Of Narwhals and the Like

Narwhal and Unicorn by Carisa Swenson


I spent this afternoon in Fort Tryon park, wandering along the brick pathways, admiring views, and coating my shoes with the dust of fallen leaves. I have never before been to the Cloisters--a trip that I highly recommend. It's not at all like visiting Canterbury or Wells or any of the other beautiful, history-ridden places I fell in love with while living in England, but it is a breath of rich air in this city.

I needed this visit--the beautiful stone carving, the devotion, the incredible detail. I was able to view Robert Campin's Annunciation triptych for the first time, the various Men of Sorrows (which always leave a knot of emotion in my throat), the beautiful Books of Hours (they have the miniature Jeanne d'Evreaux Hours as well as pages from the Duke de Berry's).

The Unicorn tapestries were a treat as well, seeing as how I have long stated that The Last Unicorn is my "all-time favorite" and that my first attempt at poetry was a new interpretation of "The Lion and the Unicorn" (ending with the line "the unicorn pierced the lion's heart with a smile and a grin," and recorded in a blank, bound volume with a coloring-book unicorn on the front. Other juvenalia in this edition: an original tale regarding the continued existence of unicorns on the moon; a copy of the gruesome passage from TH White's Once and Future King; and an imagined version of the Lady with Unicorn story).

But the true treasure was the easily overlooked tusk of geuine narwhal ivory--a thing never before seen by my eyes. This animal has always fascinated me, it's one of the creatures that just doesn't seem natural, like the giraffe or the seahorse. The seem like nightmares that have somehow slipped into our waking world.
The tusk is mounted on a small pedestal which rests on the floor beside the ornate fireplace in the Unicorn room. It stands about 4.5 feet high and the ivory twists and twines to a point, with an almost plait-like appearance. It was astonishing and delightful.

A rare double-tusked narwhal

But aside from spiral-horned delights and the champagne froth of Marie Antoinette (viewed this evening), there's a heavy blanket thrown over my mind. An increasing sense of futility, darkness, the works. Its Leopardi and Nabokov and Ibsen and entirely my own fault for choosing to read them all at the same time.
Also, the sobriety of my mind has lately translated itself into a decidedly somber way of dressing, and, I imagine, a look of almost school-m'arm-ish-ness. I doubt this is doing much to lift my spirits. Perhpas a costume party and general Halloween hilarity will help.