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.

.

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.

.

*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.

The Shadow on the Stone

Because they usually deal with brief moments in time, we sometimes think of lyric poetry as making do with simple thoughts, singular emotions felt distinctly. Today’s piece, English poet Thomas Hardy’s “The Shadow on the Stone”  shows us it can be otherwise.

I suppose one can say it’s a poem about grief, or you could say it’s another ghost story. If it’s a ghost story, it’s poised entirely between belief and disbelief in such afterlife visitations. If it’s a grief poem, and it is that I think, it points out that grief doesn’t mean simple, singular, feelings.

Let me summarize a few things that are biographically behind this poem, even though I think some of its ambiguity can be sensed, felt, and to a degree understood without them.

The poem’s author, Hardy, was married in his thirties* to another woman of the same age. There was something of a romance in their courtship story. She was beautiful, looked younger than her suitor, and loved to ride around the English countryside on horseback. She was a doted-on daughter from a well-borne family that had had some financial setbacks. Hardy was from a tradesman’s family and was not established successfully in a trade or as the controversial author of novels he would become. Not long into the marriage, the wife began to think of this as what would have been called then “a misalliance.” He was beneath her standing after all — and Hardy’s eventual emergence as a novelist of note if anything made her more estranged. She considered herself a writer, while others dismissed her work as all the while Hardy’s began to succeed.

Eventually she moved to the attic of their house, and their emotional separation was an open secret among their acquaintances. In 1912, after more than 35 years of marriage, most spent in estrangement from her husband, she died.**  In going through her attic quarters they was found a manuscript she had been writing. Some accounts give its name as Why I Hate My Husband  and others What I Think of My Husband.***

Emma and Thomas Hardy

For Emma, Forever Ago. Thomas Hardy and pre-ghost-wife wife Emma back in the 19th Century.

.

So, what happens in the moment of this poem, after her death, and after that life-history? Here’s a link to the poem’s text if you’d like to follow along. The poem’s speaker (I’ll just say “Hardy,” as Thomas Hardy was forthright about the subject of his grief poems) is working during the autumn in his garden and sees cast across a “Druid stone”**** a shadow shape which he says in his imagination brings to mind the shadow of his dead spouse when she would garden there. While he says this was “imagining” he’s not completely sure. Those aware of Hardy’s marriage history will hear a particular salience in the statement that the ghost of his dead wife is one “I long had learned to lack.” But this phenomenon, of intimates appearing in the imagination of the grieving is commonplace, and I can say in the experience of myself and my dead spouse, it’s not a simple wistful visitation. If one’s world has been turned upside down, you may not want it to spin some more, even backwards.

In the second stanza this “Is she really here, or my imagining” state is interrogated. Hardy speaks to whatever is behind him casting shadows, and says (perhaps just in case it’s a real, and maybe even a vengeful, ghost) “I’m sure you are standing behind me.” As if he’s conjured up a spirit and he’s letting them know he knows who/what they are, knows their name, and can query it.

The spirit doesn’t respond. I love the ambiguous skeptic’s final two lines here: “I would not turn my head to discover/That there was nothing in my belief.” Hardy wants to not face it  if the spirit is real, not an imagining, and we don’t even know if from fear or love.

Continuing in ambivalence, Hardy says next that he wanted to look  and disprove, a statement that he in action doesn’t do.*****   Instead he leaves the garden without seeking to disprove or confront the spirit or imagining he believes is representing his dead wife. Best as I can tell, the idiomatic expression “throwing shade” is of Afro-American origin. This Merriam Webster note says it was popularized on Ru Paul’s Drag Race  circa 2010, though I’m pretty sure I heard and used it before then. In my performance, I speak it in that meaning, even if Hardy didn’t mean it that way in his time. As in life, Hardy seems to say he must endure and miss his spouse, and so this ambivalence with a possible ghost resonates with his grief.

I mentioned performance above. I started composing here thinking about the Afro-American musical influences on the Velvet Underground, both in rhythm guitar figures and in Moe Tucker’s spare drum kit and approach. If I would have written the drums in this as a jazz-influenced piece, the high-hat would have marked the beat, but there’s no high-hat in this piece’s drum kit, though the tambourine playing does stand in for it somewhat. This didn’t turn out to be a Moe Tucker style drum part after all, but that’s where I started.

My original take had things ending on Hardy’s poem’s final word: “fade” — but overnight I decided it needed a reprise after that hung resolution, and while playing that I decided to riff on some other famous lyrical uses of the word “fade” as a trope of death and persistence. A player gadget is below for some to hear my performance, but if not, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.

.

*This is fairly late for a first marriage in the mid-19th century.

**She and Hardy were 72 in 1912. This is not one of those stories of the stricken young bride who died long before her time.

***We may wonder just what the real deal was with their relationship, who was meaner or more dismissive to who — and well, the patriarchy and all that may have colored within the lines, as most accounts by men and women seem to paint Thomas Hardy as the aggrieved party in the marriage. Interesting matters — but for the purposes of presenting this poem, beside the point. Flip a few gendered words in the poem, and imagine it being written by a widow who thinks of her abusive or belittling husband after his death.

****I wondered about this peculiar detail. Was this a characteristic English garden decoration, like a birdbath or garden gnome statue? No. A large flattened top stone was found during construction which Hardy thought was an actual Druid stone, perhaps used as an ancient altar. More evidence that while Hardy was a skeptic, the realness of a supernatural “apparition” is meant to be in question — and this may also allude to some metaphoric bone and ash sacrifices the marriage brought to their lives.

*****In a short essay on this poem, Jeremy Axelrod sees an allusion to the story of Eurydice and Orpheus in the underworld. Hardy doesn’t usually use classical Greek allusions in the poems I’ve read, but even if unintended, well, “death of the author” and “archetypes.”

The Folly of Being Comforted

Readers often hear different poems when reading the same text. It’s unavoidable, even though it causes some authors to despair at how they are misread. So, it should be no surprise that it is possible in performance to recast poetry considerably without changing a word.

Around 1902 Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote a poem taking exception to a too-easy consolation meant to comfort. He cared for the poem enough that around 20 years later he revised it slightly, to emphasize his response to this well-meaning gesture, explicitly writing out the one word concise enough to underline his feelings at the offer of comfort: “No.”

Those who study Yeats’ life are pretty sure this poem is biographical and is based on his unrequited courtship of Maude Gonne. That’s a long story, and to say that these were two complicated individuals is to understate the matter. If one reads today’s text, that poem “The Folly of Being Comforted,”  in that biographical way, it makes sense. Here’s a link to that text.  That reading, coldly condensed, would have it that someone told Yeats, “Hey, that hottie that you are so enamored with — I’ve heard she’s getting older, grey hair, older skin around her eyes. Sure, they say with age comes wisdom, but never mind any of that, she’s no longer so attractive that others will be chasing her. So now, maybe your chance will come around.” And to this Yeats gives his “No,” explaining that as he sees it, she’s not lost a step beauty and attractiveness-wise.

There’s a perfectly good romantic love sonnet there, and that’s not what I performed today.

I’m mentioned this year that I have family and others I know going through infirmities and transitions. It’s not my nature to talk about them, or even to directly write of my own experience of those situations. Even though one of the principles of this project has been to seek out and to present “Other People’s Stories,” I’m hesitant to speak over their own voices*  in the same way that I’m comfortable talking about those long dead and in some cases too little remembered.

As I was working today on finishing the mix of the audio performance you can hear below, Dave called me to tell me that our friend and poet Kevin FitzPatrick had died last night. We were planning to visit him in hospice tomorrow. Now we’ll visit him when we think of him. Visiting hours are now unlimited.

Kevin FitzPatrick and Ethna McKiernan

For many years Kevin and Ethna would celebrate poetry in a public reading on St. Patrick’s Day in Minnesota.

.

Another poet we both know, Ethna McKiernan, is also facing a serious illness this year. When I read and then performed Yeats’ poem, I was thinking of these things. I recognized it was a romantic love poem, yes, but I read all sorts of undertones in it. We are meant to pass over them in the “correct” reading. Maude Gonne was all of 35 when Yeats first published his poem, the grey hair and “shadows…about her eyes” were likely subtle things. We’re all more than double that. Age is not subtle at that volume. When I read Yeats’ simple elaborating line “I have not a crumb of comfort, not a grain.” I felt my own lack of useful care or comfort I’ve offered Kevin or Ethna, partly because I fear I’d be rather bad at it, and partly because I’m less close to either of them than even Dave is. That said I’ve been acquainted with Ethna for about 40 years. I may have not been close to her in her “wild summer,” but I knew her when. Yes, the fire “burns more clearly” with her even now as Yeats says.  After all, when you get our age, there’s more fuel.

Yeats called his poem, “The Folly of Being Comforted”  and he ended the poem with that title. He likely had real feelings in this matter, long ago when he was alive. When I think of these mortal matters, now, here, my feelings are different than a witty sonnet about someone’s crude mistake regarding his estimate of Maude Gonne. And so I performed my feelings, using Yeats words.

The player to hear that performance is below for many of you, but some ways of reading this won’t display that. So, I also offer this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window and play it.

.

*I feel I must guard myself in that partly because I’d easily fall into it if I didn’t.

I Am Laughing in the Dark Underground

What do you remember of someone who died 20 years ago? Not enough. That is loss. I do remember her kindness, her empathy and help to others, our bodies close together, our youth, our follies, more mine than any of hers.

Today is this blog’s 5th year launch anniversary. It’s also the 20th anniversary of my wife’s death.

Does grief lessen with time? I think it does for most people. It’s not a place most want to make home; and as a vacation spot it’s going to get some no-star reviews. Does loss lessen with time? Not objectively. After all, survivors have over time accumulated additional lost experiences that they have been deprived of. But even that is complicated in honesty. Other things, or one hopes that other things, come in to fill the low and missing places. Those low and missing places are still there, like Pompeii under ash. And like there, there are entwined bodies now made hollow places, suitable for casting.

Pompeii Body Cast

One of the castings that were made from cavities left in Pompeii ash

.

Do not feel sorry for me. Since then, I met someone, we married, we had a child. I get to encounter words, mostly poetry here, compose music, and make some combinations of those real, as best I can, so that you can hear them. Despite infirmities, despite those low places, my store of gratitude is large.

And my loss is far from unique. Unless you are one of my younger readers, you no doubt have lost several you had some level of closeness to. How many, and how close, varies I suppose. In the immediate depth of grief, we probably feel our loss personally, as we still feel every unique part of it. That’s a forgivable illusion, though all grief connects absolutely.

A few weeks ago I wrote the poem that is the text for today’s audio piece. The core image came to me rather forcefully asking to be cast, and the poem followed close at its heels. Last month I got to perform it with Dave. I don’t find this performance as good as I would like it to be, but then that may be my personal opinion and expectations that it be good enough for the occasion. The day to share it with you is today, and it’s the best version of it I have at this time.

I am laughing

The text of the poem used for today’s piece.

.

“I Am Laughing in the Dark Underground”  proceeds by revealing and describing the core image that came over me and caused the poem to be created. Why was I laughing? I knew first only that I was. In dreams or images, one sometimes acts in ways that you would not write consciously, incongruous ways. After creating a first draft of the poem, I began to think that I was laughing out of the incongruity itself. The feeling I was having was neither frightening nor pleasing, but it was mysterious, and I somehow knew the laughter was important.

The mystery of it was largely made up of where was I, and the answer was clearly nowhere I could tell. Nowhere is anywhere. Anywhere is all of us.

My original sentiment in the experience of the image was that the “you” in the poem was maybe my living wife, and then my dead wife, but while the image was still present, I began to see I wasn’t supposed to know for sure, and that it was also others. If grief is universal, if it connects absolutely, then in this place it’s your you too — you grieving, your lost one or ones. I sensed those presences without there being any normal sensory device other than the smallest disturbances in background noise.

I chose to end the poem on the laughter, the necessary laughter, the missing laughter, the laughter that was there in me as I sensed this place. What does that laughter mean? It means what laughter means to you or me, all the time, not some special meaning when in the transport of this image, but ordinary laughter and its multitudinous events and occurrence.

The player gadget to hear “I Am Laughing in the Dark Underground”  will appear for some of you below. No sight of it? Then this highlighted hyperlink is another way — it’ll open up a new tab window to play it.

.

A great broken world with eyes gone dim

I took yesterday off from the work of this ongoing project. I spent a good portion of it listening to music.

I said to my wife that afternoon: “It’s odd, but spending to much time composing music, performing, recording, and mixing it largely keeps me from listening to music I’m not working on. If I was a sculptor or painter I could listen to music while working, some even listen to music while writing,*  but you can’t listen to music while working on music.”

I awoke this morning early, bid my wife off to work and went for my morning bike ride. I returned, ate breakfast, and set to work on completing a long piece that I’ve been working on for some time this month. Such work devours hours.

It was only while taking a little break late this afternoon that I learned that what seems clearly to be a horrible injustice occurred last night in my town—so horrible and so near that I could not carry on with my day’s work. Yes, there’s another cell phone video capturing someone, yes, another Afro-American someone, losing their life during a law enforcement encounter. Same and different, each one of these. I will say that this is the third time in my city when I’ve thought that, as terrible and painful as this video is, that it will change the public’s outlook. Is it good or bad to say these are not numbing yet?

Or am I wrong to say this? Perhaps it is numbing. Like when your extremities grow cold in a northern winter. You don’t feel them going numb after all. The villain in the piece, the policeman with decades in a public service job, surely seems numb to the suffering he’s causing. Does evil flow both hot and cold in us?

How many will view this and swear, and then swear that they could never do what he seems to be doing, or at least never do it without copious anger. How many of us will not think about the other policeman, standing nearby, still in the portrait-mode frame. Will we ask ourselves, could we be him? Or will that question slide by us?

“What’s the broken world”  –  photo by Evan Frost for MPR News.

 

I’m a poet and musician. I run nothing, not even my own muses some days. Shelley aside, I’m not a legislator in session. I could do political analysis here, but choose instead to beg your indulgence to talk about how someone else’s words strike me a couple of times a week. However, I spent two decades trying to alleviate pain, fix people up, and keep people alive. My wife still does this work. It offends me when we fail. In the medical field we often know when we fail, and the philosophers kind or callous—who know that in a medical, mortal sense, we always fail—offer only partial relief.

Poetry and the power of music isn’t quite like philosophy. Music doesn’t want to be ideas, but their sound. It can express anger and sorrow and give it a towering spillway for those things to pour out. It’s not healing or justice exactly, but the sound of those things. And poetry is the literary art that uses words in the nearest same way.

If it’s not the actual, palpable, thing we need—if it’s not sorrow, anger, healing, justice—it may teach us to recognize those things, to see and join them in the souls of others.

Why say this? In the above I’ve tried to rationalize what I attempt to do, but tonight I doubt this too much to complete a new piece of music and write about it.

Last time I mentioned Charlotte Mew chose not the mention the specifics of a horrible war in her short poem. She could have written a poem longer than the Iliad  and not covered all the callousness and killing, the heroes and the folly. Only in passing, I mentioned that meant her poem of grief isn’t necessarily tied to World War I, or to Britain—but I wanted very much then to stress another thing about short, lyric poetry: that you can carry it with you, that it can change and grow as you take it back out of your mind during the dealing out of a day or more. So I carry this bit from her poem over, yet another day.

What’s little June to a great broken world with eyes gone dim
From too much looking on the face of grief, the face of dread?

We are the pieces of that broken world. Can you feel the broken edges?

 

 

 

 

*I used to listen to music when writing sometimes, but I can’t recall the last time I did that. It’s probably been decades. In my youth sometimes entire first drafts of some poem would flow out while listening to a piece of music.

A poem about grief for American Memorial Day: June, 1915

This Monday is American Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering those that died in my country’s warfare. At its onset it was a solemn day for decorating graves, but over time it has lost some of that focus, with celebrations touching on generalized patriotism or military service. It’s also the calendar marker for the beginning of summer. In my youth it was celebrated on May 30th every year, but it’s now a Monday holiday that floats around a bit—but the reason it’s placed at the end of spring still goes back to the original purpose: it was set for a time of year when fresh flowers were in season across the United States, flowers for decorating those graves.

And so it is that this ambiguity makes it odd to wish someone rotely “Happy Memorial Day.”

The Parlando Project has marked Memorial Day with performances of poems over the years, but just as the reason for the holiday is somewhat problematic for mere celebration, it’s not easy to figure what poetry to mark it. Long time readers here will know that there is plenty of poetry that speaks honestly about the experience of warfare, and that WWI produced a great deal of it. But in its specific way, Memorial Day isn’t really about that. It’s about the mourners and their duty.

So, I cast about this week for a poem that spoke to that, and I found this poem by someone that this project has presented before: British poet Charlotte Mew. She was an unusual person when living, and the case of her poetic legacy is unusual too. Her poetry received some small amount of interest in the London scene around the time of WWI. Thomas Hardy, Walter de LaMare, Virginia Woolf, and even the American Ezra Pound recognized her work’s value, but this those-that-know praise never developed into any appreciable readership in her lifetime. Culture was still a bit of a boy’s club, and with the explosion of Modernism going on, you either planted the make-it-new bombs or faced being obliterated by them. Mew didn’t fit in any movement, and after her death, forgotten happened with efficiency.

Today a handful of scholars seek to make the case that she’s greatly underestimated and that her work needs to be reevaluated. They have a case which can be made with considered reading of her poetry. It doesn’t sound or work like anyone else’s.

young Charlotte Mew

Mew wasn’t just strikingly original in her poetry. Most pictures show her presenting androgynously.

 

So, here is one of her poems about the experience of mourning during wartime, written, just as it says on the tin, in June 1915 as the massive extent of the casualties and stalemate in World War I was becoming inescapably apparent in Britain. Here’s a link to the text of this short poem.

Recent readers have seen that I’ve been writing recently on how poets who write short lyrics sometimes get underestimated. We readers might flow through the poems like we would paragraphs of prose, appreciating perhaps a bit of the poetic rudiments of rhyme or meter. This can go by so fast that there’s no time for more than surfaces, but great lyric poems can have depths that ask us not only to read them, or even to say them or sing them once, but to consider them for longer than the minute it may take to get through them a single time. A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.

A lyric is portable. Carry one around for a day or so, and it may enlarge.

Many Modernists sought to slow us down deliberately to oppose this one-and-done tendency. Obscure imagery, typographical variations, or syntactical sabotage are deployed for this. Mew goes in only for a light touch of the last here, with complex sentences that seem to end up somewhere else from where they begin. Her language here is quite plainspoken. There’s some interesting choices being made in the music of thought, with simple words being repeated to depict the stuck-ness of grief. I like the powerful simplicity of the repeated word “broken” here. Also notice the concise depiction of grief is externalized, depicted to a large degree by the seeming opposite in the child and the spring scene. Though not a recognized, full-fledged member of the 20th century Modernist flock, Mew’s poem of mourning and grief is not done in the Victorian manner. Even when she uses explicit emotional words, something done but twice, they are “the face of grief” and “the face  of dread.” She may have rightfully believed that a contemporary British reader would understand the wartime context of this poem, but in the Imagist manner, “June, 1915”  doesn’t say “war,” instead choosing to drill down into the charged immediate moments.

There’s no showy “stop and see how clever” imagery here either, though do not rush through consideration of the line contrasting the springtime child whose sunny lane is “as far away as are the fearless stars from these veiled lamps of town.” This line worked powerfully for me early in my appreciation of this poem, yanking the alienation between the child’s state and the mourners state a distance of light-years apart. I’ll note that a specific of Mew’s London times in the spring of 1915 has become obscure to us, but the “veiled lamps” aren’t just misty eyes, for on May 31st of that year nighttime Zeppelin bombing raids on London had commenced and blackout precautions were being practiced.

Mew could have chosen to make this poem itself as specific as its title. She didn’t. While I find it very appropriate for Memorial Day, the complex moment of this poem, so starkly told, is not even limited to the wartime dread and sorrow that engendered it.

How about the ending? I sensed an undercurrent, even an intent, the first time I read this that the child’s small eager hand isn’t just thinking of the first June rose, but is about to pick it, to turn if from a living, pollinating plant to decoration—that he innocently is aping the harvesting of souls in The Great War. If I may own the poem, I still want that there; but upon further review I don’t currently believe that was Mew’s intent.

Mourning. Grief. Dread. Part of the borderless human condition. Timeless because of its forever, returning briefness. To know this is a bare consolation, as memory is.

You can hear my performance of Charlotte Mew’s “June, 1915”  with the player gadget below.

 

 

Soon Be Gone

I start off talking about the words or context in which I experience the words, mostly poetry, that are used here. That goes on, and I notice that I’m getting near to—or even above—what I consider to be reasonable length for a blog post (around 1,000 words*) and I haven’t mentioned the music.

In the end I’ll often mutter a few things about the instruments used, urge you to listen—and roll the footnotes!

So, let’s start off today talking about the music for a little bit. I enjoy the variety of musical contexts I use for the words here. I have wide musical tastes, and yet there are still genres and sounds I haven’t yet used that I will use as this project continues to push toward 400 audio pieces. Inexpensive technology has offered an enormous audio palette to a composer/musician, unbelievable sounds and resources compared to what was available even to the commercially viable counterparts of my childhood. And yet all these possible variations are not used. How curious. How self-limiting.

Well, there are reasons for that. While I admire musicians that push out the boundaries of what they do, the marketplace often finds such efforts self-defeating, and I don’t know that they are misreading substantial audiences in their verdict on that. I’d like the audience for what the Parlando Project does to grow. Indeed, reflecting on the amount of effort that goes into this, it’s nutty that it continues at this level for an Internet audience a thousands-time smaller than pictures of a sandwich. But I’m also grateful for an audience that can at least tolerate my musical varieties on top of poetic varieties. That’s you. You’re rare. You’re not supposed to exist, and yet you do. That’s the audience this project deserves.

Perhaps a more important reason is that technology, tools, resources—while they can extend what an individual musician/composer can do—in the end revolve around the axis of the abilities of that musician/composer. I’m far from a virtuoso on any instrument, some days I’m not even competent on my core instrument, the guitar. And then there’s a key problem I work around constantly: I’m a poor singer.

I use spoken word, chant, talk-singing, altered timbres, but real, full-voiced, pitched singing of melodies escapes me. A beautiful resource I don’t have available! This limit constrains me, frustrates me—though it sometimes leads me to work on ways of integrating poetry and music other than the existing traditions of art song.**

But some material must be sung. Today’s piece is one of those. “Soon Be Gone”  is imaginatively taken from an episode early in the adult life of my late wife, who left her Twin Cities hometown to follow a mountebank to southeast Iowa where he had a job offer to work as a radio announcer. It didn’t go well, or work at all really, and she traveled back north by north-west to home where she accepted my pretentions.

When I wrote “Soon Be Gone”  some years back, not long after she had died, and decades after the events, I made some choices. I think primarily from my grief, I wrote it from the view of the mountebank, who in the piece is reflecting immediately on his loss of her.

Soon Be Gone lyrics

“Hebrew sun?” If you’re facing north, one reads its daily path from right to left

 

The opening two lines of the bridge section before the final chorus are a variation taken from a translation of “The Song of Solomon”  which had a special meaning to my wife and I.***

As a lyric writer I often prefer to leave “the plot” of a song undetermined, and if it works “Soon Be Gone”  doesn’t require that the listener know those things. I mention this as a suggestion to writers here that compression and leaving out details could add a mysterious power to a song or poem. If your listener wants to connect, give them space to fall into your words.

farfisa where the action is

It’s an organ. And it’s LIVE! Forget the dance—run!

 

The difficult and ultimately imperfect task of recording the vocals for this piece aside, I did enjoy plugging my Telecaster into real cranked-up amps and doing the two-guitar weave at the center of this song. The other featured element here is a Farfisa combo organ**** (well, a virtual instrument recreation of one) which is a tip of the hat to Dave Moore who played one with the LYL band back in the 80s.

To hear the results, use the player below. I’ll be back with more poetry and “other people’s stories” soon.

 

 

*It takes time to create shorter posts about complex subjects, but I feel the author owes it to their audience. I’ve subscribed to about two-dozen blogs that I read whenever I get a break from this project, and nothing pains me more than a talented and perceptive blog author with more words than content. Although elaborative words strung together have their pleasures, I’m often in the mood to spend more time thinking and doing than reading. This is probably why I’m drawn to the compressed lyric form in poetry.

**I rather like art song settings of poems, though they often seem to me to be one solution to the problem of setting complex texts to music while there are others less explored (what we do here.) And since I can’t sing them, there’s little incentive for me to write complicated melodic lines for singers, which means that even if I had singers to write for I’d probably find that skill undeveloped on my part.

***For example, the 8th chapter in the King James Christian version which renders things this way: “Set me as a seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm: for love is strong as death….”

****It’s falling back into the mists of time, but a player of a small electronic organ shaped like an elongated suitcase and fitted with a folding or removable set of legs was once a common feature of rock’n’roll bands. They were often played through overtaxed guitar amplifiers with only one hand playing arpeggiated parts like I use here. This sort of thing is sometimes associated with “garage rock” combos of the early 60s styled like The Kingsmen, ? and the Mysterians, The Sir Douglas Quintet, or Paul Revere and the Raiders et al. But that trope survived into the “Rock” evolution later in the decade too: The Doors, Country Joe and the Fish, early Pink Floyd and Grateful Dead and so on.

The Farfisa was an Italian-made-and-designed brand used in this role. Later in my century Phillip Glass utilized Farfisa combo organs in creating his version of composed music built on repetitive and driving organ arpeggios. The timbre of those combo organs always had me listening to Glass’ early work anticipating that they would, at any moment, break into “96 Tears”  or “Light My Fire.”

When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d

We’re about to begin April’s National Poetry Month in the U. S., but I’m going to begin celebrating #NPM2018 today with a piece that’s a good way to start things off, the opening two sections of Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

Large-Blue-RGB-National-Poetry-Month-Logo
We’re aiming to present even more audio pieces than usual this April
Use the Follow button to make sure you get a notice as they drop

 

National Poetry Month isn’t just for American poems or for American poets, but if it was, Whitman would be all the more inescapable. In the middle of the 19th Century, he and Emily Dickinson forged two original styles whose sounds and tactics can still be found in contemporary verse—Dickinson, with small lines in small poems that bind-up with puzzles immensities; Whitman with long lines and epic poems that offer a catalog of exultation. One sees a single, small thing and says it represents the universe, the other beholds the diversity of the world and says it’s really one thing. Complementary opposites.

Both were working at a prodigious pace during the 1860s, during America’s great Civil War. On April 14th of 1865 Abraham Lincoln, the US President during that war, was shot. The next day he died. Within weeks Whitman had produced the first published version of this poem along with other poems about Lincoln and the ending of the Civil War which he published as “Drum Taps.”  It would not be like Whitman to hold his thoughts on those great events inside. In contrast, Tennyson’s epic elegy on the death of a beloved friend, “In Memoriam”  took him more than 15 years before he published it.

At over 200 lines in its entirety, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,”  taken as a whole, would exceed my usual mode here. I prefer my audio pieces more the length of the 45 RPM single records of my youth. So today, I present only the first two sections of Whitman’s poem. Whitman’s voice changes over the course of this long poem, but in these opening sections Whitman (albeit in free verse) is sounding somewhat like the poets his modernism would break from. Save for the absence of rhyme, his language here would not sound out of place in Tennyson (or even the earlier Romantics, like the Shelley of “Adonais.”)

Whitman's Parent's House

Is this the dooryard? Whitman was visiting his mother’s house when he heard Lincoln had died.
He stepped outside and saw the spring lilacs in bloom.

 

I did the same thing, presenting only the intro section, last April for the poem I believe is most responsible for April being National Poetry Month, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland,”  which begins memorably “April is the cruelest month…” Those that can finish that first sentence may recall it continues “Breeding lilacs out of the dead land.” So, Whitman’s elegy and Eliot’s poetic apotheosis of High-Modernism written over 50 years later, both begin in April, and with lilacs.

We’ll be revisiting territories in “The Wasteland”  later this April, but today you can start where Whitman started his poem, and from where Eliot got some of his inspiration for his. Musically, this one is fairly simple, but I hope effective: acoustic guitar and piano with a little low synthesizer groan eventually joining in. Use the player below to hear it.

 

She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night

I said I would change things up last time, and by stepping back a few years, today’s piece does that.

How much different is “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  from the last few posts? First off, we’ve left off from war. This is a love poem. Death appears in it only briefly passing—so fast it passes, as it can in a poem, you might not even notice it. And rather than being a piece by another poet, the words here are mine. We live here at the Parlando Project with the idea of presenting “other people’s stories,” but I also want variety, so I’ll make the exception this time, and present part of my story.
 
One of the modernist/Imagist ideas that Ernest Hemmingway liked to use in his early stories was to leave an essential detail out of story, and then to strive to write it so well that the power of that detail would become present subliminally.

Lovers Tryst

In a classical aubade lovers are always awaking in a field and forgetting to check for contact dermatitis

“She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  is an aubade, a traditional form of love poetry. An aubade features lovers awaking at dawn, and the poet lamenting that their night is over, so they must now part for their un-enchanted days. What do I think is different in my aubade?

Sixteen years ago, my wife died after a short and painful illness, not yet 44 years old. I cannot tell you all that means, but one thing I experienced in my grieving process was the question of where one goes from that stopped thing. After all, you are definitively stopped, you have no momentum in any direction, unlike in the normal flow of life. You can stay stopped, or move off in any direction.

I moved, and was moved, in the direction of falling in love again. There are some difficulties in that direction, knowing of love’s inescapable impermanence. Like the lover in an aubade, I knew now, deep in my soul and body, that love means that parting is intensified.

In the end, “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  is a love poem that hardly mentions death. I was trying to do that modernist/Imagist thing. Is death still there?

Alas, the other thing that I left out, is that other person, lying beside the speaker, stuffed with dreams no doubt with all the richness, sadness and choices of their life. My love poem fails, as some do, in that respect. Can it remain unsaid my partner chose to move, and move me, as well?

Today’s piece is musically a bit different as well—there’s an antique 20th Century beat box rhythm used for one thing. To hear the LYL Band perform “She is Sleeping on the Boundaries of the Night”  use the player gadget that should appear below.