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Looking Up: Poems from the National Cathedral Gargoyles

SKU: 400006799029

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From light verse and straightforward sonnets to strange soliloquies and songs, Looking Up gives voice to the stony figures that adorn Washington National Cathedral--the beasts, fiends, and sentinels that watch us as we pass unknowingly beneath them. 

Rooted in folklore and myth, medieval history, and the cathedral's restorative gardens and grounds, the 53 poems in this book awaken some of Washington's most enigmatic residents. Whether malevolent or benign, each creature offers its own solution to an old, beguiling riddle: "What do they want of us, those long-necked gargoyles who howl in the heights?"  

  • Proceeds from this book will benefit Washington National Cathedral's 
    earthquake repair fund.  
  • Paperback.
  • 138 pages.

Author Jeff Sypeck has lived within walking distance of Washington National Cathedral since 1995. Born and raised in New Jersey, he taught medieval literature at the University of Maryland University College for ten years. 

Below some writings and quotes from the book found at the author's website at:

 Just above the wild boar on the south nave of Washington National Cathedral are several smaller gargoyles and grotesques. Without binoculars or a zoomable camera, you might easily stroll by without ever noticing them, but it’s worth stopping in front of the garden and looking up. The most interesting critters aren’t about to clamber down to you, however much some of them may in fact desire to do so.

An Octopus Reappraises Her Lobster

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.


 Yes, there’s a winged unicorn at the National Cathedral, but she hides in a shady nook along the south nave, and the horn that rests flat against her back can’t be seen from the ground. Below her, over the wall in a corner of the garden, sits a birdbath, a 12th-century capital salvaged from the ruins of Cluny. One never can tell what a unicorn will find intriguing.


A whisper in the medlar, Father Hugh:
“I found a cloister crook’d in splintry beams
And stood it straight in marble. Fresh regimes
Reigned higher still; our rule they overthrew.
As songbirds shrink from thunder, we withdrew,
And now the sun we kindled scarcely gleams
Above the murk of misremembered dreams.
This capital will never rise anew.”
To which I field a future all my own:
A thousand summers wither in a blink.
A sparrow spots my hooves and broken horn
Through churchyard brambles, grear and overgrown,
And droplets on my wing she stoops to drink;
Then she will be refreshed, and I reborn.


Although I’ve found this beast atop the northwest tower difficult to photograph, I’ve long wondered why he—she? it?—holds such a savage grip on a mere bird. Then I realized: From a monster’s point of view, they’re dancing.

(after Edgar Degas, “Four Dancers,” c.1899, National Gallery of Art)

In the wings, a measured rest.
Four as one in florid fits

Flitter in. The wald submits.
Autumns rise upon the scene:

In a rush of salmoned green
Tender tressings flip, exchanged,

Battened fast, or rearranged.
Trellising her arm, the first

Honors artifice reversed:
“Wasted branches bow, and then

Painted planklings bough again.”
Half as daft, the second sets

Flambent straps, but scarce forgets
Quips that crab her brittle heart:

“Oui, technique—mais où est l’art?”  
Sembling innocence, the third,

Primping, pincing, undeterred,
Shoulders not a knot of shame

Lest regret, or light acclaim
Drag her down, or bow her stance.

Note the last; no lasting glance
Lingers there for us to see.

Music lifts her. Fanions flee—
Blithe she twirls, and none observe

Lesser lines we scarce deserve
(You and I) to leer and know.

Laud her flourish. Let her go
Pattern grace, while we pretend

Faux Novembers never end.
Autumn twilight sets too soon;

Fumbling, we belie the tune
(You and I) that times the turns

Every gilded dancer learns.
Let their line, from fourth to first,

Misperceive why we rehearsed,
Wrought the light from blighted rhyme,

Warped the chord in common time,
Daubed the gloss, as their debut

Burnished our façade anew.
Late, they loiter back, to find

Nothing I disclose in kind.
Fold your program; feign we see

Faith in faint simplicity,
False in sight, divine in show,

Pas de deux de deux, they go,
Pirandelles of perfect stone

Turn together, dance alone.