Our Washington-based medievalist and occasional correspondent Jeff Sypeck, author of Becoming Charlemagne, walked past these stones every day. At last, he succumbed to the impulse to write formal poems in honor of the gargoyles at the National Cathedral. As he wrote on his blog Quid Plura: “Some books you plan to write; others simply happen. Looking Up definitely falls into the latter category. It’s a great surprise to me that it even exists; I hope you’ll find something pleasantly surprising in it as well.”
The result is Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles. Just in time for Halloween, Jeff’s book offers us “monsters both malevolent and benign.”
According to the book jacket: “Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles gives voice to the National Cathedral’s famous gargoyles and grotesques. From light verse and straightforward sonnets to strange soliloquies and songs, the 53 poems in this book draw on medieval myth and legend, local lore, and the weirder side of Washington. Across 138 pages, you’ll find a tragic octopus-lobster love story, a broken angel, a fish with a cryptic riddle, a Cajun alligator, an agnostic hamster, quarreling rabbits, wistful cavemen, a knife-wielding goblin, mother-son monsters, and dragons galore.”
Looking Up exists “through the kindness of the folks at the National Cathedral, who graciously let their publication-shy gargoyles appear on its pages.”
Jeff is offering a little kindness of his own: since much of the cathedral is still in desperate need of repair after last year’s earthquake, he’s donating 75 percent of the net profits from this book to the cathedral’s fund for reconstruction. Says Jeff: “It’s my way of saying thank-you for the many quiet afternoons I’ve spent on the cathedral grounds.”
Jeff, who taught medieval literature for a decade at the University of Maryland, has been pleased by the response so far to his “unfashionable folly.” He wrote me: “This book has everything working against it: it’s local, formal, print-only, and medieval-inspired – but people seem to be getting a kick out of it, which is gratifying.”
The book is available on Amazon (I’ve ordered mine already) – or pick one up in the National Cathedral gift shop, if you’re in D.C.
Meanwhile, to tide you over, here’s one of the small volume’s more popular poems, with photo of the lobster and octopus in question.
I hear the hot breath of the lobster I love.
The trees wilt below us; there’s nothing above.
You snore and I shudder, for sleepless I know
The oath of adventure we swore long ago:
“Between us, our limbs number eighteen in all;
Let’s creep from this tank and slip over the wall
And forever be free! Let’s aspire to perch
On a spire of our own on the loftiest church.”
You clawed at my tentacle, tender and green,
Like the first awkward kiss of a king and his queen.
You scuttled, I swam; through the garden we went.
Where grass gripped the stones, we began our ascent.
A lobster lives long, as no octopus can,
But a lobster has in him but one perfect plan.
I longed for longevity. No girl expects
To ask of her lobster, “So what happens next?”
You curl up contentedly, dreaming of me;
I cling to my cornice and scarcely feel free.
“I won’t let you down,” you once vowed, and I sighed.
I love that you’re honest. I wish you had lied.
Tags: Jeff Sypeck