475 miles west of Nashville

Flying home from LA the other day, I snapped the photo over the napping woman beside me. So what am I looking at here? According to the destination tracker, we’re 475 miles west of Nashville, looking North. Perhaps it’s the Arkansas River near the Oklahoma border? 

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The Bard on Beach Street

I was walking down Beach Street in Boston’s Chinatown the last week, and came across a bust of Shakespeare carved in high relief on the wall of a building.

No sign, no plaque, nothing to explain why Shakespeare might be unexpectedly peering out at passersby on a busy side street amidst the Vietnamese restaurants and places to buy Bubble Tea.

When I got home–after seeing the marvelous new musical “Matilda” over the Boston Opera House–I started to poke around online about it. Others had come across the Bard on Beach, but there didn’t seem to be much more than that.

800px-Phillis_Wheatley_frontispieceCenturies ago, this whole area had been the South Cove, a body of water that separated the South Boston area from the city proper until it was filled in during the first part of the nineteenth century. Beach Street still retains the memory of the seaport that was here–indeed, we know that 18th century slave-trading ships arrived to the port at the corner of Beach and Tyler Streets, and that one African girl was sold there in 1761 whom the world would come to know as the poet Phillis Wheatley.

Later in time, the area came to be the theatre district, and even now the big theatres are not so far away (like the one where I saw “Matilda”). Around the corner from Beach on Washington Street was the old Globe Theatre, built in 1903 and still standing, although it has been a Dim Sum restaurant called “Empire Garden” now for quite some time (the dining room is still undisguisedly the old gilded lobby).  It seemed to me that this must be the answer–surely the Globe Theatre must be connected somehow with the bust of Shakespeare! Perhaps it was the side office, or something? But no, you can see in the screen-shot of the 3D satellite view below that the Globe/Empire Garden indicated by the green arrow is distinct from the Shakespeare bust building indicated by the blue one.


A 1988 study by the Boston Landmarks Commission had more information–they listed 7-15 Beach Street as “The Shakesperian Inn.” Aha!  It makes perfect sense that theatre-goers making a night of it, or even travelling acting companies, would want to stay at an inn named for Shakespeare. There is even reason to believe that the inn was something of a bohemian hang-out.  According to a Boston Post report from 1901:

Landlord William Hennessy of the Shakespearean Inn in denying admission to teh [sic] Rev. Herbert S. Johnson and his party to the ladies’ café because they were not accompanied by ladies followed a rule that has been in vogue at his hotel ever since he opened. It is known to the frequenters of the Inn that no hotel in the city is conducted more carefully, and that, too, in a neighborhood where every effort is made to break down rules of propriety and decorum. Mr. Hennessy has established the reputation of meeting all difficulties and conforming to the laws and police regulations as well, if not better, than any other hotel proprietor in the city.

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(I have not seen this article myself, but quote it from the Lost Womyn’s Space blog, which has transcribed it.)  The Inn itself seems to have been built around 1885, and who knows how long it was a ladies’ only cafe. Alas, by 1902, it was a far rougher place, according to another newspaper account, where a dispute over an unclean glass could lead to suicide-murder in public.

Of the landlord, William Hennessy, I note from a 1901 ad in The Feather magazine that he seems also to have done a trade in fancy pigeons from the Inn’s lofts– “All Varieties of Booted Tumblers at reasonable prices; also a number of prize-winners. Whitesides my specialty.”

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So, who knew there was so much going on here for the Bard to witness?


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At Zora’s Grave

We were visiting my mother-in-law in Florida last week, and, as I had been reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, I decided to take a short trip up to Fort Pierce to see the grave of Zora Neale Hurston in the cemetery where she was buried as penniless old woman in 1960.

I am not alone in the desire to see Zora’s grave, of course. A few years ago, Adam Graham wrote a piece for the New York Times entitled “Forgotten Florida, Through a Writer’s Eyes,” in which he chronicles a similar trek: he travels to the Orlando and the surrounding environs where some of Zora’s work is set to find remnants of the older African-American community that used to exist there (before the area became synonymous with safe suburban fun like “Sea World and Disney and Putt-Putt Golfing,” as the song goes in Book of Mormon), as well as to Fort Pierce.

The particular part of the Treasure Coast where Zora is buried is not especially safe and suburban. “Fort Pierce’s business district … resembles a colorful Caribbean town,” writes Graham. “Brightly painted storefronts like La Chic Beauty Salon, Shorty’s Cold Spot and Soul Fighters for Jesus Ministry, adorned with hand-painted signs, have a jumbled grace about them.” Waiting at one intersection for a stoplight, I noticed a few chickens and rooster in front of a dilapidated building. There’s a charm but also a sort of menace in this neighborhood. “17th Street?” says a man I talk to in a barber shop a few days later. “That’s a rough area. I don’t like to get out of the car up there, and I’m a probation officer.”

The Garden of Heavenly Rest cemetery is at the dead-end of the road, marked with palm trees and a low white wall that reads “Sarah’s Memorial Garden.” Inside there is a small brick parking lot and a walkway with bronze-decorated pillars that lead to the grave itself.

The pillars–the handiwork of furniture artist James Liccione— are striking, with images of women’s hats, et cetera, as well as a face that I take to be the likeness of Zora herself, which you can see up above

The gravesite itself is marked by one of the “Dust Tracks Heritage Trail” markers that Fort Pierce has erected throughout the neighborhood. Truthfully, there’s not much else to look at in this particular area–the cemetery was a potter’s field  until the 1970s, until the prominent African-American author Alice Walker came here to find Zora’s unmarked grave and give her a proper memorial. She commemorates this search in a powerful essay called “Looking for Zora” that appeared in Ms. magazine in 1975.

The cemetery is well-maintained now, but in 1975 it was overgrown with weeds and crawling with snakes. Wading through it, Walker and a friend thought it might be impossible to locate the site:

Finding the grave seems positively hopeless. There is only one thing to do:

“Zora!” I yell, as loud as I can (causing Rosalee to jump). “Are you out here?”

“If she is, I sho hope she don’t answer you. If she do, I’m gone.”

“Zora!” I call again. “I”m here. Are you?”

“If she is,” grumbles Rosalee, “I hope she’ll keep it to herself.”

“Zora!” Then I start fussing with her. “I hope you don’t think I’m going to stand out here all day, with these snakes watching me and these ants having a field day. In fact, I’m going to call you just one or two more times.” On a clump of dried grass, near a small bushy tree, my eye falls on one of the largest bugs I have ever seen. It is on its back, and is as large as three of my fingers. I walk toward it, and yell “Zo-ra!” and my foot sinks into a hole. I look down. I am standing in a sunken rectangle that is about six feet long and about three or four feet wide. I look up to see where the two gates are.

“Well,” I say, “this is the center, or approximately anyhow. It’s also the only sunken spot we’ve found. Doesn’t this look like a grave to you?”

“For the sake of not going no farther through these bushes,” Rosalee growls, “yes, it do.”

Shortly thereafter, Walker went to a monument company and ordered the stone to be cut which you see below–“a genius of the South,” it says, a line from a poem of Jean Toomer. Beneath you can see the residue of the tape that once affixed a photo of the author to the stone.

By the tomb are various grave offerings–some yellow flowers, a bracelet with light purple beads, as well as two unopened bottles of Guinness and a large prayer candle.

What to make of these? The beer bottles remind me of items which I think I recall seeing at Marie Laveau’s tomb in New Orleans a few decades ago, and so I guess are associated with voodoo practices of the sort that Zora herself wrote about in Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. The Guinness reminds me of a conversation I had with a Jamaican cab-driver in Fort Lauderdale a few years ago about the aphrodisiac qualities of Gunness, and it’s not difficult to find descriptions of it as Liquid Viagra in parts of the Caribbean and Africa.

seven-african-powersThe candle I originally took to be a Roman Catholic votive object, such as you regularly find for the Virgin Mother in various parts of the world, but upon closer inspection, I see that it is dedicated to “the Seven African Powers” (as depicted to the left). I’m only half-right that it’s Catholic –the Seven African Powers are divine forces worshipped in the Santeria Church, a syncretistic religion that is made up of Catholic and Yoruban elements. In digging around a little online, I find that the pantheon of the Santerist gods known as the Orishas are spiritual guides with power of various elements of nature (or at least I think so, as there is a good deal of conflicting information). One scholar, Keith Cartwright, sees the Orishas –and particularly Oya the Rain-giver–as mythological figures informing much of Hurston’s work, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, which features significantly the protagonists encountering a deadly hurricane:

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

It’s an open question who He is, of course. The Christian God? Chango the Lord of Lightning whom we see on the candle associated with St. Barbara? Or an even more impersonal divine force? Their eyes are watching, Zora writes, but what is it exactly that they’re looking upon?  As I leave the Garden of Heavenly Rest, it’s hard for me to say what the religious feeling of the place is.

You got tuh go there tuh know there, Zora writes toward the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God. I’m aware how out of place I feel, a classicist, not a professional reader of Af-Am lit or even American literature. Whil I’m never quite sure what draws me to an author’s grave, it seems strange to me to be making a pilgrimage to this tomb. The neighborhood makes me uncomfortable, and I’m angry at myself for feeling this way, a cultural by-product of racism, no doubt. I’m mad at myself, too, for my irrational fear of the neighboorhood’s tremendous poverty. But here I am, a middle-aged, middle-class white guy visiting and trying to make sense of this spot of earth marking with its exotic devotional practices the final resting place of a poor black woman who was indisputably a genius. Somehow, maybe, it seems OK to be here. As Their Eyes ends,

Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.





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I didn’t know until just today that the word “scofflaw” was coined as part of a 1924 contest hosted by the Boston Herald to describe people who flagrantly ignored the Prohibition ban on drinking alcohol.

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Precious Moldering Pleasures

A precious—mouldering pleasure—’tis—
To meet an Antique Book—
In just the Dress his Century wore—
A privilege—I think—

His venerable Hand to take—
And warming in our own—
A passage back—or two—to make—
To Times when he—was young—

His quaint opinions—to inspect—
His thought to ascertain
On Themes concern our mutual mind—
The Literature of Man—

What interested Scholars—most—
What Competitions ran—
When Plato—was a Certainty—
And Sophocles—a Man—

When Sappho—was a living Girl—
And Beatrice wore
The Gown that Dante—deified—
Facts Centuries before

He traverses—familiar—
As One should come to Town—
And tell you all your Dreams—were true—
He lived—where Dreams were born—

His presence is Enchantment—
You beg him not to go—
Old Volumes shake their Vellum Heads
And tantalize—just so—

So Emily Dickinson, right as always. I thought of these lines as I snuck into duPont Library by the back door this afternoon. On the left-hand side were two very large boxes full of books to be discarded. The shelves need to cleared, we’ve been told, to make room for newer books. The old ones will what? be sold, given away, pulped? There they sit, awaiting their fate.

Against my better judgement, I begin to flip through them. Many don’t interest me–Principles of Behavior from the 60s, mid-century prayer books (though the inscription “For Sister Carlotta” gives me a twinge), economics manuals. But of course, there’s always something in a random collection of books you want to look through.

I will admit to leafing through the paperback with responses to Marshall McLuhan for a few minutes, especially Walter Ong’s essay and Susan Sontag’s, too. But it’s The Pictorial Hstory of England that really arrests me. With Several Hundred Woodcuts, reads the subtitle. Who could resist? Both volumes contain heartfelt handwritten inscriptions.

I thumb through the book. Good God, it’s just so charming. And it’s so old, and so out-of-date, and so musty, and so moldering. Should I stick it in my bag? Nobody will notice, or care. But will I ever look at it again? If I bring it home and put it on the shelf, am I not just consigning the question of what to do with this old book to my children some decades hence?

So off I go, leaving the Pictorial History to its destiny, and hate myself for it. All around me are the signs of an age that’s passing– old books being remaindered, older colleagues retiring, institutional memory passing into oblivion. Into the bin with all of you, over to the side by the library backdoor.

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The Abbo’s Alley Labyrinth

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There’s a fine piece in Smithsonian today about labyrinths, which put me in mind of Sewanee’s own version of the mystic maze (about which more below). As Jennifer Billock, the author of the Smithsonian piece, writes about the spiritual engagement with this unique classic structure:

Historically, walking a labyrinth is associated with religious and magical experiences. Their many ins and outs are often associated with mythical figures, and in the past they were walked as devotional activities, mini-pilgrimages or atonements for some sin. Nordic pagans coursed the paths as a way to overcome difficulty, reinforce protection and bring good fortune. These days, walkers choose labyrinths for a meditative experience of repetition and slight concentration contained in a small circular package. The journey is a personal one—everyone gets something different out of the winding walk.

She quotes David Gallagher, director of The Labyrinth Society, who says, “I can’t tell you what a specific individual should expect to experience. Ask anyone who’s interested in labyrinths and you’ll get different answers.” The Society’s elaborate webpage–it’s actually well-organized, so I’ll avoid comparing it to a maze–notes that May 6, 2016 was World Labyrinth Day, which, in all the hubbub about Sewanee’s graduation, I seem to have missed; I’ll try to catch it next year, I guess. I note too that the society maintains a labyrinth locator that does not contain the one in Abbo’s Alley (or the other one I know of in the area, at St. Mary’s*).

I’m quite fond of our local labyrinth, and have often incorporated it into lectures about Theseus and the Minotaur. You can see one of my sons, when he was very young, playing in it above. A few years ago, I wanted to know more about this labyrinth and wrote to the person who knows the most about the Alley, Louis Rice, to find out more. He responded,

Trink Beasley’s son, Battle, a priest in Nashville ,collected the bricks and also laid out the design.Several volunteers put the bricks down and the Alley crew cut the brush and cleared the trees from atop the stone out-cropping. This was all done about 2000/01. You will note the area below is named “Trinks Terrace” in her honor.


I wrote to Father Beasley, who is rector at St. Mark’s in Antioch, TN — there is in fact another labyrinth there , one which can be found in the Labyrinth Society’s locator. Battle’s gracious response to my inquiry:

So glad to hear someone uses and enjoys it. Actually it was my mother Trink Beasley who wanted a labyrinth in the alley and asked me to put it there. I became interested in labyrinths around 1995. The one here at st. mark’s I didn’t put in but can claim to be the inspiration for the previous rector who I introduced to labyrinths.i too find them wonderful places for reflection and prayer. Thanks so much for sharing with me. Peace battle

According to the St. Mark’s website, Battle leads a labyrinth walk on the second Saturday of every month.  I’ve copied his thoughtful reflections, which might be of use to you as you walk the mystic path in Abbo’s Alley.

There are three stages of the walk:

Purgation (Releasing) ~ A releasing, a letting go of the details of your life. This is the act of shedding thoughts and distractions. A time to open the heart and quiet the mind.

Illumination (Receiving) ~ When you reach the center, stay there as long as you like. It is a place of meditation and prayer. Receive what is there for you to receive.

Union (Returning) ~ As you leave, following the same path out of the center as you came in, you enter the third stage, which is joining God, your Higher Power, or the healing forces at work in the world. Each time you walk the labyrinth you become more empowered to find and do the work you feel your soul reaching for.

Guidelines for the walk: Quiet your mind and become aware of your breath. Allow yourself to find the pace your body wants to go. The path is two ways. Those going in will meet those coming out. You may “pass” people or let others step around you. Do what feels natural.

*Postscript. My understanding is that Battle Beasley made the St. Mary’s labyrinth, too! Also, my friend and former student (and former babysitter!), Emily Senefeld, tells me that there’s also a labyrinth in the Crump Pavilion at the Dubose Conference Center!

Posted in Classics, Family, Mythology, Sewanee, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Crazy Salad: new and old views

Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,
While that great Queen, that rose out of the spray,
Being fatherless could have her way
Yet chose a bandy-leggèd smith for man.
It’s certain that fine women eat
A crazy salad with their meat
Whereby the Horn of Plenty is undone.

The fourth stanza os Yeats’ “A Prayer for My Daughter” (1919) is one I share with my students when teaching myths of Aphrodite. The great Queen has numerous affairs (Anchises, Hermes, Adonis, and most notably, Ares), but she is married to Hephaestus, whose limp and personal ugliness make him a caricacture of a god. Yeats is not the only poet to address the topic (I’m fond of e.e. cummings’ “in heavenly relams of hellas dwelt,” with its final couplet, “my tragic tale concludes herewith: / soldier, beware of mrs smith”), and artists have long enjoyed the contrast of the unattractive old man together with his glamorous young wife: capping this tradition must be the scene from the Pythonesque movie The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen (1988), in which a crusty Vulcan played by Oliver Reed greets Uma Thurman, arriving as Venus on the half-shell:

At any rate, I’m thinking of this after reading an article in yesterday’s Washington Post about “assortative mating.” The piece is based on a study called “Leveling the PLaying Field” done last year about why couples generally are at the same level of physical attractiveness (although who adjudicates these aesthetic matters is unclear), those that are not –where one mate is decidedly “better-looking” than the other–could be explained by the way in which the couple has gotten together. According to the study abstract:

As predicted, couples revealed stronger evidence of assortative mating to the extent that they knew each other for a short time and were not friends before initiating a romantic relationship.

The research seems to show that shorter courtships are based on exterior matters, while longer ones see past the surface. I’m not sure Yeats sees it this way, and while I still would love to know what the hell he means by “crazy salad” (the title of Nora Ephron’s collection of essays about gender relations in the mid-70s), I don’t think the Olympian gods did either. The Greeks, of course, invented the concept of irony. And it is worth noting that couples that are made up of two very attractive people sometimes are lackig in other areas. To my mind, the ultimate American example is Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio, who were divorced after a few months.  Sure, sure, “None but the brave deserve the fair!” (as Dryden says), but our twentieth-century Venus seems to have been happier with Arthur Miller, the wordsmith.


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