The Lady of the Rivers, by Philippa Gregory, is the first of her Plantagenet and Tudor novels, and it follows Jacquetta of Luxembourg, Countess Rivers and covers the reign of the (quite inept) Lancastrian King Henry VI. (For those unfamiliar with Philippa Gregory, she writes historical fiction, usually set in England, charting the rise and fall of different powerful women.) Jacquetta of Luxembourg (1415 – 1472) was born in what is now France, and what was, in the 1400s, English occupied France. One of the most striking things in the first part of the book, set in France in the 1430s, was the description of the gowns.
Joan laughs at me, as I have to duck my head to get my tall conical headdress through the narrow doorways.
“It is very beautiful,” she says. “But I should not like to wear such a thing.”
I pause and twirl before her in the bright sunlight from the arrow slit. The colors of my gown are brilliant: a skirt of dark blue and an underskirt of sharper turquoise, the skirts flaring from the high belt tied tight on my rib cage. The high henin headdress sits like a cone on my head and sprouts a veil of pale blue from the peak that drops down my back, concealing and enhancing my fair hair. I spread my arms to show the big triangular sleeves, trimmed with the most beautiful embroidery in gold thread, and I lift the hem to show my scarlet slippers with the upturned toes.
What is a henin, you might ask? According to Wikipedia, “the most extravagant headdress of Burgundian fashion is the hennin, a cone or truncated-cone shaped cap with a wire frame covered in fabric and topped by a floating veil. Later hennins feature a turned-back brim, or are worn over a hood with a turned-back brim. Towards the end of the 15th century women’s head-dresses became smaller, more convenient, and less picturesque.” In other words, a hennin is the cone princess hat that you may remember drawing as a child – my cartoon princesses all had a cone hat with a frilly veil, did yours?
Conical hennins first appeared around 1430, which is where The Lady of the Rivers picks up as well. The veil that flows out of the hennin is called a “cointoise” and could be long enough to fall to a woman’s shoulders, or even all the way to the floor. It was fashionable at the time to shave the forehead to raise the hairline, and to tightly tie up the hair into the hennin, so that it did not appear visible at all.
This is not how Philippa Gregory describes the hennin, but she may have decided that her description is a lot more picturesque, set against a mass of blonde wavy hair, to modern readers. There was often a “frontlet” or a small loop on the front of the hennin, resting on the forehead, which may have been used to easily adjust the hennin or to help keep the hennin in place. You can see an example in the picture above, which is a portrait of Margaret of York, the duchess of Burgundy.
Hennins were worn at an angle, about 45 degrees tilted against the back of the head, and the hennins varied in height. One source says the higher the rank of the wearer, the higher the hennin was, with some measuring over forty-five inches — that’s almost four feet high! Later, ladies started wearing crowns around their hennins as well, and experimenting with different ways to fold the veils and display fabric on the sides of the hennins as well.
The Store is the second book in T. S. Stribling’s Vaiden Trilogy. I originally thought I’d try to read the first book too, but I had enough trouble getting on my hands on a copy of this book, that I gave up hope trying to find two Stribling novels! I ultimately was able to borrow a copy of this book from the University of Alabama library, thanks to my dad’s academic credentials there. In full disclosure, I finished this book years ago, but have taken a little break from writing here (didja miss me?)
A Brief Summary: The Store follows Miltiades Vaiden as he reckons with a changing racial and economic landscape. Post Civil War, Vaiden finds himself trying to “find his way” as he loses his job as an overseer of a plantation. The novel is ambitious and covers many hallmarks of Southern life in the 1880s – property disputes, “passing“, the Klan, and an underlying current of racially charged condescension and power dynamics prevail.
Setting: Florence, Alabama
Time Period: 1880s
Fun Fact: T.S. Stribling was the first Tennesseean to win a Pulitzer Prize (although Alabama also likes to take credit for him).
My Thoughts: One thing that struck me about the book was how aware Vaiden was of the power dynamics between Black and white people. He knows that the Black woman that he repeatedly rapes and abuses does not love him, and yet, even though he knows she is powerless to deny him, he turns to her for affection and to confide in her. Some readers may find the book hard to swallow due to interactions like that, or the constant racial slurs and racist remarks throughout the book. And yet, others may defend this as an accurate depiction of the 1880s. I wonder if reading this book when it was published in the 1930s was a very different experience than reading it in now, in the 2020s. While Stribling’s name has faded from the headlines and is now a pretty obscure author, I found this quote (from Wikipedia) which addresses Stribling’s legacy:
“Though not great literary art, Stribling’s trilogy is, nevertheless, historically significant; for in The Forge, The Store, and Unfinished Cathedral, Stribling introduced a subject matter, themes, plot elements, and character types which parallel and at the same time anticipate those that William Faulkner, who owned copies of this trilogy, would treat in Absalom, Absalom! and in the Snopes trilogy.”
James J. Martine, ed. Dictionary of Literary Biography: Volume Nine
I haven’t read Absalom, Absalom! yet, although it is on my shelf. I am curious to see the ways that I see Stribling’s work reflected in Faulkner’s.
I would recommend this book to people who are currently thinking about race — the ways in which progress has been made since the 1880s and the ways in which things are very much the same; to people who, like me, love to read books set in the South and, in particular, in Alabama; to people who don’t mind reading about flawed and infuriating characters.
Ye examined Feng. The kerosene lamp was a wonderful artist and created a classical painting with dignified colors and bright strokes: Feng had her coat draped over her shoulders exposing her red belly-band and a strong, graceful arm. The glow from the kerosene lamp painted her figure with vivid, warm colors, while the rest of the room dissolved into a gentle darkness. Close attention revealed a dim red glow, which didn’t come from the kerosene lamp, but from the heating charcoal on the ground. The cold air outside sculpted beautiful ice patterns on the windowpanes with the room’s warm, humid air.
The Three Body Problem, by Ken Liu
Something a little different this time from the usual painting & poetry pairings. Sometimes a paragraph from a novel has the same striking imagery that has me reaching for my notebook.
We have recently been enjoying Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies, the second book in the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, on audiobook. This is the first time that we’ve actually read (or listened to) the same book at the same time, and it’s been such a juicy, hilarious and infuriating book to discuss. I found myself making up haiku about the various courtiers in Henry VIII’s court, and Kimberly was kind enough to humor me. Here’s the best two that we came up with:
When I was younger, I had a “type” – I dated aspiring blanks. Aspiring artists, aspiring musicians – all unconcerned with mundane, earthly questions like how to get money for rent, drinks, and drugs. Instead, they were already living with an eye on posterity, assuming every word they said was going to be quoted someday. Have you ever spoken to someone who thinks everything he says is worth quoting? Take it from me, it’s absolutely exhausting, and you’ll most likely walk away wondering, “What did we even talk about?”
This is all a roundabout way of saying Ethan Hawke’s biopic Blaze reminded me of every boy I dated in my early twenties. For those who don’t know, Blaze Foley was a Texan country singer songwriter in the 1970s. Ethan Hawke’s version is a bigger, larger than life man (played by newbie Ben Dickey who is literally a good fifty pounds heavier than the true Foley) who says he doesn’t want to be famous; he wants to be a legend. And yet we spend two hours watching him flounder on his journey to becoming a legend. The movie starts in a circular fashion, we see both Foley falling in love with his future wife, Sybil Rosen (played by the charming Alia Shawkat) and his friends wrestling with the aftermath of Foley’s death on the air in a radio interview (with radio host Ethan Hawke, no less). Rosen is Foley’s muse and biggest supporter. She blindly fangirls him and believes in him. And so, of course, he leaves her to pursue the rock star lifestyle of drinking too much with his musician friends and being yelled at by his record label. In the radio interview, Van Zandt justifies this by explaining just how much you have to be willing to give up to make it as a musician. But what Van Zandt sees as strength and discipline comes off as a succumbence to vices on Foley. Foley talks a big talk, mumbling on and on about the cosmos, energy, and inspiration, but we mostly watch him, and the movie, stumbling.
Maybe the problem with the movie is that both Hawke and Rosen have rose-colored glasses on. The movie is an adaptation of Rosen’s memoir, “Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze”, and Rosen and Hawke wrote the screenplay together. The film makes it clear that both Hawke and Rosen truly loved Foley, but it doesn’t quite do enough to make the viewer feel the same. The best part of the movie is the music. Dickey is more musician than actor and his husky voice commands your attention. While the movie doesn’t quite convince me that Blaze Foley was indeed a legend, it’s worth watching, if only just to serve as a reminder that making art and music is hard work and requires more than big dreams and quotable nonsense.
Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze on Amazon
We are still reading Book II of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Today I am reading Verse 8 of Starting from Paumanok. If you’re just joining me, start from Verse 1 here.
I am the credulous man of qualities, ages, races,
I advance from the people in their own spirit,
Here is what sings unrestricted faith.
Omnes! omnes! let others ignore what they may,
I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also,
I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is—and I say
there is in fact no evil,
(Or if there is I say it is just as important to you, to the land or
to me, as any thing else.)
I too, following many and follow'd by many, inaugurate a religion, I
descend into the arena,
(It may be I am destin'd to utter the loudest cries there, the
winner's pealing shouts,
Who knows? they may rise from me yet, and soar above every thing.)
Each is not for its own sake,
I say the whole earth and all the stars in the sky are for religion's sake.
I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough,
None has ever yet adored or worship'd half enough,
None has begun to think how divine he himself is, and how certain
the future is.
I say that the real and permanent grandeur of these States must be
Otherwise there is just no real and permanent grandeur;
(Nor character nor life worthy the name without religion,
Nor land nor man or woman without religion.)
What better way to start the new year than with a friendly reminder from Walt Whitman to exalt in the natural wonders around us. I think this verse is about balance and the grand scale of the universe. Every January, there are so many articles about how to make new year’s resolutions and why people fail to keep their resolutions. Amidst all this talk of struggle and failure, I personally needed Walt’s reminder that we are just as much evil as we are good, and perhaps evil doesn’t really exist. We are not just the best parts of ourselves, but also our vices, fears, and struggles. They make us part of who we are, and I am going to try to retain that kind of bright-eyed optimism this year, especially when reading the news and current events. And when you are feeling completely overwhelmed, just think of how divine this earth is, how Walt thought that our United States were so full of grandeur that its potential was worth worshipping. I have been doing a lot of thinking about the U.S. Constitution and how the preamble starts with “We the People, in Order to form a more perfect Union” – I’m not sure what Walt would think about the state of our Union today, but I think this verse is a reminder that there is a constant struggle to become more perfect.
Vocabulary Word of the Day: “Omnes” is Latin for “everyone”
As always, I invite you to join me, although it’s been a while since we last spoke. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!
“I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.” — John Cage
Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words, Edwin Morgan
I have to say poetry and is that nothing and I am saying it
I am and I have poetry to say and is that nothing saying it
I am nothing and I have poetry to say and that is saying it
I that am saying poetry have nothing and it is I and to say
And I say that I am to have poetry and saying it is nothing
I am poetry and nothing and saying it is to say that I have
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
Poetry is saying I have nothing and I am to say that and it
Saying nothing I am poetry and I have to say that and it is
It is and I am and I have poetry saying say that to nothing
It is saying poetry to nothing and I say I have and am that
Poetry is saying I have it and I am nothing and to say that
And that nothing is poetry I am saying and I have to say it
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it
We are still reading Book II of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Today I am reading Verse 6 of Starting from Paumanok. If you’re just joining me, start from Verse 1 here.
Forever and forever—longer than soil is brown and solid—longer
than water ebbs and flows.
I will make the poems of materials, for I think they are to be the
most spiritual poems,
And I will make the poems of my body and of mortality,
For I think I shall then supply myself with the poems of my soul and
I will make a song for these States that no one State may under any
circumstances be subjected to another State,
And I will make a song that there shall be comity by day and by
night between all the States, and between any two of them,
And I will make a song for the ears of the President, full of
weapons with menacing points,
And behind the weapons countless dissatisfied faces;
And a song make I of the One form'd out of all,
The fang'd and glittering One whose head is over all,
Resolute warlike One including and over all,
(However high the head of any else that head is over all.)
I will acknowledge contemporary lands,
I will trail the whole geography of the globe and salute courteously
every city large and small,
And employments! I will put in my poems that with you is heroism
upon land and sea,
And I will report all heroism from an American point of view.
I will sing the song of companionship,
I will show what alone must finally compact these,
I believe these are to found their own ideal of manly love,
indicating it in me,
I will therefore let flame from me the burning fires that were
threatening to consume me,
I will lift what has too long kept down those smouldering fires,
I will give them complete abandonment,
I will write the evangel-poem of comrades and of love,
For who but I should understand love with all its sorrow and joy?
And who but I should be the poet of comrades?
I like the appearance of “song” here, because (spoiler alert) the next poem in this book is Song of Myself. I like finding the recurring themes that we’ve been seeing so far – first, Whitman writes to a “certain cantatrice“, and then we have heard America singing, and now, finally, Whitman is starting to sing himself. This entire poem so far seems like it has been a long manifesto of all the things that Whitman intends to make happen – I’m looking forward to getting this show on the road!
As always, I invite you to join me. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below or send me a link to your own #WhitmanWednesday posts and I’ll share them as well!
George Saunders’ much-awaited first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, was published earlier this year. The book mostly takes place in a graveyard, where Abraham Lincoln has entombed his son, Willie. The book is a blend of fiction, history, philosophy, and religion. I read this book not knowing anything about the plot, premise, or title of the book; George Saunders is one of my favorite authors, so I trusted that I would enjoy anything he wrote. After I finished the book, I decided to do some sleuthing to figure out what exactly his title means. What’s a Bardo, and what is Lincoln doing in there? So without further ado, here is the second post in my “Behind the Title” series. (Is it really a series if I’ve only written about this once before?)
Bardo is a Tibetan word (བར་དོ) which literally translates into “intermediate space.” In Tibetan and Buddhist traditions, there is the belief in reincarnation – that our souls will be reborn into a different body after we die, again and again until we reach enlightenment and are able to escape the cycle. Bardo loosely refers to the space in between, where our souls go to wait before being reborn in a new body. According to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, there are six Bardos spanning life, death, and after death. The six traditional Bardos are:
Kyenay bardo – the bardo of life, from conception until your last breath
Milan bardo – the bardo of the dream state
Samten bardo – the bardo of meditation
Chikhai bardo – the bardo of the moment of death
Chonyi bardo – the bardo of the luminosity of the true nature, which begins after you die (this is only available to those who practiced the second and third bardos in their lifetime.)
Sidpa bardo – the bardo of becoming or transmigration, which endures until you are born again in the first bardo
Based on my (very limited) understanding, Bardo is similar to the Catholic idea of purgatory, but the main difference is that Bardo lasts no more than 49 days, whereas purgatory is a place where your soul undergoes purification before entering heaven.
Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)Young Willie Lincoln (RIP)
A more accurate title for George Saunders’ book may be Lincoln in the Chonyi Bardo, or Lincoln in the Fifth Bardo, perhaps. I mentioned earlier that the book mostly takes place in a graveyard. Young Willie Lincoln has just died of typhoid fever and his ghost soul is in the graveyard hoping that his father comes to visit him. The other characters in the book are all ghosts, who don’t know that they are ghosts. They are all in the fifth bardo, the bardo after death, where an experienced practitioner would gain clarity and insight into the meaning of life, while less experienced people are in a state of disarray and panic while waiting for the sixth bardo to begin.
Saunders is inventive and playful with the ideas of purgatory, bardo, heaven & hell. He borrows from all of these religious traditions and invents some of his own, in a way that works very well within the dark humored satire that he has made his signature style. It’s not necessary to know anything about Bardos or the Lincolns to read this book, but it definitely adds a layer of meaning when you understand the meaning behind the title, Lincoln in the Bardo.