Her Lips are Copper Wire

Today’s piece brings the Parlando Project to 300 published audio pieces since we officially launched in August 2016. Is that a small or large number? Both. Certainly, a great deal of effort has gone into it, including effort to not use the same kind of poem throughout, and to vary the music that meets up with the words; but I can viscerally feel the smallness of that number when I come upon another poem, yet another author, I was not aware of, and I am struck by that encounter.

John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments. This project has presented a good number of “Poetry’s Greatest Hits;” and like my last post, even there I’m often surprised at how unfamiliar those “well-known” poems can be when looked at anew. But I so enjoy this when I’m working with a poem I don’t know, one I’ve never seen, one that seems as new as it is new to me.

John Keats’ sonnet said this was like seeing an unknown Pacific Ocean for the first time. Emily Dickinson famously said it was that “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold that no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” I still get those moments.

And so it was last month when I first saw Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire.”  This is not a poem that sneaks up on you, it starts right-out with its audacious title, and then every stanza of it draws you deeper in, until you reach the end and the poem’s tongue is in your mouth, and you are, like it, incandescent.

I knew the name Jean Toomer, but only as a name. I’d filed him away in the mental-drawer “Harlem Renaissance,” and that’s a place that’s difficult to go to with this project because most of the work of this between-the-world-wars blossoming of Afro-American culture is not yet in the public domain. Still, I was drawn in, I had to start looking.

Huzzah! this is another of the works from the year 1923, now freed for other artists to respond to. I then spent some time this month getting at least a shallow grasp of Toomer’s life and outlook, enough effort to say that there’s a great deal more there to apprehend. Toomer himself had an ambiguous relationship with being classified as part of the Harlem Renaissance, or even with being an Afro-American artist, and he may have gone even beyond Robert Hayden’s insistence that he was an artist who was Afro-American, not an Afro-American artist. Modern scholarship has unearthed paperwork where he was classed as white, possibly by his own doing.

Like most Afro-Americans, Toomer was mixed-race. He was light-skinned enough to “pass.” His first wife was white, and after he was widowed, so was his second—and least we forget, many U. S. states held those marriages as a criminal act in his time. And since the first duty of an artist is to survive, I’m not going to rush to second-guess his motives from my ignorance. And after all, a lighter skin tone didn’t immunize Toomer from racism—no American, whatever their ethnic background or genetic mix can escape it.

Jean_Toomer_ca._1920s.jpg

American writer Jean Toomer. The typewriter is manual, the poem is electric.

 

For now, let me leave the artist’s life, and those great and momentous social issues, and return to his work.

How does this poem capture you, stop you in your tracks? It starts out in an intermittent state. Is the opening stanza paraphrasing a lover’s soft conversation about lights along a street, or is it a metaphor that the lights in fog have been diffused to be in a synthesic vision like the sound of whispers? I think it’s both. We’re already moving down the dual and parallel lines of a circuit. And the sound! Whisper itself is an onomatopoeic word, the long O sounds of globes and posts sound a misty near-rhyme, and the next line’s march of short E sounds sways away.

Then Toomer adds another strain to the music and duality, the touch of the breath of the close whisperer. We’ve fallen in closer.

The “telephone the power-house” stanza seems to me to be like unto a blues interjection that I love in classic pre-war blues recordings, were the singer tells the audience, breaking aside from his melodic form, something that he wants his audience to know that he’s wise to, before returning to the melody.

And then we return to the ghosts of electricity,* softly howling or humming, in the bones of her face, and the circuit is completed, closed, and we’re there in mouth’s embrace.

What a love poem! I suppose one can step back from that and note that the lover is objectified, that there is a loss of power in that. But the poem’s very conceit seems to answer that objection, with its jolt of that closed and illuminated circuit. In Toomer’s poem, like in Paul Eluard’s great Surrealist love poem, in the end we may be seeking the state where we may speak without having a thing to say.

What a poem for the 300th audio piece here, for Black History Month, and for the month of Valentine’s Day! And so, to hear my performance and musical combination of Jean Toomer’s “Her Lips are Copper Wire,”  use the player below.

 

 

*Bob Dylan couldn’t anachronistically have influenced Jean Toomer any more than he could have done so for T. S. Eliot. But it is possible that Dylan might have known Toomer’s poem when he wrote “Visions of Johanna.”   Michael North believes it possible that Toomer may have got his metaphor from early Imagist Richard Aldington, since Toomer had noted Aldington’s statement that a successful poem elicits “a sudden shock of illumination.”

Residents of crackling-dry winter Minnesota may wonder if Toomer could have had a more direct inspiration. As my wife and I say to each other when our lips touch and a static charge jumps the gap with a cupid-tiny bow-string snap: “Still got that spark.”

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To His Coy Mistress

I can’t remember exactly when I first encountered Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,”  but it was far enough back that I earnestly identified with the poem’s narrator and his desires to find or convince a romantic partner.

That poem I read then is not the poem I read today, but even back in my misty youth I probably appreciated the wit of it along with the point of its argument. When I took a quick look at how “To His Coy Mistress”  is currently viewed, I see that appreciation for the poem’s wit and artifice has increased in the past few decades. It may not be possible to determine just how invested Marvell was in convincing the lady in question versus showing off his poetic chops, or even how sincere he was in his variation on the classic “carpe diem” argument that if you don’t go to bed with me, now!,  that you (currently comely love object) clearly  don’t realize that you’ll be a rotting corpse soon.

How romantic that! Here’s a box of candy too—by the way, do you know that such foods high in sugar and fat will likely lead to cardiovascular and other diseases—not to mention tooth decay and gum disease? No? Well, let me tell you….

I’m not sure how often throughout history that real and actionable knickers came flying off at this idea—but poets love it. If love, death, and beauty are the  poetic stuff, any chance to mix all three is impossible to resist.

I normally feel I have to come up with some supposition to perform one of these pieces, and what I decided here was that as a polemic, Marvell’s poetic swain means it. Which doesn’t mean he isn’t going to have some fun talking about it. Even my teenager/reader could smile at that exaggeration of the delay of traveling to India to look for jewels first,*   but did I appreciate then the auction-like absurdity bidding up the hotness of his sweetie? Do I hear a hundred years? Two-thousand! Do I hear a-three…a-three…a-three—thirty-thousand,  sold!!

Andrew Marvell and Mick Ronson-two chaps from Hull

Random blokes from Hull: Andrew Marvell and Mick Ronson. Ronson looks like he just saw the cartoon below; Marvell, like he just burped.

 

But I think he’s serious with the unforgettable and oddly accented “At my back I always hear/Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near.” And deflowering worms and cremated dusty lust may be over the top, but he’s not beneath crypt-keeper humor in this.

Carp Breathalyzers!

Carpe Diem! I think this is taken from a Dick Guindon cartoon. There are those who think that Dick Guindon was one of the greatest one-panel newspaper cartoonists ever. We call some of them Minnesotans.

 

As the poem rushes to its conclusion, I think some of the urgency passes beyond the bar of exaggeration for humorous effect. The poem’s last two couplets, which I think sincere, are as strong in my estimation as the more famous and remembered ones earlier in the poem.

For all of Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress”  “poetry’s greatest hits” status, isn’t it odd that we don’t remember what I think are the poem’s four strongest lines, the ones that the poem ends with? Is it all about the chase and not what happens when we catch?

Here’s the player to hear my performance of Marvell’s poem with the LYL Band:

 

 

 

*It wasn’t until this month as I worked on this that I found out what the poem’s companion to the Indian Ganges trip,  “by the tide of Humber,” was on about. Turns out that the Humber is an estuary/river near Hull in northeastern England. It happens to be where Andrew Marvell was from, as well as (a few centuries later) Mick Ronson, the guitarist/arranger for David Bowie.

No Common Ground

We’ll be back soon with words we’ve adapted from well-known and not-well-known writers, but it seems like a good time* to post this recent performance of a Dave Moore song.

I was looking at some other poems and words apropos of winter, Black History Month and romantic love yesterday. I think I’ve found some too. You should see some of what I make of this later this month.

Still, I made the decision to use “No Common Ground”  late last night—Dave doesn’t even know it’s going up here—and so I haven’t given him an opportunity yet to tell you anything about it. I’m going to even that out by not telling you anything about his words myself either. The song speaks for itself.

But of course I have to say something, so I’ll talk about the musical performance. This started out with Dave singing it live, one-take. There was a “scratch” keyboard track too that he played as he sang, as well as the drums. I took this performance and created the arrangement you’ll hear below, adding bass (both electric bass and bowed contrabass), a string section, a few electric guitar licks, a synth pad, and the vibraphone part. The whole thing is around a dozen tracks, which by modern digital recording standards is not complex, but then my goal here was to make it sound no more complicated than conventional rock combo instrumentation.

In the course of the Parlando Project I’ve grown attached to writing bowed string parts while retaining a conventional rock’n’roll rhythm section. When I charge myself with putting on airs, I argue with myself that I grew up on Leiber and Stoller productions which used strings, and that Charles Stepney** and other R&B producers extended this idea.

Strings in Rock'n'Roll

Common Ground and basso ostinato.  Leiber and Stoller at the piano, and standing behind: Lester Still, Jerry Wexler, the Coasters, and Ahmet Ertegun. On the right side: Charles Stepney, a composer/arranger/musician who should be better known.

 

Real orchestral composers will recognize that I’m not all that sophisticated in my parts here, and most always elsewhere in this project too. Part of that is working within my limitations and resources—but part of that is intent. To hear the intent and Dave’s song, use the player below.

 

 

 

 

* No broadcast joint-congressional speeches or elderly rich and tender egos were harmed in the making of this song or post. Offer void where prohibited. Opinions are worth actual cash value only. Contents may settle during shipment. Free your mind and your ass will follow. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. The modern day composer refuses to die!

**Long-time readers here know that I’m a bit of a bug about Charles Stepney. There’s a lot I don’t know about him and his work, but some of his arrangements connected with me from the first time I heard them in 1968. There’s a bit more about him here, here, here, and here. I wasn’t thinking about it when I was looking for a instrument to carry a more percussive melody line in the arrangement and chose the vibraphone, but vibes were composer/arranger Stepney’s original instrument.

Five Kinds of Truth

Many things have sideways value. Poetry for example. Its mnemonic features give us poems to remember things, like the number of days in a month. And words have their own music, so much so that even verse in a language we don’t know can sound beautiful in an abstract way.

Politics too and public events, for all we toil in or tire of it, has sideways virtues. I’m not much of a philosopher, but a poet like Wallace Stevens still pulls me into philosophic thoughts with his word music and his choral structures. And it seems to me that our current political world, even without intent, is calling us to think about belief. Not just what we believe (a question we sometimes do not pause to ask), but what are the consequences of our beliefs for ourselves and others.

Since the Parlando Project is about poetry meeting up with music, I’m not going to attempt a grand 500 word summary that lays out a philosophic framework for answering such questions today—I’m probably not capable of it—but I am going to offer a new Dave Moore song that makes a useful list to remember, has some nice music to it, and could lead you to ask a few questions.

Dave’s song is called “Five Kinds of Truth.”  In my introduction of it today I’ll ask you to consider what the lyrics speak of as “truth” instead as “belief.” Philosophically, or in any strict sense, those two terms: belief and truth aren’t the same thing. But informally and humanly we equate and relate these two things all the time.

Nite Owl The One Question Nobody Wants to Ask

Could one fit Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” into dialog balloons? Nite Owl #1, art by Joe and Andy Kubert, written by J. Michael Straczynski

 

Here’s what Dave said about how he came to be inspired to write “Five Kinds of Truth:”

After loyally refusing to read the prequels written by others for Alan Moore’s Watchmen  series for years, I finally broke down when they showed up at the library.

Copyright loyalty aside, they were really very good.

J. Michael Strazinski did a particularly great job with the Nite Owl character, and during one of the soliloquies in search for identity was the concept of 5 Kinds of Truth.

Which I lifted and rephrased because it was too good not to.

Concepts his, words mine.”

So, what did Dave do with this, and what did the LYL Band do to accompany it? Use the player below to find out.