You might think we’d need do nothing but what we usually do — after all, we’re always celebrating poetry here. We have over 600 pieces you can find in our archives, performances that combine words (mostly poetry) with original music we compose and record ourselves. But here was my problem as April arrived: time to compose new pieces is inconsistently available.
So, I’m going to lean on that collection of pieces we’ve done and make this also a celebration of what the Parlando Project has done over this past 6 years. My plan is to regularly repost pieces from the first half of our history this April. For many of you who joined this Project already in progress these may well be pieces you haven’t heard, but an additional goal is to introduce new listeners to these audio performances.
Why do that? Readership of this blog, originally intended as brief “show notes” for the audio pieces, has grown tremendously over the past year, but the audience for the musical presentations has increased only by a small amount over the same time. I’m hoping to capture more ears for those performances and the poets whose work we interpret, sometimes in surprising ways.
To gather more ears I’m going to be making new low-budget YouTube videos for these classic pieces, mostly just “lyric videos” that display the poet’s words we are presenting. Most new people find us via search engines, and my wild guess is that putting things in front of YouTube searchers may bring more listeners and readers.
To begin this series? Why not use the first piece from this project’s official public launch in 2016: Carl Sandburg’s “Stars Songs Faces.” Speaking of strange, The LYL Band performed this on January 11th 2016, the day after David Bowie died. Carl Sandburg didn’t have the opportunity to prepare a eulogy for Bowie, since that American poet died in 1967, but back in 1920 he wrote this short evocative poem that we used for the words in this performance. Spookily, Sandburg’s poem presented this way makes it seem like he did write a eulogy for Bowie. And to eerily evoke that short time when both Sandburg and Bowie were extant, the music makes use of one of The Sixties most distinctive sounds: the wobbly Mellotron that could sound like a string section whose batteries were running down.
“What will I be believing, and who will connect me with love?” The young Swedish-American and the star with songs and faces.
Let me start out by saying I think that today’s poem is a fine piece of writing capable of making its listener think anew. “The Wall Around Heaven” is satire. Satire has two dangers: that one will take its audaciousness as a literal program or doctrine, or that one will laugh simply at the outrageousness without thought. Satire often believes laughter can be the germ of thought even if you laugh before you know what that thought could be.
This project’s usual thing is to present poetry old enough to be freely reused, and then performing it with original music. If one was to note that the poetry wasn’t meant to be performed with music, or that there is a danger that our understanding of the poet’s intent is incomplete, I reply that’s part the point. We want to think anew about the works, some of which are revered poems, some of which are poems that are lesser-known or rated.
In this case we have the poet themselves performing the piece, longtime Parlando contributor Dave Moore. When I asked Dave if he wanted to add some background on “The Wall Around Heaven’s” intent, here’s what he wrote:
At this point I don’t even remember when Larry died. As you know he lived right around the corner from you, drove a cab, and identified as a folk poet. Not to mention, tho I’m sure you will, sharing a name with a musician. He also vocally retired from poetry, tho a lot I heard from him seemed spontaneous (I’m missing a word here). When I wrote this of course I was thinking about Trump’s cruel & ridiculous buzzpoint (missing another word, must be too early in the day for me).
Anyway I was thinking in Larry’s voice when I drafted the piece.”
Who’s that Larry Williams that Dave speaks of? Nope, not that guy. Our Larry was also someone who attended the Lake Street Writer’s Group along with Dave and myself, and the two poets who died this winter that we’ve been introducing you to: Ethna McKiernan and Kevin FitzPatrick. So, in that way, Dave’s poem inspired by our Larry Williams is of a piece with those matters, even if it uses different tactics than the poems by Ethna or Kevin.
I don’t want to say a lot about Dave’s “The Wall Around Heaven.” I think it’s best encountered as one listens to its satiric fable, its parable, without my commentary. I’ll add only this: this month I went the long way around to see the roadshow production of the folk opera Hadestown. Hadestown’s first act closes with what may be the most heard song from this opera, a rousing act-closer “Why We Build the Wall.”I think that song was written nearly 10 years ago, but by the time Hadestown evolved into its current staged version, the song was seen — as Dave also recalls about the genesis of his own piece — as commentary on a certain U.S. presidential campaign’s idée fixe: an impenetrable border-long wall on the country’s southern border.
The set for the production of the folk-opera Hadestown I saw last week.
To this listener “The Wall Around Heaven” is something much more than that. In some part it’s a satire on a long-time Christian theological question. But what if you’re not a Christian? Well, one doesn’t need to be an acolyte of classic Greek polytheism to enjoy Hadestown.* The Larry Williams I knew would often speak, poetically or otherwise, about social injustice and elite indifference. I suspect that the muses were whispering those shades into Dave’s ear as he wrote this — but the concept of a wall around paradise and the capricious human understanding of the rules to gain entry is broader and richer than even that.
*Here’s my summary review of Hadestown: I enjoyed, appreciated, and was moved by it. Having heard a few of the songs by the original Broadway cast, and having a modest grasp of some of the mythological tales, I was still glad that I encountered it as a discrete story-telling experience whole for the first time. I discovered, as with Dave’s parable, Hadestown adds an undercurrent of social inequality to its mythopoetic story. External to Hadestown itself, the story’s impact was amplified by sitting next to someone just out of hospitalization for suicidal ideation during this performance. Orpheus in Hadestown makes a point that he entered the underworld of the dead “the long way.”
That’s the way I wish for you to get to heaven or hell — the long way.
Today let’s examine the place of hands and humor in poetry and music. Let’s start with hands, before we turn to the subject of humor and a poem about farming.*
You just heard alternate Parlando Project voice Dave Moore last time here, but besides letting you get a break from my vocals, Dave has played keyboards with me since the late 1970s as the core of The LYL Band. That’s a long piece of work, particularly in that I’ve needed him more than he’s needed me with this. Here are the basics of that: I’m a poor rhythm guitarist. I like to add color and decoration whether the song is fast and loud or quiet and moody. Groove, beat, a solid march of chords to carry you along? Not in my wheelhouse. The LYL Band has had other guitarists over the years to handle some of that, but most of the time it’s been down to Dave for the chords and groove. Back in the earliest days of recording us, when four tracks were a fresh luxury, I’d put Dave’s keys on the same track as a drum machine, sure that he’d be solid as the machine.
Now we’ve both got some mileage on our hands, and Dave has encountered some issues with both of his arms and hands. He tells me that the fingers just won’t do what he asks them to do some of the time. He’s become more like me now as a musician: able to do some things, some days, within limits. My own hands have had problems too, which currently are no worse, and many days a little better. Oddly, writing and composing can let my hands weaken. To wrangle a guitar as I often like to takes not just flexibility but also finger strength which is best approached by regular use with a gentle uptake, not a two-hour live session where I need them to work right off after weeks of musing on poetry and tapping out a sonnet. I’ve been trying to carve out more time to “just play” in order to keep my digits loose and strong.
So, when Dave and I got together this month to honor our friends who’ve recently died, I assessed that my hands were ready to rumble by current standards; but Dave, while game, wasn’t sure. During the session, he did all right, even if he wasn’t nearly as strong as he was in our little band for years.
Now on to humor. Kevin FitzPatrick was a poet we got together to honor. We both knew him for decades, and Kevin even played a little blues harmonica with us a few times in the early days. One thing that Kevin’s poetry often used was his dry sense of humor. If his poems “had other people in them” the interaction between those characters was often humorous. Humor is like that, isn’t it? With poetry one can easily fill a chapbook with solitary musings, singing philosophies, and hermit’s prayers, but humor generally requires other people, our rubs, our missed and kissed connections.
Kevin’s final collection Still Living in Town has several characters, but the central ones were his own persona, a city-living office employee and his life partner, Tina, a woman who had decided she wanted the rural life — and not a Walden cabin in the woods, but a farm growing a variety of produce and sheep.** Kevin was in his 60s, but he was a big fit guy (he boxed and taught martial arts in his youth) and however urban his life had been, his character pitched in with the farm labor.
Kevin’s farm poems are and aren’t like Robert Frost’s to compare them to a famous example. That Kevin could approach a blank verse feel in some poems would connect them — but Frost, urban-born and professionally an itinerant teacher, liked to cast his persona in his farming poems as knowledgeable and in place with farming, while Kevin portrayed himself with beginner’s mind on the farm. Given that fewer living readers have any connection with farm work, Still Living in Town invites us into that milieu wonderfully.
The poem of Kevin’s I used for today’s piece is looser metrically, but while it’s set in like weather to this current March (wheeling rain and snow and thaw) it most wants us to hear a little story about the two characters, the labor of farming, and yes, the humor in hands and their stubbornness.
Jazzmasters! From the upper left: Jimi Hendrix without a Strat; Pete Townsend about to decrease the supply of used guitars; some guy named Jimmy James (wonder what became of him?); Frank Zappa, who didn’t say “The Jazzmaster isn’t dead, it just smells funny;” my Jazzmaster painted the homeopathic color Sonic Blue; Tom Verlaine, vanguard of the alternative nation which latched onto the bargain unwanted Jazzmaster in the 1970s.
A few notes on the music. I sometimes create the drum tracks for my compositions before the live session begins. And since I’m usually needed in the guitarist role, I sometimes lay down the bass parts with those tracks ahead of time too. That’s how this piece was. On the day of the session, I sang and played the wailing lead guitar*** and recorded the reading of Kevin’s words live with Dave playing a baaing/buzzing synth part live. Dave’s part, subject to his current hands, didn’t fulfill all the groove chop I thought the piece needed. So I added a second guitar part doing my best at rhythm guitar on my Telecaster, but a lot of the final groove you hear is an electric piano part that I laid down trying to imitate my friend and partner Dave’s playing as I recall it from the past.
*I have to repeat this one, which I read in a comment thread this month regarding the upcoming Hollywood Oscar awards event: “The only Oscars I care about are Peterson and Wilde.” In the context of Dave Moore, even the young Dave wasn’t likely to stand toe to toe (finger to finger?) with Oscar Peterson on piano. On the other hand, I’ll hop on top of Oscar Wilde’s tea table in my slush-muddy Minnesota shoes and declare Dave’s poetic wit with Wilde’s.
**Other reoccurring characters weave in and out in the farm poems too — and while four-legged, the couple’s farm dog, the incongruous poodle named Katie, makes a cameo appearance in this one and others.
***The lead guitar part is played on a Jazzmaster, a famous failure in Fender’s otherwise wildly successful line of mid-century electric guitars. A couple of decades into its Edsel-hood of “what were they thinking” failure, unwanted used Jazzmasters became an affordable choice pragmatically chosen by some punk and alternative musicians. Even so, few think of a Jazzmaster for this kind of wailing lead guitar with a bit of funk flavor. As long as one is able to address the Jazzmaster’s bridge design issues, it can do that sort of thing.
Given the everything I’d rate between losses, troubles, and mere distractions I’ve gone through since late last autumn, I’m not in a mood this week to do the traditional Parlando Top Ten list for the past season. These are the same issues in repertory that have reduced the number of new pieces I was able to present here during that time. You, the audience for this Project, have stayed with this: readership to this blog is growing, overall listenership to the audio pieces is slightly up. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. There’s more than three of you — I mean to thank all of you three times.
I know some of you do like these quarterly Top Tens, and I enjoy them myself — if only just to see what pieces from the variety presented here got the most response. That said, let’s rush through the numbers 10 up to 6 for the record:
You can see in those five pieces two from my memorial observance for the Irish-American poet McKiernan who I had the privilege to know and examine poetry with, and one from my February Black History Month celebration of Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection The Weary Blues. There in the middle, there’s one by long-time Parlando Project favorite Emily Dickinson. And my own piece in that group talks about the loss of Ethna and also my March memorial subject who Dave Moore and I also knew and worked with: Kevin FitzPatrick. If you missed any of these, each of that above list is a link to my original blog posting and the audio performance of it, just as the following ones bolded titles are.
We join the countdown to the most listened to and liked piece then at number 5.
Spring, a rebuttal.
5. Velvet Shoes by Elinor Wylie. A lovely, graceful winter poem by a too-often-overlooked poet from “The Last Twenties” in our previous century. I like the music and performance I created for this one just as much as I did when I created it back around the beginning of 2022.
One would think I’d be through with snow experiences this far into spring, but my morning bike ride today was in big wet flakes and a cold enough north wind. Wylie’s velvet snow is more the dry January sort, but then appreciating snow for its beauty qualities may be best done in past-tense. If so, you may enjoy listening to this one in what I hope is a pleasant spring.
4. Lenox Avenue: Midnight by Langston Hughes. “The rhythm of life is a Jazz rhythm” says the first line of Hughes’ poem. I did my best to honor that injunction from one of the first Afro-American poets to unabashedly celebrate that musical form. Although I’m a vary unskilled keyboard player I was able to compose a satisfying two-handed part using MIDI as a scoring tool. I wanted a saxophone solo too, which you can hear a bit of in this performance, but I just couldn’t score or execute enough articulation to “make it.” The piece’s final horn section flourish is one of my rare surrenders to using a sampled musical phrase.
Of course, motif sampling is now an oft honored tactic in the ongoing Afro-American musical tradition, so perhaps I shouldn’t view it as a failure on my part. On the audacity front: I decided to extend Hughes’ lyric which ended with “And the Gods are laughing at us” with a newly written affirmation from after the poem’s time of 1926, one that says that the young art of Jazz and of young writer Langston Hughes’ has answered those gods.
3. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge 1959. Staying with Jazz for this one, though with my own words straight through. There are beliefs — some sincere, some insincere — that Afro-American history is but a sorrowful tale, a grievance and a pandering response. If you can heartily do so, I ask you to improvise your own expletive response to the call of that fearful theory, one with as much eloquence and melodic force as you can deliver. Now our response may not be Sonny Rollins level improvisation. That’s not a reason not to — after all, Sonny Rollins wasn’t sure his improvisations were Sonny Rollins’ level improvisations. That’s the story in this piece.
I seem to lack the concentration, or the assured concentration of blocks of time, to do arrangements as full as the one I created for Frost’s poem right now. But you can still enjoy this one.
1. Stones by Ethna McKiernan. One answer to lack of compositional time is to write solo instrument pieces, which for me usually means acoustic guitar. Of the several pieces I did to introduce more of you to McKiernan’s range of poetry, this was the one that by far got the most listens this winter — in fact, more listens than any piece has received for more than a year during its first season after posting.
Before I leave you to listen to it, I want to say that beyond soothing my grief at Ethna’s death, that performing those pieces which used her words this winter made her seem closer than our too casual life connection sometimes had us. Wherever we voyage, the same waves lap the same sounds on the walls of our boats.
Let’s celebrate our arrived spring with this LYL Band performance of another Kevin FitzPatrick poem. Here’s a link to the full text of Kevin’s poem that we used — a link which also serves as a reminder that Garrison Keillor’s old Writer’s Almanac program used this poem once too.
Not a satellite image of Antarctica, but a representation of how ice is fading and green emerging in Minnesota.
Like most all of Kevin’s poems this one yields a straightforward meaning to many readers or listeners without need of study or re-reading. As I mentioned last time, that was one of Kevin’s aims. You may also notice the care he takes with the word-music in this piece. In our little poet’s group, Kevin’s suggestions would often be metrical improvements, and isn’t the sound of this poem’s opening line: “Windy, sunny, and Sunday” a fine springboard into this spring poem!
If one expects, requires, or prefers a more allusive and elusive poetry, you could shrug at this poem on the page. The poem’s overall metaphor — that learning to ride a bicycle in childhood is representative of a parent and child’s task of independence and departure — is likely apparent before you complete the poem. Myself? I found the poem charming. I can come to like a poem that doesn’t charm me at first — but how many poems survive to be understood when we initially stand coldly next to them? Oh, some poems taunt you with mystery. Some ask you to be impressed with verbal richness. Some present unknown worlds you may choose to explore. “Bicycle Spring” seems simple. So, is it less good, or good only for lesser pleasures and less respect?
I’ve been writing, reading, and performing poetry for decades. I suppose I should have a valuable opinion on that matter. Sorry to disappoint, but I do not. Readers often tell me that my own poems and lyrics are too obscure and mannered. I personally prize originality in outlook and images highly, even at the risk of asking my readers/listeners to drop expectations and habitual/familiar ways of understanding a piece. Is that the best way, or do I even execute that way very well?
Way back in the 20th century I was taking a seminar class with poet Michael Dennis Browne, and in talking to the group he suggested that most of us students were writing poems that were more obscure than the ones he was writing. He asked, or at least strongly implied, that we should ask if that obscurity was necessary. I now ask you — as I continue to ask myself — to ask that. One thing should be key to your analysis: obscurity may be a way to cover up bad writing, insufficient intention, and fear — yes fear — of being understood.
Kevin FitzPatrick’s poetry was one poet’s answer to those questions. He truly wanted to speak to a broad audience, and yet at his death had achieved only a small (if appreciative) one. Dave and I are trying to enlarge that audience a little bit with this series,* as well as to memorialize our feelings after the death of our colleague.
Before I leave you with Dave Moore’s performance of Kevin FitzPatrick’s poem “Bicycle Spring,” let me point out that there are often little figures on the horizon or in the background that can add depth to the first hearing or reading of one of Kevin’s poems. In our first example this month “Blackberries,” I should have given you a link to the Seamus Heaney poem “Blackberry Picking” that serves as the distant core of FitzPatrick’s poem. FitzPatrick’s “Blackberries” is homey, humorous, even practical. Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking” is fatalistic, mildly tragic, haunted by waste. Kevin admired one poem, wrote another, and says so in “Blackberries.” To know the tragic and to choose the comic is a complex choice isn’t it? And in “Bicycle Spring” the background is there too, those concluding “blocks where he/has forbidden you to walk.” The father’s job is in part to help himself disappear.
*Kevin’s poetry collections were published by Midwest Villages & Voices, and are not available through easily linked online booksellers or AFAIK, even directly from the publisher. “Bicycle Spring” is in his 1987 collection Down on the Corner which is ISBN 978-0935697025 and this information may help you get a copy via your library or local bookseller.
Right there is a first potential problem. Some readers have an “Is that all there is?” response to many of Kevin’s poems. To the degree that I knew Kevin’s internal processes I don’t think he was troubled with that “problem.” He wanted his poetry to communicate to audiences not inured to modern poetry which might communicate in a non-linear way or with great reliance on esoteric imagery. But just because FitzPatrick doesn’t “come in hot” with arresting first lines, occult mysteries, and outlandish similes or settings, doesn’t mean it can’t have some other values. In the series this post initiates, I hope to show some of those strengths.
This is the picture that seems most “Like Kevin” to me.
Today’s piece uses the poem that led off FitzPatrick’s final collection, Still Living In Town. And for St. Patrick’s Day? Besides Kevin’s own Irish heritage, this one is about taking a fresh look at Ireland’s Nobel Prize winning poet Seamus Heaney. Like Heaney, FitzPatrick liked to take a sly look at his subjects.
There’s a player below to hear The LYL Band’s performance of this poem by our friend and fellow poet. In our celebration of Kevin earlier this month we performed all the pieces live, one after the other, without rehearsals or preliminary run-throughs. This leaves some rough spots, sure, but perhaps we can take them as evidence of life for us left to sing against the taking from us?
There’s a fairly long intro before the words begin today, which documents how our recording session began: with Dave coming from the stairs into the studio as I am already commencing my musical part. He then needs to start almost without thought.
I started this inconstant month calling it “Unrequited March” — and I had this desire: to pay a more complete tribute to a recently departed poet I knew: Kevin FitzPatrick. In that task I wanted to see if I could rejoin with another voice and poet you’ve heard here: my friend Dave Moore.
Dave’s had some reduction in his ability to play keyboards, and he wasn’t sure how well his voice would hold up, but he was able to join me late last week as we took our usual “live in the studio” approach to doing some new pieces together, including a number of ones using FitzPatrick’s words. This requitement was doubly appropriate because Dave knew Kevin even longer than I did. Dave and I managed fine, and had a good time.
In the normal course of things those pieces would get worked on in the following week, but life has interrupted our singing back at death.
We are all racing forward and melting.
How? Even if one of this Project’s mottos is “Other People’s Stories,” I have qualms about telling other living persons’ events, so I don’t feel right discussing more details here today, but there have been hospitals involved, and some pretty long hours in the last two days in those places.
The outlook, best as I can predict it now, is that beyond my concerns with these other matters, my ability to work on audio pieces will be restricted for a while. If time allows, you might still hear some of the Kevin FitzPatrick related stuff yet this week.
Does it seem odd to work on art and our experience of it, even when other things must take precedence? That occurred to me too. Well, when I visited our newly hospitalized patient, they had two needs: music and Jacques Derrida. Go figure.
I’m posting a bit late in the day, but it’s International Women’s Day, and so today’s audio piece uses as a text a poem by a very international woman, Lola Ridge. Ridge’s poetry is perhaps best known for a fierce commitment to social justice and the situation of the poor in early 20th century America; but she was born in Ireland, left with her parents for New Zealand as a child, emigrated from there to Australia to attend college, and then to America, eventually New York City, where she mixed with most of the political and artistic radicals of the early Modernist era, including on the arts side: Marianne Moore, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Hart Crane, and William Carlos Williams and the rest of the circle around the NYC Modernist magazine The Others. Over at the Midwestern anchor of Modernist American poetry, it’s editor/founder Harriet Monroe was said to have called Ridge a genius, and she won awards and some favorable reviews in the years between the two World Wars.
Late in the 1930’s she apparently fell from the scene politically and artistically, and when she died in 1941 she was as poor as the people she wrote about, and then seemingly the subject of a rapid and rather complete forgetting for the rest of the 20th century.
Luckily our 21st century has become interested in reassessing the women who were on the scene a century ago along with the male Modernists, and there’s now a revival in considering her work.
Unlike some of Ridge’s poetry, today’s piece is not formally Modernist. It’s not only a sonnet, it attempts to present a passionate if conventional poetic argument regarding the abstract ideal of artistic beauty. Taken by itself it’s more Percy Bysshe Shelley than William Carlos Williams, but if we look just a little beyond its surface we can be reminded that Shelley was a thoroughgoing political and social radical as well as a Romantic era poet. Here’s a link to the text of Ridge’s “Sonnet to Beauty,” from a blog that does a great job of presenting sonnets and similar shorter poems, FourteenLines.blog.
Ridge’s poem starts by worshiping beauty almost as an awed acolyte unable to face the godhead. But in the midst of the poem, something strange starts to manifest itself: a buzzard (an ugly, carrion-eating bird) appears gussied up by “The wizardry of light” to appear “All but lovely as the swan.” I read this as Ridge saying that artists and society can fail, can deceive, can fake beauty.
A musical metaphor follows this that says despite the diversity of artistic endeavor — including false beauties or injustice like unto our buzzard — that beyond the dissonance and the harmonic stress of this dialectic, that the chords can resolve. The poem ends avowing that true beauty can still chime through ugliness, falsehood, and strife.
Beyond sonnets, I will now make a turn in this post before giving you a chance to hear my performance of Ridge’s poem. Let me quickly summarize the event I attended this past Sunday remembering Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan. There may be more than coincidence that Lola Ridge started this off.
Ethna McKiernan reading, with lipstick, and Lola Ridge, I’m not sure.
Minnesota weather and continued Covid-19 concerns might have conspired to reduce attendance, as the side streets were still full of sloppy snow from Saturday’s snowfall.* I arrived early and helped the bookstore staff setup chairs. They seemed to be expecting maybe a couple of dozen, which may be par for a Twin Cities local-writer poetry reading, but both the event organizer and myself the bystander suspected we’d need to maximize the amount of chairs the space could hold. I think we were able to get nearly 40 folding chairs into the designated space, but as the crowd started to assemble, extra chairs needed to be rounded up and put in the various aisles between the bookstore shelves to handle those that kept coming in, and we had a few standees who fit in where they could.
More than typical bookstore poetry readings, I suspect most of the crowd knew Ethna for a long time. And that may have given a boost to the eight poets who read poems of Ethna’s, a smattering of their own, and gave short thoughts about her as a writer and a person. So less a usual public reading where some poets might be nervously trying to consider how they would come off presenting their work to an audience which might not know it, and more like an experienced and informal poetry group of long-time colleagues.
Several of the readers were members of other periodically-meeting writer’s groups that included Ethna, like unto the Lake Street Writer’s group that Dave Moore, Kevin FitzPatrick, Ethna, and I were decades-long members of. I’m sure that if Kevin had lived, he would have been a valued part of this event, as Ethna often credited Kevin as an influence on her writing — but he died a few weeks ahead of Ethna. I tried to make myself useful by playing stagehand and raising and lowering the mic stand for the variety of readers.
Many of the readers spoke of Ethna’s work with homeless outreach, and read some of her poems that dealt with that work, something that echoes today’s poet Ridge. Though the audience was entirely masked, a few noted that Ethna was a stickler for always putting on lipstick when out in public. For all anyone knew, what with our Covid era masks, we all were wearing lipstick! Who could see — but I believe all of us were remembering Ethna.
Covid-era ambiguity: “Lipstick? We were supposed to wear lipstick?” A portion of the crowd at the “Remembering Ethna” event last Sunday.
So, as I speak of a woman who promoted culture, wrote beautiful poetry, and was committed to helping the economically desperate, I will now leave you with a piece using the words of another woman who a century before us did the same. You can hear Lola Ridge’s “Sonnet to Beauty” with a graphical player below if you see that, or if you don’t, with this highlighted link.
*My friend and participant here in the Parlando Project Dave Moore was unable to attend due to concerns with the street conditions. I’ve attended two other book-launch poetry readings given by Ethna herself, and this Sunday’s was the smallest crowd of the three. Consider though that most of those who knew Ethna are “senior citizens,” and some are frail as well.
I know this Project has an international reach, with listeners and readers in many countries. This is natural, because interest in poetry and music is borderless — but this month many areas of our world are also following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. There’s no shortage of news, opinions, and analysis of that matter available anywhere where such things are allowed to be freely discussed, and I’ll not be adding personally to that here today. Some of you may be saying “Well, you must speak out! The situation is clear!” I agree that the situation seems clear to me too. I don’t believe I need to be an expert on the matter to have my villain and my set-upon victims, and my mere words in this Project’s small but valued audience won’t add that much.
But one of the Parlando Project’s mottos is “Other People’s Stories.” This lets me call in others’ words to bear on this. Neither of the poems I’ll use excerpts from today were writing about the current invasion, but they weren’t writing about things unconnected to it either. I won’t explicate their words here in any length, I’ll let those words speak for themselves today.
In place of that, let me give you a short description of how I came to create this piece which I call by the names of the two poems I used parts of: “Babi Yar – Testament.”
In the news this month I read that some ordinance in the invasion has landed on the site of Babi Yar, which is the hallowed memorial site of the execution of 33,000 people, mostly Jews, during the German invasion of Ukraine in WWII. The primary reason I know of that horrific event was from a poem I first heard as a teenager, named as the place was: “Babi Yar.” “Babi Yar” was written by a young Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the event of this poem was extraordinarily noteworthy in 1961 when it was published. First it was a poem read internationally by a Russian citizen that included criticism of the Soviet government and some elements of Russian history. Those of my age may know how unique that seemed at that time. After all, even the term dissident hadn’t really escaped from the Soviet regime back then.
And the poet? He was young, good looking, and a powerful reader of his poetry. Yevtushenko was seven years younger than Allen Ginsberg, and roughly as famous for a time after this young Russian was put on the cover of mass-market American magazines.
The whole thing was strange enough that some folks even thought there was a double-game being played, usually around the idea that Yevtushenko was the Soviet equivalent of the Black employee who is given the desk by the door to demonstrate that the firm they worked for didn’t discriminate on color. “See we’ve got our bright rebellious youth too, and there’s really no suppression of speech much less imprisonment for literature in the USSR.” One Yevtushenko, it was supposed, allowed the suppression of a multitude of others.
Let’s leave it at that, because the important thing I want to mention, is that the main reason I knew of the site of Babi Yar was from the man’s poem, the utter empathy it expressed for the victims who died there, and the statement that his native country hadn’t properly memorialized that spot. I often go into the background of poems here, but the poem had a power outside of that.
It’s been around 60 years since I heard or read that poem (I’m not sure which came first) and I wanted to revisit it. I was so bad at remembering the correct spelling of Yevtushenko’s last name that my first web search for some Scrabble rack of a bad guess with “poet” added in the search window brought up another poet instead: Taras Shevchenko.
I don’t know why I read that link to Shevchenko’s Wikipedia page, but that 19th century man has been called the bard of Ukraine. I knew nothing of him, though his wiki entry is long and detailed. An accidental cross-link had now occurred: I read of an attack during the current Russian Ukraine invasion, yet thought of a Russian poem and poet — and in searching for that, came upon a much-honored Ukrainian poet!
Today’s audio piece uses part of Shevchenko’s poem “Zapovit” translated* as “Testament” read by myself, mixed with several sections of “Babi Yar” read by Yevgeny Yevtushenko himself.**
This is the video showing the full performance of “Babi Yar” that I excerpted for my mashup.
The piece you can listen to below may seem like the sort of thing I used to do when I recorded with other musicians, but it has elements of remarkable accident too. The drums and bass parts were generated by a little box that I normally use only to practice with.*** I played a chord progression in rhythm into this box and it then generates a drum pattern in time with that and a bass line to follow the chords I played. Next recording pass, I played my reverse Stratocaster to add a guitar part to that bass/drums rhythm section, mostly using that very characteristic Strat “quack” two-pickup setting. Thinking that I might want a different option sonically, I played another take using an Epiphone semi-hollow-body guitar. This left me with two takes of guitar over the same beat. I figured I’d listen to one, then the other, and decide which sounded better later. Not an unusual tactic in these days of digital multi-track recording that.
When I first pulled up the tracks later that same day, I forgot to mute one of the two different electric guitar parts, and instead I heard the two tracks simultaneously. They seemed to weave with each other, even engaging in what sounded like responses — as if two guitarists were standing toe-to-toe and playing at each other. Without planning to, I’d played each part differently against the beat in a way that coincidentally complimented the other part. I decided that was the perfect accident for my Russian/Ukrainian poetry mashup.
I next moved to weave in the parts of “Babi Yar” as read by Yevtushenko and my own reading from Shevchenko’s “Testament.” The final addition was to play some layered synth. The completed piece has Yevtushenko, his poem, and the Stratocaster in the left channel and my reading of an English translation of Shevchenko’s “Testament” in the right. My aim was for it to sound something like a live jam, but I’ve tipped my hand today as to the artifice creating that impression.
Even with those parts separated in the stereo field, and two writers from two now combatant countries, it’s not really a dialectic. By a widely scattered coincidence both poets seem to reference the socialist anthem “The Internationale.” In the translation I used, “Testament” speaks of “Arise, sundering your chains,” while “Babi Yar” wishes for “The Internationale” to “thunder when the last antisemite on earth is buried for ever.” Each poem speaks of graves and outrage. Yevtushenko’s poem and expressive reading focus on the suffering of Jews, long persecuted in Europe even outside of the enormous atrocity of The Holocaust, and he audaciously claims to take on that suffering as a non-Jew.**** Comparing atrocities and suffering — oh, I cannot bear to do that tonight — but each suffering victim is their own suffering, each death their own death. Amid the current bombs and guns I won’t put that on a scale.
*Wikipedia credits Vera Rich for the translation I used. The use of the translation on the Wikipedia page may well indicate it’s free for reuse.
**In this case, I haven’t obtained express rights to use these parts of Yevtushenko’s performance. I normally would not do this here, but it’s such a powerful statement that speaks to feelings that I and some others have with the current crisis, so I went ahead and used it for this non-revenue Project today. If any rights holder objects, I’ll promptly remove it.
***The box is the Digitech Trio. I think I’ve used it once or twice here before in this Project’s over 600 audio pieces. I thought I might play my own bass line, but I couldn’t “untangle” the drum parts from the bass, and leakage into the guitar mics of the backing parts would have been another problem— and then generally, some of the issues I’m dealing with are a reduction in my time to record, or to record with others, or even my own body at my age being up for playing.
****I don’t recall anyone objecting to Yevtushenko’s poem’s statements back in the early ‘60s that “I seem to be Anne Frank,” “I am each old man here shot dead,” or his concluding statement that he has “no Jewish blood” yet he must he hated “now as a Jew.” Yes, I hear earnest empathy there, even risk in his time and place as well — but I could see some saying now, or even then, “You’re a fine, famous poet Yevgeny, so good words, but what do you really know of living that?”
As I navigate the Parlando Project and one of its goals, “Other People’s Stories,” I try to recognize similar things. My current working theory is that I’d rather get it half-right than not try at all, and I don’t feel any level of prominence that lets me stand in front of and obscure others who want to tell their stories particular to their lives.
Here’s a sonnet of my own about the oncoming spring. I live in Minnesota, and here that season’s arrival is something of a lottery ticket. Oh, it’s likely that by sometime in February a Minnesotan is tired of winter, and we know that somewhere around May Day we’ll not have snow or cold to deal with for a few months, but when today’s high got to 40 F, we know no more than that. When I moved here, I was told that on days like today we might see folks wearing T-shirts outside — and yes that’s so. We are so in a hurry for spring that what would be a 5-degree Celsius winter day in more temperate regions seems time to ditch the jacket. Yet we are still likely to have more cold, and even more likely to get substantial snowfall, particularly in March.
So it is, from late February to late April is a two-month season of “what d’ya got” in our state. That’s what my poem performed today deals with.
Things are still snow-covered around here, but it’s not fluffy, Christmas-card snow— more at rugged crusts. I still ride a bicycle nearly every day year-round, and so winter means that I pay special attention to the surface conditions of the side-streets that I most often ride. You know the old factoid that Inuit peoples have a multitude of words for snow in their vocabulary? A day or two after a snow what’s often found is compressed and polished snow with some patches of white glaze where tires’ friction has buffed a gloss.* A few days later there will be areas where that surface further abrades and patches of dull-brown porridge-like snow aggregates are scattered on the roadway. I call the later “brown-sugar,” and the earlier hard white surface looks to me like the smooth inside of a shell.
Spring-time bike rides in Minnesota aren’t necessarily what you think.
Low-pressure studded bike tires work pretty well on the hard shiny stuff, and large knobby treads are the thing for the loose brown sugar. My deep-winter bike’s tires are a pair of Venn diagram hoops circling both.
That’s a poet’s bike ride for you: metaphors per hour.
The meter’s a bit loose, yet not loose enough to cry “Kings X — Free Verse!” either.
Does any of this help “translate” my poem for those without my climate? That’s my hope anyway. Though the title of my poem is “Unrequited March,” my wish for you, curious or stalwart reader/listener, is that spring will love you back this year. The player gadget to hear about the uncertainty of that is below for many readers, and for those whose way of reading this blog won’t show that graphical player, this highlighted hyperlink will open a new tab to play the performance just as well.
*The large, knobby, low-pressure tires are also capable of riding on fresh snow before cars get to it. Un-rutted light and granular cold-weather snow is kind of fun to ride in. The wetter and clumpy snow that will likely come in any heavy storms for the rest of the season is much less joyful. That stuff is like riding in deep mud. The tires’ knobs will get traction — it’s not the tires, it’s an old out-of-shape guy like myself who’ll get tired quick riding through that.