Reapers

Let me continue in our celebration of National Poetry Month. Yes, but.

Though some of my international readers may not suspect this, others of you may wonder how I’m doing after another incident were someone in my metropolitan area was killed in a government incident that seems unnecessary and unjust. I’d describe my overall reaction as numbed thought, and I’ll leave it at that. It’s not that I don’t have thoughts, but in our instantaneous world, thousands have already written and there’s no scarcity of takes — if you need anyone to supply a template or echo for your own response, you can have that in abundance.

I continue because I think there’s still a shortage of what poetry and music can bring to us. Poetry, like many tweets or blog posts, can make arguments, present hot takes of their authors; but it also can work differently, it can take an attentive reader or listener and by attracting them and presenting something to pay attention to, allow its audience to form their own changes in perception.

Today’s piece, “Reapers”  by pioneering Afro-American Modernist Jean Toomer attempts that. In his 1923 book-length work Cane,  where this poem first appeared, Toomer presents such things, moments and situations that ask for that response from its readers. That’s an inefficient process. How many will read, how many will really read in that extension where we accept the task of creating a whole-hearted response to what the author presents? Some things work on one, quick, reading. We may already believe we know, we agree. A brief amen is all that is called for. Other work may just seem slight to our moods and perception, and we skip any deeper step. Today’s poem is called “Reapers,”  but I think here of the Christian parable of the sower.

“Reapers”  presents two rural scenes. In the first, harvesting or mowing is being accomplished as it had been done for millennia with the reapers being people with scythes. With intent they ready their blades, sharpening the edges with abrasive stone honing blocks. Toomer presents the scything that follows as silent music, a rhythmic swinging represented with precise meter and one pair of perfect end-rhymes followed by another pair of perfect rhymes that are in themselves near-rhymes to the first pair.

In the second scene we are taken to an era particular to Jean Toomer’s time. The mower, the reaper, is a mechanical machine drawn by horses,*  the immediate ancestor to our present engine-driven farm machinery. That machinery was likely not as silent, but instead of presenting the clank of its mechanism, Toomer auditorily zooms in on the squealing sound of a “field rat” picked up and wounded in its belly by the mechanical, systematic blades of the horse-drawn mower.

horse-drawn mower

“I see the blade, blood-stained, continue cutting…” a small version of the horse-drawn cutter in Toomer’s poem

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This poem is easy to see as a pair with another we’ve presented here, a poem by Robert Frost, “Mowing.”  Here’s a link to the text of Toomer’s “Reapers,”  and here’s a link to the text of Frost’s poem. In Frost’s poem, the reaper with the hand-swung whispering scythe scares another animal, a plausibly Edenic snake. Toomer’s rat is not so lucky. Did Frost’s reaper, working like the scythe wielders in the first half of Toomer’s poem, stop their motion and take their poet’s eye, recorder, and projector to the escaping snake? In Toomer’s further observation he asks us to see and hear the horses and more directly the machinery of the mechanical mower that has no such observation, and the horse’s driver is intent on operating them, not the work itself. They do not stop, it’s not their design, they continue, cutting, blood-stained.

I will not write a post here about systematic racism. It’s a term with some value of conciseness, and from that, the easiness of easy rejection or restatement. The term has one mooted objection for example: that it’s not even racism — which to any extent that’s true doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. Ethnic prejudices leading to evil acts are as old as recorded history, likely as old as the first bone scythes and then metal, beaten, plowshares — but Toomer’s poem asks us to watch its successor: a colder mechanized blade of efficient expectations and ways of doing.

A player gadget to hear my performance of Toomer’s “Reapers”  in my modest acoustic guitar setting may appear below. If you don’t see a player, this highlighted hyperlink will open a tab or window to play it too.

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*My father, born around the time of Cane, late in his life wanted to make clear to me that he’d driven horse-drawn farm machinery in his youth. He did this late enough in my own life that I heard him, and thought, and think, about what he was trying to present to me in that.

The Parlando Winter 2018-19 Top Ten part 2

Moving on now with the most liked and listened to audio pieces from our just past winter. As we’ve done for the past couple of years, we’ll be counting down toward the most popular piece in the next few days.

7. The Darkling Thrush. Those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are now at least hinting at spring, but if you’d like to recall the frailty of a countryside winter, Thomas Hardy has you covered with this, one of his most famous poems. Though I like to vary the musical style I combine with words here, I’ve been working a lot with string and orchestra instrument arrangements recently, and I think this one came out pretty good.

 

 

Book Covers of Cane

Can you judge a book by looking at it’s cover? After all, Willie Dixon wrote, and Bo Diddley sang “You can’t judge the sugar by looking at the cane…”

 

6. Her Lips are Copper Wire. Hardy was also known as a novelist, and Jean Toomer too moved between prose and poetry in his writing, using both of them to great effect in his impressive 1923 book Cane. Cane  is both a set of linked short stories (think Dubliners  or Winesburg Ohio)  and pieces of outright lyric poetry. As one of the poems, this one struck me immediately when I read it.

Cane  is one of those works that have just entered the public domain this year. Because gaining rights to present written work is somewhat difficult, much of what we present is from the 1923 and before era. Instead of strings or woodwinds, I decided to bust out the fuzz-pedal for a guitar solo to cap this performance off.

 

 

 

5. Five Kinds of Truth. You’d think it’s some clever plan to have this one come in at number 5, but I assure you that while the Parlando Project has goals and some principles, we don’t do plans. This was one of the pieces written and voiced by Dave Moore this winter. Dave has contributed to this project from the start, and “Five Kinds of Truth”  is an example of some of the differences he brings to the project. Though Dave wrote this, he was inspired by a fantastic graphic novel (what in my days in the old main street barber shop was called a comic book). The Parlando Project varies not only the types of music we create and play, but we also don’t want to stick to one style of poetry either.

If you like some kinds of musical or literary expression more than others, relax, you’re normal.  If you stick around here you’ll see that we may not present something every time that you’ll appreciate, but what comes next may not be anything like the last piece.

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.

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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. If you can’t see the player gadget, this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way to hear it.

*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.”