Personal anthology: poems about haunting

I’d had Thomas Hardy’s poem “A House with a History” on my mind for a while (see my post from a couple of weeks ago) when I ran across Wallace Stevens’ “A Postcard from the Volcano,” which, for some reason, I’d never read before. In one of those odd moments of literary synchrony, I found that each of them reminds me of the other. I don’t think Stevens was consciously alluding to Hardy, but both poems seem to share the same preoccupation with what remains, if anything does, of a person’s consciousness after they depart or die, and how that consciousness attaches itself to places, and houses in particular. One might call this haunting, except Hardy’s poem is more about a kind of failure of haunting, about the new inhabitants’ inability to recognize the traces of memory connected with the house. The children in Stevens’ poem perceive something, at least, even if they can’t perceive “what we felt / At what we saw.”

Here’s Hardy:

A House with a History

There is a house in a city street
Some past ones made their own;
Its floors were criss-crossed by their feet,
And their babblings beat
From ceiling to white hearth-stone.

And who are peopling its parlours now?
Who talk across its floor?
Mere freshlings are they, blank of brow,
Who read not how
Its prime had passed before

Their raw equipments, scenes, and says
Afflicted its memoried face,
That had seen every larger phase
Of human ways
Before these filled the place.

To them that house’s tale is theirs,
No former voices call
Aloud therein. Its aspect bears
Their joys and cares
Alone, from wall to wall.

(from Late Lyrics and Earlier)

And here’s Stevens:

A Postcard from the Volcano

Children picking up our bones
Will never know that these were once
As quick as foxes on the hill;

And that in autumn, when the grapes
Made sharp air sharper by their smell
These had a being, breathing frost;

And least will guess that with our bones
We left much more, left what still is
The look of things, left what we felt

At what we saw. The spring clouds blow
Above the shuttered mansion house,
Beyond our gate and the windy sky

Cries out a literate despair.
We knew for long the mansion’s look
And what we said of it became

A part of what it is … Children,
Still weaving budded aureoles,
Will speak our speech and never know,

Will say of the mansion that it seems
As if he that lived there left behind
A spirit storming in blank walls,

A dirty house in a gutted world,
A tatter of shadows peaked to white,
Smeared with the gold of the opulent sun.

(from Ideas of Order)

Try as I might, I can’t think of other poems that dwell on houses, haunting, and memory in quite this way, though I’m sure there must be some. I thought of Walter de la Mare, but a quick scan through the only book of de la Mare’s poems I own—Peacock Pie, in a Faber & Faber edition given to me when I was very young—didn’t turn up anything quite in the same vein, though “The Old Stone House” comes close.

Reader, are there other poems out there that play with the haunted-house motif?

My summer cooking adventure: Project Sourdough

Although I do a lot of cooking, I've never been much of a one for baking my own bread. Foccaccia was pretty much the only yeast-raised bread I'd seriously attempted, and I'm more of a cook than a baker, anyway. But I'm also a bread snob who was hopelessly spoiled by five years of living a few blocks away from Zingerman's, and New London doesn't have all that many bakeries, so finding bread that isn't a square squishy plastic-shrouded oblong has been something of a challenge. The DIY approach started to look a lot more appealing.

So about a month ago I acquired some sourdough starter from a colleague at work, and set to work cultivating it. Sourdough starter, if you've never made your own, is a colony of wild yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria that can be maintained in the refrigerator as long as you periodically feed it flour and water. It smells
oddly like glue, but with a strong acidic whiff after it's been fed. When you feed the colony, it gets frothy (from the yeasts producing carbon dioxide) and doubles in size. You put half of the starter back in the fridge and use the other half to bake something; the yeast, once activated, raises the bread, and the lactic acid from the bacteria produces the distinctive sour flavor. It's like having a pet that's also a biochemistry experiment.

So far, this is what I've made:

  • Sourdough bread loaf #1, part whole wheat. An abject failure: it didn't rise, and I don't think the gluten developed properly either. The result was a sad, bricklike object. I chalked it up to experience and moved on.
  • Sourdough bread loaves #2 and #3, mostly white flour. Much more acceptable: they could have been a bit rounder and fluffier, but they had the right texture and made an agreeably dense, slightly sour bread. The feel of the dough was much more like what I remembered as the way bread dough should feel while you're kneading it.
  • Raspberry sourdough muffins. Sadly, they didn't rise; I suspect I overbeat them. They were still edible, though, and I may repeat the experiment with the remainder of the frozen raspberries.
  • Sourdough coffee cake. The sourness is barely perceptible amid the cinnamon and brown sugar topping, but it made an excellent breakfast.

Actual kneaded breads are something of a time commitment, and require advance planning, but I'm very pleased that one can also use the excess starter in everything from quick breads to pizza crusts (haven't made any yet, but they're on the list of Things to Try). And someday, I'll manage to acquire a banneton so I can make properly beautiful boules.

Notes toward an ongoing project: poetry, space, and mapping

I’ve blogged previously about my map obsession, and about wanting to do something with poetry and spatial or geographic visualization. And since one of my plans for this summer is attending THATCamp 2009 (yay!), I’ve been thinking a lot about what kinds of projects these interests might lead to. What follows is some thinking-out-loud.

As I said in the previous post, I love applications that let you georeference various types of information, but I keep finding myself wishing for something that would indicate vaguer (or even imaginary) locations, such as one tends to find in poetry and fiction. And I’d like to be able to indicate motion from one place to another within a text—the westward movement in the last paragraph of Joyce’s “The Dead,” for instance, from the Dublin hotel where Gabriel watches the snow to the churchyard in Oughterard.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the connections between space and memory in Thomas Hardy’s poems, about the way he repeatedly uses a single location to juxtapose a scene in the present with memory of what happened there in the past. (I’m thinking of any number of Hardy poems, but especially “The Walk,” “At Castle Boterel,” “A House with a History,” “Paths of Former Time,” “The Self-Unseeing,” and “Sacred to the Memory.”) I don’t know how you’d visualize that, actually. I think you’d have to show movement in time as well as space. A lyric space-time continuum?

I also think it would be a nifty project to map the history of various poetic forms in both space and time: to show the emergence of the sonnet in Italy and its spread to England during the Renaissance, to explore the complicated multilingual history of the ghazal in Arabic, Persian, and Urdu. Among many others. Kind of like the Atlas of Early Printing.

And, as much for my own reference as anything else, here are a few of the links I’ve been bookmarking:

Wanted: a fuzzier mapping tool

For the most part, I love Google Maps. I use it all the time when I want to find out where the nearest (fill in the blank) is, and I've put together a lot of practical maps for my own use: public transit in New London, yarn stores in all the towns I've visited, opera houses, things to do in nearby cities, Italian groceries, and on and on.

Thanks in part to Franco Moretti's work on literary geography and distant reading, I've also been playing with Google Maps as a way to visualize literary settings and look for patterns that might not be obvious without taking geography into consideration. I've been making, for example, a map of places in the stories of my favorite ghost-story author, M.R. James. (Here's a link, if you're curious. It's still a work in progress.) It's been interesting for me to see James's predilection for setting stories on the east coast of England represented in visual form. Eventually I want to see how James's settings compare with other ghost story writers' settings. I don't have a particular conclusion that I'm chasing at this point; I'm just interested in what a map can make visible.

Some of James's stories are very easy to place: Burnstow in "'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You, My Lad,'" as James himself remarked in the preface to Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, is a fictionalized version of Felixstowe, and Seaburgh in "A Warning to the Curious" is Aldeburgh (better known as the setting of Benjamin Britten's Peter Grimes, which makes two reasons why I want to go there someday). "Casting the Runes" takes place partly in an unnamed London suburb but also in the British Museum and on a train to Dover.

But others are trickier: fictional country houses in unidentified counties, fictional cathedral towns, stories without a definite setting at all, other than somewhere in England. And that's where I start to want a different kind of mapping tool. Google Maps is very good for pinpointing exact locations: a building, a street address, an intersection. Which is excellent if you want to find the nearest laundromat or public park, but less useful if you want to indicate a non-specific location, like "somewhere in Brooklyn,"* or (in the case of James's story "Lost Hearts") a country house "in the heart of Lincolnshire." What you want is a map that can include fuzzy locations—an entire city, a county, a region. This isn't something that Google does very well (yet), but if we ever develop a tool for literary mapping, the fuzzy location feature would be invaluable for those vague or fictionalized but sort-of-placeable settings that crop up in fiction.

Ideally, I'd like a fuzzy mapping tool that could also visualize literary spaces that aren't geographically specified at all: the street layout of imaginary towns, shifts back and forth between city and country or between house and wilderness, the expanding and contracting spaces of Marvell's "Upon Appleton House" or Keats's odes. But that's probably a long way off. For starters, I'd like to see something that can graphically represent both a Henry James character's Washington Square address and an M.R. James character's indeterminate destination: "I need not particularise further than to say that if you divided the map of England into four quarters, he would have been found in the south-western of them."**

* I've been noticing this with Google's H1N1 flu map. The dots evidently don't correspond to particular addresses, but they look like they do, if you zoom in. Which is rather misleading. Fuzzy locations get more confusing when you can zoom in as far as you can with a tool like Google Maps.

** From the opening paragraphs of "A View from a Hill."

Knitting projects update: a trip to the sheep festival

It’s been a while since I posted anything about knitting, so, for the handful of people who come for the knitting posts (and, I hope, stay for the poetry/opera/librarianship/academia/randomness mishmash that I usually post about): My vest project is patiently waiting to be unblocked, seamed, embellished around the edges and armholes, and finished off with a set of buttons. I’m working on a cabled scarf of my own design, and various other projects are sitting around in various stages of completion (I never finish anyth).

I also spent last Saturday at the Connecticut Sheep, Wool, and Fiber Festival with a bunch of fellow knitters (hi, guys!), admiring various fluffy animals,* flirting with the idea of learning to spin, and heroically restraining myself from making more than a couple of yarn purchases. Even so, I wound up with about 1300 yards of dark gray, sport-weight alpaca yarn, and a 459-yard ball of sock yarn in a blue-green colorway. Like so:

Sportweight alpaca yarn from Times Remembered Mocha's Pro Natura handpainted sock yarn

The question is, what to do with them? I bought the alpaca yarn with a sweater in mind. I may modify the Durrow pattern I’ve had my eye on for ages, but it calls for a heavier yarn, so some experimentation is in order. The sock yarn, I think, could be something I can wear around my neck: not a full-on scarf, but some sort of capelet or neckwarmer or collar or cowl. I can probably improvise a sweater design for the first yarn if the Durrow doesn’t work out, but I’ve never designed a neck-thing that wasn’t a plain rectangle, and I want the project with the second yarn to be a tad more elaborate. I’m thinking something a bit like this or these or this, only with lighter yarn and perhaps a bit of lace. Any ideas, Knitting Blogosphere?

* And when I say fluffy, I mean fluffy. The sheep and llamas and alpacas were all quite woolly, but the cuteness prize of the day went to an angora rabbit. Here, have some totally gratuitous bunny pictures:

Angora rabbit Angora rabbit or Tribble?

The Renaissance person’s dilemma

Two recent trains of thought:

  1. If you had the time, money, and leisure to go for another degree, or at least take enough courses to become reasonably
    informed about something you're interested in, what would you study? Me, I'd have a hard time deciding where to start: music theory and
    musicology, or geography with a digital-humanities focus, or
    anthropology, or classics (my old undergraduate first love), or bibliography and textual studies and
    book history, or urban planning, or psychology, or computer science, or, or, or… So many things to learn, so little time in one life span. I don't know how I ever thought I could be a specialist in
    one and only one field. How about you?
  2. On a related note: One of the great, freeing things about not being a tenure-track faculty
    member is getting to indulge one's Renaissance-person tendencies. On the other hand, one of the drawbacks of not being
    a tenure-track faculty member is not having structures in place to
    motivate one to actually carry out a project to its finish instead of getting distracted by the next bright shiny topic. Today I tried to draw a concept map of all my current interests, and came to the conclusion that, while they're all interconnected in a dozen different ways, there are altogether too many potential projects to work on at once, and I'm having a hard time making myself choose one and stick with it. Fellow Renaissance people, how do you cope with Intellectual Magpie Syndrome?

My Seattle trip in pictures

My camera is finally working again, and I've just gotten around to uploading the pictures I took in Seattle during ACRL. Herewith, a long-overdue summary of the non-conferencey parts of the trip.

Spectacular views of the Rockies from the plane on the way over:

Over the Rockies

Below the surface of the city on the Underground Tour:

Underground Tour stop, 2

Historic coffee technology on display (holy steampunk, Batman!):

More old-school coffeemakers

RARRRRR! (It's a monkfish at the Pike Place fish market.)

O hai monkfish!

Inside the Seattle Central Library, an all-red floor that's pure Stanley Kubrick, a clever call numbering system, and a glowing yellow escalator:

The all-red mezzanine floor Call number display Stacks, escalator, inadvertent self-portrait

And a view of the library's reference desk, a.k.a. the "Mixing Chamber," from on high:

Looking down into the Mixing Chamber

I would have taken pictures of the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum, especially the latter, but that evening was when I dropped my camera. I'm glad I got to geek out at the Central Library before the Camera Incident happened.

Back-to-blogging link roundup

Sorry for the unannounced blog hiatus. There wasn't really a reason for it; I was just severely lacking in
inspiration there for a while. Now I've got a backup of things I've
been meaning to post about, which means it's time for a massive link dump:

This is not an April Fool’s Day post

…but it is rather silly, in its own way. Consider:

First there was the Facebook Hamlet, at McSweeney's.

Then there was the Facebook Aeneid ("Dido changed her relationship status to Married. Aeneas changed his relationship status to It's Complicated.") and the Facebook Pride and Prejudice.* And the college class that reenacted Romeo and Juliet on Facebook and used the Friend Wheel to graph the connections between characters in the play.

And now there's the Facebook Haggadah. No, really. If you're among the five people who haven't seen it yet, go read it. It's fantastic.

Is this the beginning of a whole new subgenre of humor? And, specifically: why Facebook? Parodic retellings of the canon are nothing new, but what is it about Facebook that invites them? Is it the way it foregrounds relationships (especially their beginnings and endings)? Or is it the contrast between Facebook's telegraphic style and the text being parodied? Or something else?

I find Facebook kind of annoying a lot of the time, but this trend toward using its format to retell the classics almost makes up for the deluge of applications and invitations that greet me every time I log in.

* I want to do a Facebook Emma, myself. "Emma Woodhouse posted an album: Pictures of my family and my new best friend Harriet Smith." "10 of your friends are attending the event Exploring Party at Box Hill." And that game of anagrams could very easily turn into a game of Lexulous or the like, don't you think?

ACRL wrap-up, part 2 (point 0)

I went to a bunch of other ACRL sessions besides the ones I talked about in part 1 of my conference wrap-up. There were a few common threads that probably say as much about my own preoccupations as about the general tenor of the conference. I went to a mobile devices demonstration, which suggested using Twitter as a content management system for mobile versions of library websites, and a paper on Twitter,  which stressed Twitter’s mobile-device friendliness. I also went to a web-2.0-oriented session at which one of the findings, from a study at Ohio University, was that undergraduates, grad students, faculty, and staff all have their own distinct patterns of technology usage, and “only librarians use Twitter.” At which point all of the Twitter users in the audience (and there were lots of us) posted Twitter updates to that effect. For me, the most useful part of the session was the reminder that each institution’s patron base is a little different, and it’s important to know something about them rather than relying on generalities. Also, from the other paper in the session, that in some cases students will use Web 2.0 features on library pages only when required to. Not entirely surprising, but worth remembering.

And then there was the storytelling component of the program, in the form of the two keynotes by Sherman Alexie and Ira Glass. Ira Glass (who sat at a table with his CD players and mixing console, blending music into and out of his talk as he went along) talked about the story structure they use on This American Life: the narrative anecdote, with one thing leading to another and to another, with some suspense and an ending that satisfies the suspense, and a moment to consider the larger thought embedded in the anecdote. (You can see him talk about it on YouTube.)

Sherman Alexie spun out anecdotes of his own, but in a less linear format, with digressions sprouting here and there and looping back around to the main story; one of them involved his grandfather’s World War II service, catching the flu on a plane to Chicago, X-rated totem poles, and the Oprah Winfrey show. Both of them, but especially Ira Glass, made me wish I were teaching composition again so I could assign experimental anecdote/narrative formats and see what happened. Ira Glass’s talk also made me wonder if I could get away with anecdote-reflection-anecdote-reflection the next time I have to give a talk. It would beat PowerPoint, at the very least.

And then it was off to a really good lunch, and a last stroll around downtown Seattle, and then home. I’m looking forward to ACRL in Philly in 2011 already.