Friday, March 26, 2010

Robert Hugh Benson -- A Mirror of Shalott, The Necromancers, and beyond

The edition I'm reading is from the Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult, with the greenish cover, below. The top reddish cover art makes no sense to me!

Msgr. Robert Hugh Benson, 1912

I haven't blogged in awhile, been too busy on Facebook and even Twitter. Gotta figure out how to seamlessly communicate via all three means. As one of Blessed Alberione's lay daughters, it behooves me to get up to speed with all this stuff. Especially since now that I am retired, in theory I have more time than ever to do my own communicating.

I just finished The Necromancers by Robert Hugh Benson, and recommend it as the most exciting of his books that I've read yet. Benson (1871-1914), was ordained a priest of the Church of England by his father, then Archbishop of Canterbury, then converted to Catholicism at the age of 33, becoming first a priest and later a monsignor. He enjoyed a life of priestly ministry that included a prolific writing career.

I read his book Come Rack, Come Rope about the Catholic martyrs in Elizabethan England years ago, as a teenager, before I had ever heard of the author. Then when I started getting interested in Catholic SF and fantasy, I heard of his apocalyptic novel, Lord of the World. But my introduction as an adult to his work was his two short story collections, The Light Invisible and A Mirror of Shalott. These are variously categorized as "science fiction", "fantasy", or "horror". I have lost my copy of The Light Invisible, so I don't remember much about it. A Mirror of Shalott is a series of short stories in a Canterbury Tales type of format -- a group of priests meet each night after dinner, and in turn tell the most uncanny experience of their priestly life. As with The Canterbury Tales, the stories are of uneven impact, but I am re-reading them at the moment and can testify that the opening story, "Monsignor Maxwell's Tale", is a doozy. It concerns a devout man of faith whose brother, a lukewarm Catholic, is contemplating apostacizing so as to make life more comfortable with his fiancee. What the brother does in response, and the ultimate effect of his action, makes for a chilling little tale about the nature of faith. The more significant faith is to the reader's own life, the more chilling the tale.

That last is true for all of Benson's writings. He is not much interested in external plot, but in the stirrings and workings of the soul as described by classic Catholic spiritual writers. St. John of the Cross, Thomas a Kempis, St. Francis de Sales and the other giants of Christian spirituality would be right at home with the interior lives of Benson's protagonists.

The Necromancers is the most exciting of the books I have read because it is more plot driven than even his Lord of the World, a book which attempts to describe the events of the Book of Revelation a whole century before the Left Behind books take their stab at it. The Necromancers is about a young man of the upper classes in 19th century Britain, Laurie Baxter, who falls in love with the grocer's daughter, Amy Nugent. Laurie is a recent Catholic convert, with the enthusiasm and inexperience that often characteristizes those who "swim the Tiber" as adults. His friend and near-sister (through adoption), Maggie Deronnais, a convent-bred cradle Catholic, suspects that his conversion was more a matter of aesthetics than spirituality.

The book opens as Maggie and Laurie's mother sit conversing about Laurie's state of mind as they wait for him to return from Amy Nugent's funeral. Although they had both been opposed to the match, both women recognize that Laurie was head over heels in love with Amy, and worry about his future. The very next day, a neighbor, Mrs. Stapleton, comes to tea, and tells the gathered party with enthusiasm about her recent foray into spiritualism through her meetings with and patronage of Mr. Vincent, a leading medium of the day.

That sets the stage for an exploration of grief, of the desire to re-establish connection with loved ones who have died, and of the philosophical possibilities, from skepticism to belief to obsession, raised by participation in the occult arts.

This is really a terrific piece of fiction, although those who are used to the splashier techniques of special-effects driven horror (whether in film or fiction) may be disappointed. The drama is that of the movements and feelings of the interior life.

The Catholic Church forbids its adherents to become involved in spiritualism and in attempts to contact the dead through any means other than prayer directed to God within the boundaries of the communion of saints. Benson provides a decent explanation of the rationale behind that prohibition. Is Mr. Vincent a fraud or is he for real? The book suggests that either way, Laurie is in for it.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Ellen Dore Watson makes my day - I discover a new poet

Ellen Dore Watson is obviously not a new poet -- the blurb on the back of LADDER MUSIC says that she is Director of The Poetry Center at Smith College and is an editor at The Massachusetts Review. But she is new to me. One of the great delights of a used book business is the serendipity that reveals itself in every new box of old books that comes into one's greedy little hands.

LADDER MUSIC appeared in a box of books given to me by my most excellent daughter-in-law Sine, who is clearing out her bookshelves in preparation for welcoming her new baby -- she and my son's first child, my ninth grandchild. As I took up LADDER MUSIC to list it for sale, I had to browse it first. It is, after all, a book of poetry and I am a sucker for good poetry. The last half of the 20th century brought a lot of bad poetry -- or maybe there is bad poetry in every century. But for some reason many poets who gained acclaim in the century that just finished produced work that was incomprehensible at best and downright ugly at worst. I came to despair of finding beauty, imagination and intelligence fused in the poetry that was making the rounds.

LADDER MUSIC is a book of poetry that sings, lightly and without pretension. An intelligence is at work here. I am grateful to have found it. And not just because --- twice -- the poet mentions popcorn, the veritable food of Paradise.


Before Bed

The word I leave out on the stoop to shiver
like a cat that tears up a couch in the night
is forget. I don't want it in my dreams.
The dreams can be themselves terrifying or
gone in the morning, just as long as they remember
everything as long as they last. I don't stoop down
before bed as I was taught by my forgetting mother
who is learning to be gone, trying to remember
to dream as long as she lasts, like the cat on a cold stoop
dreams of a good, stuffed couch, morning's open door.
I shiver in my tears, forget in my hand, say shoo.


Hummingbirds are Never Confused

A darting whir towards thin sweetness - look!
We welcome then into any arena: the blinding
still life out there where we'd like to go or
a dismal back yard full of junked bikes
or a full-tilt patio argument - all
become lightened, brightened, confused
by such goodness, apparent and fragile.
A rat looks out from under the tumble-down
house next door, eyes like rivets, thinks:
color overload in miniature, dithering.
Doesn't venture out. Okay I made him up.
What an idea, what a place to put
the other, the self. But invariably
while a bird like that hums, gyrating
its unfeathers, we find a way to glory,
then pout. Why can't we buy one?
(Why don't we know who we are?)


Mykonos, Mattincus, Maceio

It's bone simple to be in three places at once
if some part of you understands bodily
rhyme. Mykonos, Mattincus, Maceio -
I am behind myself and ahead, at once
moody and clear-skied - everything equals
wraparound sun. What's down the road
looms up slowly, photogenic, in the lens of self:
goats amused by their own beards, gorgeous
rusted hulks hung with buoys, boys shinnying
for coconuts and showing their teeth. I am
the camera. My battery is song. None of these
languages is mine, but I move in them, stumbling
and hungry. Look how I needed these salty waves!

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Genesis: Dominion and the Environmental Crisis of our Time (Part 1 of 2)

A new discovery: Steven Ounanian. I am going to keep my eye on this young man. This is just the tip of the iceberg of his fascinating way of looking at things. Hint: he's an Andy Kaufman fan, and he fitted up a bicycle with tracking technology, and left it to be stolen, then created a bell curve of honesty out of the experiment.

Is the Bible to blame for an over-heated, over-crowded world whose fate hangs in the balance in Copenhagen? Sir David Attenborough caused a small uproar when he told the journal Nature that the Book of Genesis, with its instruction to go forth and multiply and have dominion over the earth, had encouraged human recklessness. In two arresting visual essays by a young American film-maker, Steven Ounanian, we hear an alternative view from a range of scholars, philosophers and commentators. Taking friendly issue with Attenborough, they offer their own readings of the Creation story, with all its subtle messages about humans, nature and knowledge.