Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards

Stone Telling magazine went live this morning. As I said in an earlier entry, it is the brain- and heart-child of Rose Lemberg who wished to elicit and showcase poetry that crosses boundaries. It contains an introduction by Rose, fourteen poems, three non-fiction articles and a round-table contributor interview.

Among the poems is my dear friend Calvin Johnson’s eloquent and thought-provoking Towards a Feminist Algebra. Among the articles is A (Mail)coat of Many Colors, my discussion of the songs of the Akrítai, the Byzantine border guards — poetry of a time, place and language that is virtually unknown in the Anglophone world.

Yet Hellenes still sing these songs… and they still reverberate in the popular imagination in subtle but powerful ways. As the accompanying image shows, Antoine Fuqua’s Sarmatian border guards in Roman England hearken back to the Akrítai of Byzantine Anatolia. Too, real amazons lived and fought in the lands of the Akrítai — a liminal zone where all kinds of boundaries were crossed and history survived as tales and songs.

The poems in Stone Telling open wondrous windows to the world. And if that is not the best purpose of poetry, what is?

Image: Left, the Byzantine warrior saint Merkourios, a Scythian by birth (fresco by Manuíl Pansélinos, Mt. Athos, 1360 AD); right, Ioan Gruffudd as a Sarmatian border guard in Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur.

18 Responses to “Songs of the Byzantine Border Guards”

  1. Caliban says:

    I know I’m excited. Go, us!

    Great article, by the way, Athena.

  2. Athena says:

    Yes, ST 1 looks wonderful! I’m glad you liked the article. I really enjoyed writing it and finding the song and images that went into it. The Byzantine era and history has been ignored or denigrated by Western scholars (even the term is pejorative in English usage — I suspect that some of it is annoyed guilt over the Crusaders’ behavior and its results).

  3. Neo says:

    Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as in poetry.

    I read Stone Telling.Inspired and thinking of writing poems. *Seriously*
    Would welcome any suggestions.


  4. Caliban says:

    Like anything, poetry is hard work. And I mean hard.
    All I can do is to tell you my journey. Your will be different.
    For many years I wrote poetry just as a side line. It was terrible. Just doggerel and imitation song lyrics. (I had an inkling it was terrible; I knew that lyrics that make for good songs is not necessarily good poetry. But I didn’t know what *did* make for good poetry.) I continued to dabble, and some of my poetry got slightly better. Mostly I focused on my fiction (and even more on my science career).
    Over the years I had joined or formed various writing groups, groups open to genre writing. When I moved to Baton Rouge, I despaired of this; there wasn’t a lot of SF being written there (and frankly the last couple of groups I had been in had not been inspiring). But I read of an open mike poetry contest at a downtown bar. Eventually I worked up the courage to go. There were some amazing, daunting poets there–one of my favorites was about God and Popeye the Sailor getting into a bar fight–with dazzling word play. Even so, I girded my loins and after a couple of times got up to read. Poetry “slams” do reward vivid imagery and word play. I read a poem about the love life of Godzilla. I read a poem about a mother who was occasionally, but not always, dead (about which another poet quipped, that sounds like MY mother).
    I won one of the contests.
    I met some of the poets and some of the, including the author of the God-and-Popeye poem, invited me to their poetry group. I was desperate for some outlet and they were fun, clever, sweet, thoughtful, and hard working. I learned a lot from that group.
    Then I took a poetry course at LSU from Sue Owen. She didn’t let us write just whatever we wanted, she had a system, and she wanted us to follow it. I resisted, fought against it, but it was the best thing for my poetry. She forced me to own my poetry. She taught me that poetry is not just whatever comes into your head, it is a disciplined, rigorous craft, and if you are going to have funny line breaks you damn well better have a good reason for it.
    While in Baton Rouge I produced 3 binders full of poetry (after years of dabbling). I’ve not kept it up, although I have just started a new poem, and I find I am out of practice.

    But everyone has their own journey. A bad or even indifferent poetry teacher could be disastrous. A bad or indifferent group could be disastrous. (I was sufficiently experienced in writing that I could tell right away that both the poetry group and Sue Owen were not disastrous.)
    And keep in mind that one can be very skilled in one bit of writing but not another. Carl Sagan was a very good nonfiction writer. In his novel Contact, the narrative bits are, as expected, beautifully written. The dialog is terrible, wooden and stiff. And most writers of fictions are not very good at poetry.

    You can’t learn poetry from a book, but only through practice, but even so a good starting place is Steve Kowit’s “In the Palm of Your Hand.” He is a lovely poet and his book really breaks down the craft into its components.
    I hope that helps.

  5. Neo says:

    Believed there is no poet in me
    But daffodils cheered him all the time
    Man is a social animal so they say
    With this evidence, that must be true

    Thank You So much… 🙂


  6. Athena says:

    To Calvin’s very useful words, I would add: if you want to write uniquely and well, read everything in sight. Read poetry of all kinds, from folksongs to experimental contemporary. And in all the languages that you know.

  7. Neo says:

    Thank you, Athena…


  8. intrigued_scribe says:

    The first issue of Stone Telling looks fantastic!

    Calvin, Athena, wonderful work. 🙂

  9. Athena says:

    Thank you, dear Heather! I had a wonderful time writing the essay. It pulled lots of threads together for me. The usual braided tapestry! (*smile*)

  10. Asakiyume says:

    Read poetry of all kinds, from folksongs to experimental contemporary.

    This is **such** good advice–and good for prose, too. Taste widely.

  11. Athena says:

    Welcome to my home, Francesca! And I agree. Reading is the prime prerequisite to all writing. So is looking, listening, tasting — being aware. Then you take your harvest and turn it into honey, like a good worker bee.

  12. Caliban says:

    If you wish to look for places to begin reading, Poetry 180 edited by Billy Collins provides a wide variety of excellent, accessible but by not means condescending poems by current poets. A little more challenging is “The Best American Poetry” series. And Athena is of course right, you should read widely and not just in the American English vernacular.

  13. Neo says:

    Thank you, Thank you very much… I’ve already started scribbling lines…
    And have started reading different forms of reading and languages as well… 🙂


  14. Sue Lange says:

    I loved Johnson’s poem. Thought it was funny. Am looking forward to reading more in this issue when I get a chance.

  15. Sue Lange says:

    Athena, loved your article. I’d love to see a video of those armed Greeks dancing to the lyre.

  16. Athena says:

    Sue, here’s one. Not surprisingly, it was recorded in Montreal, in the diaspora community. They don’t wear the bandoliers, but the rest is authentic enough. It starts slowly, but watch it to the end. This is how Diyenís and Cháron are said to have fought on the stone threshing floor.

    The general name of this kind of dance is pyreichios and it has been a war dance from time immemorial. Here is a milder, more formal version, danced at the Athens Olympics to the fiddle rather than the lyre (but watch the young drummer).

  17. Caliban says:

    Thanks, Sue!

  18. Athena says:

    I actually want to do a brief review of the Stone Telling poems but I’m up to my eyebrows in deadlines.