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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”