They, Who

They invented ghosts

to cover salted earth.

They taught children

formalities to soften

dispositions, to sell

hands and arms as maps

gesturing into the unknown,

directing willed doom.

They coordinated feigned

knowledge to digest untruth

and reteach us until soil saturates

until air solidifies

until water congeals.

They were the subjects

who were never subjected

to the uncontrolled.

They were never subjugated

rather insulated until history

finally broke its own mold.

They, who created the cycle

yet never conquered love.

Moon Sequence

I.

Last night Luna rose

over our Eastern Sea

like no human’s ever seen.

Only one porthole view

through deathly clouds

incubating the Great Egg Harbor.

Luna rose a perfect circle

tossed by Myron, now in suspension.

Remnants of Theia reflected

 in alien orange,

brighter than Sol

(whose rays provide color

still, but not the same).

As lightning strikes purpled

the Atlantic structures underneath

the ocean rose with Luna, rose ominous,

pillars and pyramids stood naked.

Our nation, in three century utero, collapsed

off the coast of New Jersey. Another failed experiment,

another corrupted civilization left to liquid, then to ash.

II.

Fear, survival instincts in full swing

while operating machinery speeding

south on a bowed bridge looking

east as Luna rose. Death

embodied in the sky

explosions, natural explosions

in natural grandeur white death.

Luna rose as she never has

as illusions nullified fear was reality

at its clearest. Luna rose and she never will

in similar form, life and nothing in one moment.

The storm consumed the atmosphere. Consumed itself.

Atoms vacuumed into oblivion.

Bovine humans munched cheeseburgers

while driving through dark energy warping

vapid brains. Magenta tissue bled

out sentience. Luna rose.

III.

These humans were not scared

out of sheer stupidity. They felt safe

in their machines. Congested asphalt artery,

nine at night, Friday, June 13th, 2014.

Luna rose in proof of their ignorance.

She devoured particles in purgatorial drift,

planet Earth. Space shuddered Terra

dark matter pulsed into minds

people felt frightened

inexplicably. Immediate fear of blackness.

Animals froze in abeyance obeying nature.

Humanity continued to destroy,

to feign solutions, to pop pills,

to disdain their immune system

to ignore their self-inflicted wounds.

All the while precedents loomed

in the past. They never realized

they inhabited houses of Masonic stone.

Let alone understood that the Scottish Rite’s

preeminent child would fall faster

than those deemed lesser.

That the child’s scrapes would fester.

IV.

Luna rose on in spite,

out of spite of America.

Oxygen sucked out of air.

This time the fire.

Although pharaohs chose the stars

which killed their enslaved, unwanted brothers and sisters.

As the empire fell in pre-meditated fashion, the elite escaped

in Russian rockets. No more humans

needed for sustenance of the few.

No longer human humans would float

past Luna, and harvest her gray helium 3 tears.

Luna rose no longer over Earth

for there were no humans

left to see. Luna rose in witness

and condemned yet knew she could do nothing;

she vowed never to forget

until everything collapsed again. Luna rose

until the end. And as her visage faded

from the collective memory of all sentient existence,

Luna rose again, somewhere,

since death could never die.

Boland’s Correlation of Syntax and Existential Significance in “That the Science of Cartography is Limited”

Eavan Boland uses anastrophe throughout her non-traditional elegy “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” in order to grammatically display the paradigm of history versus past. Like in much of her other poems, Boland focuses on the domestic sphere of the past in contrast to what is recorded and deemed historically worthy. Boland begins by furtively including the title of the piece, in the tradition of early modernists such as William Carlos Williams, as the object of the first sentence. The first sentence’s subject is the speaker who would “wish to prove” (4) what the title states. This technique is indicative of the poem’s theme. The speaker means to say through inversion that the past is the subject of history, in that the anonymous people who built the famine roads have been relegated by the maps of recorded time. And instead of the two being a dichotomy, in “That the Science of Cartography is Limited” Boland elevates the causal, private past to a state of mythical proportions because, even though it is deemed more significant, history is ultimately dependent upon the past.

Boland relies upon hyperbaton whenever discussing the metaphor that is extended throughout the poem. The line “Look down you said: this was once a famine road” (8) is given more rhetorical gravity instead of having the speaker simply state you said look down. This is because the famine road that the speaker encounters is the vehicle, while the past is the tenor. Since these kinds of roads are unrecorded, the metaphor’s continuation would be the written lines on the implied map in the poem that are representative of recorded history. The speaker’s attention to the vivid abstractions in the forest where the famine road is located is such that the metaphor blossoms into a conceit. Not only does the speaker want to prove that science is limited, but she also desires to delineate what cannot be exactly recorded, specifically “the gloom of cypresses” (3). The trees would not hold such sad weight if it wasn’t for the realization that this was the spot where starving, toiling humans collapsed and died: “Where they died, there the road ended…” (16).

“That the Science of Cartography is Limited” is a complex poem in its many interweaving metaphorical aspects, which are made even more complicated by syntax inversion. Boland uses geometry in order to account for the phenomenon of not being able to comprehend something that was once tangible, let alone the contextually intangible. The speaker alludes to the fact that maps cannot represent the reality of the Earth as a spherical planet geographically. When the speaker pulls out a map she sarcastically states that “it is never so / I can say here is / the masterful, the apt rendering of / the spherical as flat” (18-21). The association is that not only humans are unable to fully understand the implications of what is recorded, whether it is a map or history, but that the entirety of the picture is even more incomprehensible. If the map represents history, then that means that the planet Earth is the past. Thus, each line on the map is the record of a famous person in history, and hence the famine roads are not represented because they are deemed insignificant.

The geometric aspect of the conceit can be extrapolated in order to fit in with the speaker’s sorrow at the forsaken deaths of her Irish ancestors. In using inverted syntax, the speaker also suggests that history is convex, or the outer, visible side of the sphere that is human experience. This would mean that the past is the concave portion that is not visible in retrospect. It is buried underneath the facts. However, the only fact that the speaker reveals in the entire poem is the one that her lover informs her of: “in / 1847, when the crop had failed twice, / Relief Committees gave / the starving Irish such roads to build” (12-15). The famine roads end abruptly because they were intended to be short. The poem implies that the British colonial overlords wanted the starving Irish to be wiped from existence, so why then would their roads be featured on any map? The Anglicization process of Ireland had been well under way by the mid-19th century. This was at a time when ideas of those such as Thomas Malthus were still prevalent in British society, and the Empire’s reaction to the catastrophe in its own backyard, the potato famine, signifies the developing Social Darwinist mindset of British authorities. The Irish culture and people in and of themselves were deemed insignificant and unworthy of history. Since the British were successful in allowing a large portion of the Irish population to starve to death or emigrate, much of Irish history itself was oppressed. The cliché that history is written by the victors is true in this case, consequently Boland develops a multi-faceted metaphor interlaced with inverted syntax in order to mythologize the lives of the average Irish famine victims.

The conceit is present in almost every line of the poem, tracing back in retrospect to the first where “the fact that this shading of / forest” (1-2) is not able to convey the scent of balsam is relative to how cartography cannot express the pain and emotion of human life and work. This is in spite of the fact that the result of the work, the famine road, is tangible, yet the futility that went into the construction must be inferred in its intangibility. The past has been covered by “ivy and scutch grass / rough-cast stone had / disappeared into” (9-11) in another syntactical twist. And yet the speaker never states anything illogically in the poem, rather, each time the road is mentioned a clause is interposed between the subject and object. Whether the break is parenthetical or hyperbaton, each of the five sentences in the poem carry the weight of the theme through Boland’s nuanced grammatical technique. In the end, those humans who died building the famine roads are nothing but a part of the earth in the forest, which is why to the speaker they would be “the line which says woodland and cries hunger / and gives out among sweet pine and cypress” (25-26). Boland’s point is that it is necessary to reverse the significance of history over the past in order to try to understand what really matters in existence. Although it is difficult to do so without the speaker’s imaginative creativity and syntactical nuance, since the line “will not be there” (28). Even still there is the potential for existential meaning in unwritten roads.

 

The Rise of Modernity (and Proto-Feminism) in the Italian Renaissance

Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier exemplified Italian Renaissance humanist ideals by making use of the author’s own memory of conversations in court at Urbino. Although Castiglione tactfully did not include himself in the specific situation proposed in the book,  he wrote in a style that was in accordance with having an appearance of humility, which was one of his main rules for being a courtier. And yet, like Alberti’s writing on the values of a virtuous family, Castiglione cautioned for moderation in striving for any attribute, (such as humility) while pursuing perfection in the court, by adding that the courtier should want to abound with confidence as well. Through ensuing conversation between many different participants, (presided over by Elisabetta Gonzaga, her sister-in-law Emilia Pia, and including Count Ludovico Canossa, Federico Fregoso, and Giuliano de’ Medici) the author urged the aspiring courtier to be eclectic, although without being pompous, nor visibly trying too hard.

Castiglione began his book with an imagined situation in which Duchess Gonzaga decided that the court should play a game of rhetoric in order to find what attributes would make the perfect courtier. Emilia Pia jestingly chose the Count to begin, saying that he would know the least and so would not cause the affair to become tedious too quickly. Count Canossa humbly yet humorously agreed, and began by claiming that it would be best for a courtier to be of noble birth, “…because it is far less unseemly for one of ignoble birth to fail in worthy deeds, than for one of noble birth, who, if he strays from the path of his predecessors, stains his family name, and not only fails to achieve but loses what has been achieved already; for noble birth is like a bright lamp that manifests and makes visible good and evil deeds, and kindles and stimulates to virtue both by fear of shame and by hope of praise” (The Book of the Courtier, p 21). However, Caspar Pallavicino promptly contradicted the Count, (as per the rules of the game, according to “ancient rhetoric”) and responded that he believed more in the graces of Fortune than the responsibilities and expectations of noble birth. His frequent reference to the concept of “Fortune” was another similarity incorporated into the book that Castiglione shared with Alberti, in which both Italian authors agreed that chance could topple the achievements of any courtier or noblemen, no matter how calculating and prudent the man was. In arguing against the necessity of noble birth for courtier-ship, Pallavicino added that, “…the highest gifts of nature are found among the most obscure…” ( p 23) referring to examples of men starting from humble beginnings and gaining prestige through their own virtue.

Although at the end of this bout of words, Castiglione leaned the reader more towards the positive points of being noble in birth. However, Castiglione transitioned the argument through the Count’s response in favor of nobility by connecting that idea with the need for a courtier to be skilled in the art of arms, to the point where it would be his “…principle and true profession…” (p 30). From there on out, the Count took the reins of the debate by describing in detail what exercises the courtier should be adept at in order to be a competent warrior. And yet this was argued not necessarily for warfare in and of itself, as the Count repeatedly stressed that a man should be fit on foot and horseback more so in order to carry grace in all aspects of life. This is in implicit opposition to the previous understanding of the art of being a gentleman, as Castiglione was keenly aware of the prevailing medieval idea of what a courtier ought to be, primarily a knight. In acknowledging the need for a courtier to be a man of arms, and yet at the same time stressing that the man do so in order to also excel at other activities, Castiglione was alluding to the trend of Renaissance states to rely more on foot-soldiers than the mounted knights of old.

In The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione argued again and again through his non-fictional characters that universality in activities without excess in one too much was essential in learning to live as an ideal Renaissance courtier: “Our Courtier then will be esteemed excellent and will attain grace in everything, particularly in speaking, if he avoids affectation…” (p 37). Castiglione often used analogies through his characters, which livened up the debate and allowed the participants to transition to the many different topics that were necessary to touch on, as humanism required variation in study. The Count and Federico argued whether if there were boundaries between speaking and writing, where the Count argued against using ancient, obscure Tuscan words in writing, as he said that no one would reasonably incorporate those phrases into everyday speech. Federico begged to differ, saying that using difficult words gave the writer an authoritative voice, and would force the reader to slow down and pay attention, adding that “if the ignorance of him who reads is so great that he cannot overcome those difficulties, it is not the fault of the writer, nor on this account ought that style to be deemed unbeautiful.” (p 40). Pallavicino then interjected and claimed that speech-craft was more important for the courtier, and yet was drowned out by the others whom successfully counter-argued that writing was of utter importance, especially, (although Castiglione did not repeat it explicitly) since the courtier’s primary responsibility would be that of diplomacy.

Regardless of the competing importance of speech and writing, The Book of the Courtier was clear in its intent that the aspiring courtier should be an educated adviser, as opposed to the traditional court medieval knight.  The author set his treatise on courtliness in 1507, at the height of the Italian Renaissance, and his advice largely hinged on classical writings on being a gentleman, mainly that of Cicero.  Unlike in the Middle Ages, Italian court life in the Renaissance, (when not based in a republic, such as Venice or Genoa) depended on educated humanists who would advise the king on matters, and would also advocate culture and the arts. A groundbreaking theme in The Book of the Courtier was the status of women, as the Duchess called on Medici to defend womanhood against men such as Pallavicino, whom still held the belief that women were only good for childbirth. Medici argued that women were not only necessary as muses, but were capable of artistic endeavors themselves.

Like in art, the Italians were the vanguard in developing politics in ways that other Europeans would only start to learn from decades later; this meant that at the time of the book’s writing, the French were still following the medieval ways of being a gentleman through valor on the battlefield and knighthood. With The Book of the Courtier, Castiglione set a precedent that would be taught and followed for centuries to come by all Europeans, especially the French. The book’s main objective, and Castiglione’s main occupation in life, was diplomacy. Since knighthood was becoming continuously unimportant in Renaissance nobility, the court life increasingly became a game of words in which courtiers would be in residence at, or write letters to, foreign principalities in order to represent the interests of their lord or king. According to Castiglione, the perfect courtier should have had all of the attributes of a humanist, but most importantly writing. The epistolary craft, (through developing rhetoric and logic) was most helpful in learning the art of persuasion, which was what the quintessential courtier/diplomat needed. This is what made The Book of the Courtier a seminal work in Modernity.

In the book, Giuliano de Medici argued that women were capable of more than just domestic work, something unheard of at the time.

In the book, Giuliano de Medici argued that women were capable of more than just domestic work, something unheard of at the time.

Poetry, History, and Prophecy

Lamont Steptoe’s work has been featured in dozens of anthologies, including The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry.

Lamont Steptoe’s work has been featured in dozens of anthologies, including The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry.

(This article originally appeared in The Gleaner.)

“They now call this place out if its name / After one of their own who trafficked in human flesh”

Philadelphia’s Congo Square lies a block away from the most historic building in America, Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers boldly began their rebellion against the British Empire. The park, more commonly known as Washington Square, is advertised as a somber burial ground for Revolutionary War soldiers, Continental and British alike. However, thousands more buried in the square remain overlooked, including slaves, free blacks, Catholics, and victims of various epidemics. The Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, the centerpiece monument of the park, marginalizes the unmarked graves of the oppressed by barely mentioning their presence underneath. This is in spite of the fact that the square had been a “stranger’s burial ground” (and consequently a gathering place for what Steptoe affectionately calls saltwater Africans) for almost a century before the Revolutionary War began. Through “Meditations in Congo Square” American Book Award Winner and Pew Fellow poet, Lamont B. Steptoe, undertakes the daunting task of providing a voice for disregarded human beings buried in the dregs of American history.

Steptoe’s poetry uses meditation and spiritual creativity in order to shed light on the everyday life of not only his African ancestors, but also everyone else buried in Congo Square, including, “…the hearts brains and bones [of soldiers]…” and “the corpses felled by plague.” The underworld of Philadelphia’s hidden history comes alive from the very first line of Steptoe’s book, when he proclaims, “I dance with the ghosts of Congo Square / Meet and marry what isn’t there.” Readers come to understand that writing Meditations in Congo Square was no mere pet project for Steptoe, as the poet mentions in the book’s introduction that his three days a week meditation schedule on the burial ground lasted for a period of five years. Each poem in the collection conveys the poet’s psychological descent into an otherworldly realm, while managing to guide the reader along with him much like Virgil did for Dante in Inferno. Throughout the book the poet digs deeper and deeper into the square’s sacred grounds until his voice ultimately becomes one with the departed, culminating with the collection’s final poem, Untold Stories, in which Steptoe calls for the whispers of the forgotten dead to be “…loud enough to enter history’s ears!”

Reading Meditations in Congo Square is not a front to back cover endeavor, as many of the poems in this short book can easily stand on their own. This is because Steptoe’s “Meditations…” functions not only as a testament to colonial people’s history, but also often as a warning against war and oppression in the present and the future.

Steptoe’s ability to translate the humdrum of an average day into existential prophecy is frankly impressive, “…we are snowflakes falling on a / summer day vanishing in air while the unborn await their turn / to imagine our lives we are empty vessels dreaming of fullness.” In another poem Steptoe muses that when he was young he never would have thought the subject of weather would be a topic of conversation for him, let alone a metaphor for the transcendence of physical to spiritual. In this respect, Steptoe refers to the path of tropical storms originating in West Africa and crossing the Atlantic, the same route that saltwater Africans were forced to take. In No Name Worthy to Claim Steptoe speaks for a dead African joyous of being able to journey back home across the Atlantic, “I rushed across waves and plowed through storms / I entered the tabernacle of my youth.” Altogether, Steptoe’s Meditations… focuses on balancing historical and contemporary forms of life and death in Congo Square, and his unique method of meditative writing transforms the mundane into something spectacular.

(Steptoe recently read on campus in support of Rutgers Camden professor Ewuare Osayande’s anthology Stand Our Ground and stated that it is important for Meditations in Congo Square to be made available everywhere. The book is currently on sale at La Unique bookstore on 6th and Market in Camden, and the Penn Book Center on 34th and Sansom in Philadelphia.)