English poet Walter de la Mare does a very particular kind of fantasy or horror poem. If one is looking for body horror or jump-scare monsters, de la Mare is not your guy. His spooks and slitherers are usually off-camera — instead, he describes discretely the atmosphere and effect of a haunting, visitation, or some binding spell. As our Halloween series continues, I have a performance today of a de la Mare poem called “Song of Shadows.” It starts out commanding a musician, so it’s a natural for the Parlando Project, but besides the ghost story, I think it invokes something else I considered this week.
Here’s a link to the poem as de la Mare wrote it. I made a slight change to the concluding line of each stanza as I like how that change works in performance.
I learned a weird fact about de la Mare this month: as a writer he struggled for income, but for reasons I don’t yet know he was given a bequest in golden-boy and WWI casualty Rupert Brooke’s will that provided for his career.
“Song of Shadows” is not definitely set, though some elements of the scene indicate it might be somewhere antique. Fires and tapered candles wouldn’t be totally obsolete to a 19th century-born man like de la Mare, but the opening command to a musician sounds like a court or titled lord of the manor kind of thing to me. And the poems report of an extant — not necessarily metaphorical — hourglass with sinking sands really sets this outside of the early 20th century when it was written.
One could stretch and draw a class-conscious reading between the commander of the poem, the musician, and the eventual appearance of some ghosts or spirits. Who are the ghosts to the commander? To the musician? De la Mare leaves that open, but the different roles of those three characters offer an opportunity for speculation. To the commander: old friends, old enemies, subjects, servants, or serfs rebellious? And within the range of feelings the spirits may carry, we may note the poem’s commander asks to risk summoning them.
But I mentioned the poem set off another line of thought beyond its subtle fantasy intent. The poem concludes the shadows have been summoned by the musician’s song, “Dreaming, home once more.” So rather than thinking of the commander or the ghosts, I thought of the musician. While I operate musical instruments to realize the Parlando compositions, I’m likely more competent as a poet than as a musician, but singer is often an honorary title for any poet. For those who read this who are poets: is this not a part of our job?
The thought intensified when I read a string of Twitter posts by Lao poet Brian Thao Worra this week. Thao Worra was taking stock of his career in that post, and throughout it he seemed charged with a mission toward the Laotian diaspora as a Laotian-born poet and artist living in America. I’m no expert on Laos (nor anything else really, but less so on Laos), but it struck me that so many poets I read and resonate with are part of, and speak of, large diasporas: Irish poets, Afro-American poets, Jewish poets. Even the echt classical Chinese poets Du Fu and Li Bai were banished to far provinces of China. Why do I resonate to these poetries? It then occurred to me: many, perhaps most, poets are in some kind of diaspora, be it geographic or otherwise. We have emigrated from the country of Poetry, or we have been exiled or taken away from there. And there we are, like the musician who sweeps faint strings in de la Mare’s poem — singing, waiting for countrymen* to hear our song. Will they hear, and if so, will it be in the plane of dreaming, in the plane of ghosts and spirits — and so then will it be that we are all, home, once more?
I didn’t sweep the strings of an old, cheap 12-string guitar very faintly for this performance of Walter de la Mare’s “Song of Shadows.” And I kind of hollered the vocals. Ghosts, make of that what you want. You can hear it with an audio player gadget below, but if you don’t see that player, this highlighted link is an alternative that will open a player gadget.
*I can’t think of a gender-neutral word that has the same flavor and power to me as that word “countrymen.” Why that is must be complex, or just some failure on my part, but I just wanted to say I used it because I couldn’t do better.