Gacela of the Dark Death

Here’s a piece using a fresh translation I made this month of a Spanish poem by Federico García Lorca. I’m sure there’s much to say about Lorca from those that know his work better than I do. That group of Lorca admirers includes many other artists whose work I respect, so it’s about time to present something by him here.

I’m told that a Gacela is a traditional Spanish form, but that Lorca’s poem follows the form only in spirit. Because Lorca was executed during the Spanish Civil War, not long after this poem was written, some view it as reflecting his experience of the war, but I get the impression that death elements were present in Lorca’s work even before the war. While encountering this poem in order to translate and perform it, I came to believe there’s a compound commentary on human mortality and more here.

Federico_Garcia_Lorca

Federico García Lorca, a poet with open heart dreams

 

The poem opens and closes with a refrain that ends with a strong, bloody, and yet ambiguous last line carrying the image of a boy wanting to cut his heart. I chose not to overdetermine that image because I believe its ambiguity should remain. It could be an image of desire, or of self-harm, or emotional outreach—so let it be any or all of those things.

The middle portion of the poem, which I chant rather than sing, has a tone in my reading that has humorous elements, even if that seems to go counter to other readings of the text I found. When this section starts with what sounds like folk aphorisms about the dead, I take them as dark humor. In the next line “No quiero enterarme de los martirios que da la hierba” I decided for the only time in my translation to intentionally make the image stronger to American readers, by making the hierba, the grass, “leaves of grass” to connect to Whitman and his great image forged in the American Civil War. I can’t be sure, but I spent a long time on that stanza’s moon with a snake’s mouth image, “la luna con boca de serpiente” and what with the punch line about that mouth always working before dawn got me asking the question if this was a vampire image, which I decide to refer to sideways by determining that fangs were what serpent’s mouth means. Consistently in this stanza Lorca is giving us death images, but he’s also saying he doesn’t want to hear them.

I think the next stanza is meant to be humorous too, starting off with the wanting to sleep (perchance to dream?) for a moment to maybe as long as a  century—but “pero que todos sepan que no he muerto,” “let everybody know I’m not dead” as I translate it. Yes, like Hamlet he wants to compare sleep and death, but he’s playing with it. I’m at a loss if the “pequeño amigo del viento oeste,” “little friend of the west wind” is referencing something. It sounds almost like a children’s story or lullaby. I think this stanza’s concluding line is so wonderful that it transcends mood and attitude: “soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas,” “I am the immense shadow of my tears.”

This stanza’s concluding line is so wonderful that it transcends mood and attitude: “soy la sombra inmensa de mis lágrimas,” “I am the immense shadow of my tears.”

The final chanted stanza before we return to the sung refrain also seems to me to be playing with death. Are we meant to take the insects here as accomplices of the grave’s earth? But this sounds like a boyish schoolyard dispute “He threw ants at me!” And what’s with the scorpion claw? As a northern North American I don’t deal with actual scorpions (hey, tropic readers, let me tell you about black flies…) but isn’t it the stinger that’s the weapon? I’m left wondering if there’s some idiom here that I just don’t know, even some kind of schoolboy pestering like unto a “noogie.”

And then the poem returns to a variation of the refrain, mysterious, beautiful, and I think serious. As to the intent of the poem, I felt I could perform the mystery and commit to the humor I found in the middle section without knowing the poem’s heart entirely. I think you can listen to it the same way. It is a darkly playful meditation on death? A comment on the outbreak and casualties of a civil war? Or is it a longing for childhood life and adventurous dreams? Or a love poem to a young man in Lorca’s life at the time the poem was written? Walt Whitman could sing all those things together, so why couldn’t Lorca?

I felt I could perform the mystery and commit to the humor I found in the middle section without knowing the poem’s heart entirely. I think you can listen to it the same way.

Musically, I sought to contrast the two refrain sections from the poem’s middle one. I was going to play my nylon string guitar for a Spanish flavor on this. Sadly, when I opened its case this week I found that its bridge had come completely off the top. Oh well, my battered Seagull Folk guitar had to stand in. My orchestration brings a bassoon part forward.

You can hear my performance of my English translation of Federico García Lorca’s “Gacela of the Dark Death”  with the player gadget below.

Advertisements

The Young Intellectual

I spend an invisible part of the iceberg in this project looking around for material that I think might work combined with music. One thing invariably happens when you look broadly at something: you find connections that you didn’t expect you’d find.

Here’s something I’ve noticed this fall: around 1875 or so, in a small, little-thought-of area of the U.S., a bunch of people were born who went on to leave a mark on our nation’s culture, even if only one of them retains any fame now in the 21st Century (and even that exception is undervalued in my estimation).

Geographically the area I speak of is the region where the Mississippi and Rock rivers meet in the Midwest, which had transitioned from what had been an important point for the Native-American tribes at the beginning of the 19th century and before, to an area that supported settler towns which grew up around river-based commerce and industry. “Transitioned” of course is a passive word for a slow-motion invasion and conquest by the European Immigrant-Americans, which included the short Black Hawk war of 1832 that left a great many Native-American names, but fewer Native-Americans, in the area. Eventually states were created here bearing those native names: Iowa and Illinois.

Who’s in the cohort from this area and time?

My relative*, Susan Glaspell, born in Davenport Iowa in 1876. Glaspell and her husband (George Cram Cooke, also born in Davenport, 1873) eventually midwifed the birth of Modernist American drama in Provincetown Massachusetts and New York City.

Carl Sandburg was born 1878 in Galesburg Illinois. Sandburg was a big noise in the first half of the 20th Century, and I maintain he is now the forgotten Modernist, and a man who strived to weave several important American threads.

Arthur Davison Ficke (born 1883 in Davenport) a now lesser-known, but fascinating figure that I’ve yet to grapple with. Like Ezra Pound, he was drawn to Japanese art, and like his post WWI hot-crush, Edna St. Vincent Millay, he attempted to utilize older forms such as the sonnet in an increasingly Modernist age. As part of this friction, he and his friends Witter Bynner and Marjorie Allen Seiffert (born 1885 in Moline across the river from Davenport) concocted the Spectrist movement, parodying the -ics and-ists schools that were forming in Modernism. Oddly, the parodist seems to have been captured by his game, and Ficke later reconsidered Modernist poetic tactics.

Muriel Strode born 1875 in rural Bernadotte Township Illinois. I haven’t quite gotten a grip on her yet (though she was sometimes styled as “The Female Walt Whitman”), but she wrote a number of books early in the 20th Century combining a sort-of-Kahlil-Gibran-like popular non-denominational spirituality with Nietzschean self-improvement. She’s the most little-known here by far. So little is known about her that one can’t really use biography to help sort out what she’s getting at.

There was even a younger generation that called Davenport it’s hometown. Floyd Dell (born 1887) the editor of The Masses  which in the early 20th century linked Modernism with left-wing politics until the red scare of 1917 closed it down, and Bix Beiderbecke (born 1903), the live-fast-die-young jazz composer and cornetist.

Folks from where the Mississippi meets the Rock river
They’d make one hell of a roundtable. From the upper left: Susan Glaspell, Carl Sandburg, Arthur Davison Ficke, Floyd Dell, Muriel Strode, and Bix Beiderbecke.

 

But since we last time touched on Dorothy Parker, let’s present a piece I slightly modified from a poem by Don Marquis, born 1878 in the tiny settlement of Walnut Illinois, but educated in Galesburg. Don Marquis is usually filed (like Parker) as a humorist, but like Parker he worked in various genres including collaboration with the Krazy Kat cartoonist George Herriman. Unlike some of the others here, it appears that Don Marquis’ most consistent connection to Modernism was to satirize it. Today’s audio piece, which I call “The Young Intellectual**”  pricked the romantic presumptions the young Modern of his time might suffer from. I updated part of one verse (the original next to last line was “I’ll start a Pale Brown Magazine”) when I performed it, an update I choose just so we can more easily feel offended or amused by his humor now. The player to hear the LYL Band performing this is below.

 

 

*My Great-grandfather lived on the Iowa side of these river-towns and worked in war-industry factories there. My father’s mother and her sister also grew up in the Davenport area. Alas, many of them died before I was old enough to ask questions, and one thing I regret about my youth is that I didn’t query those that were around.

**I’m not sure I qualify as an intellectual, but I’m sure I’m not young—so, Marquis can’t be talking about me now, can he. Like Ficke, Marquis also parodied Modernist verse, rather broadly from the examples I’ve read in his Hermione and Her Little Group of Thinkers  from 1916. Marquis’ greatest success was a series of later newspaper columns that became a series of books about “archy and mehitabel” ostensibly created and typed by a cockroach hopping on the typewriter keys in Marquis’ office. Archy, the cockroach/author, is also something of a free-verse poet, and Archy’s poems are a much subtler expression.

Don Marquis in the Tribune

Marq Daddy? He looks like an urban swell here, but the country he comes from they call the Midwest

Looking for a Way to Go

The year 2018 marches on, as we pass onward past Thanksgiving toward December. I’m quite thankful for the opportunity to continue this project. Time-consuming though it is to do these pieces, it also continues to fascinate me and (one hopes) it also continues to surprise and entertain you. For me there’s considerable enjoyment in trying out or finding out something new, thinking about something, or playing something, different.

Another blog that gives me those pleasures is My Year in 1918,  where its author has been immersing herself in the publications of that epochal year. Her recent thankfulness post looked at some 1918-era people she has run into on that nearly year-long project. As Thomas Hardy put it in his poem of this era, it was a time of the breaking of nations, but as Mary Grace McGeehan looks over her year of 1918, she highlights a few that were mending and mitigating.

Though they may no longer be as well-known, some of McGeehan’s list you and I might recognize: W. E. B. Du Bois, Jane Adams. Others, such as women’s suffrage activist Anna Kelton Wiley and bra designer Mary Phelps Jacob were unknown to me. Three writers get a nod, all three wrote poetry: Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams and Dorothy Parker.

Dorothy Parker 1924

That plant looks like it could use a little water. Dorothy Parker at home in 1924.

 

Amy Lowell is a literary force I need to address sometime in my own project, though I’ve yet to absorb anything of her poetry. Though I overlooked Williams in my youth, he’s grown on me throughout this project as his public domain, pre-1923, work explores the lyric impulse with eyes whose perspective has been expanded by the Modernist explosion. The third, Parker, is a double surprise. I can see where My Year in 1918’s McGeehan will encounter her, as Parker was writing for magazines (one of My Year in 1918’s chief sources of material), but she’s not some inescapable pantheon writer. And though later in life she became a committed social activist, particularly in regard to African-American civil rights, her WWI self had yet to develop in this regard. But she’s a, a—oh, the never-immortal shame, the art that dare not speak its name—a humorist.

Algonquin Round Table

Parker with the Algonquin Round Table group of wits. We don’t know if they’re having lunch with those drinks, but it’s something of a sausage fest anyway.  I haven’t seen a caption naming those present, proof that humorists don’t make the pantheon. Besides Parker on the lower right, I think it’s Alexander Woollcott 2nd from left in the upper row, but I’m drawing a blank on the rest.

 

Humorists, whatever their skill and craft, tend to damage their reputations as literary figures. We like our literary titans dour and serious for the most part. They can scatter a little wit around for decoration or as weaponry, but to be celebrated for their merit—even if that’s all we end up really noting about them, their worthy merit—you need to rise above that. The assumption seems to be: if the point is to make you laugh, the point is ephemeral.

We think too little of humorists as agents of social change, or as participants in the Modernist artistic revolution of the early 20th Century. We do this even after Dada, even after Mark Twain’s now-recognized status as another American who broke Modernist ground before the 20th century.

To take Dorothy Parker seriously (not solemnly) you need to start by acknowledging that she’s fighting with two hands tied behind her back: she’s a woman before women were considered capable of human complexity, and she wants you to laugh at our folly. Parker survives at times wielding dark, survivors’ humor, the sensibility that remembers her poem “Resumé,”  a meme in verse about suicide. She might step on a few toes while doing that, and she’ll laugh about it.

Alternate voice here, Dave Moore, has appreciated Dorothy Parker for some time. Several years back the LYL Band covered Alan Moore’sMe and Dorothy Parker,”  and here today is the LYL Band doing a Dave Moore original that expands on Parker’s observations on suicide in his own words.

Parker ended “Resumé”  with the punch-line “You might as well live.” I’d add, you might as well create art. After all, even in the worst-case, you’re only burning part of your life-time while struggling with joy and it’s opposite. If there’s no hope, you might as well hope.

Thanks again for reading and listening. Thanks to spreading the word about the Parlando Project. In the Internet world of millions of likes and shares, we’re a small thing, but I’m grateful for you helping keep this little thing going. The player for the LYL Band’s performance of Dave Moore’s “Looking for a Way to Go”  is below.

 

I’m Nobody Who Are You?

Last time I talked about how hard it is to be sure how Emily Dickinson meant her poems to be read. Some poems seem gentle, some fierce. She sent some to her more conventional friends enclosed in letters or gifts—but some she never shared, and puzzle even hard-core literary critics to this day. When is she applying a clarifying simplicity to complex or profound subjects and when is she undermining simple statements or homey images with subtle side-glances? She’s a small-town 19th Century person, a stalwart reader of the book of nature—and yet she sometimes reminds me of later 20th century urban wits, like Frank O’Hara or even Dorothy Parker as much as she reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson. Am I reading this into Dickinson, or is it already there?

Emily D the T Shirt

Been there, done that, got the T-Shirt.

 

Well, I take today’s Dickinson piece pretty much as it seems, a humorous conspiracy with someone, perhaps the reader, wherein lack of credentials or claims to the podium/lily pad are brushed aside. This is a good place to begin observation and then art, or the circle back from art to observation of it, perhaps the best place.

So here’s Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody Who Are You?”  as I performed it, available through the player below. And not to shout from the lily pad, but the only reward I get for the time and effort of doing this is you, the audience who listens to these various words from past nobodies who want to talk to us. Thanks for doing so, and if you find something here you like, please let others know about it.

 

Sincerely, M. Cohen

As long-time readers here will know, the Parlando Project likes to vary what it does. Loud, immediate and approximate rock’n’roll, string quartets, folkie and electronica tinges combine with words that I look around for—different stories each time, most of them not mine.

Are we now going to vary from Bronze Age Chinese poetry collected to instruct politicians? Or from the W.H. Auden-who-can-bring-the-funk remarks of Jimi Hendrix’s ET visiting the Third Stone from the Sun and marveling at the chickens?

Well, maybe a little.

And so, we’re going to descend into parody today. Mad  magazine imprinted me on parody while young, and Weird Al Yankovic never did a thing to cure me, and here I am an old man who still can’t help making up travesty-lyrics to songs he hears, which distresses my son who likes to sing Billy Joel’s “For the Longest Time”  with his sincerely growing voice, while my questionable tenor tries to make that into a dissertation on salad vs. main-course silverware: “Fork with the Longest Tine.”

To the possible detriment of today’s piece, I didn’t choose anything as well known as one of Joel’s hits. In tryouts, just one of the folks I’ve sung today’s piece to even recalls the original song it references: Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat.*”  That may say something of the fragmentary fame of Leonard Cohen in the United States. Back in the Sixties, a couple of his songs “Suzanne”  and “Bird on a Wire”  were fairly well known from cover versions, and his 21st Century song “Hallelujah”  has become even more well-known after being sung by John Cale, Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright—but “Famous Blue Raincoat”  despite dozens of covers, just hasn’t penetrated the U.S. mind.**  There may be reasons for that. It doesn’t have a hooky chorus, even Leonard Cohen himself thought the lyrics were confusing, and to the degree it has an accessible plot it’s about a complicated love relationship far from the common I love her/him, or her/him has left me and I’m so sad or angry about that.***  My favorite part of the song was its uncommon ending, where it’s revealed to be a letter of sorts, signed with solemn irony “Sincerely, L. Cohen.”

M Cohen and L Cohen

A famous orange retainer and a famous blue raincoat.

 

And that was the hook for today’s parody. I thought of another Cohen living in New York City, who is a principal in another messy romantic entanglement, whose feelings about it are multivalent, and whose sincerity is a changing thing. You can hear “Sincerely, M. Cohen”  using the player below.

 

 

 

* If you want to hear Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat”  first, you can see a lyrics video here.

** Am I depending on the Parlando reader/listeners outside the US this time, and yet assuming you have any interest in juicy U.S. scandals?

*** Ever wanted a coherent reading of the Cohen song? Here’s one of the best I’ve read.

The Fox

My son, now a teenager, is aware that I have a blog, and that it deals with poetry somehow. Limited by his parents in his computer time, and pressingly interested in the other things he’s discovered, he doesn’t listen to it.

But he does want to be helpful. Earlier this month he suggested by asking: “Have you used any poetry by Kahlil Gibran? Have you heard of him?” One of my son’s teachers is from Lebanon, where Gibran was born, and Gibran has come up as a famous Lebanese-American.

Khalil Gibran by Fred Holland Day

Note the art portfolio, the young Gibran’s aims were as a visual artist

 

Had I heard of him? Yes, I recall buying a copy of “The Prophet”  as a somewhat older teenager in a bookstore. I think the edition may have included a now disputed quote comparing him to William Blake, and that may have accounted for my purchase then.

Over the decades since it was published in 1923, my decision to purchase “The Prophet”  has been replicated millions of times. It’s an extraordinarily popular book, and not one that achieved its popularity by a burst of sales, but by remaining intriguing to readers for 95 years. Nor am I alone in seeking to combine Gibran with music, as it’s been done more than once already, with everything from a borrowed Gibran line making it into John Lennon’s “Julia”  to the as far as I know unacknowledged connections to Queen’s masterpiece The Prophet’s Song.”

I remember reading that copy of Gibran’s “The Prophet”  in an hour or so later that day. My dorm-roommate read my copy too, but I remember he was puzzled that I had read through it so fast.

Unlike many readers of “The Prophet”  I had some background. As a young person I had substantial interest in various kinds of occult, spiritual and mystic writings. Gibran in “The Prophet”  didn’t impress me as being very good of type. The stilted sort-of King James Version English seemed effected, the matter it tried to convey seemed newspaper horoscope vague, and the typical trope used to express that matter was a litany of everything is it’s opposite.

That was my opinion as an 18-year-old. It has changed slightly as I briefly revisited Gibran this month in search of something I might want to use. First, I have a much greater appreciation for the struggles of those that try to bridge the culture and language of their birth to the culture and language of their new homes, and in the sections of Gibran that dial-back the hazy mysticism I can now read some elements of humor and satire that I missed on first encounter. I wonder how Gibran’s works in Arabic read to a native speaker. Did he present a different face and voice there than he did to English speakers in America? And what I’ve seen of his artwork does have a Blakean tinge, a combination of classical line with esoteric and romantic subject matter.

Illustration_from_The_madman by Gibran

One of Gibran’s illustrations for “The Madman”

 

Today’s audio piece, “The Fox”  comes from Gibran’s first English language collection “The Madman.”  As parables go, it’s quite applicable to the daily grind of creating these pieces. It may not be the camel I set out for, but hopefully it’s a delectable mouse.

 

The Banjo Player

“So, what are you going to do today?” my teenaged son asked me.

“Go and be of some use to the world.” I replied.

“How are you going to do that?”

“Write about Fenton Johnson.”

“No really, what are you going to do?”

“Write about Fenton Johnson.”

“Oh. I thought it was a joke or something when you said it.” He was mildly puzzled—but like most of us, most of the time, probably not interested in explanations. Fenton Johnson is not a figure of wide interest, even within the minority interest our culture finds in poetry. Perhaps at some later time he’ll read this, and it’s not an accident that I continue to write here aiming at someone just a bit older than he is.

Of course, I had meant that as something akin to a joke, because our lives and callings are all, taken whole, comic. The sport of fate and circumstance for good or ill should never be mistaken for judgement. Even the tragic is but darkly comic.

James Weldon Johnson on the phone

James Weldon Johnson: poetry anthologist and all-around American polymath,
finds he still can’t Tweet or post to Instragram  from his phone.

 

In 1922, when James Weldon Johnson (no relation to Fenton) sought to make up the first anthology of Afro-American poetry, he had similar hopes, though more grounded in his greater talent and effort. James Weldon Johnson, like Felton Johnson, was a rare college-educated man in the early 20th Century, and doubly-rare, both were Afro-American college graduates. Both Johnsons held to a responsibility their circumstance pressed upon them: to uplift their race and to heal and resist the ignorance of racial prejudice.

That second part, the resistance part, should feel familiar, as it’s an ongoing struggle many will feel a part of today. Prejudice of many kinds, injustice in so many cases, is still a pressing issue. The uplift part however may feel quaint.

In his preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry  James Weldon Johnson sets out the case that Black American poets should be able to rise to the highest levels of literary achievement, and while he’s not exactly apologetic about the poets his anthology will present, he’s also not a hype-man for what they have accomplished in 1922. Of Fenton Johnson, who he includes in his anthology, he says:

“Fenton Johnson is a young poet of the ultra-modern school who gives promise of greater work than he has yet done.”

Yet, as I look for the work of Fenton Johnson today, almost all the work I find are citations to the same pieces James Weldon Johnson included in 1922. What stunted Fenton’s career? A more extensive biography than may exist would seek to answer that question. The struggle for poetry’s place in national culture was hard enough throughout the 20th Century, add to that the challenges of racism. I do know that Fenton Johnson sought to ambitiously broaden his cultural impact by financing and editing magazines on Black arts and culture, and the failure of these publications to become sustaining was one setback.

James Weldon Johnson, surveying Black Arts in his 1922 preface for his pioneering Negro Poetry collection, speaks not at all of the visual arts (ironically, just as European Modernists were latching onto African art as an influence) and little of Black acting, despite his connections with the New York stage of the time, but he does speak prophetically about the impact of Afro-Americans on American music. Having only the evidence of the spirituals, cakewalk, ragtime, and the imperfect understanding in the cultured North in 1922 of what the newly discovered “Blues” might truly be about, JWJ professes that Afro-American music is already a predominant strain. Nearly a century since, we can only say that he was too modest in his view of the future, however audacious he might have seemed in 1922. American music, seen from outside our country, and in any honest assessment from inside our borders, is Afro-American music. I don’t want to slight the contributions in our country’s music from many cultures when I say that—they are significant—but all of them cannot help but reflect on, and reflect back, the impact of the descendants of those Africans brought here as cargo.

Which brings us to this Fenton Johnson poem included in James Weldon Johnson’s anthology. Its overall intent is humorous. You can hear the college man’s mix of condescension with an honest observer’s eye for detail. What makes its poetry an example of the “ultra-modern school?” Our last episode’s Johnson piece, “A Dream,”  was blank verse, even lines, even if the ironic asymmetry of its story is modern. The cadence of Johnson’s God Is in the All Time  is strong and regular. “The Banjo Player”  is free verse, conversational in rhythm. It jumps from the despair of the “Last Chance Saloon” mitigated by music, to the Kris Kringle promise of little children dancing and clapping to the banjo strum, finishing with a joke of the sophisticate.

Like the complex church music and rhetoric of “A Dream”  last time, I had trouble musically portraying the Gus Cannon/Papa Charlie Jackson vibe of the banjo playing bluesman. The banjo is just an instrument that I fight with, and no cheating of one-man-band multi-tracking could save me here I fear. Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, or someone better attuned to the banjo need to perform this.

I spent an afternoon yesterday depressed at my failure to fulfill the promise of Fenton Johnson’s piece. Could one more mix fix this? Nope.

I moped until I went to sleep.

And then my son asked me this question in the morning.