Ik gehorta đat seggen. Tell me what you hear/d.


The first sentence is the first line of a poem I’m dabbling in these days, from the Old High German, the Hildebrandslied, but the second sentence, the one in the English I know, isn’t the translation, just my response. Just the reading turned inward. The dead language asked for and responded to. Hildebrand, you see, he meets his son Hadubrand at the field of battle, but Hadubrand doesn’t recognize his father, who has been living in exile. Hildebrand finds himself honor-bound to fight, regardless of any fatherly connection he may feel toward his opponent, and the poem breaks off in line 68 with the two clashing shields. But we can reasonably guess that Hildebrand kills Hadubrand because of the endings of other tales in the Indo-European tradition with the same father/son/opponent set-up. I guess the moral of the story is: honor is a stupid reason. Honor shouldn’t be thicker than blood.


But if you never recognize what or whom you’re fighting, what then? Although I guess I did figure out the face of my opponent and then I killed it, but I still don’t know the name of my shield, and even now my sword stings in my hand. A breaking is hard to face, even when seams are sewn, when the rupture is made whole once more.


Ik gehorta đat seggen that a woman, that’s me, lived for an entire month in a terrible place. Two challengers stood against each other before assemblies. The assemblies were passersby, gathered armies, honor being striven for, not wanting to shit my pants from my irritable bowel, what have you. The psychotic episode proved to be bad for my stomach. One man clutched a newspaper while waiting for the train but he wasn’t reading it. No, the clutching took place between the vortex of his elbow and side as he fiddled with his phone. Another listened to music on headphones. There were women present as well, of course. But there was also the voice. Not one connected to any body I could see, but I new instinctively that it belonged to a man. Ik gehorta the voice telling me the meaning of the story he wanted me to believe as a way into the canal of his tongue speaking my messed up birth in his eyes. Nothing made sense, his wasn’t a language I spoke or even read until much later in offices, being interpreted, you understand, but I kenned the meanings all the same. Maybe that doesn’t make sense either. Regardless, I was my own epic. Not written down in dead words in some monastery or other, not in the 830s, no, rather a woman scratching her fingernails into wood, holding on, my hard-scrabble fight. Continue existing. That was the other voice, mine, the one I recognized as my own flesh. Then my guts started mumbling again, so I tightened my sphincter. Concentrate on keeping in, that’s the trick. This is the opposite of exploding, but necessary, because believe me, the ass is the final frontier of what people can handle. You do not want to be the crazy lady who shits her pants in public, because the world we live in does not have room for that. This was a deep fear I had for the entirety of the episode, and the entirety of falling down into it, and then later, climbing out.


Maybe to tell a fresh story, you have to find an old tongue to make sense of it, a language you never learn but instead cling to tiny portions. Phrases, pairs of words, subjects-verbs. Maybe this is reading psychotically, or reading as a brain that was once split into pieces by lightning but no longer is but needs, all the same, to show how divided, how splintered it has been. I was so apart from myself that I have to introduce my story to you in a language none of us speak. That’s the thing. I heard a number of voices, by that point belonging to flesh, discussing my case. I had been disorganized. I had believed things that weren’t true. Things that couldn’t possibly be true. There was no spaceship in that painting and no one lived in it with a brain connected to mine with invisible tentacles and maybe that’s not the whole story, just the part I feel most comfortable telling. But it is true that was the worst day, the day my cheek wouldn’t come unstuck from the bed. Me pawing the quilt. My epic breaking down, me coming undone.


Brief aside. Dead languages equal graduate school, at least in my mind, but after barely making it through my MFA program in poetry I quickly realized the unstructured boundaryless-ness of academia was exactly the kind of stress that counted as a stress factor in my illness profile. Therefore, instead of even thinking about applying to PhD programs, where I could have bathed in all the old, but maybe in the end, not-so-dead-after-all languages I wanted, I ended up with a series of shitty jobs in the retail industry. There were brief forays into other sectors, but never for long. But I snapped up all sorts of books, teach yourself CDs, DVDs, what have you, approaching anything to do with dead languages that I could find at the bookstore I worked at for a while. The CDs (Teach Yourself Anglo-Saxon in this case) were the most fun. I listened and repeated. I listened and repeated. I made an old tongue into a living being. Nothing I learned to say was particularly important but I was importantly waking up. Around the same time, I started getting into Beowulf for real. There are a few lines, I can’t remember exactly where in the poem, but Beowulf tells someone, Hrothgar, I think, that when he was younger, his kinsman never thought much would become of him. But look at him now, see. I held onto that. My failure didn’t matter. I was a hero, not a monster shitting my pants. No, I conquered monsters, including the one from the train platform. Maybe it didn’t matter if no one ever knew. I knew.


Get it? Ik gehorta đat seggen there was a woman who figured stuff out and lived to see another day.


Or, Hwæt, if you prefer. Just, it’s always a story I’m telling.


Who was the poet whispering in my ear, telling me which part to play? Now I’m all like, some part of me faced the host, the assembly, the opponent, what have you, on the train platform, held onto the bench, looked away from the train, stopped going to the station at all when the voice got too loud, said Fuck you, Hildebrand, I’m not letting you kill me, even though maybe stepping back feels partly like failure. And where’s the honor in that? But figuring out how to fail is the most probable end to this story, even if it does mean—well, what it meant was needing help. Was looking in faces and seeing their mirrors and there was one face, the most important face at that time, that wore a seed of disgust and fear, confusion and helplessness, even though I’d managed to avoid the unthinkable and never once shit my pants. Not in public or private. My bowels remained an impregnable fortress. The battle took place on all the meadows surrounding the fortress but the drawbridge didn’t fall. Lucky for that. Again, again, how many marks can one person have against her? I already was only combing my hair with my fingers and thus developed several matted snarls that could only be removed by the cutting blades of a sharp pair of scissors. Ik gehorta it’s hard to take care of yourself when you’re sick and it is. It’s the effort in the face of the sick that makes up the epic. Not that the Hildebrandslied is an epic or anything. Like I said, it’s only 68 lines. But it’s a poem about heroes all the same, or some estimation of heroes acting foolishly, and that’s what I was, a fool, continuing on my own to face the beast, my opponent, the voice of freezing cold intensity, the one who came welling up whenever I waited for the train.


Then comes recovery, the rest of your life. The rest of my life. Mucking about on Sunday mornings, years later, with old poems over coffee. Wanting to leave traces of yourself, myself, on everything, a mark that I have been here, there, in all the places of the back-and-forth and in-between, now, and ten minutes from now, and for hours, days, weeks, months, maybe even years after now. Because why not? Why ever not? The battle has left the meadow and I’ve walked across the drawbridge to a different beginning. The trick is: what words should I use to describe what defies description? Don’t answer. There is no answer. Instead, it’s a question, continuous.


A crude drawing? Yes, but the subtext it describes is also crude.

A crude drawing? Yes, but the subtext it describes is also crude.

I suppose we all have our burdens, right?

I would be willing to suggest that one of the burdens of being an English major (besides having to come up with creative answers to the inevitable “What are you going to do with that major?” questions) is that those of us who have been drilled in hardcore textual analysis often lose the ability to lose ourselves in mindless entertainment. Nope. We are too busy reading the subtext of whatever media we’re consuming.

(For a really humorous example of reading subtext, check out one English major’s take on James Comey’s resignation letter here.)

Merriam-Webster online defines subtext as “the implicit or metaphorical meaning (as of a literary text).”

Naturally, a movie or television show can also have a subtext. There’s the main story, and then there’s all the other stuff going on under the surface. Take the BBC’s Luther. Great show! What a performance from Idris Elba, right?? Such interesting characters! Look at these relationships forming, and breaking, and reforming, and rebreaking. (And on, and on.) But wait. What if we dig a little deeper? There’s…something else here. Oh my god, yes, WTF IS THIS SHOW’S PROBLEM WITH MENTAL ILLNESS??!! In the Luther universe, having a mental illness seems to mean that you are going to murder a lot of people in interesting, gruesome, and I dare say innovative ways.

Or take the subtext of almost every cop show ever: Your damned civil liberties are preventing us cops from doing our job! The fact is, in our show, episode after countless episode, it is our disregard for your pesky civil liberties that ultimately allows us to snag the (truly) guilty party. So stop complaining!

But I digress. Because really, there is a Beowulf tie-in here.

Here it is: I watched The 13th Warrior. The thing is, I watched it again. The embarrassing fact is I’ve seen this movie many times, and I am always left feeling somewhat entertained. That being said, part of the entertainment factor, for me, is imagining what Michael Crichton & Co.—Michael Crichton wrote The Eaters of the Dead, which the movie is based on and had a big role in the film’s production, even taking over directorial duties at one point—were ever thinking in their ever living minds. Like, did they think their gross, misogynistic subtext would go unnoticed?? Because it didn’t. I am on the case.

Let me lay this out for you, reader.

The 13th Warrior has a few things going for it. In a nice twist on the white savior film, an Arab man goes north and plays a pretty big role in saving Hrothgar’s kingdom from the evil that plagues it. Antonio Banderas (okay, not an Arab, a Spaniard) plays a version of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan (a real life diplomat and chronicler who met up with some Vikings in the tenth century and wrote about both their hygiene practices and gruesome funeral rites), and this 13th Warrior Ibn Fadlan brings his wits along. In fact, it’s this character’s smarts that save the day, in the end. In The 13th Warrior, Ibn Fadlan is constantly figuring things out first, things that save other people’s lives. So, the Northmen may have one up on him in terms of pure brawn, but Ibn Fadlan is the one who actually gets shit done.

Also, Beowulf. And the Wealhtheow character is pretty fierce.

Buuuuuut…the movie kind of goes full-throttle misogyny after that.

So. Hrothgar’s kingdom is under attack. There are these somewhat mythical life forms who come and kill people and gnaw on their dead bodies. Get it? They are cannibals. Gross! Well, it turns out, their whole society is organized around some sort of worship and/or adoration of a female figure. How do we know this? I will tell you. The Northmen are checking out the aftermath of one of these grisly murder scenes. The cannibalism is established. Again, yuck. But just who are these folks who are doing these awful things?? Ibn Fadlan finds an important clue. This is where it all begins to go wrong for me.

Turns out that one of the people-eating marauders has inadvertently left something behind. What might that be, you are probably asking. Okay. It is a figurine that happens to look just like the Venus of Willendorf figurine (except maybe without the head, it’s hard to see…also the figurine in the movie appears to be made of darker stone). But it’s basically the same shape. You know. The roundedness. The breasts. Okay, I am thinking by now. Sweet Jesus, I am also thinking. Because because. But no, my eyes are not deceiving me. The film is really doing this. They are going there.

Yada yada yada. A lot happens. Turns out the people-eaters are just normal human men who live in a big cave under the earth. (EARTH!! My god, the femininity of this. The subtext continues its subtextual horror show. And yes, I know, Beowulf went down into the mere. Still. This is all really too much.) The Northmen, and Ibn Fadlan, go in those caves, and find, among other things, a HUGE version of the female figurine, as well as a murderous high priestess or something who leads the cannibalistic mother-worshiping evil-doers all in their people-eating perversion and must be killed!! Also, just in case I, the hapless viewer, am somehow unaware that this character is BAD and EVIL, she is wearing a snake. I guess snakes are bad. I guess because Eve, in our Western imagination. But have no fear, the Beowulf character does indeed dispatch her. But not without being scratched with poison first, which will ultimately lead to his death. (Poison. Such a woman’s way to murder.) In the end, the über-male Northmen, along with Ibn Fadlan, save the day, although not without losing some comrades.


Okay. Maybe you are like, calm down, Jenny Drai. Because you are all like, in the original Beowulf, our hero goes and fights Grendel’s dam, and she’s female. So there’s some basis for this in the poem. Why do you have to read so much into everything?

Aaaaaaaargh because I was an English major, I would respond. Again, with those super heavy burdens making my life super-difficult.

Besides, I wouldn’t say that the dam is the brains behind the operation in the poem, whereas this mother-type figure in The 13th Warrior really is. In fact, as Jane Chance points out in Woman as Hero in Anglo-Saxon Literature, Grendel’s dam is portrayed as weaker and more cowardly than Grendel. Her real monstrousness, to an Anglo-Saxon audience, may have also had a lot to do with her usurpation of traditionally masculine roles. (Again, I’m getting this from Jane Chance.) Instead of keeping the peace, Grendel’s mother runs off and avenges her son’s death. Tsk. Tsk.

But whatever.

Okay. So, basically, my eyes are burning holes into my head the whole time I am watching this movie, but I am also really having a good chuckle. Again, this weird subtext is all too much. Like, it is not really a subtext, is it? On the other hand, maybe subtlety would be more dangerous.











Brought to you by healthcare.

Brought to you by healthcare.

I was excited yesterday. I have only three chapters to go, and then I’m finished with the first draft of my Beowulf novel. Since I’ve approached this project a little differently, and have been writing multiple drafts simultaneously, I am already caught up on the second draft. So. Three chapters. This feels awesome. Super exciting. I am so close to finishing that I can almost taste that Aperol Spritz I’ve been telling myself I’ll partake of from my drinking horn, to celebrate completion.

Today, though, I find myself thinking about other things.

About Republicans, or, Rethuglicans, if you will. About how I am stable, and healthy, and about how these two facts rely on my access to healthcare.

Being diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder is not the worst thing that could happen to a person. Definitely not. But it can be a real bitch sometimes, and there is hurt and pain involved.

My worst episode involved me living through a month of being gripped by a belief that I could be controlled. (Literally, there was a shadowy figure dressed in a long dark coat involved. I know. Kind of cliché. But that’s what happened.) The symptoms were bad, and frightening enough that I also developed some genuine post-traumatic stress, directly related to the episode. Because, why not? Life is just not hard enough.

Largely, I am okay these days. (That episode happened when I was 30.) Largely, access to medication, and maybe even more importantly, to a year of the kind of weekly therapy where I talked not just about the here, or the now, but about deep-seeded psychological issues has saved my life. (Literally, because, you know, suicide.)

But, you know. Without healthcare…

And I am doing stuff with my life. I write, and I read, and I help people, and sometimes I don’t because I’m also a jerk. Basically, I’m a human being.

In my mind, and in the minds of many, there seems to be an intrinsic value attached to being human, but more and more, I have to accept that this value is nothing approaching universal.

I’m tempted to declare that of this moment, I will no longer share space with anyone who believes they should not have to pay for the healthcare of others. With anyone who does not understand that they too may become vulnerable. With anyone who does not believe that we are all in this together. Tempted. Very tempted.

Strangely enough, all of this has a Beowulf tie-in. Yes, I swear to god, it does. (I’m talking, for the most part, about this strange idea AHCA supporters seem to have about their own good health.) Stay with me, because I am going to explain this, albeit as briefly as I can.

 There is a part of this very old epic poem that is sometimes referred to as “Hrothgar’s Sermon,” delivered, yup, you guessed it, by Hrothgar, in his hall after Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother. (If you need a refresher, Hrothgar is the Danish king whose hall, Heorot, has been plagued by Grendel. It is to Hrothgar’s aid that our hero, Beowulf, comes.)

Since I’m feeling a little lazy, and don’t feel like searching through Heaneywulf to find this gem, I am going to quote the Gareth Hinds’ version. It’s a pretty good paraphrase of the sermon, and also, I just poured over this graphic novel version yesterday, so the book happens to be conveniently at hand.

Here goes (and again, I am quoting the Gareth Hinds version, and this is only part of it):

“Take thou, therefore, good heed, O Beowulf, against pride and arrogance. Choose the better path: profit eternal. Now, indeed, thou art in the pride of thy strength and the power of thy youth; but there will come of a surety, sooner or later, either sickness or the sword; fire shall consume thee or the floods swallow thee up. Be it bite of blade or brandished spear, or odious age, or the eyes’ clear beam grown dull and leaden.”

“Come in what shape it may, death will subdue even thee, thou hero of war.”


(To paraphrase: Maybe your life is great now, but bad times will come. Because that’s how life works.)

Why don’t Republicans understand this? I know it. I gather that most of you know it. The anonymous poet knew it. To me, this shows just what outliers the Republicans are, with their truly awful vision of what can conceivably  be called “healthcare.” Their values don’t fall within normal human bounds.

But just in case you are even mildly okay with the AHCA, let me lay this out for you. You are probably going to get sick someday, or suffer injury or accident, or need elder care, or at least this will happen to someone you love. Your illness (or their illness) may make you poor, or it might not, but you may still need help paying for healthcare. And, even though you are sick, or injured, or old, your life will still matter. But so did all of our lives, all along, that you couldn’t be bothered with. Because we do matter. Just because we’re human.

Hmmm. Beowulf. Maybe I’ll work on my novel some after all.

Till next week.

PS. Slightly tempted to spam Paul Ryan with highlighted versions of Beowulf, but is he even accepting mail???


The Seamus Heaney version of Beowulf has a cool cover. A chainmail hood. This Beowulf has no face. Maybe that’s why I snapped up the book shortly after it came out in hard cover in 2000. I was working at a Barnes and Noble, having returned from a two year post-collegiate adventure in Germany, and was feeling massively depressed about living with my mother.

Faceless, I probably thought. I got that. I put the book on my bookshelf and promptly neglected to read it.

I read, and write, about the same things, over and over, and though Beowulf has become one of those things, I came slowly to the poem itself. At some point, I read a pretty listless prose translation—maybe I thought the Heaney translation, which I owned by this time, would be difficult to comprehend? I was preparing for some sort of literature subject test, and feeling panicked about closing the massive gaps in my knowledge. I was reading a lot of canonical stuff, and quickly, and the Beowulf prose translation, for its part, was boring me to tears. Around the same time, I read the Cliff Notes for the poem, and was bored by them as well. From the Cliff Notes, I learned the usual basic stuff. The poem can be divided neatly into three parts, blah blah blah. The poem was written by an anonymous Christian poet about a pagan society, blah blah blah. Stuff like that.

Meanwhile, I had no real life. No real face. I did not understand how to come back from the unusual, how to reinsert myself into the humdrum of everyday life.

Years passed, as they do. I ended up living halfway across the country in Oakland, California, in a cheap rented room, after two failed relationships and lots of insanity. I was on a number of meds, and I honestly cannot say they were helping all that much.

Again, I was working at a bookstore. On one particular year, the high strung, whirlwind retail Christmas season came upon me, and I thus found myself alone on the day itself. With only the one day off, it was impossible to travel back to Illinois to see family. Quite honestly, I was okay with that.

I like being alone. I made coffee. I curled up in bed, under my knitted afghans, with my cat at my side. He’s a very trusty sidekick.

That morning, I started reading Beowulf, the Heaney version, with the chainmail hood cover shining dull, cool silver against a plain, black, depthless background.

So. That’s how the Heaney’s version starts. I was sold. Somehow, along the way, I must have picked up that hwæt, the first word of the poem, is often translated as lo, and that harkening never worked for me. Lo is intricate, and ornate. Very lofty, at least to my ear. So, on the other hand, spills over with flesh, and blood, and bone. So is living and breathing.

So is how people actually talk.

So. A talking, faceless man, written down into posterity by an unknown poet. (I decided this conundrum was part of the epic.)

For a long time, I had no face, or, I did, but I didn’t like that face, at all, so facelessness appealed to me. Like I said, the meds weren’t really helping. I was battling a lot of my own monsters, and I was losing those battles, in spectacular, often highly-destructive ways.


With that one word, I embarked on a journey to find a new face, although I didn’t know, at the time, that this was what I was doing. I didn’t know that my engagement with what is essentially the ur-epic of English literature was going to become, among other things, kind of therapeutic. (More on this at some future date.)

More years pass, many of them. I’ve slain some monsters along the way. By this point, I’ve reached a certain level of geekiness when it comes to this poem. I now collect translations, versions, graphic novels, and movie adaptations. I’ll unpack my various reactions to some of these in future blog posts.

What I also know is that I am not the only person who feels drawn to Beowulf. The April 2017 online issue of The Atlantic features an article entitled “Beowulf Is Back!” The subtitle, however, does a better job of describing the actual content of the article. “What’s behind the running pop-culture engagement with the epic poem?” the subtitle asks, which, I think, belies the title. The truth is, Beowulf has not come back from anywhere. No. The truth is, Beowulf never left.