Is it even possible to mention Stonehenge without risking the unbidden memories of the feet-to-inches comic debacle from Spinal Tap? Well, that’s one reason I’m a little hesitant to introduce today’s piece in our Halloween Series this year.
But still, I’ve been talking and singing about ghosts, ancestors, spirits, and their home fires a good deal, and I remembered this performance by the LYL Band of this song I wrote after visiting an altogether homier set of Neolithic English standing stones at Avebury several years back. I understand Stonehenge is fenced off, and that enforced distance probably does little to staunch the tales of quasi-Medieval druids with magical rites floating stones in the air. Avebury’s large henge basically had a country hamlet grow up inside it, there’s even a pub in the midst of the circle. You can walk right up to the stones, feel these cool earth-aerials, measure them against one’s own height and age. A walk around the Avebury henge is a good walk, and one may also look over the equally amazing earthen ditch-works that are part of the site. As you stroll a flock of official government sheep wander the grassy meadow keeping overgrowth at bay without internal combustion clatter. So at Avebury, as I was walking around all this, I did not think of druids. I thought of men and women who dug and moved that earth, dug and moved those stones, erected them watching over each other.
There are several rings in the henge at Avebury, and the stones are individual in shape and size, furthering the thoughts I had while visiting the site.
Did they have some chieftain or matriarch who planned and ordered its construction? Perhaps. What belief was being expressed in large rocks? Some likely, at least to the level that metaphor asks of us. But as I said, I thought of who did the work — the sweaty, hard-breathing, hand-callousing work. They worked stones with stones, dug with pickaxes made of antlers. At night in what huts did they sleep, on dried grass beds perhaps? And in that night they no doubt slept hard after their day of work, dreamt dreams harder than those of old poets who need only to move words around. If the energy of the earth and sky was transmitted up and down those big stone antennas, so too must the energy of their dreams be drawn in there. And I was there where they must have slept, dreaming under night breaths, their aches soothed by the rest. Dreaming of what? Children, parents, lovers, siblings, colleagues, whole days of rest, the mighty thing they would construct, a story, a prayer, a melody, the little joys of a meal or exactly good weather?
Not druid magic in my thoughts at Avebury, but I felt those dreams might be — no must be — harder than the dulling mutes of time. They sparked around in their heads, and when their heads became skulls and then dust, where is that spark, and can we read it still, tune it in? A belief, at least to the level of metaphor, felt we could. That’s the song.
Here’s the songsheet. If you ask for scenery to back your performance of this, get the measurements right.
The player many will see below will play “Avebury Song #2,” and if you don’t see it, you can use this alternative highlighted link. I hope to complete at least one more new Halloween piece to present here yet this month, though the moving pieces of my life doesn’t make that sure.
How much did Emily Dickinson want her poetry to be understood? I can’t be sure, but I suspect she wanted it to be both puzzling and understood.* While she didn’t publish to any extent in her lifetime, she did send by mail or otherwise share poems with friends. The conventions of Dickinson’s 19th century America may be different, but it’s possible that not everyone understood each poem, or even welcomed the arrival of those poems’ enclosure, but these acts indicate that she had elements in her poetry that asked for a public place for her work.
The posthumous publication of a large selection of her poems in a series of books at the end of the 1800’s did find ample volunteer readers though. Selected from her handwritten manuscripts by outside editors and somewhat regularized, they were also presented with tacked-on titles and within subject sections like“Time and Eternity,” which however criticized by current scholars helped frame her work for her first posthumous readers.
There’s a certain kind of Dickinson poem, often with a touch of gothic whimsy, that most easily attracts a general readership. Others feature proto-Imagist observations that continue to delight readers. While there were other American poets of Dickinson’s time who had a substantial non-academic readership, now more than a century-and-a-half later, few read any other than Dickinson and Whitman.**
Having a general readership should discount no one’s literary merit, but snobbery may ask to have its say. If Dickinson is a poet admired and even read by those who are otherwise unattracted to poetry, this can be introduced as evidence against her worth as a true poet.
Given that, I have been noticing someone on behalf of the Emily Dickinson Museum has been regularly posting short Dickinson poems on Twitter asking for those who come upon them what their interpretation of these poems are. Few of the Dickinson poems this Twitter docent shares are the well-known “Greatest Hits” of Dickinson. Many are eight short lines, and those lines are often full of Dickinson’s oddest syntax and metaphysical musings. Being asked for an on-the-spot interpretation freezes many a reader as much as an armed robbery would — but at least in such a street encounter one likely knows where one’s wallet and valuables are. While I’m old enough to have grown accustomed to my own misreading of subtle poems that my fears of embarrassment are diminished, even I am hesitant to offer a Twitter reply. And this is true even though I’ve already performed some of Dickinson’s poems of that sort. What this series of Twitter posts demonstrates most vividly I think is that a great deal of Dickinson, though a time-tested popular poet, verges on incomprehensibility. So why did Dickinson write such poems?
My theory is that Dickinson was seeking to record in these cryptic short pieces certain moments of personal insight. Why take the time to versify them then? There’s evidence that Dickinson had a musical mind, and containing them such may have been a combination of the matrix of natural “music of thought” and the practical mnemonic virtues of verse. Dickinson was known to write short poems down on household scrap paper, indicating that thought was going on during domestic workdays. Perhaps I’ve come up with this mentally-drafted commonplace-book theory in that I spent some of my ordinary working life composing poetic stanzas in my head that were informed by things I was seeing and thinking while my hands were occupied. Such work is not necessarily “public poetry,” though in Dickinson’s case it now can be viewed by us strangers far removed by Dickinson’s time and place. Here’s her poem. You can be one of those strangers.
In memory of my feelings. Dickinson’s austere compression here.
So what was Dickinson on about with her poem known by its first line: “From Us She wandered now a Year?” I’m not sure, and I’m sort of comfortable with that. What is clear? It doesn’t have the attraction of imagery. “Wilderness” is totally undescribed, not rising to the level of an image, and “feet’ and “eye” are the only other concrete nouns in the entire poem. There’s no clear sense of where or when this poem occurs. While there’s some sense of separation or change as of the first phrase, the poem evokes no clear-cut emotional tone. “She” and “Us/We” are vague characters, though I read the latter as a general evocation of humanity. Dickinson’s eccentric capitalization invites us to consider many words as philosophic entities, not a “wish you were here” note about a traveling friend.*** Thomas Wentworth Higginson and Mabel Loomis Todd, her posthumous editors, put this poem in that “Time and Eternity” section, and invented a title “Invisible” for it, which indicated they didn’t know what she was on about either.
Do I have an impression? I think the poem’s “She” is Transcendentalist Nature, which as I understand Transcendentalism is essentially the revered manifestation of the true universe and any Creator. “Wandered now a year” is the unstoppable progression of seasonal time which goes forward over any barren obstacle that might stop a corporal creature (Wilderness) or without any memorial break for death or state of nothingness (Ethereal Zone). The second stanza says we cannot not fully understand this, though we may have some autumnal intimation at some part of this cycle, where we “took” (in) this “Mystery.”****
I could be wrong, but a worthy enough meaning. Still, the overall effect remains its stark unsensual expression. Few of the normal pleasures of poetry are found in these eight lines. No imagery, no statement of the senses meant to invoke feelings in the reader (other than mystification perhaps). Word-music alone is there in Dickinson’s hardwood-seat pew hymn-meter, the thing she used to write her own hymn book. This is a highly intellectualized and discorporate poetry, but as I said at the beginning, I don’t know if Dickinson intended us to read it. If not, then Dickinson’s feelings and experiences being left-out are beside the author’s point. After all, she herself may have sufficiently felt them, and this artifact is meant only to evoke that memory for herself. I, this other human today, have this overall emotion evoked: awe at the dexterity of her mind.
Today’s performance has music I composed and played in my “punk orchestral” style along with 12-string guitar. I’m using simple musical structures for the orchestral instruments, but I tell myself I can do so in the same way that guitar combo bands using a few root-V chords can none-the-less communicate something. It’s a brief poem that I represent in a short musical piece you can hear below with the graphical player, or in its absence this alternative highlighted link.
*This is a common, if not always acknowledged goal of poets: to be worthy not just of a reading, not just of some understanding, but to be worthy of a deeper and more careful and caring reading. That’s a lot to ask for words, even beautiful sounding words.
**I considered adding Poe to this exceptions list. Despite my own efforts, I doubt I could make a case for Longfellow retaining 21st century readership.
***Possible that there’s a specific lower-case “she” and this poem is more simply a “missing you” poem? I’ll offer this aside my theory, that if Dickinson felt that toward specific shes then it could occur to her to personify a manifestation of at least a conceptual Godhead as “She.” It’s possible to be thirsty and thoughtful.
****Sandy Denny’s song “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” would be an example of a more elaborate and sensuous expression of the same sort of thought. It’s also a feeling I tend to get each fall, which may help spur my Septober Energy, where I set out to harvest what creative energy I have.
Here’s a sharp short poem about an alienated performer written by a little-known Afro-American poet who slots in between Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes, Raymond G. Dandridge.* Given that most 20th century Afro-American poets get placed in the “Harlem Renaissance” shelf-section, it’s notable that all three of these Black poets have connections with Ohio. Dandridge lived his life in Cincinnati, Dunbar was from Dayton, and Hughes went to high school and started writing poetry in Cleveland.
Unlike Dunbar and Hughes, Dandridge never left Cincinnati, but “Zalka Peetruza (Who Was Christened Lucy Jane)” made it into some anthologies, and that’s where I came upon it in the early years of the Parlando Project. It’s a momentary portrait of a woman who has taken on a foreign sounding name to further her persona as an exotic dancer. Dandridge says she “danced, near nude,” but the poem doesn’t more fully explain the context. Moderns may wonder if this is a tawdry stripper kind of gig, but my ignorance of what Dandridge would have known and possibly seen as a young man in early 20th century Ohio, doesn’t give me enough of a clue.
The 19th and Early 20th century in America did have scandalous but putatively artistic dancing by scantily clad women, often playing exotic roles from myths, legends, or even the Bible. So, I just don’t know. What Dandridge does make plain is that our Zalka Peetruza is doubly alienated. She’s not presenting herself as Lucy Jane, a domestic Afro-American, and there’s no sign that she has agency or enjoyment in the eroticism of her act.** There are levels upon levels of alienation here: she’s pretending to not be an Afro-American, she’s performing without joy in the performance, without any understanding of her by the audience, and all this is in the situation of America’s racial caste system and overt early 20th century racism.
To illustrate the strange alienation of black dancers before white audiences, I was able to find some pictures of the Afro-American performers at Harlem’s famous Cotton Club whose audience was “whites only.”
Dunbar’s poem “We Wear the Mask” has become a famous general statement of Afro-American alienation. Dandridge’s poem is more specific and focused, but it gains its own power from that.
But wait, there’s one more level of alienation to deal with here. Raymond Dandridge was paralyzed from polio as a young man. He wrote this poem about a dancer when he himself was bedridden, able only to write after learning to use his left hand. From this stance, this situation, he wrote a poem about all the ways that dancer was alienated from being an authentic artist in America, and the moment of “shame” in that failure.
A newspaper illustration of how Dandridge wrote. Oddly, the illustrator shows him using his right hand.
There are three ways to hear my performance of “Zalka Peetruza (Who Was Christened Lucy Jane)” that I’ve re-released as part of our observance of National Poetry Month this April. Above is a new lyric video, and then below (for some) is a graphic audio player. If you just want to hear the audio of my performance and musical setting for Dandridge’s poem, and don’t see the player, there’s also this highlighted link.
*Silly things I wonder about sometimes. There are two other notable Black Dandridges. One that even comes up in web searches for Raymond G. is Ray E. Dandridge who was a slick fielding and hot hitting Negro Leagues 3rd baseman who was just a bit too old to benefit from the post Jackie Robinson integration of baseball. He did spend time in the high minors past his prime playing years with the Minneapolis Millers, who played a few blocks from where I write this. And then there’s Dorothy Dandridge, who was a mid-20th century Afro-American singer, dancer, and actor. I idly wonder if our poet was related to either. Ray E. was from Virginia, but Dorothy was from Cleveland.
**Nor does the poem’s speaker, who is perhaps Dandridge himself, admit to any positives to Zalka’s dance. The implications may be that he does not have, or that he’s not willing to talk about any erotic charge received from it — but I also suspect that there are elements here of the sexual exploitations of enslavement making the dance situation shame-prone. However, Dandridge is not shaming the dancer, only noting that she feels shame. The poem doesn’t tell us what took Zalka/Lucy Jane to this career, or even who the audience or employer is. I can only speculate.
Given the everything I’d rate between losses, troubles, and mere distractions I’ve gone through since late last autumn, I’m not in a mood this week to do the traditional Parlando Top Ten list for the past season. These are the same issues in repertory that have reduced the number of new pieces I was able to present here during that time. You, the audience for this Project, have stayed with this: readership to this blog is growing, overall listenership to the audio pieces is slightly up. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. There’s more than three of you — I mean to thank all of you three times.
I know some of you do like these quarterly Top Tens, and I enjoy them myself — if only just to see what pieces from the variety presented here got the most response. That said, let’s rush through the numbers 10 up to 6 for the record:
You can see in those five pieces two from my memorial observance for the Irish-American poet McKiernan who I had the privilege to know and examine poetry with, and one from my February Black History Month celebration of Langston Hughes’ first poetry collection The Weary Blues. There in the middle, there’s one by long-time Parlando Project favorite Emily Dickinson. And my own piece in that group talks about the loss of Ethna and also my March memorial subject who Dave Moore and I also knew and worked with: Kevin FitzPatrick. If you missed any of these, each of that above list is a link to my original blog posting and the audio performance of it, just as the following ones bolded titles are.
We join the countdown to the most listened to and liked piece then at number 5.
Spring, a rebuttal.
5. Velvet Shoes by Elinor Wylie. A lovely, graceful winter poem by a too-often-overlooked poet from “The Last Twenties” in our previous century. I like the music and performance I created for this one just as much as I did when I created it back around the beginning of 2022.
One would think I’d be through with snow experiences this far into spring, but my morning bike ride today was in big wet flakes and a cold enough north wind. Wylie’s velvet snow is more the dry January sort, but then appreciating snow for its beauty qualities may be best done in past-tense. If so, you may enjoy listening to this one in what I hope is a pleasant spring.
4. Lenox Avenue: Midnight by Langston Hughes. “The rhythm of life is a Jazz rhythm” says the first line of Hughes’ poem. I did my best to honor that injunction from one of the first Afro-American poets to unabashedly celebrate that musical form. Although I’m a vary unskilled keyboard player I was able to compose a satisfying two-handed part using MIDI as a scoring tool. I wanted a saxophone solo too, which you can hear a bit of in this performance, but I just couldn’t score or execute enough articulation to “make it.” The piece’s final horn section flourish is one of my rare surrenders to using a sampled musical phrase.
Of course, motif sampling is now an oft honored tactic in the ongoing Afro-American musical tradition, so perhaps I shouldn’t view it as a failure on my part. On the audacity front: I decided to extend Hughes’ lyric which ended with “And the Gods are laughing at us” with a newly written affirmation from after the poem’s time of 1926, one that says that the young art of Jazz and of young writer Langston Hughes’ has answered those gods.
3. Sonny Rollins, The Bridge 1959. Staying with Jazz for this one, though with my own words straight through. There are beliefs — some sincere, some insincere — that Afro-American history is but a sorrowful tale, a grievance and a pandering response. If you can heartily do so, I ask you to improvise your own expletive response to the call of that fearful theory, one with as much eloquence and melodic force as you can deliver. Now our response may not be Sonny Rollins level improvisation. That’s not a reason not to — after all, Sonny Rollins wasn’t sure his improvisations were Sonny Rollins’ level improvisations. That’s the story in this piece.
I seem to lack the concentration, or the assured concentration of blocks of time, to do arrangements as full as the one I created for Frost’s poem right now. But you can still enjoy this one.
1. Stones by Ethna McKiernan. One answer to lack of compositional time is to write solo instrument pieces, which for me usually means acoustic guitar. Of the several pieces I did to introduce more of you to McKiernan’s range of poetry, this was the one that by far got the most listens this winter — in fact, more listens than any piece has received for more than a year during its first season after posting.
Before I leave you to listen to it, I want to say that beyond soothing my grief at Ethna’s death, that performing those pieces which used her words this winter made her seem closer than our too casual life connection sometimes had us. Wherever we voyage, the same waves lap the same sounds on the walls of our boats.