The Massachusetts Medievalist praises the small, local art show

Small, local art shows have become an inadvertant theme for the Massachusetts Medievalist this month.  I’ve always inclined toward larger, established institutions when seeking out art; I get to the MFA and the Harvard Art Museums pretty regularly. Three small art shows in Cambridge this March have me rethinking that strategy, however, as I’ve found that I enjoy thinking deeply about fewer pieces seen in a shorter period of time.

Anthony Apesos, my erstwhile co-conspirator for an interdisciplinary class on Milton’s Paradise Lost, features in a show at the Cambridge Art Association; all of Tony’s paintings are “illustrations” of Greek myths, but the moments he chooses to depict are not the typical epitomic moments of those narratives.  For example, in “Dedalus and Icarus” (below, with the artist), the illustration is set in a contemporary landscape; Dedalus digs a grave in the sand for the body of his dead son. Perhaps assisted by the presence of a nice white wine, I spent a long time looking at this image, much longer than I would have in a larger exhibition context.  Dedalus’s modern shorts contrast with the timelessness of Icarus’s plain shroud, and Tony forces the viewer to look at the exposed face of the dead boy, to imagine the grief of the isolated father digging the grave.

Anthony Apesos in front of "Dedalus and Icarus"

Right around the corner from my office, Maud Morgan Arts provides exhibit space for local artists. Renaissance man Bill Porter works in the academic technology department at Lesley; he also teaches animation and makes very cool paintings. I popped into his show “Impact” as part of an extended lunch break on a Friday afternoon and was immediately taken by his use of nontraditional items as “canvases” for his paintings. He uses old shingles, boards, and even bits of fences, as in “Clearing Skies,” with the whimsical but unsettling unicorn/narwhal skull as the perch for the pipe-smoking raven. The fence injected a note of reality into the otherwise almost absurdist image.

Bill Porter's "Clearing Skies"

Finally, two Lesley students have installed a specatcular series of portraits of African-American women in the atrium of our university library. “Portraits and Power” by Mosheh Tucker and Rocky Cotard presents larger-than-life images of women in the artists’s communities. Tucker works on traditional canvas, while Cotard’s pieces use loose fabric hung on rails, evoking the femininity implied in cloth and cloth making. Tucker’s “Ms. Marcel” (below) plays with geometry and space in the background of this full-length portrait in an almost Escher-like way; I also really enjoyed the ways that the colors of the figure’s clothes and skin interact with those of the background.

Mosheh Tucker's "Ms Marcel"

I’m realizing as well that all of these shows are associated with Lesley University, so I’m suddenly feeling a warm regard for my university as an art-supporting venue in the community. As spring semester progresses, I’ll be looking for more small art shows to explore.

 

The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about contemporary (and ancient) poetry

The Massachusetts Medievalist spent part of January immersed in two very different poets, creating an interesting dialogue to start the spring semester. A chance sighting of a Twitter notice led me to Ocean Vuong’s prize-winning Night Sky with Exit Wounds and I read it almost simultaneously with Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey.

Wilson has been all over the news as the first published female translator of the Odyssey in English, with reviews and interviews on NPR, the New York Times, and the Endless Knot as well as myriads of others.  From her first line, “Tell me about a complicated man,” Wilson makes Odysseus and his journey home from war into a nuanced narrative that presents Odysseus not as unceasingly heroic but as a multi-faceted, dynamic protagonist who is, well, complicated.  Wilson does not elide the slavery of the Odyssey (she is relentless in her presentation of “slave girls” rather than the more usual “servants” or “housemaids”); she does not attempt to explain or excuse Odysseus’s sexual infidelities or narcissistic behavior. All this complexity makes Wilson’s Odysseus seem almost postmodern, and I mean that in a very positive way.

Cover image of Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey

I had never even heard of Ocean Vuong — any of my students will agree that contemporary poetry is not one of my strengths — but decided to investigate when I heard that the UMass Amherst professor had won the world’s most distinguished prize for poetry in English.  Vuong’s work is starkly beautiful and deeply unsettling (the most common modifier for both “blue” and “black” is “bruise”) and sometimes-oblique, sometimes-candid references to violence, both domestic and institutional, pervade his lyrical, astounding lines.

It is fitting that he won the T.S. Eliot prize, since there are numerous covert allusions to The Waste Land throughout the collection (aesthetic association with Eliot’s work is not a criteria for the prize). Explicit allusions to the Trojan War deepen that connection. Vuong’s Troy poems extend Eliot’s connections of classical and modern warfare both chronologically and geographically: Vuong’s Troy is Saigon of the 1960s and 1970s as well as the entire contemporary United States. The second poem in the collection is “Telemachus,” thus placing his speaker in the position of the son seeking the father lost in war. Rather than Homer’s cathartic reunion scene, however, Vuong shows us irrevocable loss: “But the answer never comes. The answer / is the bullet hole in his back, brimming / with seawater” (10-12). Both “Trojan” and “Aubade with Bruning City” similarly make us see the intimate and personal effects of war; Vuong strips away any remnants of Homeric, victorious adrenaline, forcing us to look at the way that “They will see him / clearest / when the city burns” (25-27).

Cover image of Vuoung's Night Sky

These three poems with Homeric allusion in the titles occur at the beginning of the collection, but then Vuong returns to Troy towards his close. “Odysseus Redux” explicitly refers to the Odyssey only in its title, but the themes of necesarily incomplete homecoming and reunion continue to resonate as the speaker tells us that “Back from the wind, he called to me / with a mouthful of crickets –” (7-8). Vuong’s poetics, so different from Homer’s and Wilson’s in form, wrestle with the same issues of identity, family, nation, sexuality, and loss.

Vuong’s and Wilson’s work reminds me that our culture’s foundational narratives are alive, part of our changing landscapes and conversations. It’s exciting to leave the Middle Ages every now and then to see how our conteporary poets are looking, Janus-like, both backwards and forwards in literary history.

Vuong, Ocean. Night Sky With Exit Wounds. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2016.

Wilson, Emily, trans. The Odyssey. New York: Norton, 2017.

The Massachusetts Medievalist DOES NOT LIVE in a “Shining City on a Hill”

Last week, my university hosted former British prime minister David Cameron as part of the Boston Speakers Series, and he closed his remarks with that shop-worn reference to Boston and the United States as a “shining city on the hill.” The Massachusetts Medievalist will now set the record straight on that enormously irritating phrase. World: please stop using it to refer to my city and my country. Its actual context is pretty much the opposite of what you intend.

The original Biblical reference is quite spectacular.  In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells his followers that “Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5.14). He encourages his followers to be strong in their faith, even in the face of persecution and oppression.

Our contemporary culture likes to refer to Boston as a “shining city on a hill” due to a much less palatable usage, however, that of an early governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop, who had been elected before the departure from England.  He wrote his 1630 sermon “A Model of Christian Charity” on board the Arbella, the ship that brought him and many of his fellow puritans to the “new world” to establish a religiously pure colony away from the corruption (as they saw it) of the Church of England.

Winthrop’s allusion to Matthew 5.14 occurs towards the end of the sermon, when he exhorts his fellow puritans:

For wee must consider that wee shall be as a citty upon a hill. The eies of all people are uppon us. Soe that if wee shall deale falsely with our God in this worke wee haue undertaken, and soe cause him to withdrawe his present help from us, wee shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.

Winthrop invokes the Sermon on the Mount to encourage his fellow colonists to remain true to their religious convictions — not so much because that’s a valuable thing to do in itself, but more importantly  because others will see them if they don’t. Winthrop’s conclusion creates a world of early protestant surveillance, where “all people” are ready to watch and judge the actions of the colonists. Winthrop’s goal in his sermon and throughout his governorship was enforcement of his version of puritan beliefs and regulations, one in which poverty and illness were signs of God’s displeasure for morally corrupt behavior and lack of religious faith.

Winthrop regimented the daily lives of the colonists he governed as much as possible, ignored instructions from the English Parliament regarding open elections and appointments to office, and established intrusive and humiliating procedures for vetting the religious faith of potential new residents in the colony. He also “owned” two enslaved Pequots, who may have been captured during the 1636-38 Pequot War. And historians now consider Winthrop to be something a of a “moderate” among the puritans in his cohort.

While politicians and cultural pundits frequently invoke Winthrop’s “city on a hill” in a positive way, consider the very beginning of the sermon, which must be largely unknown to those pundits:

GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.

In other words, God established social class in his divine wisdom and all true believers had to accept their places in those classes. It is worth pointing out that Winthrop was at the top of each category mentioned (wealth; political, religious, and social power; social status). At the very beginning of the sermon, then, Winthrop establishes divine imprimatur for rigid social and political hierarchies. He also believed, like almost all men of his era, in gender hierarchy — which probably seemed so obvious to him that he did not bother to include it in his list of divinely-created assessed categories.

Note that neither the New Testament nor Winthrop uses the word “shining,” although that adjective is now included in most contemporary political misquotations, including Cameron’s of last week. The idea of “shining” is perhaps implied in Christ’s phrase “the light of the world” but contemporary commentators use it to refer to Boston as a beacon of light, a brilliant example of Boston’s rich cultural heritage that illuminates everyone else, metaphorically and literally. Presidents as disparate as Kennedy, Reagan, and Obama have invoked Winthrop’s “shining city on a hill” to celebrate Boston specifically or the United States in general; the full texts of their speeches make it clear that they are referring to Winthrop and his puritan sermon, not the Sermon on the Mount.

The greater Boston area (which includes Cambridge, where I work, and the suburbs, where I live) does indeed serve as an example of a broad community that values education, the arts, scientific inquiry, and multiculturalism. But we also face crucial issues of overt racism, gentrification, income inequality, and entrenched sexism.  We need to move away from the rigid social hierarchies and narrow minded righteousness embedded in the historical context of Winthrop’s sermon in which he envisioned Boston as a “city on a hill.” Let’s agree to stop using that tired, inaccurate phrase in our own discourse, as it is actually a misquotation of an exclusionist, racist, intolerant Puritan referring largely to his own superiority. That’s not my Boston.

Next Blog Post: some suggestions for a replacement