No Made Up Tale

As usual, when I sit down to write upon a topic, that topic immediately becomes much vaster than the ‘brief paragraph or two with accompanying picture’ will give justice to. I am a long-winded writer because…well…things are just interesting. Right?


Or not. You see, ‘portion control’ is what I have been striving to achieve with my blog. Most people relate portion control to food, if they tend to overeat. For me, it is related to what I choose to read and write. Some reading is just downright depressing, even if they are classics. Or perhaps the fact that they are classics and have survived this long with that much baggage is enervating to think about. I don’t know, actually. I just know that portion control in reading is a must for me to keep my psyche running lean and fit.

As to that, long-winded blog posts that I tend to write need portion control. I so love interesting side trips and digressions. All too often, though, they don’t fit the appetite of today’s reader.  So, if you have been following this blog for awhile, you may have noticed that my blog posts are shorter, and more infrequent.

Today’s post is a classic (pardon the pun) example of what I fight constantly as a reader and writer. It was to be about a simple parallel between a classic story—the Iliad—and an old-fashioned story set in Kentucky that I believe is one of the finest stories I’ve ever read.

But one doesn’t just quickly set about doing brief blurbs when it comes to some of the finest words ever put to paper. And one doesn’t just spin off a quick sentence or two about the strangely connected worlds of Homeric Greece and the Southern States without thinking of ‘Oh Brother, Where Are Thou’, the fabulous song ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’, and the generally often shrill insensibleness of epic heroes.

At this point I will just remind myself: Portion Control.

While I can get carried away by the sheer beauty of the poetry, the muscular power of imagery in books like the Iliad and The Odyssey, the weirdness (for lack of a better word) of the ancient mind can get a bit trying. It’s a similar kind of emotionally erratic journey I experience in reading the literature of ‘olden times’ in Appalachia, or the Kentucky hills, with all their quaint ‘dreamy-drunken’ expressions, as I call it. A lyrical poetry in the expressions, a sing-song seduction of narrative carries me along and before I know it I am similarly ‘cloud walking’ or caught adrift amidst the ‘fingers of rosy-colored dawn’.

Odysseus was ‘a man of many sorrows’—his tears became their own sort of character in the narrative, yet it is interesting that Man of Constant Sorrow is also an Appalachian folk song with a heritage that goes back hundreds of years, maybe more. Intense tribal loyalties, coupled with unbalanced vendettas against petty trifles–bringing on a cycle of war and feuds–these also share the same patterns of crazy quilt imagery both from the ancient Greek world to the southern hills of rural America.

These themes can be traced endlessly, and, especially when it comes to the folk songs and those indescribably erratic folk tales…are endlessly fascinating. Yet…for this not to go on for pages (or even be written at all) here is a simple comparison. It’s not even the best one–just the one I could access and distribute the fastest….

The book? Cloud-Walking, written in 1942 by Marie Campbell. As I said, one of the finest books I’ve ever read. I am not sure its unique power would be for everyone–for one thing, it resonates with me because I have a family history that relates to the Appalachian Mountains and Kentucky hills, and all those wild-hearted, stubborn, delightful people. But oh, this woman could write. (more on this book later!)


Marie Campbell

The second book needs no introduction: Iliad, by Homer. The tragic tale of heroic deeds and, yes…oh brother killing brother where art thou? (too close to home, I’m afraid).

‘For as long as it was morning and the holy day was waxing, the weapons thrown by both sides reached their mark and the men kept falling. But when a woodcutter makes his dinner in the mountain glens, when his hands are tired with cutting the tall trees and weariness has touched his heart, and desire for the pleasure of food takes over his mind–then the Danaans showed their worth and, calling to each other down their ranks, they broke the enemy line…Agamemnon was the first to spring through and kill his man, Bienor, shepherd of his people…’ [Iliad]

And back to the mountains here…

‘Back in other settlements they was killings aplenty over politics. Way over on Lone Creek five persons was killed and three more looking to die from ‘lection troubles. One place two brothers shot each other over who to vote for, and Uncle Blessing’s woman’s boy killed his woman’s pap and hisself over politics. From the time politics started in the spring to make ready for the primary voting till the candidates was picked and politics settled agin Nelt counted up about thirty persons shot to death in settlements about the country.’ [Cloud Walking’ 1942]

As Marie Campbell says in her forward, ‘this is no made up tale’. Sad but true.

More on Marie Campbell coming soon. (yes I really think it will happen this time!)

For yesterday’s visual of my fanciful Odysseus tears, see here.




Stories Without Words

‘He found her at home. There was a large fire burning on the hearth, and one could smell from far the fragrant reek of burning cedar and sandal wood. As for herself, she was busy at her loom, shooting her golden shuttle through the warp and singing beautifully.’ [The Odyssey]

How do you tell a story without words?

How do you chronicle a single moment—or epic, or saga—in time, when songs of the balladeer have faded, the nimble tongue has gone to the grave, and the ornately drawn parchment has crumbled to dust?

Think textiles. Spinning, weaving, and the art of story-telling have long been intertwined. Perhaps familiar metaphors are already springing to your mind; spin a tale, weave a tale, spin a yarn, hanging by a thread, tie up loose ends, leave them in stitches…many are the links within our language. Likely you can think of many more.

painting of Penelope at her loom by John W. Waterhouse

Think text and textile, and you have found the Latin verb connection texere, to weave.

From Greek epic—via faithful Penelope and the tormented Helen of Troy—to the Bayeux Tapestry that sought to chronicle the Battle of Hastings, to our favorite German/Slav fairy tales where ladies spin straw into gold, to the raw beauty of the Appalachian woven coverlet; women have been weaving and spinning a dizzying path through story and lore for centuries.

For me, much closer to home, my fascination with this motif relates back to Grandma and her quilt-making. The final stitching would be saved for sunny days, the quilt stretched out on a large frame—usually under the shade of the apple tree— while various aging, gossipy aunts took their turn at helping Grandma bind all the elements together, stitch by tiny stitch.

Margaret Kennedy, in her book The Outlaws on Parnassus, mentions, with a decided sigh in her narrative;

‘The epic heroes of the Homeric age dwindled into ‘he whose tale is told by our looms’. Tales told by looms deteriorate. The heroic gives way to the wondrous incident, the gaping marvel, to floods, fires, pirates, witches, cruel stepmothers, and visits to the moon.’

Kennedy’s lament is for the lost art of storytelling—more specifically, the lost credibility of storytelling as an art form—and its deterioration into mere diverting fairy tales. But, except for the ‘visits to the moon’, she might have been describing what my eager child’s ears listened to while Grandma and the aunts busied their hands at the quilt frame. I learned so much about the lives, loves, and indigestions of various family members during quilt making. Is that why I’m a story teller?

But this picture, and this story, is more Penelope than Aunt Winnie, in that I wove this necklace for remembrance.image

Last winter I lost a friend. She went suddenly. I was cheated of good-byes or anything like it that involved words.

So I wove. I haven’t worked a quilt since I was a little girl, but I still love to create textiles with beads and vintage baubles. So I wove, stitched, and embroidered the first thing that came to me to do. All the while I held a thousand unvoiced conversations with my sweet friend. A flimsy piece of fabric became my life raft for a few days of intensive silence. It slowly gained in weight and substance as I bejeweled, encrusted, cast upon it entire constellations of glittering angst.

I wove for remembrance, as did Penelope in the Iliad; wove as insistently as did Helen of Troy, sitting by her workbasket, lacing her wine with the sweet drug of forgetfulness.

I wove as did Millay’s Harpweaver, capturing a fantasy of sweet pathos.

‘She wove a red cloak
So regal to see,
“She’s made it for a king’s son,”
I said, “and not for me.”
But I knew it was for me.’

Too tiny, really. Too much imagination, too much everything…and in the end what is this pretty bijoux of bright nothings? Remembrance.

“Did you think the lack of you wouldn’t matter?”

Weaving is story telling when words are not there.

She will know it was for her.