Column

A Thing with Feathers: Part 5

6 August 2019

(CW: inexplicit fantasy violence)

 

vast moor

answering heart

oh do not forget

the bounds of life keep shifting

—Socho, 15th century, trans. Anne Carson 

 

You’re reading Hellboy in Hell—cornered in a pocket of the Brunswick library—the collected trade paperback of the original comics run. 

Hellboy is in Hell, because. He falls as a beating heart through the mouth of a petrified giant. He glows against the marble of its windpipe. 

Eventually he crashes in the abyss, the space not Hell, but on its way. He’s rescued from eldritch, crustacean-adjacent bottom-feeders by a Victorian paranormal investigator, one ripped apart by a demon and sewn back together by the waters of Acheron, before he arrives in the city of Dis, Hell’s port and fishing quarter. The fish in the Acheron are the souls of the wavering. 

 

Dis is a city much like York. It’s shot with rivers; there’s a fin-de-siecle hand pump in a cul-de-sac dredging up water from Lethe; eroded, pauper graves are trowelled into the walls. Mostly deserted except for puppet shows of Charles Dickins’ A Christmas Carol and Punch and Judy. The scent of moorland. The presence of sea-gulls. These birds are newly free, and are leaving the city behind. Hellboy and the Spirit of Christmas-yet-to-come fly over Pacifics of lava, to the calm centre of Hell. Pandemonium rises like St Paul’s cathedral, like the whale skeleton opening the Natural History Museum, out of the constant flames. 

 

Green mountains face the outer walls to the north

White water flows to the city’s lake by the east. 

From this spot where we part

You will walk for ten thousand miles.

—Li Bai, 8th century, trans. Anne Carson

 

The mural framing the proscenium arch in the library is called Phoenix. 

It was commissioned and unveiled in 1992 as part of the City of Brunswick’s public art program, designed and painted by Geoff Hogg, now an adjunct professor at RMIT. 

You could walk into the campus on Swanston Street, waylay him over his role developing the common language of public murals in the ‘70s. He designed/painted the entrance foyer of the Melbourne Museum station, and the front of the School of Education building at the University of Melbourne. According to the RMIT faculty website: 

In the years that followed, Geoff Hogg emphasised trans disciplinary practice, exploring collaboration and new contexts for curation and Public Art interventions… He developed what are said to be the first joint Public Art projects between Chinese and overseas artists in China… that draw on grassroots support at a local level to create links and develop imaginative connections for cultural dialogue and exchange.” 

 

I feel I am turning into Emily Brontë,

my life around me like a moor,

my ungainly body stumping over the mud flats with a look of transformation

—Anne Carson, the Glass Essay

 

So. Emily Dickinson, Andi, Kazimir and Drimlock are leading a dog into the temple district of Sigil. It’s an upper-middle class region of the city, in comparison to the hive: there’s no omnipresent street garbage, the DM goes into more detail when describing the residents’ garb, the police are here, over your shoulder. Their guild name is ‘Harmonium’, the same as Wallace Stevens’ first collection of poetry, and a pump organ, generating sound as air flows past a piece of vibrating metal in the mahogany frame. Their direct opponents are the Revolutionary League, of which Emily Dickinson is a new member/librarian. According to the PlaneScape blog, the Harmonium were based on authoritarian philosophers like Carl Schmitt, Plato and evangelical preachers. They dislike being called “hardhats”. In the same blog, the revolutionary league is said to “believe man-made laws are inherently corrupt and must be destroyed—though none of their members can agree on what, if anything—should replace them.” Emily Dickinson—at this point—still believes she’s in a dream, that there is a rapture here. 

The party is looking for a sensorium, a place where memories can be externalised and streamed into your brain. They want to subject the dog to the process, to see where the bright light/source of the tentacle disease may be. The way the DM frames the scene is transactional: one stimulating novelty among an infinite array, for which an equally valuable gift should be offered. Emily Dickinson offers poetry, or memories of the fundamental unreality of the world, to which the proprietor raises her eyebrow. You’re in a metaphysical city sweetheart, she says. Andi flexes her muscles and makes persuasion checks, which she fails. I can’t remember what happens next, but we navigate it, and the dog is processed. Unfortunately, they roll a critical fail on the check to remember, or maybe Andi does communicating, or something, and the DM goes into exhaustive detail laying out the sensory apparatus of our good boi. The proprietor says something to the effect of If a lion could talk, we couldn’t understand them. What does ‘remember’ connote to a dog, anyway? The dog wags their tail. Emily Dickinson shape-shifts into ‘Ralph Waldo Emerson’ to do crime, back in the temple district, whose form she copied from a rich pedestrian. Wallace Stevens walks through Hartford, Connecticut. He dictates poems to his secretary at the Accident and Indemnity Company, of which he is vice president. He walks to galleries of “Oriental” art, through the trees and then home. 

 

Bones on the moor

Wind blows on them

—Basho, 17th century, trans. Anne Carson

 

On a blogpost for the Brunswick library, on the Mural, someone writes: 

“It does not depict Brunswick scenes, but rather it approaches the subject… the painting is full of historical references, many of which are of other places… The painting includes Turkish ceramic design, Victorian reproductions of classical figures, a classical Chinese poem of departure and an underlay of hands that may be seen as a reference to pre European settlement in the area… some of the hands could be of the people who built the library”.

 

I ask someone at the desk for a translation, but they say there is none, you’d have to ask the guy who did it. It’s also Japanese, I think, they say. 

 

In Hell, Hellboy kills Satan with a knife, in a fugue state. He finds the crown prepared for him over the whole series, one to turn the fish of hell into his personal army, which he’s spent the whole time refusing. Pandemonium is empty. Back in Dis, the spirit of Christmas-yet-to come tells Hellboy everyone who wanted his power is gone. He is free: according to Wallace Stevens, “Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is”. He walks around the city.


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