Letting Go the Wolves: I praise Ethna’s wolves

I’ve promised one more piece using texts taken from Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan, and here it is. There are a couple of reasons why I left this one to the end of this series memorializing her work. The first reason: the poem’s persona seems to speak of her approaching death. The second reason: I don’t know if McKiernan actually liked or rated it as highly as I do. Let me make this plain at the start: I think this is a great poem, and I’ll go into why in just a bit.

I believe I encountered “Wolves”  at the same writer’s group where I heard other work Ethna was working on in draft form.*  These things make my performance today particularly fraught with issues. I only take this step of releasing this performance today because of my admiration for the poem, and my feeling that some out there in the rare and appreciated audience for this Project will welcome it. “Wolves”  has what poetry often hopes for: it is beautiful and yet harrowing, and its experience is vivid while not guarded inside defined borders.

I hear the snow crust crack
into spider-fine antenna lines
with every thudded footbeat. It is so still
that their light scratch of nails on ice
rasps the air like flakes of metal filings.

Let’s grab this text as it grabbed me, even on first hearing, with the opening statement: “I hear the snow crust crack / into spider-fine antenna lines…” The meter has a lope of accents that appeals, the internal rhyme of “fine” and “lines” separated by the chime of the assonant “antenna.” The three strong accents together in “snow crust crack” which allow “crust” to not get the full stress it would normally get appeals and announces. “…with every thudded footbeat. It is so still / that their light scratch of nails on ice / rasps the air like flakes of metal filings.” follows — and if you’re not captured yet by this poem’s story, I can’t think of what language can do to do that.

This opening almost registers as synesthesia, as the sense invoking words rush in. “Snow-crust crack” is visual and auditory together — and for a winter clime resident, you feel that texture in your own feet too. Besides the word-music the visual of “spider-fine antenna lines” has the sense of the spreading broadcast of the wolves’ approach. The ordinary snow-surface footfall of a “thudded footbeat” made by the furry pads of the wolf would be only present in an unnatural silence — and then the quiet but more plausibly audible sound of talons on ice. The shivers of it, nails on blackboard-like, invokes the winter.

ice pond

Listen carefully for those claws on the ice.

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I could go on, but I think any listener who is pulled in by this opening will sense equally strong lines and images as McKiernan’s poem proceeds. The creative writers in my audience may benefit from analyzing for themselves why they work their attraction on us. There’s an overall effect of intimacy with nature in the midst of this poem: not a passive, uncomplicated, and easily beautiful nature, but one close enough to be (prematurely) incorporated with the poem’s speaker.

The cave mentioned in the poem means that this is almost certainly a persona poem. The voice we hear telling this story is not the literal biography of a modern Irish-American woman who normally lived in cities, yet the astonishingly vivid images lets us doubt this just enough to not judge that outright. Even the most personal and revealing poetry can benefit from real and fantastical lies.

I’ll not explicate the ending outright, for I want you to experience it in the course of the poem’s story. I’ll only say that it could possibly be why McKiernan did not select this poem for wider distribution while she lived. “Twist endings” can cloy or leave a reader/listener feeling tricked, but my judgement says this one only enriches what’s sensed as the description of the poem’s scene has unfolded. Like many a good ending of a great short poem, it may make us want to read/listen to it again immediately.

Before I direct you to my performance of Ethna McKIernan’s masterful “Wolves,”  I’ll leave you with one thought the context of this poem leaves with me beyond the poem’s own effects: what might your art do that you don’t necessarily realize that it can do? For it’s a mystery to me why this wasn’t in a final selected poems. The poem seems to me to be fearless and exact, but the self-editor may have been frightened or dissatisfied.**

A player gadget to play this performance appears below in some ways this blog is read. Others will need to use this highlighted hyperlink to hear it.

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*Just before I published this post I thought to do a final string-search for the opening lines of this poem — and found that it had indeed been published in The Poetry Ireland Review  of January 1984! This published version uses exactly the text used for this performance, and you can find that text via this online link. That publication date is much earlier than I would have expected it to be. Did I somehow run across it — not as a draft as I recalled inside the Lake Street Writer’s Group — but in a publication that might have been shared with the group?

On publication it was titled “Letting Go the Wolves.”   I had recorded the performance you can hear above  a decade ago thinking the title was only “Wolves.”

Did McKiernan feel it was too immature a work when making final judgements for her final “New &Selected” collection Light Rolling Slowly Backwards  compiled a few months before her death? I don’t judge it so.

**Another, if unlikely, possibility: Ethna may not have secured rights to secondary publication, though the grant of such is traditional within small-press poetry. As much as the wolves in the poem, I may be clambering on top of thin ice in presenting this poem, even though I only want to point out its value. If I haven’t made it clear recently: The Parlando Project is not even a non-profit organization — it’s a no-profit organization.

Oh, Maria

Here’s my performance of another poem from Irish-American poet Ethna McKiernan’s final collection Light Rolling Slowly Backwards.  In McKiernan’s later years of life she did social work with people who were homeless, and she dedicated Light Rolling Slowly Backwards  to “the hundreds of homeless clients I’ve worked with through the years — to their resilience, courage and care for each other.” Given that Ethna was somewhat frail even before her final illness, I marveled at her strength in taking that work on.

I recommend this collection, a fine summation of McKiernan’s poetry and its range. Here’s that link again to the Irish publisher of this book.

Why this one to start reading McKiernan? She herself created this “New & Selected Poems” book before she died late last year.

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When I first encountered “Oh, Maria”  in draft form as a member of the Lake Street Writers’ Group I couldn’t help but flashback to my time working in Emergency Departments as a young man. As one side-point Ethna’s poem tries to convey the feeling of being next to someone experiencing a sudden, and unexpected death. I’d summarize those memories of mine as being full of intense experience, intent action, and if stabilization isn’t achieved, a solemn ceasing. Ethna’s account adds poignancy because it’s missing that middle part. I ached with her both as she feels guilt for not immediately recognizing the mortal nature of Maria’s incident — and then comes the line as she considers if she should have performed CPR: “If I remembered, God help me, how.”

I probably did my usual awkwardness in responding to that first hearing, perhaps mentioning how it reminded me of my experiences — something which was likely no help in her revision process. I think I did express that her missing the initial diagnosis of what was happening was not only forgivable, but par for the course. Could that have been worthwhile?

Indeed, my experience was that most people, even people who are otherwise medically trained, are likely to get this wrong in some way. Although my experience is now decades ago, I’ve seen CPR being performed on breathing people with a pulse — which is not a good thing. And effective CPR requires a degree of skill and frankly cold intent that is hard to practice outside of repeated actual events. Given that I last worked in an Emergency Department more than 30 years ago, and last went through the practice-with-dummies certification around a dozen years ago, I myself would likely not be the best person to be next to you if you were to experience a cardiac arrest.

If you ever take, or have taken CPR training, pay attention to that first step of assessment.   It’s important.*

So, besides the imperfectly empathic personal reaction I had, this poem’s core matter is Ethna’s continued sharing of the experience of those without homes, which exceeds even my old ER experience with our un or underhoused “regulars.” Notice the subtle point Ethna weaves into this poem: she expects that Maria is severely intoxicated when she collapses, and then she concludes her memories of this person dealing with complex problems imperfectly in the telling line “I laughed at your antics weekly.” What were the antics? Maria might have had a sense of humor, that could be part of it. It’s also possible, even probable, that Maria’s human attempts to deal with the difficult state of homelessness and its context were at times comically imperfect or ineffective.**   Ethna knows this from her intimacy with Maria, just as you know it with those you have in your lives. Intimacy isn’t just the experience of joyous connection, it’s the experience of our misapprehensions too.

Same with poetry. We write it imperfectly, read it imperfectly. That is part of our human experience of it.

To hear my performance of Ethna McKiernan’s “Oh, Maria”  you can use a player gadget if you see it below, or this highlighted hyperlink which will work if you don’t see the player.

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*Several decades ago a book called The House of God  by Samuel Shem was written that was like unto a modern Machiavelli’s The Prince,  only about practical hospital medical training instead of statecraft. In Shem’s book there is a list of “laws,” one of which is “At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.”

**Dealing with homelessness either as one who has reached that state or, as McKiernan did, as someone trying to mitigate it, is much more difficult than dealing with cardiac arrest. In my couple of decades in Emergency Rooms, I’ll admit that in the course of a shift or two dealing with intractable problems and complexly impossible situations, the “break” of dealing with a crash-cart severe trauma case or a cardiac arrest with their steps of immediate choose/act instants was, strange as it might seem, a relief.

Winter Solstice Consolations

I ran long the last time, let me be short today. Last week after Ethna McKiernan died, Dave Moore and I talked briefly, and I said that I was going to try to write something for Winter Solstice.

“Make it a happy one” Dave requested. I’ve written at length about the losses Dave and I have had with poetic colleagues in recent posts, so for those who want more details, I’ll refer you to the last couple of posts here instead.

How far did I get to that “happy?” Not all the way. The piece I wrote and you can hear my performance of today is more at bittersweet. I’ve talked to Dave about how I’m hearing Kevin FitzPatrick’s and Ethna’s voices, very distinctly at times when I’m quiet. And since I knew them largely as poets, I’m hearing them reading their poetry. I tell you honestly I don’t find this eerie at all. I find it comforting. I expect that those voices will fade with time, but right now to hear them keeps them with me.

I suspect grieving people have heard similar departed voices since we first began to speak, and that those voices would be more sure to come on a long dark winter night. But here’s my modern variation: due to the pandemic the last few meetings of the Lake Street Writer’s group happened over Zoom Internet videoconferencing. I became accustomed to seeing Ethna’s face after she began her cancer treatment on the same home screen I’m typing this on, and so now when I’m on a Zoom conference I sometimes expect to see her face again as one of the squares on my grid — and I will allow myself to visualize my expectation. You can read all 2916 lines of “In Memoriam,”  and you won’t find Alfred Tennyson having that exact image to deal with.

Winter Solstice Consolations

Here’s my own text I performed from. Due to short recording opportunities, I worked out the drums and percussion, and then rapidly laid down a bass, piano, and then an arpeggiated 12-string guitar part to further establish a harmonic flavor. I had time to quickly improvise three passes of a lead electric 12-string part, and this was the best of them.

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Then the last time I saw Ethna McKiernan, it was her book launch reading at Celtic Junction on August 6th. I recall she wore a brightly colored headwrap on those last Zoom conferences, and for the public reading she was all in bright red. I melded those two visual memories with our seasonal gift-wrapped packages in the poem.

Ethna McKeirnan reading August 6th 2021 2

Ethna with bright red shinning over frailty, on stage for the book launch of “Light Rolling Slowly Backwards” this August.

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So those are some of the consolations the poem’s title refers to. And too, one of the fine things in winter and on winter solstice is to be inside, in our lights, at home with our partners, family, house-pets, and welcome ghosts.

Here’s what I speak of in the final line: our lakes and ponds and the still parts of rivers have ice surfaces now. Whichever side of the ice you are on: under it and in the underwaters, or over precarious ice not thick enough to securely separate yourself from those cold underwaters — laugh with more than happiness, laugh with that knowledge that that ice is a fragile and temporary division.

A player gadget to hear my performance of “Winter Solstice Consolations”  will appear where possible below. If you don’t see it, you can use this highlighted hyperlink to play it.

Fall 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 4-3

Today we continue to move up the countdown to the most popular and liked piece from this autumn. I mentioned earlier in the countdown and elsewhere that during this year two poets that Dave Moore and I had grouped ourselves with over the years fell seriously ill, and this autumn they both died. Dave himself has been through a health swerve since 2020, but given that he’s alive and could tell his own story, I’ll leave that to him. I’ll just summarize that these three people were a large part of my direct and living connection to poetry, and my circumferential part of the ripples from two of them dying has been to sharply feel that human poetic-creation connection become past-tense.

Two of the pieces left in this countdown are remainder connections to those two poets.

4. Timepiece by Kevin FitzPatrick.  This is one of my favorite pieces that I heard Kevin read even before it reached its final draft for publication. I believe Dave liked it too, and shortly after we heard it, the LYL Band performed it and that’s the recording you can hear below.

Kevin, like our other departed poet, Ethna McKiernan, was a consistent reviser of his work. Poets in groups like ours sometimes present work soon after it reaches a completed draft, but Kevin’s early drafts nearly always seemed close to “ready to publish.” Despite his reliance until far into this century on a typewriter and carbon paper, his drafts’ punctuation and spelling was always correct and the suggested and taken revision ideas often revolved around clarifying narrative elements that would be in the forefront of his poems.*  Kevin also paid attention to meter, and when we’d see later revisions that would be another area he’d have changed.**  As a group we could sometimes be brutal with each other’s work, but it was rare that Kevin would present a stick-out sore-thumb.

“Time Piece”  (the title may have been a single word in the draft I performed it from) had one issue that I recall: there was discussion of the “incorrigibles” that the poem concluded hadn’t stolen the dead father’s wristwatch. At least one of us didn’t like it, perhaps thinking it an archaic, obscure or somehow too formal a word. Kevin nodded and said little as was his usual response to suggested revisions. I think I may have argued for incorrigibles, and since it was there in the draft we performed from long before the poem’s publication in Kevin’s 2017 collection Still Living In Town,  that was still the word in my performance.

Well, damn it, Kevin’s dead, and it’s his poem, and he was good at writing poetry, but “incorrigibles” is the right word, and his revision for publication: “those slick boys” doesn’t have enough flavor. That Dick Tracy word-aroma is just what’s called for! “Greatest Generation” father, and a wristwatch after all! He also made one other revision on the published version: from “That he wasn’t scheduled for a boxing match at six” to “That he wasn’t scheduled to box at six.” I suspect Kevin’s ear thought the later better meter-wise. However as boxing has become a more obscure sport the shorter “box” may miss some readers.***   “Did he work in an Amazon warehouse?” some moderns may think.

“Timepiece”  or “Time Piece”  is a poem well worth reading or listening to. The LYL performance of the earlier draft is what the graphical player below will play, and if you don’t see the player, slug this highlighted hyperlink.

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Still Living In Town and North of Boston

FitzPatrick’s publisher, Midwest Villages & Voices, doesn’t distribute online, but this link contains an ISBN and other info that may help you obtain a copy from your local book store or library. Then this other guy, Frost, has books available  too.

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3. After Apple Picking by Robert Frost.  Unlike our other Frost poem in this autumn’s Top Ten, the metaphysical “Bond and Free,”  you can feel this one. Particularly as Kevin began to spend his weekends working at his life-partner’s rural farm, I could see kinship between FitzPatrick and Frost. Both were drier than a Minnesota winter’s static humidity, both liked to observe human outlooks critically, and both of them could give you some of the tang of work tied to nature. I’m not sure if lifetime farmers are likely to write a poem like this, but someone coming to that work from something else, as Frost and FitzPatrick did, has the outsiders’ advantage of fresh observation.

When I presented this poem last month I thought about dedicating it straight out to Paul Deaton, who’s blog I’ve read for the past few years, in part to catch up on his accounts of small-format food farming, sometimes mentioning apple trees and orchards. But I wasn’t certain how well it fits anything Paul experiences. The apple trees of my youth were tall enough that ladders would be required, but the orchards I saw biking around Bayfield this fall have quite short trees, the kind where an adult would stand flat-footed to pick the fruit.

But maybe I should have gone ahead. Even though this poem has specifics, even to what aches after work, it’s about finishing a task. When another blogger I read: professor, editor, and author Lesley Wheeler wrote of getting to the final stage of a book-length manuscript, I thought of how I felt after finishing a manuscript decades ago. That same “Well, I probably missed a few, but I’m done  with apple picking now.”

Player gadget below for some, this highlighted hyperlink for the rest of you to hear my performance of Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking.”

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This post has gone long, though with things I wanted to say. Our next post will break from our usual Top Ten countdown, as it will deal with both the most popular piece, and the runner up, and I’ll talk more about poet Ethna McKiernan.

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*More than once I’d say to Kevin “If I had had the idea to write something from this same material that you used, I’d have written a short story.”  I remember once Ethna took me sharply to task for saying that, admonishing me that Kevin was writing a narrative poem. She misunderstood me, for I knew and admired that. Mixing into a short poem, with its almost unavoidable lyric immediacy and compression, with narrative elements sometimes even including a Joycean epiphany, is not easy. Once or twice, so taken with the story in one of Kevin’s poems I attempted to craft a short story from the same material, to demonstrate my point — and yet I could never complete one of those attempts. Kevin’s poetry may look unshowy, but it’s not easy to duplicate.

**Several years ago, Kevin and Minneapolis folk/blues revival pioneer Dave Ray of Koerner Ray and Glover engaged in a little side-bar about meter in Blues lyrics, with Kevin scanning their iambics. Kevin played a little blues harp, and Ray and Kevin’s dad were both in the insurance business.

***Kevin also boxed, and not in a warehouse way. He once wrote a poem which had as significant line “The boxer slugs!” Dave Moore’s punishing wit, after dealing with a lengthy group discussion about if that line would be misunderstood, was spurred to write an entire song about a garden beset by invasive…wait for it…”boxer slugs.”

Fall 2021 Parlando Project Top Ten, numbers 7-5

Let’s continue our Top Ten countdown of those pieces that you liked and listened to the most this autumn. Regular readers here may not be surprised that death features in some way in each of today’s three poems, as illnesses, infirmities — and yes, folks I’ve known a long time dying — have been part of the year for me.

Everyone that dies or is limited by infirmities is a lesson, one you listen to more richly and intently as you get older. It’s a lesson that makes me press immediately against what limits age has put on me, gives me a sense to use what I have presently before it’s gone. Oh, I am sad that I’ll not hear Kevin or Ethna’s voices again, except in memory or recordings — thin mirrors those. Dave reminds me that it reminds him when I post older LYL Band recordings where he was able to pound and roll the keys. Our family continues to deal with my wife’s mother descending, as politely as she can carry it, into dementia. But those that go before us are meant to teach us. Don’t skip the lessons.

Why Now, Vocalissimus  by Frank Hudson. When I posted this audio piece, shortly after I wrote it, I said right out I wasn’t sure what I meant by it. That state may be unnerving for a writer. After all, aren’t you supposed to know? If you don’t know, how can you present anything vividly to the reader or listener?

Well, there’s a theoretical structure, a mythological structure, that seeks to explain that. It says that we are conduits for muses, external things. We don’t have to be outstandingly worthy, exceptionally preceptive, or precisely eloquent, since we are in this scheme conduits of something outside us. Frankly, this can lead to a lot of bad poetry: inchoate self-expression bearing the costume of inspiration. But then everything leads to bad poetry — all artists fail as I remind readers here often. But what of us readers, us listeners? We fail too, grasping partially what much art conveys.

My understanding of what I wrote back in September has grown as I live with this set of words. Part of our job as living, breathing artists is to carry forward the work of those who’ve left off working. We are not just creators, but also carriers. So, if you write poetry, bring words down onto the page or speak your own words, know that I’m charging you to also preserve and enliven those others who have no voices left to carry the spark. And that’s what I try to do here with the Parlando Project.

My performance of “Why Now, Vocalissimus”  is available below with a graphical player. Don’t see it? Then his highlighted hyperlink.

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Heidi Randen’s picture of a milkweed husk spoke to me this autumn.

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6. The Shadow on the Stone by Thomas Hardy.  A complicated ghost story, a complicated haunting. As I wrote when posting this, English poet Thomas Hardy had a dysfunctional marriage — and yet, like many folks forced by fact into the separation of death and mourning, he still felt the returning presence of the intimate dead.

I rather liked the music I composed and played for this one. It has a weird loping groove that I find attractive. To hear the performance, some will see the player, and the others can use this highlighted hyperlink.

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5. God Made Mud by Kurt Vonnegut.  I decided to present several short excerpts from Vonnegut novels that work as poetry this fall on the occasion of the 99th anniversary of his birth. The LYL Band had recorded them well over a decade ago, on the week Vonnegut died. Why didn’t I wait for the nice, round 100-year birthday? See the start of this post for why.

In Vonnegut’s novel Cat’s Cradle  the text I used here is the last rights of an imagined religion. Like the theoretical/mythological structure of muses directing us to write poetry, Vonnegut proposes a useful if compressed Genesis story that asks us to recognize that the nagging mystery of death is no harder to explain than the overlooked mystery of living at all.

Yes, player gadget below for some, and this highlighted hyperlink for others to hear it too.

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Halfway through this fall’s Top Ten. The rest will be posted here soon.

I died for Beauty — but was scarce

I’m nearly over the bout of upper-respiratory crud that has laid me low this month, so I felt it time to see if I could test the dulcet tones of my voice again with a new audio piece. Today’s is one by Emily Dickinson: “I died for Beauty — but was scarce.”

This poem is characteristically short, and “I died for Beauty”  has long been one of Dickinson’s “better known” poems. Let’s do what I often like to do with one of Poetry’s Greatest Hits here and see what we may have missed, and why I might archly put that “better known” in quotes. Here’s a link to a blog post that starts with the full text of the poem in case you’d like to refer to that as I discuss it.

Let me get this out first: to certain sensibilities this is a poem that’s easy to find infused with a kind of corny gothic pretension. It’s got all the counters, common already in Dickinson’s mid-19th century, only more so now: graves, decomposing tragic corpses, sad death, and the world’s disinterest in earnest souls. And on top of this: it’s got capital letter Truth and Beauty. Even a school child who’s read and adored some Keats* will see Dickinson as dropping a shout-out to the doomed garageman’s son.

What can we infer about what Dickinson intended here? I’m no Dickinson scholar, but what I’ve gleaned from reading some of her letters as well as her poems is that while she had those gothic urges, she fiercely wielded a skeptical eye and a satirist’s pen. My guess is that she believed in capital letter Truth and Beauty, and Poetry for that matter, but she also knew the comic limits of humans dealing with them. I could be wrong, or projecting, but that’s the Dickinson I “read.”

The poem’s opening line, with its concluding start of a broken phrase “I died for Beauty — but was scarce” lets one suspect that the tomb is not exactly overflowing with heavenly beauty. So, our dead-in-the-tomb “died for beauty” narrator here finds death (like life) is asking for our narrator to become “adjusted.”

But wait there’s another voice! One equally devoted to capital letters! One who died for Truth! In case one thinks those capital letters are shouty, his voice is soft, somewhat defeated, and is asking about failure. Note that the died for Truth voice is male —we’ll have more to say regarding gendering in the poem soon.

I died for Beauty ms

Here’s how Dickinson wrote down this poem of hers in one of her sewn-up fascicles.

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Dickinson either makes an odd choice or is just awkward in the Truth guy’s opening question.**  She writes it as he’s asking “Why I failed?” in quotes. In ordinary writing this would indicate that the voice is asking: “Why did I, the Truth Guy, fail.”***  However in the context of the poem the Beauty voice, our narrator, answers back as if they  were asked why they died. It’s hard to convey in a single-voice performance, but if Dickinson intended this awkwardness, it’d be a demonstration of Beauty being consumed by their own state and so thinking the question was to them.

The conclusion of the 2nd stanza, Truth Guy’s reply to our Beauty narrator is stilted, even by mid-19th century formal speech standards. I don’t know if this is intended or simply a failure in Dickinson’s prosody. If intended, Truth Guy’s speech is demonstrably meaningful (truthful) while not  being beautiful. I think of my thought about Dickinson growing up in a household consumed with lawyering and contracts and being genetically related to lawyers.

I’m indebted to Oliver Tearle in pointing out something else in Truth’s little speech: he calls our narrator “Brethren” which is continued in the summary of the next and final stanza as “Kinsmen.” Now if we are to assume that our narrator is Emily Dickinson, a woman, then she’s just changed gender or has been miss-gendered by Truth Guy. Now of course even though the poem begins with “I” we can’t be sure that Dickinson — even if consumed by the beauty of poetry and multiple times in her poems apt to cast herself as writing of herself after death — intends that I who died for Beauty to be herself.

This may be leading to the final two lines, where truthfully and beautifully the omnivorous (even consuming mineral!) moss consumes their bodies and eventually their grave’s marker stones, leaving nothing gendered, nothing specific, only their essences returning to our shared essence: the truth and beauty available to us all if we seek it, to borrow and use it, to find comfort with, and to comfort by.

I’ll pause here to note that poet Ethna McKiernan died this past Sunday. I worked on this Sunday and Monday before I heard the news.

A Player gadget is below for many of you to hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “I died for Beauty — but was scarce.”  And if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.

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*No shame in that. I was one. The long-running Prowling Bee blog project points out that the Truth and Beauty paring is also present in known Dickinson influence Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem “A Vision of Poets.”   It’s also worth considering that Keats’ Truth and Beauty urn is not simply a joyful object for contemplation, or even a clear model for the supremacy of art like Rilke’s white-scrubbed statue.

I’ll offer my own tentative and inconclusive possible inspiration: It’s thought this poem was composed in 1862, and while we don’t know the particulars of Dickinson’s intent, there’d be this possible even more contemporary influence: the folk hymn adaption “John Brown’s body (lies a moldering in his grave/but his soul is marching on)” which was transmuted into a more grand literary composition with the chorus of “His truth is marching on.” As “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”  Julia Ward Howe’s poem was published in the February 1862 number of the Atlantic Monthly where Dickinson surely would have seen it. Literally, the antecedent to “His” in Howe’s poem is the godhead, but folk-music-process wise, the antecedent is John Brown.

Posthumous editor and sought-out living “preceptor” (in her words) of Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was a backer of John Brown’s raid.

**Original Dickinson editors Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson removed the quotes Dickinson put around Truth Guy’s question, making it clearly a question to our died for Beauty narrator in their version. So “He questioned softly ‘Why I failed’?” in Dickinson’s hand then became “He questioned softly why I failed?” on first printing.

***”Failed” here is meant also to have a double meaning as in dying, but the fail in failed is too prominent. As this voice was first introduced, “One who died for Truth” is more noble sounding, as in martyrdom, than failed in truth.

Ethna’s Dream

Long time readers here will know that one of this Project’s ideas is “Other People’s Stories.” I’ve chosen to make that one of its principles for a couple of reasons. First, the Internet is full of folks telling their own stories, and this is fine (after all, to me those would all be “Other People’s Stories”). I wanted to do something different, to focus on how you and I experience a variety of words from a variety of writers with a variety of outlooks. The second is that I’m rather uncomfortable with promoting myself. That one’s complex.*  Like most writers or composers or artists I think my own work has value at some percentage over half the time. Which then, mathematically, allows that I doubt its value, or my handling of its value, or the costs of declaiming its value to the universe a bunch of the time too.

No one creates without the first thought. It would be impossible. And no one who cares about what they create, about their audiences, or about how much craft and care can be devoted to any art; without seeing the faults, the missed communication, the needs for just one more revision or tomorrow for any work.

Many of us create instinctively, because we have to — but sharing that work is a choice. I’m nearing 600 Parlando Project audio pieces presented here. I could have presented at least half or two-thirds of that easily with things Dave or I wrote, but I made a different choice. It’s less conflicted for me to publicly look at, to be honestly surprised and delighted at Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, Carl Sandburg, Langston Hughes, Sara Teasdale, or Du Fu; and then to share that with you.

But there’s a problem with “Other People’s Stories.” I’m likely not understanding everything those authors intended.** And they’re their  stories, their  visions. I’ve talked recently here about how when I translate a poet who wrote in another language how I want to honor their work and transfer accurately their particular powers, and yet then become tempted to break off into something their work makes me see through my own eyes.

A long prolog to presenting today’s piece, one I wrote and titled “Ethna’s Dream.”  Ethna is Ethna McKiernan, a poet who I used to meet and talk about work with once a month or so, along with two to four others. Ethna cared and crafted her work over decades, and in her life did other useful work: running an Irish heritage book and art shop, working with the homeless. She’s currently in hospice, comforted by family, and the reports are that she’s now mostly in an out of what appears as sleep.

I couldn’t call Ethna a close friend. I always sensed a distance there. I think often of her none the less these days, and of every rudeness, awkwardness, or self-dealing on my part around her; and those or any number of things could have caused that. The very fact of writing a poem about her death, her dying, that mostest personal thing, seems problematic.

So, when you listen to my piece “Ethna’s Dream”  you now know all that. This is not a poem about those things I’ve discussed in prolog, or at least I hope so. Instead, my intent is that it’s a poem about what we should treasure of that sharing of the unconscious that we have with artists (including those whose main art is just living). What I present in “Ethna’s Dream”  is not a romantic, imaginary, sentimental metaphor in my own mind — though it may attract or repel you if you see it as such — it’s more at the essences of what we do, share, and take with art.

Ethna's Dream

There’s references to Bottom’s speech in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Am I prettifying  myself up with pretentiousness, or comparing myself to the foolish play character? I wrote it, and yet I can’t tell.

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There’s a player gadget to hear it below for many of you, but some ways of reading this blog won’t show it, so there’s this highlighted hyperlink to play it as well.

Thanks for reading and listening.

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*One problem, leading to one fear, is that when offered the chance to promote myself I see myself as overdoing it, and coming off as a self-absorbed narcissist that runs on too long about the arts I work in, prattling about the obvious and the obscure in equally embarrassing ways. If you’re still reading at the footnote stage, you may have forgiven me for that.

**Beside just plain embarrassment of ignorance, we now more often talk about cultural appropriation in regards to this. The travesties of cultural appropriation are real, but my belief is that they should, must, be risked.

Lament (after Sheng-yu’s Lament by Mei Yao-che’en)

It was difficult to return to work on new pieces for this project yesterday. November was blustery and very gray, the whole world seemed to shiver. It was weather to huddle up, as curled and still and hidden as one could be. None-the-less I rode my bike to breakfast, and when I rode past a small pond I could see three ducks on the soon to be frozen water. I wondered; did they miss the migration memo? Are three enough of a formation to make the long southward flight? Are they waiting for a greater flock to gather that I suspect won’t be coming around?

Having completed my Kurt Vonnegut series, I am reminded of a whimsical concept his made-up religion Bokononism introduced: the “karass,” a term for a group of disparate people strangely linked together without their knowledge that yet still seem to be working with a common purpose and unknowable goal.

If so, poet Robert Okaji and I may be in such a flock.

Ostensibly independently, Okaji and I both find creating American English translations/adaptations of classical Chinese poetry rewarding. We even often use the same source of literal glosses of the poems since neither of us understand the language those poets wrote in. Okaji’s practices have informed some of what I do with translation in that he allows himself to extrapolate English poetry from these old poems where his or the modern American reader’s understanding might otherwise be puzzled, unsure, or unmoved.*  This weekend I read one of his adaptations, “Sheng-yu’s Lament (after Mei Yao-ch’en)”  and was struck, as he apparently was, by the depiction of grief and loss.

Okaji’s version is quite good, but I still wanted to try my own adaptation. I approach translating classical Chinese poetry like I approach translating from French, German, or Spanish. My primary goal is to understand first what the poet wants us to see, to sense — the imagery. With poetry the “word-music” is highly important in the original language, but generally I do not try to transpose the sounds or even the sound-organization of the original language into English. I do like to retain something of what I call “the music of thought” in the original poem, the order and arrangement of the images in the poem’s journey.

I always start wanting to honor the original poet, the original poem, but despite that I often get carried away with a desire to change the way the poem ends to something that occurs to me from the experience of the other poet’s poem. This may be a failure, a fault on my part, and so when I do that here I try to cite what liberties I took. Okaji has a concise way to handle this issue: he calls his adaptations into American English “After…” which gives one license to do what the muse wills.

Lament

Robert Okaji’s fine translation is available here, and he also includes the English-language gloss we both used to create our versions of this poem. Besides his blog which includes selections from the full variety of his poetry, you can download a selection of his “after…” poems adapted from the Chinese here.

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I started out thinking about how to render the first word: “heaven” in the gloss, a word carried over by Okaji. Best as I understand Chinese culture, the term “heaven” often carries a connotation closer to the concept of “fate,” and I actually used fate in the second draft, and then reverted to heaven in the final version. I decided I needed the listener to be firmly in the experience of mourning and grief, and to a Westerner, heaven does that. My next problem to solve were two lines both plain and puzzling: “Two eyes although not dry/(Disc) heart will want die” Interestingly, they rhyme in the English gloss, and early-on I decided to make that into a refrain. The narrator seems stuck, and refrains are a great device to show that situation. Okaji plays his “after card” here, with the very fine “my heart slowly turns to ash” that may not be in the original but adds vividness.

I wanted to bring forward Mei Yao-che’en’s image in the next set of lines — that there are things that seem elusive, that we think of as gone, but they still exist —and there are objective, work-a-day methods to go into the depths to retrieve them. I was unable to find out any additional context for the Sheng-yu whose lament the poem is said to be reflecting. Given my own age I read this poem as an older man, a widower who has now also lost his son to death, although given the historical dangers of childbirth it could be a tale of a woman who died of childbirth complications and then the infant too dies. The poignant specifics of the pearl sinking into the sea asks for allusive meaning, pearls coming from oysters on seabeds, and so a returning, perhaps a child-soul coming forth and then returning to where it came from. Or given my old-man framing, a widower throwing a dead wife’s jewelry into the sea. If the story of Sheng-yu was known to Mei’s readers this might be understood more specifically, but lacking knowledge I let this specific mystery remain.

Mei’s lines “Only person return source below/Through the ages know self (yes)” are hard to grasp. Okaji made his estimate, and I made mine. My aim was in part to underline that this section is a contrasting development of the supposedly lost things in the depths of the earth or the sea.

Okaji’s adaptation ends strongly, and it seems to me to be a more likely accurate translation of the poem’s final line. While I like my solution to the next-to-last line, I decided to go with a much odder final line. In my choice, inspired by what I felt in Mei’s original poem, and from being an older person with many grievings — the dead whose immortality is, in part, made up of my remembrance of them — is that I do not have to dig down deep or dive deep to see them, that they are with me. In the thin depths of a mirror I find them, and that my fate is to join their fate soon enough in my passage of years.

Musically I wrote an entire other tune for this, a bit more R&B like, which I abandoned early in my attempts to record this. Instead, I returned to my thought of some unusual colors associated with the Velvet Underground, and particularly John Cale,**  the Welsh viola playing member of that band. I created another spare and eccentric percussion part inspired by Velvet’s drummer Maureen Tucker’s inventions, and then laid down an electric bass line that anchors the melody. My guitar part came next, not R&B at all this time, the atmospheric arpeggios perhaps subconsciously connected to Chinese string instruments. The top instrumental lines are a cello and viola.

You can hear my performance of this lament with either this highlighted hyperlink or where available, this graphical player gadget you may see below.

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*Others who have informed my practice: Ezra Pound’s rather free translations from glosses of classic Chinese poets, and Thomas Campion, who based his most famous poem on Latin poet Catullus while adding his own flavor.

**Two early John Cale solo LPs The Church of Anthrax and The Academy in Peril,  like his settings for Nico recordings in the early Seventies, aren’t to everybody’s tastes but hearing them opened my mind then to different ways to combine orchestral instruments with modern songwriting and electric instruments. If you want to explore them now, I’d suggest starting with 1972’s The Academy in Peril  which is the most accessible.

God Made Mud

Let’s complete our series honoring American writer Kurt Vonnegut on the 99th anniversary of his birth with another piece taken from his novel Cat’s Cradle.  In the world of this novel there’s an imaginary religion created called Bokononism whose elusive founder writes psalms and prayers that reference Caribbean musical styles. Even though Vonnegut never set music to them, he seemed happy that others did during his lifetime.*

Cat’s Cradle is still in print, so why not buy or read it? Also for the curious, here’s a nice “behind the making of the book” listicle

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The LYL Band, the loose organization of herded cats that Dave Moore and I have played under for about 40 years, performed several pieces using Bokonon’s psalms and other short passages we’d read in Vonnegut’s novels three days after his death was announced back in 2007. I wrote the music for these in that interim and did the vocals when they were performed “live in the studio” within two one-hour sets. As I mentioned in other episodes of this series, the performances aren’t perfect. For one thing, Dave is creating his keyboard parts on the fly after maybe hearing a quick run down and with nothing more than a chord chart. Given that I’m not a very good chord/rhythm player that’s a testament to him and what decades of playing together will do for a band. Another problem was that I was suffering from cold/allergies that day and my vocals had issues with congestion and phlegm.

I recorded those two sets, though I thought it a shame that my phlegm issues reduced the quality of the performances. Over the years since 2007 I’ve listened to those performances, and I found that I either had become inured to their sound or that the emotional moment of us honoring Vonnegut overcomes that.

“God Made Mud”  was the next to last song we did that day.** It’s probably the best of our Vonnegut Memorial stuff in terms of my vocals. “God Made Mud”  appears in Vonnegut’s novel as the text of “The Last Rites of the Bokononist Faith.”   The Bokononism that Vonnegut invented is used in the novel in various ways to satirize human nature and our search for meaning. For some readers — oddly enough, atheists and secure believers both — those insights into belief are the emotional core of the book. For those in non-Abrahamic religions, there are echoes of Buddhist teachings, intentional or otherwise, mixed in there too.

But by the time Vonnegut gets to “God Made Mud”  the sincerity of the final human situation, the miracle and the limits of our lives, completely overcomes the satire, and removed from the novel’s plot it moves me. It moved me then as we were performing it in the week of its author’s death, moved me later in consideration of other deaths and thoughts of gratitude for lives, and moves me again this autumn as I consider death and the approach of death by folks in my circle.

Click this highlighted hyperlink to hear the LYL Band’s performance of “God Made Mud”  —  or some of you may see a horizontal player gadget below this paragraph to play it. One last thing before I go: if you appreciate what this Project does and you think you know someone or some audience who might also appreciate these varied combinations of words and original music, help it continue by sharing links to the audio pieces or posts on social media or elsewhere. I almost never have the time to do that, and I’m bad at it anyway, so a good deal of this effort’s audience comes to it this way. Thanks!

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* Oddly, most of those settings that I’ve heard make no reference to Caribbean musical styles implied in Vonnegut’s imaginary Bokonon texts. One of those styles, calypso, has lost most of its currency in North America, but in today’s piece I used a reggae feel as a reasonable substitute.

**The last song back in 2007? Dave Moore’s own meditation on last things “The Final Minute,”  which we presented here this summer.

The Great Machine (I Saw a Huge Steamroller)

Celebrating Kurt Vonnegut during this week that will mark the 99th anniversary of his birth allows two things to cross and connect, for he was born in 1922 on what would have been called Armistice Day then and will be called Veteran’s Day tomorrow in the US. Two decades later as a 20-year-old, he enlisted in the Army, served in WWII, and was rather famously a prisoner of war incarcerated in the German city of Dresden when it was subject to a massive firebombing raid from his own side.

As one might imagine that experience impressed itself mightily on Vonnegut, who as a writer eventually dealt with the matter in his best-known novel Slaughterhouse Five.  But that was not his first novel to deal with WWII. That would be 1962’s Mother Night.

Mother Night, like all of Vonnegut’s novels remains in print. Mother Night does contain satire, but I’m not sure that as the cover blub above advertises that this one will shake up your kaleidoscope of laughter.

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The short plot summary for Mother Night  is that it concerns the story of an American who was in Nazi Germany during the war, and who tells us that all-the-while working with American undercover efforts he made fulsome fascist propaganda broadcasts. This situation gives us all kinds of resonances: with important American Modernist Ezra Pound for example,*  with America’s own fascists, and with anyone who has ever found themselves working (for whatever reason) with a cause that they themselves feel they are not in alignment with.

The novel’s protagonist wrote “The Great Machine”  in the novel as a poem explaining how he and his beloved German wife had done what they felt was necessary to survive, and once again the novelist while in character allowed Vonnegut license to write poetry.

Abstracted from the novel, and as a stand-alone poem, it mentions nothing of the fascist double-life theme of Mother Night  however. Heard in this way, as the LYL Band performed it during the week of Vonnegut’s death in 2007, “The Great Machine”  speaks instead to refugees trying to escape violent situations by whatever means they can muster. In such events it’s not uncommon for the “you really must understand” class of commentators to mention that the refugees should not be fleeing but should stay and try to counter the violence in their own countries. I don’t know if it’s absolutely required, but such commentators almost never seem to have been in similar situations themselves. In the saddest reportage in Vonnegut’s poem, it says that most people do not, in fact, flee in these situations, but ignorantly or fatalistically accept becoming victims of The Great Machine that is History.

After our first two installments of our Vonnegut series it’s gotten darker here, but you can hear The LYL Band’s performance of this poem found in a novel with the player gadget below, or by clicking this highlighted hyperlink.

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*Living during the war in Italy, Pound (who had been attracted to outsider political ideas, not just fresh approaches to literature) made propaganda broadcasts for the Italian Fascists. Pound, as with several other Axis broadcasters from Allied countries, was arrested at the war’s end and faced charges of treason, with a possible death sentence. American literary figures helped lobby to have Pound instead declared insane, reducing his culpability. British humorist P. G. Woodhouse was in Germany during the war and made Axis broadcasts, which his literary admirers and defenders characterized as not propagandistic.

It’s easy for us at this remove to forget how close at hand these issues were when Vonnegut was working on his novel. WWII was as close as September 11 2001 and the wars that followed are to us now in 2021Oddly though, American fascism, which had been a considerable issue during the ‘30s and ‘40s and is again now, was considered something of a comic non-entity in the 1962 world of his novel.