From the Dark Tower: “Younger Negro Artists” in 1926

It’s February and in America it’s Black History Month.*   In the past few years of this Project I’ve picked a publication that has entered into public domain status to examine.**  This February I’m going to feature work from a singular 1926 publication, the first issue of what was to be a literary quarterly called Fire!!  The cover advertised it would be “Devoted to younger Negro Artists.”

FIre!! cover

Want to read this issue of Fire!!  in part or all? Here’s a link to a high-resolution scan of it.

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It’s worth stopping and noticing that “younger” again. It’s easy to fall into a trap when considering a time so long ago to many who will be reading this in 2023 — but its contributors and instigators were in their younger 20s though some had been writing and publishing since they were teenagers. They may seem old to you by strange definition, but they were certainly young to themselves and their contemporaries.

I find that remarkable. While a range of Black American artists were coming to the fore in the last decade called “The Twenties,” I can’t think it was in any way a time friendly to them. Even artistic Modernism, which sought new sources of inspiration and often delighted in mocking old prejudices, was a mixed bag. Racism and ethnic stereotyping remained present in Modernism. Perhaps sociologists could tell us if it was greater or lesser in the world of art than in society at large then, but I’m certain it was no small factor. And yet here were these young writers who at this point thought it was time for them to unleash a record of their experiences.

It’s not so wild a theory to say that they were so audacious because they didn’t know any better. I’m not going to knock that — for this white elderly composer and amateur sorta-scholar to think I have anything to bring to their efforts is not how the smart money would bet either. And you? You’re reading a blog with poetry and a variety of non-commercial music. So clearly, we all don’t know any better.

In the previous year’s Black History Month series here we’ve noted that some forms of new expression that would be featured in Fire!!  were not without opposition even from the existing Black Intelligentsia. Jazz and Blues musics were considered problematic. Literary examinations of the sequalae of poverty rather than stories of uplift were controversial. Even if the 1920s were the decade that free verse became more widespread, some of these young poets looked more to Shelley and Keats than Carl Sandburg or Langston Hughes.

From the Dark Tower

Here’s Cullen’s sonnet as it appeared handsomely set in Fire!! It’s also the first poem in the poetry section of this issue, a section titled “Flame From the Dark Tower.”

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Our lead-off poet is one such example. Countee Cullen was not a Modernist poet. Unlike other metrical/rhyming poets like Frost, and sometimes Yeats or Millay, he’s not even Modernist in outlook. While he’s 23 years old when this was published, he writes as if he was looking back to his  last decade to be called the 20s, which would be the 1820s. None the less, “From the Dark Tower”  is an impassioned account of the harms of white supremacy — and it is very well written within that style. If the premiere Afro-American poet Phyllis Wheatley was out to prove that she could write 18th century poetry as well as any white poet, Cullen demonstrates that he could do the same for the 19th century. Sure, there’s the matter that he was writing in the 20th century, and we are reading him in the 21st, but that’s likely a lesser sin now when there’s no fresh battle to be joined over free verse, Jazz rhythms, or Blues speech. It’s not unlikely that we read other older poems written in this poem’s style, and Cullen is in 2023 one of those old poets.

And then there’s this — this huge thing. I was trying to quickly get down an acceptable take of my simple acoustic guitar version of my song-setting of Cullen’s poem from Fire!!  yesterday. Across my country, at the same time, in a city famed for its American music, so significantly Afro-American music, there was a funeral for yet another Black person killed by our official representatives in a manner that seems clearly to be an affront to civilization. Should we, musicians who’ve inherited that tradition, merely “beguile…with mellow flute?” To sing Cullen’s line, couched in careful rhyme and meter: “We were not made eternally to weep” — can I wish that situation would seem old-fashioned, out of date, a curiosity of the obsolete?

To hear that performance you can use a player gadget that should appear below. No player? This highlighted link is an alternative.

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*Not to cast shade on this worthy endeavor, but Black History Month has been in my observation largely an Afro-American  History month. There’s nothing inherently wrong with concentrating on that subject. I’ll just acknowledge that in the past century or so there’s been a counter-colonialist reassessment of African continental history — and while it has not risen to the level that this American has been aware of it (beyond some UK and other former English-speaking Commonwealth country reading) there may be worthwhile study and information coming forth on the wider African story.

**Because reusing, adapting, even performing, work not in the public domain is a legal gray area, this project shies away from using more modern work. Luckily as this nearing 7-year-long project has continued, more and more “Harlem Renaissance” work has entered PD status. Specific thanks is due to the Yale University Library for making Fire!!  available digitally.

Modes of Emily Dickinson: I Am Afraid to Own a Body

Let us return to the genius of Emily Dickinson, as we have regularly here at this Project. As I look to her work over the years, I find that Dickinson has several modes. In one mode, her approach is charming, a just-between-slightly-weird-friends sharing of concrete observations of people and the physical world. Even when that Emily speaks of death and eternity, it takes as its conveyance and destination a horse-drawn fate and a well-made bed/grave. Another mode, not as well represented in her “greatest hits,” can be puzzlingly condensed and abstract, as if shorthand notes taken from her own mind of states of thought or insight that come upon her.

One aspect of genius is that it can get away with things that us more craft-assigned poets cannot. To be abstract and nearly impenetrable at any length tires out readers even as her other poems draw us in. If one reads Dickinson as an entire collection, these modes are interspersed. We might think, “Oh, there’s our friend Emily in one of her private moments we cannot join — moments we accept with partial-at-best understanding because we’ve come to love the other parts of her poetry.”

Today’s short Emily Dickinson poem bridges those two modes. It opens as arrestingly as any poem could with the striking statement “I am afraid to own a body.” As I did with our last Dickinson performance here, I wonder at that line and immediately relate it to body dysphoria, something that portions of our current society experiences and is more free to express.

The poem then moves on to an allied and contrasting statement nearly as striking: “I am afraid to own a soul.” The soul is by definition incorporeal, but by linking it with the body in the first line we may palpate it none-the-less. As the quatrain finishes these two connected things, body and soul, are described as valuable, and despite our fears, inescapably present. The poem might be too short if it ended there, but I’d recognize it as a complete koan of enlightenment — but it doesn’t end.

I am afraid

1st stanza draws us in. 2nd one confounds. You & I may not be able to get away with such writing, but let us trust in the genius of Emily Dickinson.

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In the second quatrain we are off in the abstract Emily. I often seek to remind readers here that Emily lived in a house devoted to law with a father, grandfather, and brother who practiced law.*  I think there’s passion and emotion in this second and final stanza, but if we are to follow it we must think as if we’re reading a contract or one of those user agreements we so often click “accept” on without reading. This stanza as saying that both body and soul are willed to us, like a “conditions attached” bequest in a will — and then after the stanza’s second em-dash, what? Who’s the “Duke?” Since rural mid-19th century Massachusetts was not supplied with titled nobility, I suspect this is connected to something Dickinson read. I’m going to take a flying leap of wild assumption here, one that you shouldn’t “take to the bank” any more than my “what if?” wondering that the mouldering man who died for truth in this other Dickinson poem could be John Brown, and a link much less certain than the idea that the kept in quotes “hope” bird was a reference to Emily  Brontë. Could this poem’s Duke be Robert Browning’s monologuing one who speaks of “My Last Duchess?”  I know Dickinson read Elizabeth Barrett Browning, so it’s not an impossible leap to think she read EBB’s spouse too.

If our Duke is exhibiting his deathless painting of his now dead (likely on his own orders) “last Duchess,” Dickinson is perhaps (in a very obscure and condensed way) mentioning drawbacks to our existence as a body** and as a questing soul.***  What then to make of the final line? I’m not sure. Is God the bequeather of the soul and body in the bargain our speaker is afraid of? Is God as cruel and exacting as Browning’s Duke? What’s the closing “Frontier?” The course of our lifetimes not yet mapped out? A “light out for the territory” escape? I’m not sure.

I’ll be honest, I recorded my performance of this second stanza not having figured out even these potentially wrong readings of it. What did I rely on then? There is some worthwhile word-music — and poetry using that tactic can give pleasure and connection before understanding. I trusted the mystery of the words might convey some mystery to the listener even if I had not opened the packet containing their meaning. My hope: that I could be, however imperfect and limited, one who carries Emily Dickinson’s genius to you.

You can hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “I Am Afraid to Own a Body”  with the player gadget below. If you don’t see the player, there’s this highlighted link that will play it too. Speaking of links, there are other hyperlinks in the post above to some other Parlando Project Dickinson pieces that you might want to read.

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*Have other better-known and credentialed scholars made much of Emily Dickinson’s connection to the law? I think the last time I searched I didn’t find much of anything. There’s a thesis topic for some young reincarnation of Wallace Stevens.

**Not much of a leap to a feminist reading of a female  body here.

***One of my observations on reading my first full-length biography of Dickinson many decades ago was how remarkably determined she was to resist the pull of declaring herself as “saved” during her time and place’s Christian religious revival. Schoolmates, family, and community all declared, and she steadfastly refused.

Yeats’ “A Fairy Song”

A person I know as a poet told me at a reading that he was playing with his Jazz combo on Sunday, assuming (rightly) that there would be some interest on my part. I told him I wasn’t sure if I could attend, since I live in a household with two distressed persons. They nodded as if they understood.

If you’ve noticed that this Project has been more intermittent, that’s much of the reason. The typical post here starts with looking for interesting texts, researching a bit about their context, composing, playing and recording the music, and then finally these blog entries about my encounters with the poems and the process of presenting them. The order of these events isn’t set in stone, occasionally there are gaps between steps, but it’s also common for each step to take an open-ended block of concentration. My desires to support those I love, their needs for quiet, and frankly, my unease held in common with theirs, has made that kind of focus rare for several months, wearing down what storehouse of steps I have for new pieces of work.

In place of that, I’ve taken up two things that more easily fill the odd-lots moments of time that come to me. I’ve increased Twitter promotion of the over 650 pieces in our Parlando Project archives found here.*  I’m doing that enough that I’m probably seen by some as an ignorable nag by now, and the results so far in drawing traffic are only slightly better than my attempts on Twitter made during last National Poetry Month. Still this substitute effort to promote the various ways that music and words can combine makes me feel like I’m not abandoning this Project’s goals.

The other activity is reading, which of course has always been part of the Project, but I speak of reading that isn’t directly tied to finding a new piece or understanding its contexts. I’m mostly reading books about musicians, music, or poets for pleasure and as a reset from life stress.

But enough about me and troubles that aren’t yours. This post is getting tardy in getting to today’s work by William Butler Yeats. His “A Fairy Song”  comes from a fairy story told in a verse play from early in Yeats career. Most recently we’ve presented a later Yeats poem “A Coat”   in which Yeats is looking askance at this sort of earlier work and at those who chose to copy his early style. “A Fairy Song” is  very pretty, and you could enjoy it just as fantasy word-music — decoration not declaration or anything much. I enjoyed the poem from first reading on that basis. In times of trouble, why not some dancing fantasy?

A Fairy Song

Easy chords & simple arrangement, and like many of my Parlando Project pieces, offered here in case other singers want to sing it.

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However, after waking in the middle of the night last night I read the play The Land of Hearts Desire  that this poem appears in twice, introduced inside the play by a fairy child. Let me quickly summarize the plot: a young bride is beguiled to take in a beautiful child who comes upon their rural poor Irish cottage at night. She gives the child food and warmth, and in return the child reminds her that her loving marriage means bondage to grinding tasks of life and family duties that will have no release until death — but if the young bride comes away with the beautiful child to the otherland of the faery, they will have nothing but carefree joy.

It’s a commonplace that fairy stories have psychological depth, and so to my mind in the middle of my night, I was ready to take this one in beyond idle fantasy. I hold for the loving marriage. I hold for duty. Ever the freedom and fate for breakage, ever the poverty or wealth of what we can give and bring — beside and knowing that — I’m for that above music and magic. And readers, I love music and poetry a great deal.

That poet who plays saxophone in his jazz combo? I waited until an hour before the show started, things were clear, I went off and saw them play. I was worried: jazz plus poetry is a formula that might each reduce the additive audience, but an appreciative 50 or so showed up scattered about the theater. A stranger a couple of seats over thought the keyboard player sang like Chet Baker — and yes he did. The playing was fine, and at my age I might have danced, but the fixed theater seat aisles would have kept a dancing ring from forming.

The next day I had what turned out to be a bit over an hour to find music from “The wind that blows out the gates of the day.”** I did so and quickly recorded this simple setting with acoustic guitar of Yeats’ “A Fairy Song.”   You can hear it with the player gadget below. No gadget seen? This highlighted link will play it too.

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*If you’re following the Elon-Musk-takes-Twitter farce of Internet doors opening and closing amid much bumbling, you may be curious about my take on this. No time today. There are some interesting people there, including a small poetry community — that size like all poetry communities. Twitter’s design, which long predates Musk, is conducive to folks like me with unknown blocks of time from a few minutes to sleepless doomscrolling hours. I personally find it impossible to keep up with WordPress on my phone, even though I treasure the blogs I follow when I can find time at a larger computer screen.

**If you’re interested in a deep dive into the Irish faery mythology that Yeats was using in his play and poem, this web page will give you quite a bit to go on.

The Birmingham Vulcan (for MLK)

The Holiday

Monday is Martin Luther King Day in the United States, which I take as an occasion to honor the man but also to honor the American promise that changes for the better can be achieved, albeit via earnest efforts and personal costs.

At my age King and the mid-century struggle for what was then called “Civil Rights” were not history — they were current events. I can tell you that despite the somewhat anodyne holiday we celebrate this year, these things were in King’s time as fractious and deadly as any issues today. Some of the immediate issues in the struggle were things we might now assume are self-evident, equivalent civic rights for Black Americans: the rights to vote, to travel, to sit in a restaurant, to speak for change. I assure you these things were controversial, and that it was easy to find short and long arguments as to why they were impossible or contraindicated by the inherent and/or empirical nature of Black or white America. Those things, or so it was widely said, were impossible, impractical, ill advised, a poor use of resources, against human nature.

Are any of my readers thinking that the consideration of history including so many instances of injustices is depressing? Or what of the fears that this will cause inordinate shame? Let me then point out on this holiday: societies can advance, costs borne in the struggle for those advances will be honored. On July 4th we celebrate the improbable founding of our country as “A republic if we can keep it.” On Memorial Day we celebrate great losses to preserve that country. On your choice of Labor’s Day we say our nation takes broad-based work. On Martin Luther King Day we can see all those things too. while being reminded that King was not a President or General, but a man who represented and gained his power from us, American citizens, asking adamant with the effectiveness of soul-force, for our country to stop doing what harms us, to start doing better. Isn’t that a fine thing to celebrate?

The Birmingham Vulcan Illustration

The 56-foot-tall Birmingham Vulcan exhibited before installation overlooking the city. How the iron man looked around the time MLK was in Birmingham. How it looks today atop it’s base and observation tower. African ancestor: Ptah. The MLK memorial statue.

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The Song

Are any readers still reading who feel what I wrote above is jejune? If you’re still here, thank you for your patience, but I’m about to try your patience some more. “The Birmingham Vulcan (for MLK)”  has never found an audience, and there are times when I can see why. I have an unreasonable love for unusual connections — things that in my mind connect but to most seem trivial. You’d think poetry might allow some license in such things, but that’s not so. When I showed this to my former group of poets when we were all alive together a few years ago, this piece was to them confusing and without a shred of emotional connection. My takeaway? I had portrayed nothing of the wide-ranging connections to them then. It’s gone through a couple of revisions since, likely improving things, but the core problem is that this piece requires a somewhat unique combination of knowledge to make sense.

So, let me take the usually foolish step of providing a brief decoder ring to the mythological story “The Birmingham Vulcan”  tells. Poets and songwriters: you should know this is a bad idea. “The Waste Land”  and “American Pie*”  aside, few readers like the impression that the poem knows something they don’t.

My poet group first-readers stopped right off at the second word. “Who’s this Solon?” Short answer, he’s a big macher for classical Greek Athens and it’s system of government. “What’s he doing in Africa?” Plato told a story in one of his Symposiums that Solon went to Egypt, and the learned priests there told him that he had no idea about the history of his region. Now this is an interesting story choice in that the Greeks were famous for thinking they were exceptional, and here are these foreign Africans telling them they knew more about history than they did.

“OK, so who’s this iron man?” He’s Hephaestus to the Greeks, but to the Egyptians he was Ptah,** and to the Romans he was Vulcan. All three of these ancient gods were makers and metalworkers. Hephaestus has some additional particulars: he was segregated from the other Olympians, was described as deformed or ugly, and in a connection that will come up later, he was also the patron of weavers.

Birmingham arrives in the second stanza. When I said this was connected to MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”  that rang a bell, but what’s lesser known is the reason the southern American city that jail was in was called Birmingham. They wanted to be an industrial city dealing with iron, steel, and metalwork, like unto Birmingham England. And yes, they actually erected a giant statue of Hephaestus/Vulcan at his forge to overlook their town early in the 20th century.

Did the statue’s maker make him clearly Afro-American? Nope, I don’t think the city fathers*** would have paid for any such depiction of Vulcan. But sometime between the World Wars they painted this iron statue brown, either to hide the corrosion or to make the connection to iron more plain.

Third stanza: segregation and regulation to lower paid jobs. One of the “Well, you don’t understand, it just works better that way” situations that King went to Birmingham to oppose.

Fourth stanza: King arrives. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”  is as wide-ranging as an Emerson essay in terms of references, but I loved this little noted connection: King was in a city of foundries and chose as an example of soul-force civil disobedience the men from the biblical book of Daniel thrown into a fiery furnace for disobeying the ruler.

Fifth stanza: “Letter from Birmingham Jail”  is not written to dispute overt racists or the segregationists. Rather it was addressed to ostensible supporters who raised objections to getting on with stopping what was hurting the country and offending justice. The non-segregationist position was to object on a wide range of fronts to that civil rights movement — some with practical, strategic or logistical concerns, some seeking to assuage those whose “culture” and “traditions” might be offended. And of course, many too were silent on those issues out of fear, ignorance, or distaste for struggle. King spoke to those too in his letter.

The original version of this piece was called “The Cord of Life,”  a phrase mysteriously used in King’s letter, and one I loved for its connection to Hephaestus, and so it remains in this stanza.

I trimmed some stanzas as the poem went through revision that directly referred to the infamous Birmingham Sunday terrorist bombing of a church during the civil rights struggle in Birmingham. A great many poems and songs have already sung of this and of the four schoolchildren killed going to Sunday School, so I hope it’s still remembered. That act was so offensive that the terrible sacrifice helped move public opinion. The sixth stanza is all that remains of that matter, and I still feel the song is a bit long, but I left this one in so that there’s some motivation for the Vulcan statue to magically speak in the concluding stanza.

The last stanza as the silent statue finally speaks has been worked over several times. I still hope it has some power on this day. You can hear my sung version of “The Birmingham Vulcan (for MLK)”  with the player below, or for those who don’t see the player, with this highlighted link.

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*I admire the former and am generally uninterested in the latter. So even for the exceptions this doesn’t always work.

**Ptah, venerated particularly in Memphis. As in the delightful Talking Heads lyric “Cities”  got away with it: “Memphis, home of Elvis and the Ancient Greeks.” That song, like mine, is briefly referring to the “African origin” theory/myth that assuming that Western culture started with the Greeks ignores that African cultures may have informed the Greeks.

***The writer’s group, poets of good taste, disliked my play on words “foundering men.”

Don’t Have To (Now You’re Done)

Here’s a well-worn trope you’ll see somewhere as the year 2022 ends. Someone will write or say:

“2022 — would it ever end? Glad to see that sorry year done.”

Troubling and bad things happened this past year. I know. I’m a grateful and privileged person, but still this year has had stressful and even frightening things in my family. And if we are to look fully at our nations and the world? Distress might seem a slighting word there.

Here’s another trope, one portrayed in many a cartoon around the New Years, one old enough to be old when I was a child: an aged man with a 2022 sash around his stooped body, and a young smiling toddler just able to stand and show the New Year 2023 banner arrayed across its torso. When I was a child, even a younger adult, I always looked fondly at that baby with the New Year’s sash. What wonders, what new things will the upcoming year bring? What burdens will be set down with the expiration of the old year? Even if I didn’t know how the balance of the forthcoming year would settle with the debts of the passing one, I was looking forward, closer in age to that toddler than to that geriatric December 31st.

Now that I’m an old man, that expiring year is closer to me than that tiny child — and it’s not just years that expire or stoop with age. Since last winter, long time alternative Parlando Project voice and LYL Band-mate Dave Moore and I did our part to say goodbye to some colleagues in poetry, and we both have had some family deaths. No wonder that there’s been a good number of elegies presented by this Project lately.

I’ve had the rough tracks of today’s elegy since last spring, the best of which was a vocal track that Dave laid down as part of a session we did in memory of poet Kevin FitzPatrick. It was only this December as the year was coming to a close that I found an idea of what to do with Dave’s song. His words in “Don’t Have To”  are all about the routine troubles, tasks, and stresses of life mixed with the aspirations we poets dream to grasp. Kevin, who wrote about work and labor, and who labored and worked at his writing, had all of that.

Don't Have Too

This was Dave Moore’s own corrected manuscript I worked from to complete today’s piece.

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It struck me that this is a great life-lot of things, a glorious jumble — Kevin’s poetry that I was privileged to experience, the care and responsibility that his family, friends, colleagues, and clients were sheltered by. If the First Noble Truth of the Buddha is that life is dukkha sacca,*  then noticing a cessation of dukkha  is apprehending the punching out of the timeclock of a lifetime too. Might it be worthwhile for us on New Year’s Eve to notice, or even thank, the aged 2022 of our families, friends, colleagues, and ourselves for their labors however strained and imperfect they were? When we, like the year 2022, are gone, others will take up that imperfect and sometimes thwarted work.

That thought arose as I took Dave’s vocals from last spring and using the modern tools of audio editing, I sped up their tempo to increase urgency. For music I started with a rollicking piano part which I triggered on my little plastic keyboard but made sound impossibly knuckle-busting by invoking an arpeggiator that kept the sixteenth notes flying. After establishing that tempo, I had to give my fingers a workout on the bass to lay down a bass track, and frankly I was running to catch up the whole length of the song. I added a little vibraphone and guitar to add some visiting outside timbres to the dominant piano and that completed the unusual elegy “Don’t Have To (Now You’re Done)”  you can hear with the player below. Don’t see any player? This highlighted link is an alternative way to hear it.

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*A complicated term to translate, though the simple translation of “life is suffering” is common. Properly, it includes the sense of stress, unease, and dissatisfaction as well.

Now Winter Nights Enlarge

Still not able to find time or the skills and concentration to produce as many new pieces, but I thought it was time to finally realize a Parlando version of Thomas Campion’s Winter Solstice poem “Now Winter Nights Enlarge.”   I’d first thought about doing it back in 2017 when this Project was a little more than a year old, but for some reason I never wrote music for it, so it was time to set that one right.

Using an unplugged electric guitar so as not to disturb my household, I composed a good tune with an attractive set of chords that were more at a chord-melody approach, with moving notes inside the chord forms than is my usual style. Unplugged, with me mumbling the words to myself, it sounded quite promising.

Earlier this week I had a couple of hours in which to try to record it. I grabbed an electric guitar to play the music I’d conceived, plugged it in, and…

I couldn’t play the more complex chord voicings and keep any sort of appealing groove and vocal performance. I’ve never been a good, or even part-way good, comping or rhythm guitarist, so this shouldn’t have surprised me — but it disappointed me. I tried just laying down the chords with the idea that concentrating on that and leaving the vocal to a secondary, overdubbed, take might fix things. No, it didn’t. A little better, but still not nearly good enough. I thought of all the not-extraordinary guitarists in the world who could have done a passable job of playing what I’d written with some verve, but none of them were in the room with me.

So, I appealed to the composer — who being me, myself, listened with concern and quickly rewrote the tune with a simpler chord progression while the microphone waited. I put the electric guitar back on its rack and figured that Campion (who wrote music for his poems) had probably composed his music on the lute. I grabbed a small bodied acoustic guitar strung with some European silk and steel wrapped strings.*  In short order I figured out a cross-picked part for the new music, but my time was getting short. I quickly ripped off three or four takes of the new tune with the acoustic guitar, and I thought the last one just might be worth sharing.

lute-player-accompanying-an-old-man-holding-a-musical-score-jacques-des-rousseaux

Too many chords old man. What do you think this is, Jazz?

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Overnight last night I stayed up recording the piano and cello parts you can hear below. As is common for me, I played the piano left-hand and right-hand parts in separate passes on my little plastic keyboard. I wanted to play a viola part for the bowed-string track, but I don’t have a good solo viola virtual instrument, and so I used a cello VI I did have. This morning I mixed the results, and there it is.

Campion’s words do well to try to convince one of the cheer of long nights and cold temps, and this December we’re to have our fill of both of them this week along with wind and blizzard snows predicted. Is that the message play the Minnesota Theater of the Seasons is putting on? That our lives and loves may be but toys, but playing with the unwrapped toys in dark December** is never an elderly joy, but something always new and discoverable.

Want to read Campion’s words silently in the enlarged night? Here’s a link to them. The player gadget to play my compromise Solstice song is below for many of you. Nothing that looks like a graphical player below your tree?  This highlighted link will open its own player so you can hear it.

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*The strings are the Plectrum set from Thomastik-Infeld. They are extraordinarily low tension and smooth, but must be played with a very light touch. Rather than the bright zingy tone that the common steel-string acoustic guitar produces, the resulting timbre is somewhat like gut or nylon strings.

**If your top falls and doesn’t always give you גאַנץ, may it at least fall on האַלב.

I felt my life with both my hands

The occasion for today’s post and audio piece is Emily Dickinson’s birthday, but I chose this poem of hers to set to music for other reasons. It’s been quite the year since spring for my little family, and this past month has had some additional things to deal with. I keep meaning to find a way to write about those things, but despite the large presence of I-own-my-part-of-the-story writing on the Internet and elsewhere, I can’t feel comfortable writing for the public about personal journeys of others I love and are close to me.

I’ve read through various collections of Emily Dickinson’s poetry over the years, and I even attended online a reading this past September of all 1,789 of her poems from one ascribed complete edition. Here’s one thing I notice about reading or listening to Dickinson: while I’m always ready to wave my hands in the air for her greatest hits, each time you dive into that alternate hymnal of hers some poem will seem new to you, will grab you with a fresh surprising turn of phrase or thought.

And so, it was a few weeks ago when someone shared today’s poem on the Internet. I wished I’d taken notes, as I have that person to thank. Even before I finished reading “I felt my life with both my hands”   I said to myself “Is Dickinson talking about what I think she’s talking about — and if she isn’t, has she written a poem that accidentally speaks to certain things we think of as modern concerns?” I think the question comes around to if this is a spiritual poem about immortal souls, or if it’s a body image poem — and then, if we must necessarily divide those things, if Dickinson wanted us to. On the outward level this poem speaks of our inner spirit, of consciousness of selfhood, but the metaphors are often physical things one can touch and see, and since Dickinson has shown in other poems that she is comfortable writing in incorporeal abstracts, I can easily believe this imagery is a choice here.*  In short, before I finished that singular reading of this poem this fall, I thought “Dickinson is writing a poem about body dysmorphia, or plausibly gender dysphoria.”

Both of those things weren’t named until after Dickinson’s death, and discussion and understandings about gender dysphoria are still somewhat new in our century, so it’s a leap to say that our mid-19th century poet means to write about those things. So let me go through the poem and try to extract a gloss of what Dickinson wrote.

Both my Hands

I added an “inline epigraph” to the text of Dickinson’s poem. It appears in quotes above.

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The first stanza refers to an antiquated test for life, holding a mirror up to a subject’s nose and mouth to see if it mists over from respiration — but she’s also portraying by association looking in a mirror. Of course in our day the glass we hold up to our faces is likely the screen of a smartphone with a selfie camera, but the image retains.

I don’t think one needs to insert much into the second stanza to see body dysmorphia. Sure, she could  be reaching for a rhyme for “round” when she uses “pound.” I’m not knowledgeable enough to know what weight ideals were for Dickinson’s time and place, but what’s clear here imagistically is that the poem’s speaker is examining their body and feeling like they are not that body. Is it because they, their self, are philosophically a soul — or because that body doesn’t agree with their soul?

Third stanza. More body examination. “Jarred my hair” is a particular image. Is this some kind of pomade or other cosmetic? I think Dickinson has chosen jarred to pun on “jarring” here. The dimples image would again speak perhaps of weight concerns/dysmorphia.

The last four lines, Dickinson’s final stanza, indicates again the spirit or soul as essential self. Having left off with knowledge that the self/spirit and the body are not the same, the new place, the new home, the poem’s speaker finds themselves in is Heaven.

Nowadays speculations learned and affinititory about Dickinson’s sexuality have become common, yet I don’t see any first page search hits on her and gender dysphoria. The case for that here in this poem may well be accidental, if none-the-less striking, as the narratives of folks experiencing gender dysphoria might well fit into these poetic lines: the separation of the spirit and the body, the disconnection of the body from the authentic self, the feelings of relief when expressing outwardly their inner conviction. The third stanza’s jarring of hair and pushing in dimples takes another vivid incarnation if viewed in that frame.

Now those with the patience to read this far may still be interested in what I did with this experience of the poem — though if you’re a patient reader who is muttering “Balderdash” as you read the above, you are excused to go do something worthwhile. My impression from my encounter led me to alter Dickinson’s text with a sort of in-line epigraph from the song “Candy Says,”  written by Lou Reed for the opening track on the LP eponymously called The Velvet Underground.* *  The unpredictability and distress of the past couple of weeks has, I fear, given forth a less than ideal performance — but perhaps it’s imperfection has a certain authenticity to the times it was composed and recorded in. You can hear it with the player gadget below (where seen) or with this backup highlighted link.

May you find your joy and help others find theirs too. Production of new pieces and new blog posts here may be erratic, or they may be therapeutic, in unpredictable proportions, but there are the over 650 pieces in our archives here.

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*Another choice is her use of “both my hands” in the first line. It’s not like the body would slip out of one’s grasp if you didn’t grab it with two hands. I think this is a choice to highlight duality.

**This song from 1969 opens with a clear dysphoria statement: “Candy says, I’ve come to hate my body, and all that it requires in this world.” I’m sure there are clever thinkers among spiritual people who can consolidate the idea of an inner soul which is not the physical body with a disbelief in gender dysphoria.

I’m Sorry for the Dead Today

Last episode here we had Jean Toomer’s poem of alienation from labor. In Toomer’s “Beehive”  the poem’s voice is portrayed as just another drone bee, only able to fantasize of escaping work or receiving any benefit from it. Today’s piece is by Emily Dickinson, and while there can often be a touch of irony in Dickinson, I think we can take the voice in her poem “I’m Sorry for the Dead Today”  as earnestly engaged in their farm work.

One doesn’t have to go too far into differences in biography to account for the contrast between the two poems. As I mentioned last time, Toomer was the child of an enslaved person, and the book in which his poem appeared was his literary account of an early 20th century southern American feudal society associated with a racial caste system. Dickinson was an upper middle-class daughter of a successful lawyer and politician — and well, let’s just say it — even if the rights and social assessments of women in mid-19th century America were constrained, she’s got that White Privilege and a different economic vantage point.

Dickinson’s poem, the one we perform today, looks to a specific farm labor event: the harvesting and storage of hay, likely for the animals including the horses used for transportation by her family. One thing I learned when I visited the Dickinson Homestead a few years ago was that the area right across the highway that still runs in front of her family’s house, was a field used to raise grain; and that at least in her youth, Dickinson had as one of her chores, taking food and water to the workers in that field. I don’t know the details of the ownership of that field. Was it shared between more than one family? A village green sort of resource for the town? The harvest depicted here seems to involve more than one family. That doesn’t make certain that it’s a shared field. For haying time, particularly when one has a smaller family lacking muscle power headcount, there may be an exchange of services between farmers, either for hire or in a cooperative barter agreement.

It’s a temptation, one that some American thinkers of Dickinson’s time easily fell into, to romanticize that kind of work, so different from the arrangement of slave labor plantations or share-cropping vassals. Indeed, some of the Northern and border state opposition to American chattel slavery was based less on belief in the full humanity of the enslaved and the crime of denying that, than on the idea that “free soil” labor was ennobling in and of itself and a benefit to a republican citizenship.

So, when Emily Dickinson, northern state’s daughter of a Whig representative, speaks of how engaged and happy the hearty labor of the hay harvesters is, she may be participating in a political sentiment of her time. Now how much the ironic Emily wants to undercut this I can’t tell for sure. The poem’s general argument is that this bustle of life and colleagueship for those with human rights, who are not scrounging for subsistence, is such that the sleep of death is not welcome. Is she making a subtle point in some undercurrent, that death will find this work only vanity? Is there a winking case for the repose of the grave verses labor’s toil? Intended or not, you might find a bit of that there, but it doesn’t seem so to me.

I'm Sorry for the Dead Today

Dead simple chords today. When I present these songs-sheets I’m hoping for better singers and players than I to take up these pieces.

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Did you find this discussion of what surrounds this poem tiresome or detracting from the pleasure of Dickinson’s verse as a piece of art? If so, you may not even get to this paragraph. I read a remark by writer Caitlin Moran this week that a woman spends less than 1% of her lifetime making love — yet sex and desire, and woman’s role in that, seems to take up a much greater portion of what is written about them. Poetry too has that disproportionateness — and I’m not here to knock love poems, particularly honest ones — but I feel the world of work is too unrepresented in poetry. Maybe I’ll find a poem of acute love, or a transfixed descent into the book of nature next time? We’ll see.

You can hear my musical performance of Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Sorry for the Dead Today”  with a player gadget, if you see that. No gadget? I supply this backup highlighted link.  Thanks for reading, listening, and putting up with my varieties here!

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Beehive

Here’s a short post presenting a short poem,performed now here as a short song. The poem is “Beehive”  from Jean Toomer.  If you meet the poem, as I did, first as a series of words on a screen, you might be drawn into it as a pretty lyric poem which leans into a poetic tactic: repetition. Three words get refrained heavily: silver, moon, and bees.

Of those, moon is the least surprising, for if one was to take all the poems ever written the moon would likely take a top spot in the category of celestial objects. Sure, the sun would give it a contest, stars indeterminate would be in the running too, but the added changeableness of the moon, and in English the longing of its doubled vowel sound, gives that word a poetic familiarity. Silver then comes along for the ride with moon, though it’s not the only color that is used to describe the moon in other poems. The final highly repeated word, bees, is more clearly a choice, not a convention.

Beehive

Here’s Toomer’s poem as a chord-sheet for my musical performance.

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I had fun during this year’s marathon Emily Dickinson reading typing a chat notice every time a bee appeared in a Dickinson poem, and my opportunities there were plenty — but Dickinson’s leitmotif choice can be easily explained: she had a great interest in plants and gardening, and so the busy pollinator could be like Blake or Rilke’s angels to her, an important object in her understanding of how things are signaled and accomplished. That’s how I understand Dickinson’s bee,*  but Toomer’s choice to use bees six times (not counting associated words hive, comb, buzzing, drone, and swarm) in this 80-word poem is my task today.

If one wants to think about this poem in addition to enjoying its word-music and flow of images with their surface lushness, the bee here seems a clear image for labor. Toomer published this in his book Cane, which gives his impressions of southern American agricultural labor. Toomer himself was the child of an enslaved man. The laborers in his book from the Last Decade to be Called the Twenties, are part of a feudal arrangement that barely rises to the level of Capitalism, and that scheme is enmeshed with a blunt racial caste system. Because the book is set in the past it may be easier to see the sharp edges and crushing weight of such things for some of us — however much the haze of the present day occludes our present vision. The moon is silver, the color of coinage, this work is part of an economic system, the beehive. The speaker is a drone, a worker. The bees are portrayed as agricultural workers not poets (the pollination is of a “farmyard flower” not artistic flower-show candidates.) They appear alienated to the degree they’re thinking at all, yet our poem’s bee is unable to separate themselves from the hive, the swarm.

Does that reading damage the poem for you? I can imagine it might for some. “It was a pretty poem” might be a response to the above. And of course I could be wrong — poets themselves have told me I misread their poems. I’m not an expert on Toomer, I’m merely here exploring with you.

You can hear my musical performance of Jean Toomer’s “Beehive”  with the player many will see below. Those who don’t see the player can use this backup highlighted link.

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*Dickinson’s bee is most often singular from my casual memory. Toomer’s here in this poem is always plural, though the quiet quitter dreaming of lying on their back drunk with “lipping honey” seems a single drone’s desire.

Wabasha and 5th, 1949

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in the United States, a harvest festival with elements of a more general event for gratitude. Those who wish to emphasize the gratitude aspect will often decry that Thanksgiving has become too connected with the Christmas shopping season. Their criticism would be: how inappropriate that a day to count our blessings is the day to launch a month of acquisitions and striving for more to give or get.

Earlier in this frankly troubling week for my family, with losses, stresses, and dissatisfactions, I happened upon a photograph from Twitter user Gary Hornseth, who specializes in archived photos and scans from my region. As I glanced at it, I first noticed that it was a very nice urban nightscape shot. The photographer, either freelance or working on a newspaper’s staff, was able to get a long exposure and the right amount of what painters call chiaroscuro to make the high-vantage-point monochrome shot eye-catching. The archivist’s note didn’t tell us who the photographer was, but they say its source was the November 23rd 1949 edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press newspaper.

Wabasha and 5th 1949

I don’t know who the photographer of this midcentury downtown St. Paul shot was. Fine work.

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But then the next thing intrigued me. Hold it, I know that section of St. Paul Minnesota. I worked for 20 years just a couple of blocks away from that corner later in the 20th century. There — that must be the church spire next door to where my coworkers and I worked for a radio network. Back then, from the 4th floor or the roof of my workplace, nearly the same viewpoint on the night was on offer. The streetcar that runs down Wabasha in the old photo? That would be ancestral to the light rail that eventually ran down the street by my work. I looked closer to see what else I could find in the photo. Oh look, there are Christmas decorations spanning the street. Many cities and towns used to string them between light poles for the season, and there they were, like a Minnesota Bedford Falls, arrayed across Wabasha. I checked a calendar. Just as today’s 23rd of November, the day this photo appeared was the eve of Thanksgiving.

And finally, I saw the one thing that drew me furthest into that picture. At the left margin of the photo, silhouetted in a lit window on the 4th floor of an office building, is the single human figure in the shot. Not enough detail to say who they are, just their unmistakable human form. A cleaning person, night watchman, midnight-oil-burning worker, or business owner? Could it even be a writer such as myself? Because they are not so blurred in the photo’s long exposure, we know they were standing still, looking out for a good moment. To look out at the night on a settlement of people, especially from a high vantage point, is to have a thought, or the experience of something that may be more encompassing than an ordinary thought. Here then, as I would have seen decades later, are people and their creations, their government, their religions, their workplaces, their schools, their hospitals, their arts, their businesses. All of them have someplace to be or someplace to be lost from, something to celebrate or something that does not fit them. The gap in time from 1949 to now, is something like a lifetime of moving through those states, even on one corner in St. Paul Minnesota. To someone my age, that doesn’t seem that long.

In conclusion, that’s the real and balanced Thanksgiving, the one of all of us satisfied or unsatisfied, grieving or gathering, living in justice or injustice, may observe.

I wrote today’s piece you can listen to below after viewing that photo. It started somewhat prose-poem-like, which I revised more toward prose. It’s a couple minutes longer than most of our Parlando Project pieces and I didn’t have much time to put together a performance of it, so I decided to go word-jazz, working as spontaneously as a one-man band could do so. I quickly ran through the piano part, worked with percussion samples to get a drum track that worked (easily the longest task), and then played the fretless bass part. The spoken word story recording was one pass, not perfect, but close enough considering the time I could devote to this. You can hear it with the player gadget below, and where that gadget isn’t displayed, with this backup highlighted link.

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