a lack of full comprehension in my reading.

In other words, if you're one of those people who must have closure in your stories - don't read this book. You're going to hate it.

If, on the other hand, you are comfortable with or even excited by vagaries in fiction, this is your book. I should have guessed I would enjoy it, given my rather open-ended acceptance of "difficult" texts and Mark Valentine's praise of Mary Butts' work. At first, though, it was tough going. I had to accept that there was much that I did not understand and let myself feel that this was okay. Walk by faith, I guess, stepping into the darkness until only one step ahead is visible, as the old allegory goes. I'm glad I took each story as its own step (sometimes a series of steps). I can't say exactly where I arrived, in the end, but here is my journey, with commentary on each story:

I noted that, from the first story: If "Speed the Plow" is any indicator, I am going to like Mary Butts' work very, very, very much. The stream of consciousness of Beckett, but the poetics of a Huysman or a Rilke peeking out from behind the banalities. This is off to a smashing start. This is the type of writing one has to go back and reread each paragraph, partly for comprehension, but, really, mostly for the sheer awe inspired by the writing.

Did I understand "In Bayswater" from beginning to end? No. It's convoluted, a bit of a mess. But that prose is exquisite. And I was able to follow along well enough the first time through. A second reading would do much to tie it all together, but I'm not ready for that now. Some other time. Still good enough in structure to carry on and beautiful, beautiful writing and dialogue. Borderline decadent.

"Bellerophon to Anteia" is the Corinthian hero's underworld journey, but it is unlike any other hero's underworld journey, full of grief and regret and a pyrrhic victory, at best.

The trees, that were a row of whistles for the wind, grew small out of the bright grass.

Call me petty, but little gems like this one from "Angele au Couvent" are what make Mary Butts' stories "sing," despite their sometimes choppy presentation. Like diamonds against a foil of black construction paper. There is a certain charm there that I must admit I like.

"Angele au Couvent" - what to make of this? A young girl in school, perhaps studying to be a nun (?) comes to the realization that she will never find happiness there, but only in literature. And yet, the story ends with a beginning that does not hold much hope for a "literary" future, but rather the edge of a life storm where she will be tossed about to and fro by the ravages of society. Or perhaps it is not?

"In the Street" is a short monologue by . . . who knows? A madwoman? A spurned lover? A cast off whore? All of these things, perhaps, or none of them. This is a woman that Beckett would have heard in his mental echo chambers, a "lost one," a vagrant or, perhaps, a mad princess. It is so hard to tell. And by hard to tell, I mean "telling". She is all of these and less and more.

Is "The Golden Bough" a retelling of the Fisher King set in 1920s London? Difficult to say, though there is the self-sacrifice. But here, at least two of the characters are self-admittedly mad, having been institutionalized at one point. And yet, one questions who here is sane and who is not? Perhaps the cast of unreliable characters will never allow the mystery to be unraveled. Could it ever be? Should it?

What happened "In the South"? Something very old, ancient, even. Something undying, like eternity, like love. And what is signified by the terms "brother" and "sister"? Something deeper and more meaningful than shared parentage, something unknowable and absolutely unbreakable.

Young Mary finds that being overshadowed by the Holy Ghost and seeing an angel is . . . complicated and wrought with danger in "Maddona of the Magnificat".

"Widdershins" is an unravelling labyrinth of social entanglement. Dick Tressider discovers that no instantaneous magic can give him the standing he desires and, in fact, he might never attain the status and place he desires. At least this is how I interpret this choppy narrative, but of flotsam swirling in an undoing.

"The Dinner Party" is a social labyrinth that we are taken through from the view of a wanderer therein. At the center lies the Minotaur, and it is every bit as horrifying as that terrible beast. Perhaps even more so for the facade of "culture" around it. An outstanding expose of manners and social pressure. Devastating, in the end.

I had to reread "Brightness Falls" to fully grasp it (though it is not "graspable" and intentionally not so). On the second read, I realized how absolutely masterful the story is. My favorite up to this point. Is it about jealousy and winsomeness, or witchcraft and liminal dimensions, or hypnotism and a Freudian obstacle course? I take the fantastical view myself, with an acknowledgement of the humor veined throughout.

What happens to old, perverse Greek heroes when they seemingly retire from . . . hero-ing? "The Later Life of Theseus, King of Athens" sheds some light - and some darkness - on those golden years. Just remember that, as the economists say, "debt never sleeps". And it will be repaid. It will.

A bit of a dark comedy of manners does not allow one to simply laugh off the sinister story "In Bloomsbury," about a staid aristocratic family and their beastly (their word, I think) cousins from South Africa. It's a disturbing commentary about racism, colonialism, and the upper-class sense of superiority. And yet, here Butts' dexterity with language is clearly apparent. She describes the dawning realization of murder - fratricide and matricide, no less - in beautiful terms:

"Essential daylight, colourless and clean" filled the room. The fire sulked. The hour was unpropitious for the turn of the event. Besides, what were we to do? Julian went on: "I made an under-statement. They spoke of their victims in the plural: referred to "them." The woman, I suppose, their stepmother." Situations which sink in. All their little peculiarities which had hitherto delighted us, reseen in this light. Revision at dawn. Of murder; of blood on black ivory skins. Polished boxwood and scarlet; two bodies who would stay dead.

"Friendship's Garland" seems to be about transitions, from old age to young, from human sociality, with all its pretense and stresses, to the seclusion of nature and the accompanying opportunity to see oneself in their purest form.

"Green" may be a story about a newly-married couple and the interpolation of an old "friend" of the husband who may or may not have been a lover in the midst of what may or may not be a love triangle in which the husband's mother (also admired of the husband's may or may not have been ex- or maybe not-ex-lover) may or may not have interfered in said maybe-but-maybe-not affair. It's all so platonic and careful.

I got a strong du Maurier vibe from "The House Party," with echoes of Trilby throughout: a group of decadent friends, all of whom might or might not be gay, who negotiate the intricacies of social standing and sociality, all with a sinister background character (in this case, The Pimp) who inadvertently reveals things about oneself to oneself. One of the stronger stories in the first half of the book.

"Look Homeward, Angel" is a somber piece that shows a restraint absent from earlier stories. Perhaps it is this sense of restraint that makes it so emotionally affecting. There's a certain resigned sadness here, in the liminal space between memorial and grief. This is one of Butts' later stories and it's maturity shows. It's the most beautiful story in the volume so far, absent of hyperbole and all the better for it.

"The Guest" is about, well, the guest . . . to a husband and wife and a "friend" of vague intentions. Vague enough that the guest himself takes umbrage with the whole affair (or is there really an affair)? All is not as it seems, except for the excellent writing. The stream of consciousness bits are portrayed parenthetically, which makes for much easier reading comprehension.

A fictionalized account of the true story (!) of the young Julius Ceasar being kidnapped by pirates whom he later came back to crucify, "A Roman Speaks" presents the general on the cusp of assuming dictatorial power. Here Caesar presents his story of capture, life among the pirates, ransom, and his promised crucifixion of his captors (who thought it was a joke until it happened). An interesting insight into the man.

Friends meet friends and become enemies in "The Warning," a cautionary tale (telegraphed by the title). Sometimes it's best to keep one's associates siloed away from each other. We've all had this experience, but never so eloquently.

Mary Butts' work demands your attention. In some tales, every word counts. "Mappa Mundi" is a truly weird tale that requires your focus as a reader. The diligent reader is well-rewarded here. I had to go back and reread several sections twice, but once I got my focus and the brain grasped what was happening - or what might have happened - a door opened into a labyrinth . . .

"A Lover"? A lie. A deceit that makes a mockery of love, even of friendship. Dissimulation cracks its head open against The Truth, and one lover must simply walk away. This seems to be a theme in many of the stories in this collection. Deceit couched in the most beautiful of words, but what are words, other than masks? Layer upon layer of fiction. All of it false, yet speaking truth.

I have not fallen in love and had my heart broken in the city of Paris after finding that the object of my devotion had been thoroughly corrupted by an evil sorceress and her coterie of cruel followers; not until I had read "From Altar to Chimney-piece". This story will stick in my brain for a long, long time. The ambiguity of supernatural power next to social corruption is delicious and wretched. Butts is a master.

Butts channels M.R. James in "With and Without Buttons," and the story is James-worthy, but with a hint of dark comedy throughout. A delightful, creepy story, with Butts' trademark turns of phrase scattered here and there . . . like stray gloves . . .

"After the Funeral" pulls off a triple-feat by putting the focus on a dead woman after her funeral, damning the shallowness of sociality, and showing a myth, albeit a private one, in the making. It is the echoes of the tale, between the lines, outside of the actual words, which interest me the most; that life beyond the veil, or that death. One wants to walk past the foreground and find the underpinnings.

Chaos reigns in "The House" as two pairs of renters sublet while on vacation. In the meantime, a new landlord purchases the property. Not-quite Jeeves and Wooster funny, nor Howard's End dramatic, Butt's story is . . . alright. With a touch of understated flair. Very English, one could say. Everything's alright. "Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way . . .".

A young, self-loathing American overseas practices cynicism with great elan. As stated earlier, I would love to read an entire novel about the main character in "Honey, Get Your Gun " a miscreant antihero that Nick Cave would be pleased to celebrate in one of his darker songs. It's a gloriously dark rumination and one of the more compelling characterizations I've ever read in this short of a piece of fiction. Depressing; oustanding!

There are bushels of bitter melancholy for such a small piece as "In the House". Poverty, death, unfulfilled promises, the breaking of familial trust, and decay are all suffused throughout. A poignant piece, but very depressing if you dwell on it too long. Sadness incarnate.

"Lettres Imaginaires" is a one-sided correspondence from a spurned woman who may or may not be a goddess to a man who may or may not be a god. Butts captures the sense of loss and the yearning for the repair of a broken heart one encounters when one is essentially abandoned. The narrator here, though, is smarter by miles than I was as a young man who encountered similar circumstances.

"A Vision" is simply that, a hallucinatory terrain trodden by mice, macaws, and angels, with a stark lesson in the futility of taking on the essence of God (even successfully - no, especially successfully). Assuming the character of God might incur the greatest flaws of all. Perfection is not all it's cracked up to be.

Scrying is the preferred method in "Magic," a purely meditative piece on the ascent into light, the descent into darkness. This could bear several readings, which is no small task for such a small story.

"Change" is actually about the lingering after-effects of change, specifically the ironies of being disinherited by one's wealthy family and living a life of poverty and shame - which has it's own richness and pride . . . of a sort.

The next tale is less about "A Magical Experiment" than it is such. Written in the 1920s in France, you can guess where the strong surrealism came from. It's largely nonsensical, but at certain moments it is startling. Probably the story most influenced by Crowley, though it would be easier to analyze if it was clear who was who. I need more context to understand this experiment.

"The Master's Last Dancing" is a bacchanalian riot of dance and violence and the shedding of all social graces. I can imagine the room full of flappers and gents in a Berlin jazz club, though this dance took place decades after that, another place, another time. Some things are timeless? A shocking, sad, story that asks, in the end, if it is actually funny or not?

"Fumerie" contends for my favorite piece in this volume. It's a decadent how-to guide, told in demonstrative vignettes and sometimes outright instruction, on the world of the opium smoker. I smoked opium twice, and it's a good thing I couldn't get my hands on more, because I really, REALLY liked it. This sometimes tongue-in-cheek piece of realism presents the sociality of the pipe with all its quirks. Brilliant.

The final untitled story is slight, but underscores the recurring theme of expatriate Americans in Paris, their brashness and clash of ideas or style with the locals. I suppose this story needs to be here for the volume to be The Complete Stories, but Butts has done this theme much more ably in other stories.

Strongly recommended!!!

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Saturday, September 18, 2021

Gustav Klimt: Complete Paintings

 

Gustav Klimt: Complete PaintingsGustav Klimt: Complete Paintings by Tobias G. Natter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first saw this beautiful book at the gift shop of Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum when my wife and I visited there in 2019. I lusted after the book, but I had already shot my wad on book spending, mostly when we visited the "booktown" of Hay-on-Wye, Wales. Keep in mind that I had just consumed possibly the largest amount of art treasures (consumed with my gaze, that is) that I had ever seen. And I have visited a fair amount of art museums in my day. So, for me and this book to look out across the room and catch each other's eye was nothing short of love at first sight. Of course, one sets themselves up for failure when they romanticize a relationship that has not yet happened, and we did hit a couple of rough spots in our little 663 page fling. But all in all, I'm wrapped up in the afterglow. We loved and we loved with great gusto. Granted, it was all one sided - me indulging in the beauty of my lover. Love is sometimes like this.

As with any great book, I learned a great deal. I had never actually read a bio of Klimt (sorry, Wikipedia - I'm seeing someone else), and his life had a fair amount of twists and turns, from his young talent being recognized and rewarded, to the deaths of this brother and father (which greatly affected him), to the many, many love affairs he had (he sired 14 children - yes, you read that right). Klimt was a very, very interesting person.

This is not to mention his skill as an artist. His early work was intimately tied with some background in architecture and his greatest commissions were for artwork in state buildings or upper-class residences. Many of the "paintings" you've seen are actually murals. The cover of the book itself is a prime example of this. I was very excited to read the section about the secession building in Vienna, which my wife and I visited. He didn't do all of the art on the building, but he had a very, very strong influence on it, being the official leader of the secession movement. It is, to be candid, one of the most beautiful buildings I've seen in my life.

Taschen, the book's publisher, spares no expense in showcasing the fabulous art. For instance, pages 119-122 are a four-page full-color fold-out spread of the Beethoven Frieze. This is only one of four such fold-out spreads, if I am counting correctly. I didn't realize these fold-outs were a part of the book when I first purchased it (the book is bought wrapped tight in plastic). The book is littered with beauty. It's almost overwhelming. Such is Taschen!

I sort of knew that Klimt did portraiture, but I was unaware that he drew so many beautiful portraits. Klimt was a master at capturing personality. The Portrait of Rose von Rostborn-Friedmann is a good example. There is an adventurous spirit there (she was an alpinist who was one of the first women to scale two notable peaks), with a strong, sensual attractiveness that equals her pioneering elan.

As I alluded to earlier, I didn't agree with the editors all of the time. At first, I didn't buy the argument that Klimt was influenced by the Fauves after his golden period. The colors were all wrong: not fauvist at all. Later, though, I could see some Fauvist influence in the backgrounds of his later portraits. It wasn't as obvious as the authors portrayed it, but it's there, I'm willing to concede. Also, It's in landscapes, Tobias Natter (the editor) claims, that Klimt is most like the Symbolists. While I see that in some of his landscapes, I think it's in his mosaic works that I see the resemblance in a more profound, concrete way. Yes, the early landscapes are ethereal and hazy, like some of the Symbolists, and even his portraits show influence from Fernand Khnopff and Jan Toorop, but the outright iconography in his golden, bejewelled works speaks more to the mythic and symbolic to me than either his landscapes or portraits.

If you think Klimt's paintings are good, take a look at his drawings. The editor calls them "a parallel universe, existing alongside his painterly ouvre". So very true. Klimt's paintings and drawings are two sides of the same coin, each distinctive and each valuable. As with coins (I've collected a few medieval silver coins), one recognizes that both are beautiful and equally valuable, but any given viewer tends to prefer one over the other. It's obvious how Klimt's paintings have endured, but his much less-well-known drawings show a deft hand that might be overshadowed by the renown of the paintings. One thing I appreciated about the book's presentation of the drawings is that the editors chose to view Klimt's drawings not just through the lens of subject matter, but through the lens of mood and emotion. While they aren't always convincing in their categorization of this drawing or that, the mere attempt is bold and causes the reader to look at Klimt's drawings in a different, more interesting light.

Klimt's obituary provides great insight into the artist's influences, providing, with hindsight, a great window into his creative world:

What initially struck the viewer as being Klimt was not him, but something with which he was connected. Japan, China, Byzantium and the ancient and modern Orient. Italian and modern English Pre-Raphaelitism. French decorative and magical painting of the Moreau kind, Low Countries mysticism from the region of Khnopff, with colonial goods and gods in between. But if he took something from everything, it was because he was nothing less than an eclectic. He simply used this as nourishment and transformed it into Gustav Klimt.

The end of Klimt is, however, not quite the end of this review. I love works that push me into other stories, and this book is no exception. Here, the never-finished portrait of Ria Munk, who committed suicide after her scandalous affair with Hanns Heinz Ewers has stolen my attention. I will take many things from this book, but this portrait and the story before it, around it's unfinished creation, and it's aftermath (pushing well into the World War 2 era - Ewers was a noted Nazi supporter who was later considered "deviant" by the regime) is the sort of thing that epic myths are made of.

I think I'll be feeling the influence of this book for a long, long time.

Gustav Klimt is dead: Long live Klimt!


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Saturday, July 31, 2021

John Betjeman: Collected Poems

 

John Betjeman: Collected PoemsJohn Betjeman: Collected Poems by John Betjeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Almost exactly two years ago, in the summer of 2019, my wife and I travelled to Europe. One of our stops was the "booktown" of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, near the English border. We were staying in the Cotswolds and Wales was about 45 minutes away. I have some Welsh heritage (with rumors of some familial connection to Lord Tennyson, though I was never able to pin my mother down about details on this before she died), and I was DEFINITELY interested in buying books while I was over there, as my tastes run to the British and, well, those types of books are obviously more easily available in the UK.

After visiting I-don't-remember-how-many bookstores (there are over 20 of them in that village of under 2000 people!), we stopped in one last little shop, a little out of the way from the rest. I bought a copy of Arthur Rackham: A Life with Illustration that had caught my eye. That was the last book I bought in Hay-on-Wye before we left town for our AirBnB back in the Cotswolds.

But on our way out of that little shop, a book caught my eye for no particular reason other than that it was facing out from one of the shelves I was passing by and I wanted to soak in every tiny detail before I left this slice of heaven on earth, probably for the last time in my life. It was a copy (not the edition I'm reviewing here) of John Betjeman's Collected Poems. I had honestly never heard of the man. Yes, he was the Poet Laureate of United Kingdom until his death in 1984 (one year before I arrived in the country as a teenager for my three-year stay there) and I probably should have heard of him. But back then, I was more interested in Motorhead and marijuana than poetry, so . . .

I read the back cover, flipped through a couple of pages (under the watchful eyes of the shop owner, who was, I think, eager to get the store closed up, but too polite to kick this brash American out of her establishment) and was surprised to find *gasp!* rhyming poetry! I took a mental note of the name and left the shop, later adding the book to my Goodreads To Be Read list.

I don't rightly recall when I ordered the book, but I do recall ordering Major Poems and Selected Prose of Algernon Charles Swinburne at the same time (yes, through Amazon, I must admit, which I usually try to avoid, truth be told, but it was during Covid and it was a weak moment). This will become important later . . .

And not long after it arrived, I began reading. Yes, my memory had served me correctly, the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, against all academic protocol (possibly intentionally, given his tumultuous relation to the academy) wrote in rhyming verse . . . almost exclusively! Only one of the poems, "Before the Lecture," is not written in rhymed stanzas, until one comes to his epic biographical work "Summoned by Bells," which is written in free verse. Both "Before the Lecture" and "Summoned by Bells" cover his relationship with the academy (and his heartache about having to drop out of Oxford, more specifically - this shall also become important in a moment), so perhaps he wanted to speak "their language" so that they could understand exactly how he felt about them? We'll never know.

Despite the "quaintness" of the rhyming, and sometimes because of it, Betjeman shows an incredible breadth, depth, and power in his writings. For example, "Original Sin on the Sussex Coast" is an unsubtle reminder that childhood is not the age of innocence you might think it to me. Betjeman is a poet, but he's not naive. On the contrary, his slices of life sometimes cut deep.

"1940," a gut-wrenching poem about the horrors of war, demonstrates this quite well.

1940

As I lay in the bath the air was filling with bells;
Over the steam of the window, out in the sun,
From the village below came hoarsely the patriot yells
And I knew that the next World War had at last begun.
As I lay in the bath I saw things clear in my head:
Ten to one they'd not bother to bomb us here,
Ten to one that they'd make for the barracks instead -
As I lay in the bath, I certainly saw things clear.
As I started to dry, came a humming of expectation;
Was it the enemy planes or was it young Jack
And the rest of the gang who have passed in their aviation
Setting across to Berlin to make an attack?
As the water gurgled away I put o a shirt,
I put on my trousers, and parted what's left of my hair,
And the humming above increased to a roaring spurt
And a shuddering thud drove all the bells from the air,
And a shuddering thud drove ev'rything else to silence.
There wasn't a sound, there wasn't a soul on the street,
There wasn't a wall to the house, there wasn't a staircase;
There was only the bathroom linoleum under my feet.
I called, as I always do, I called to Penelope,
I called to the strong with the petulant call of the weak;
There lay the head and the brown eyes dizzily open,
And the mouth apart but the tongue unable to speak;
There lay the nut-shaped head that I love for ever,
The thin little neck, the turned-up nose and the charms
Of pouting lips and lashes and circling eyebrows;
But where was the body? and where the legs and arms?
And somewhere about I must seek in the broken building
Somewhere about they'll probably find my son.
Oh bountiful Gods of the air! Oh Science and Progress!
You great big wonderful world! Oh what have you done?


Betjeman is not limited to the tragic, however, his work spans the full gamut of human emotion and experience. It's as if no corner of life goes unexplored, whether happy or sad, dark or light, private or public. I cannot fully explain the full breadth of the man's mind. Betjeman, as they say, contains multitudes.

While in the midst of discovering Betjeman and marveling at his ability to work within the strictures of rhyme while teasing out some of the most evocative, emotive series of words I've read, I listened to my favorite podcast, Weird Studies, when they aired episode 103: On the Tower, the Sixteenth Card of the Tarot. As part of that discussion, JF Martel and Phil Ford talk about the "miracle" that poetry is, that enobling meaning can come from such an intentionally-constrained exercise as writing a rhyming poem. This miracle is plainly evident in Betjeman's poetry. I would say that it is Magic.

About Magic: say what you will about chance, but when a number of seeming "coincidences" line up in a row in strange, but seemingly intentional ways, you might see an interesting stochastic structure, but I see Magic.

Magic, for some reason I cannot define, often happens in "threes". This is how it manifested when I read the last section of this book, "Summoned by Bells," Betjeman's free-verse biographical sketch.

Now, I admit to feeling a bit of a kinship with the man, simply by connections - connections that only I know, but he does not (that I know of): We were both failed academics who had to drop out of school (this is why I have an MA and not a PhD, though I count my lucky stars that I never did become a professor, which sounds like Hell-on-Earth the more I learn about it). We were literary-minded and shared the same disposition when it came to school, sports, and being bullied as children. We both balked at our respective father's vocation while young, and in fact, a little older, rebelled against the person himself rather openly and brashly, until, later in life, we saw the honor of our fathers' careers and, I believe, the honor in our fathers.

I say this to make it clear that I don't come at this from an unbiased position. But I can't characterize the experience of reading this last section as anything less than Magic, or I would be a liar to myself.

"Summoned by Bells" is a chronological (I think - correct me if I'm wrong) recounting of Betjeman's life from early childhood in London, through a stay in Cornwall, school at Oxford, and time spent in the Cotswolds to the west.

The account isn't always flattering. In fact, it often shows Betjeman's weakest points of character. I love that in a couple of his biographical sketches Betjrman effectively says "Look what I got away with. I'm not proud of it, but I'm a clever coward." His candor is endearing. He was a brave man to share these experiences. I dont know that I'm as brave. A tip of the hat to a vulnerable trickster; deceptive, but self-effacing.

And yet, at times, serious. Maybe too serious. He recounts:

The smell of trodden leaves beside the Kennet,
On Sunday walks, with Swinburne in my brain


And it struck me: The Swinburne Connection. I was reading Swinburne and Betjeman at the same time. I had earlier noted the strong affinity between the two in their form of expression (though one was far more atavistic than the other). Here, I saw the connection explicit, direct.

You may call it self-suggestion, or perhaps my brain making the subliminal connection between the two in my subconscious until I saw the name "Swinburne" in the Betjeman book with my conscious mind and made a neurological connection.

I still call it Magic.

One of the reasons I so wanted to go to Hay-0n-Wye is because I am a fan of Arthur Machen, the Welsh author of The Great God Pan, among other works. In fact, I picked up a copy of The Hill of Dreams while there. In every bookshop we stopped in, the name I looked for was "Machen". I had hoped, nay, lusted to buy a Machen book while in Wales. Thankfully, and oddly enough in a town with over 20 bookstores, I eventually found this volume in a little horror bookstore, almost tucked behind the counter on a small round table quite hidden unless you moved a certain way around the counter. It was a quest halfway across the world to find this hidden book!

So, imagine my surprise when Betjeman mentions Machen's Secret Glory and it's obvious that it had a powerful impact on him. I liked this man even more. I was sad to know we would never meet. And, yet, through this Magic, we kind of do.

The day before my wife and I would leave the UK, flying for Germany and Austria, we took a long hike, twelve miles, through the English countryside, crawling the Monarch Trail through the Cotswolds. You can read about that whole "adventure" here. Little did I know, two years ago, that I was setting the world in motion for the next Magic connection between Betjeman and myself.

Toward the end of "Summoned by Bells," Betjeman mentions, quite out of the blue, I thought, and goes on at length about, Sezincote, a wonderful piece of architecture that my wife and I stumbled across on our grueling hike in the Cotswolds in 2019 (I even have a photo of Sezincote in my Cotswolds post).

And soon he mentions Bourton-on-the-Hill, which is the village where we stopped for lunch at a pub that we fell in love with. And he mentions Longborough. And Moreton-in-Marsh - the EXACT route of our widdershins trek through the Cotswolds. Again, so-called "coincidences" occurring one after another is, in my eyes, Magic. Reading this book of poetry is, for me, weaving a powerful spell! The more I learned about Betjeman, the more I felt like I had been unknowingly summoning his ghost my entire life.

I should like to one day meet John Betjeman in some kind of afterlife. We would have a lot in common, we would share similar stories with differing details, I would likely find him affable, likeable, perhaps even brotherly.

And yet, I shall never, ever be able to write as well as the man.

He is infinitely approachable and yet eternally untouchable.

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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Black Meadow Archive - Volume 1

 

The Black Meadow Archive - Volume 1The Black Meadow Archive - Volume 1 by Chris Lambert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was introduced to The Black Meadow Archive - Volume 1 through the album of the same name. After getting the digital copy and becoming enamored of it, I sought out the physical LP and paid a good clip of money for it. Sometimes I know what I want and I'm willing to spend what I need to in order to get it. I very rarely buy vinyl, so this tells you how much I like the strange, haunting sounds of this album. So, when I saw this book . . . well, I had to know the tales hidden behind the dulcet horror of these songs. And here they are.

"The Lair of the Coyle" is a great mythic story of a knight who is cursed to poverty all the days of his life. A good little tale, with a touch of the gruesome, as one should expect from medieval stories.

"The Legend of the White Horse" is a beautiful piece of folk-fabulism, mythic and banal at the same time. I could hear this being sung and spoken by a bard of old. Timeless and haunting.

I love blackberries. They are one of my favorite fruits. So, I wondered what the song "The Blackberry Ghost" was all about. Now that I've read the story of the same name, I know. But now I don't know if I want to know. Next time I eat blackberries . . . I shall be very, very careful.

The exquisite subversion of folkloric norms in "A Voice from the Heather" is a spectacularly positive, affirmative, yet ultimately horrific work of art. It simultaneously upends and reinforces the morality tale, surprising at every turn, and there are many turns. Possibly one of my favorite fables in recent memory. Calvino would have loved this, and I love Calvino, thus . . .

More blackberries: "The Blackberry Swim" is like something straight out of Der Struwwelpeter or Grimms' Fairy Tales (the uncensored versions) - gaudy in its gruesomeness. Imagine folk horror meets splatterpunk. I love blackberries, they really are one of my favorite things in the world. But after reading this story, I might hesitate, just momentarily, before eating the next one. But I'll get over it. I hope.

Even more blackberries: "The Heart of the Blackberry Field" is an exquisite example of Folk Horror. It hits all the right notes with careful timing, creating a perfectly sinister, yet innocent tone. We are one with the land, and the land is one with us. You, too, will become one with the land. Trust me, you will. When I think of the term "psychogeography," going forward, I shall think of this tale first and foremost, at least in a rural sense. Perhaps I'm mapping my own definition onto the term, as it was originally coined to describe exclusively urban applications, but this is how I choose to interpret it. Call it rewilding psychogeography.

The bardic poem "He Took Her Hand" betrays its oral storytelling origins by the clever use of mnemonic refrain. Structurally, it reminds me of some of the works I studied while a student of African History. But this is a very British volume. Still, the structures echo each other quite strongly. This is the sort of horrific tale one would hear in a dark pub just before closing. The series of permutations of this refrain render it effective and, yes, memorable.

"A Dead Man on the Moor" is atmospheric, but the lack of any real underlying motive and scant background make for a sparse story. Not a bad story, just not as rich and deep as the others.

A peasant morality tale, "The Ploughman's Wrath" illustrates the virtue of hard work and honesty and the punishment due to the lazy and dishonest. This is, however, just one possible story among many mythical explanations for strange features in the land. It makes one wonder how many unspoken tales might exist to explain otherwise unexplainable phenomena, all lost in the mists of time. Will we ever recapture them?

Okay, a little piece of dark poetry in the middle of the book. Okay. Seems a little weird that there isn't more poetry in here, but this book is all about weird. It's not that "The Song of the Meadow Bird" is out of place, it just seems slightly out of genre. Then again, a few of the stories have a poetic sensibility, if not true mechanical poesis, so maybe it does fit in.

"The Ticking Policeman" is a wonderfully weird story that is oh so very British: well-mannered and potentially violent, should one step out of line in the slightest. The understated humor is like something out of the more refined skits on Monty Python's Flying Circus (yes, there were some of those in the midst of all that insanity).

"March of the Meadow Hags" is my favorite piece in this volume. A diabolical pear tree and skinwalkers feature most prominently in this incredibly weird tale. It is told through a series of seemingly unrelated documents - one of my favorite ways to write and, yes, to read. Wonderfully dark and sinister! This is the sort of story I wish I would have written myself.

"The Maiden of the Mist" is bittersweet and tender. It might make you a little teary-eyed. It did that to me. A touching story.

"The Audire" is an unexpected (at least by me) story about Syd Barrett. The mystery of Radomes on the northern moors is explored. I don't even know what to say about this story. I enjoyed it. But it was strange, even for a man who loves strange stories. Truth be told, I'm a bit jealous that these ideas have been explored and I won't discover them in my own writing. But I'll take the gift.

"The Wretched Stranger" reads as if it had escaped from a deep trough of creepypasta. And I do mean escaped. This story will keep crawling out, smiling the whole time, no matter how many times you kill it. But trusting your hunches might just buy you some time before its inexorable arrival.

"The Village Under the Lake" is convoluted and requires some amateur mental gymnastics to understand. The confusion adds to the intrigue, however. The narrator is restrained in imparting information because the way that the information was imparted was piecemeal and confused. Besides, you don't really want to know everything about the village under the lake! Trust me, you really don't want to know.

I like the story of the "Ghost Planes" as much as the haunting song on the album (if it can be called a "song" proper - it's more like a soundscape). A wonderfully cryptic sewing together of various patches of accounts of Ghost Planes flying above the moors from throughout history.

I also have a digital copy of the album "The Black Meadow Archive: The Lost Tapes". It covers some of the stories in this book that were not covered in the first album. It is equally as moody and grey. Unfortunately, there never was a physical LP done of this one. At least . . . not in this reality.

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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Interzone

 Call me a punk, if you must. I love Zines. I recall the days way before the internet was public, when it was only used by the military (my father confirmed to me once that he was using it, in a more primitive form, as far back as the early '80s), when Zines were a primary form, no THE primary form of communication amongst the punk underground. They'd spring up at record stores and sometimes at concerts, usually given away for free, though I'm sure some enterprising young capitalists (i.e., not punks or were they so not punk that they were punk?) sold some for cash. Or Dead Kennedy's patches. Or something.

The thing about Zines is that they were (and can still be) inherently subversive. From the Samizdat of the Soviet Union to the backstreet record store Zines of Omaha, Nebraska, there was also a subtext of "screw the establishment" in these little handmade, stapled books of cardboard and paper. Remember, this was before photoshop, so you literally had to cut and paste and copy real photos (or copies of such) by hand. This was production outside of the publishing industry, and intentionally so. Distribution was likely by some kid carrying a few copies in the inside pocket of a trenchcoat asking the record store if they could leave a few copies. Communication between fans was facilitated by either snail mail or phone numbers typed or written in the back. Again, this was meant to avoid the scrutiny of "the man".

If our imaginary distributor was anything like me, this kid hopped fences, walked through piss-drenched back alleys, crossed abandoned lots on the edge of town, and generally ambled where others would not go. This sort of walking the seams of society was not limited to urban settings. I took great delight in wandering those areas of suburbia and even on the edge of the country where no one wanted to be. Where the sprawl of capitalism smashed up against the wilds of the country, where weeds grew up between old asphalt and tin roofs caved in on crumbling cinderblock buildings covered in graffiti, where Bad Things happened. 

It's a wonder that, in all my wanderings, I was not once mugged or murdered or worse. I had my fair share of confronting feral dogs (twice), stepping on rusty nails (took one right through my left foot, bloodying my bobos on the top), drinking water I shouldn't have (that hand-pump in Italy that had me hallucinating with a 108 degree fever - I will never forget those hallucinations . . . terrifying!), and generally just exploring these waysides where no one sane (or sanitary) went.

I love those places. I still do. I was on foot a lot more back then as I was too young to drive. But even now, if I make some time (and it has to be made, I don't just "have" the time anymore), I will take the circuitous route on foot to a destination, cutting through the abandoned parking lots and over the tracks (sometimes over the train's hitch itself) to get where I'm going. I prefer to live my life this way. I don't routinely trespass in places marked as private property. Notice that I use the word "routinely". Sometimes, I can hardly help myself.

Which brings us to this little Zine: Interzone:


Yeah, you'll have to pay for it. But you're a grownup now, you can probably afford it. But besides the start up cost, this little beaut has an incredibly punk aesthetic and it's philosophically as punk as it gets.


Was it all done on photocopiers? I doubt it. I mean, take advantage of technology if you can, says I. There's no shame in this. But it looks like it was done using the old cut and paste methods, replete with polaroid borders around the photos. Maybe it was all done with a polaroid and photostat, who's to know?

"What is this?" you're asking. It's an essay by Cormac Pentecost about what these areas between civilization and the wilds symbolize. I don't want to spoil it, but capitalism and its failures are at the center of the discussion, even as the places themselves are on the edges of throwaway society. Marion Shoard and Mark Fisher are quoted at length, which should be enough of a draw for those even mildly interested in hauntology and psychogeography. This essay straddles the tripartate line between history, philosophy, and activist politics. I am reminded of the later work of Michel Foucault, but with a decidedly less academic tone. In ways, it is a sort of elegy to times past, when such "edgelands" were more common, where late-stage capitalism hadn't quite subsumed everything in its path. But it's more than just a mawkish look backwards. Many of the insights hint at a ways forward, not just looking back at the loss, but providing a way through the loss via an examination of these edgelands and their features.

For those much younger than I (there are many more of you every day), if you want a glimpse into what life was like in the '70s and '80s for those of us who liked to adventure in these in-between spaces or if you're simply trying to get into why Generation X is the way it is, you might want to give this a spin. 

For everyone, I think that Interzone is a great reminder that those liminal spaces can be appreciated for what they are, where they are, and what they symbolize. They can be a motivator to do your little thing to make society a little bit better . . . and a lot weirder. Weird on!



Monday, June 14, 2021

Sacrum Regnum II

 

Sacrum Regnum IISacrum Regnum II by Daniel Corrick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After being entirely blown away by Sacrum Regnum I, I was excited, but a touch guarded, when approaching this second volume in the series. While I saw a lot of names that I normally love, I was wary of the sequel, worried that it would either fall flat or "jump the shark".

My fears were completely unfounded. This second volume absolutely lives up to the promise of the first. My only disappointment is that a volume three was never compiled.

But why focus on what might have been, when we can focus on what is? And this volume is absolutely brilliant! By that, I don't mean bright and shiny, oh no, this volume is dark, in places very dark. I mean smart, intelligent, dignified, and, dare I say it: literary? It is, with the first volume, a Symbolist master stroke, and a worthy bow to the Symbolist and Decadent literature of the past, without being enslaved to it.

My praise for Sacrum Regnum II does not, however, mean that I felt entirely comfortable with it. Not by a long shot.

For example, I feel, as the kids say these days, "seen" after reading John Howard's tale of a slightly neurotic numismatist, "Into An Empire". Yes, I saw myself in the protagonist on several levels. John, how did you get into my head? This hits too close to home for this mildly neurotic wannabe numismatist. I even restrict myself to pre-1776 Germanic state silver coins in a similar manner to the story's main character, Payton. Seriously, I feel naked before your pen. That is to say, I could completely immerse myself in Payton.

Next, "The Human Cosmos" is Charles Wilkinson at his best. Strong echoes of Italo Calvino ring throughout, and that is some of the highest praise I can give a story. An ambiguous story (in the best way possible) of fabulism that ends poised on the knifes' edge of dark and light. I am reminded of my favorite quote by Calvino: I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses. Wilkinson hits both sides of that balance at the same time.

Colin Insole's "Dreams from the Apple Orchards" (which I have read before) is an excellent example of psychogeography, where the landscape itself pulses with the negative energy of those who lived their before. The setting is the character, the setting that has seen so much of corruption and baleful intent. A thin veneer separates the trappings of civilization from the base layer of chaos beneath.

I had wanted to read Thomas Strømsholt's fiction before, but this was my first chance to do so. "Szépassony-völgy" packs an unexpected gut punch. Strømsholt layers a seed of utterly mindless random brutality under a veneer of mythic legend and romantic nostalgia and longing for past love. The contrast is striking and invokes a strong existential response in the reader, leaving one's head reeling. Powerful.

An entire section about author Quentin S. Crisp, replete with an interview with the author and a piece of short fiction, entitled Crispiana opens a window into the brain of the author, at least what he's willing and able to share about his brain. An interesting peek at an author whose work I quite like. As with the first volume of Sacrum Regnum, I love the collection of fiction, non-fiction, poetics, and reviews. An eclectic selection, but with it's own firm voice.

The Poetics section in this volume contains work by Mark Valentine, Loha Connell, and Bethany van Rijswijk, along with a translation of Stefan Grabinski's "Red Magda".

Ah, kids. Can't live with them, can't bury a fire hatchet in their forehead when they are possessed by fiery arson demons without feeling some degree of guilt. Watcha gonna do with "Red Magna"? This brilliant (pardon the pun) translation will lodge itself in your brain, just like an axe. The effect is no less painful. I did warn that some of these works go to very dark places.

Mark Valentine turns his always-keen critical eye on novelist Claude Houghton in his article "The Stranger Who Opens the Door - The Novels of Claude Houghton". As is usual, the reader is sent off scurrying to find the work of another forgotten author. Valentine is an archaeologist of literary treasures that need to again see the light of day. This essay is no exception!

Martin Echter's essay on the aesthetic principles espoused and practiced by Hanns Heinz Ewers is an exemplary examination of not only the writer's oeuvre, but of the undergirding philosophy that drove Ewers' work. A marvelous examination of an incredibly underrated author.

I had read, with interest, Mark Valentine's essay on Mary Butts from his collection Haunted by Books, whom I had not heard of to that point, with interest. Now, with Nigel Jackson's essay "Obscene Ikons: Desacralization & Counter-Tradition in the Work of Mary Butts," I have felt compelled to add her complete short fiction to my To-Be-Read list. For those who know me well, you know I don't add things to my TBR list lightly. I curate it a great deal (and am often chided for how few books I have on my TBR list on Goodreads). So, yes, I expect something special from Mary Butts' work.

. . . and the review of Georg Trakl's The Last Gold of Expired Stars in the book review section cements my decision to buy that book, as well. Thankfully, it was already on my TBR list.

There is some high praise for The Ten Dictates of Alfred Tessler by D.P. Watt. But isn't Watt always deserving of high praise? Yes. Absolutely.

A critically-constructive eye is placed upon Alex Miles' debut weird fiction collection The Glory and the Splendour. I haven't read said collection, but the assessment here seems fair, yet firm: there's potential here, but it needs work. It's strangely refreshing to see a review that is measured and doesn't overstate the work being reviewed, but sees raw potential.

Another balanced, insightful review, this time of Quentin S. Crisp's All God's Angels, Beware! clearly explains what it is that makes Crisp's work tick. I have yet to see a clearer explanation of how he does what he does when he writes. It is unique, quirky, weird, and charming at the same time. It has heart and this essay shows how and why this is done. An important essay on Crisp's fiction, to say the least!

When I read through the list of forthcoming books here, I am reminded of how good of a year 2013 was for literary fiction of the sort that I love. Halcyon days, to be sure. Hopefully, they'll return. In some small way that's happening, but we need an updated equivalent to Sacrum Regnum or an outright resurrection of the same to really seal the deal, as far as I'm concerned. Where is our Sacrum Regnum? And here I go again, pining for the past by longing for the future. I'm tempted to try to make it happen myself. It's been a while since I've edited . . . hmm . . .

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