Every Day Is A Moving Day

The Parlando Project has been featuring a few more self-written pieces this summer, and here’s another sonnet continuing the story from last time about a daughter who’s caring for a mother with Alzheimer’s disease.

Every Day Is A Moving Day

Each afternoon she takes the pictures down,
stacks them neatly against the wall.
Less neatly, she gathers up her clothes
And stuffs them overflowing in a small basket.
When her daughter arrives, she’s ready
to move. “I put most everything together.”

Daughter answers, “No. We moved you to
Memory Care last month. You stay here now.”
“Here? Is this where I stay until they take me
out in a wooden box?” She says between
puzzled and stern. The daughter explains again —
though it may well be what her mother says.

And then they take their walk in August flowers —
hot, colorful, bee-busied, fruitful, short-lived, flowers.

– Frank Hudson

Last time I wrote how I composed a sonnet beginning with images I collected while obliquely considering the story. In this one, the nature image comes at the end, and the process of composition was different. This sonnet was composed through a more journalistic method.

Maybe 50 years ago I once considered a career as a journalist. I had, probably still have, some traits useful for that: curiosity, some research skills that can be applied to most anything, a commitment even then to “Other People’s Stories,” and an ability to write faster than some writers.*  But then I had some weaknesses that more than outweighed those skills: shyness combined with the inability to appropriately shut up sometimes chief among them. Journalism requires a lot of meeting new people, and when I do that I’m not only shy, but self-conscious that I may just start blurting out way too much self-blather. Awkward.

The story inside this sonnet was told to me, including most of the telling details. Good story, I thought. In my experience of daily journalism, one learns the inverted pyramid, good lede writing, and what should follow, and then pours the information and events to be covered into that form.

Sonnets don’t work exactly that way, but they are (however loosely their forms are treated by American poets) structures. You know you’re going to tell your story or chapter in 14 lines. Every poet, like every writer, has to decide how much story are you going to relate and how much are you going to go on about it. It just so happens that 14 lines is somewhat of a perfect length with poetic compression. Then, though you probably want something enticing in the first line or two, you aren’t going to use the lede/inverted pyramid narrative order — you’re going to reverse that. Particularly in the English/Shakespearean sonnet, “burying the lede” with a concluding couplet is your task. Somewhere in the sonnet you will probably want to present a turn, a twist, or as Petrarch would have had it, a volta.

I myself love to play with factoring the 14 sonnet lines every which way. This one decides that instead of an eight and then six lines Italian Sonnet organization or the three quatrains and couplet English sonnet, to do it with a six then six ending with a couplet. The poem’s first turn happens at line seven as the daughter tries to reorient the mother with dementia, but then the final couplet nature image is in effect another turn, another volta, as I attempt to leave the mundane journey of Every Day and move it to another level.

Two Pages from Heidi's Calendar

My talented spouse created her own daily calendar for the year using some miscellaneous quotes and her own photography.  Here are two days from August.

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The player to hear my musical performance of “Every Day Is A Moving Day”  is below for some of you. Not seeing it? Some ways of reading this blog won’t display that, so I’ll give you this highlighted hyperlink that can also play it.  Do you like the audio files of the musical performances and want a handy way to listen to those other than inside this blog? Did you know that the Parlando Project has been available as a podcast** since it began in 2016? You can subscribe to it by searching for our tag line “Parlando – Where Music and Words Meet” on most any podcast service, including Apple podcasts.

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*I write faster than most “creative writers.” On the other hand, if you think my posts here contain awkward writing (I do) you wouldn’t want to see my first drafts. Good work-a-day journalists I’ve been around can produce reasonably good copy a lot faster than I can.

**No, you won’t hear me reading this post on our current podcast episodes. The existing Parlando Project podcasts are just the audio file of the performance. Which brings me to a question: would you like to listen to a podcast with the text of the entire post read and with the musical performance at the end? This might reduce the number of episodes I could issue each month, but if my voice holds out, I could offer that. What do you think?

Smells

Traffic for the blog has picked up again a bit after its summer slump, but I’m still going to be presenting a few more of my own poems before returning to our usual presentation of other authors’ words. One thing that this does is allow me direct access to the poet’s intent, so today let me pull back the curtain and discuss what choices I made and what I was trying to convey in this sonnet that is part of a series I’ve done this year about a family dealing with one of their members with Alzheimer’s disease. The main characters so far are the older woman with dementia and her middle-aged daughter. The mother has transitioned to a Memory Care Unit as her dementia has increased.

Here’s the text of today’s poem, “Smells,”  so that we can follow along line by line as I discuss what I was trying to do and how I chose to do it. For today, for length reasons, I won’t talk as much about sound-music choices. Maybe another time for that.

Smells

The August after-rain smelled of rot and growth
where it dropped drought leaves on the lawn.
And by the garage door a bug had left its
solar-boat sarcophagus molt on the door frame,
implacable as any statue. Then down the block
the young dog walker looks at their phone
while the dog sniffs longingly at the weeds
tufting a stop sign. On to the MCU.

It smells today of urine just in the door;
and the mother asks again if she can leave —
which they do only for a walk. They pass
a bee garden, which has a sign “bee safe.”

The mother laughs. The daughter smiles.
She can still recognize a pun — its
accident.

Even though the poem follows the consciousness of the daughter character, the first three images of the poem were taken from things I observed myself on August mornings this summer. It can be chancy imbuing personal thoughts on a character when the character may jump across gender, age, or other boundaries from the author — but the alternative of not making that leap and to attempt to invent outside of the body and consciousness the author lives in risks as much if not more.

The first two lines discuss a dichotomy or dialectic: in this summer’s drought, when we had a short rain, it actually stripped the just hanging-on leaves off of some trees rather than greening their canopies up. Oddly, there was an autumn/spring smell from this, that, as the poem says, included a bit of decay and a bit of fertility in the air. The poet here hopes the reader can feel this moment of loss and change from these images, and as the poem develops remember how they may reflect on the other events.

Cicada Molt 1024

It’s remarkable how the winged cicada can emerge and yet leave this detailed casing behind so intact and empty.

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Lines 3-5 include the second image, another dichotomy, an inert and lifeless thing left from an insect’s life-cycle and change. I sort of piled on here with the Egyptian allusions in line 4, and I questioned that. First off, not everyone has any interest and knowledge of those historical myths, and I’m calling them in without deep expertise in that. My hope here is that neither does the reader need more than superficial knowledge. As an inconsistently educated American I see these leftover bug shells, so lifelike and yet empty, and marvel as they often call to mind the Egyptian use of insects in their iconography. Once more this is nature’s change, even growth, though with evidence of loss intentionally invoked. I think too that subconsciously I was referring to the Jewish tradition of mezuzah devices on doorposts. The traditional mezuzah contains verses from Deuteronomy invoking the supremacy of the godhead, meant to remind all that pass through doors that we may come and go, but that something else is eternal.

As an author I often find that images like these present themselves to me as images first, and I need to ask myself what they mean or potentially mean. I collect the image, and the poem to use them in follows. My expectation here is that such images are richer than ones simply ginned up to decorate or explain by simile something in a poem, but the risk here is that they may not seem similarly meaningful to a reader. How many notice something as odd as leaves falling in August instead of later Autumn, or intact cicada shells except empty of their insect, or recalls particulars of old Egyptian or Hebrew iconography?

A casual, quick reader will just see these things as time-wasters, dawdling until the poem says something. I’m putting some trust in my readers here.

The final image of the sonnet’s octet is perhaps more universal. I could see it as a New Yorker cartoon or cover, and it’s common enough that I suspect that someone has drawn a cartoon meant to make us smile at this combination: a dog smelling for scent markings left by other dogs’ urine while the human at the other end of the leash is checking something else for connections to others of their species. The opening two images are ambiguous, growth and loss. I’m hoping the reader smiles a bit at the third, assuming they pause a bit to consider this combination of the dog and human.

The octet ends with the information that the daughter is seeing this while getting into her car and then driving to the MCU, the Memory Care Unit. I worried that by itself the abbreviation will be puzzling but saw no way out inside the structure of this sonnet. In the series,* the MCU acronym should become familiar.

At line 9 we link from the comic scene before it to a more concerning one regarding the message that the MCU smells of incontinent folks further along in their dementia. Line 10 introduces what will be a re-occurring motif in the sonnet collection: the mother wants to leave the MCU, but her increasing confusion while still being active and mobile makes it necessary that she be in a constantly supervised, structured, place for her safety. The daughter and mother get a walk and make yet another nature observation: a garden intentionally meant to attract pollinators with a whimsical sign. When the mother laughs, the daughter is reassured that at least for now, the mother still understands the concept of a pun, and once more the tension of the situation is sweetened with humor.

Just as I was making the version of the sonnet shown above I decided to leave the poem’s final word on an indented line continuation. My intent here was to make the reader stop and consider why the poem ends with “accident.”

What does this poem mean by that or mean in its entirety? I occasionally get asked that and I’m embarrassed to find myself tongue-tied, unable to do anything more but burble something inane. I am somewhat aware and can articulate (as I did above) what each image or event in the poem is intending to convey, but the whole thing? Ah, err, well, a….

A confident artist would say that if I could convey the combined intent of a poem, even a short poem —perhaps even more so with a short poem — what the combination of words and their sounds and sequence means with a prose paragraph or three, that I wouldn’t have written it as a poem. I’m not being coy or secretive when I say that — it’s just that a poems indirection and sound music undercurrent means differently than a prose explication means. The foreshadowing nature images here should mesh with the events of the last six lines, and the juxtaposition allow each to illuminate each other and the reader.

“Accident” is the end word to make us consider that just as a pun makes us laugh at the coincidental double meaning of a word-sound, that the infliction of the indignity of Alzheimer’s and our accommodations as sufferers or caretakers to deal with it are not punishments or acts of evil.

My performance of my sonnet “Smells”   is available with a player gadget below, or if you don’t see that, with this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to play it.

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*Another sonnet in this sequence was presented earlier this summer in this post here.

Love and Sleep — or I re-examine Swinburne, with a little sex in it

I have to hand it to the Victorians — when it came to the names of some of their poets, they seemed to know how to roll right through the evocative, and tumble ass over teakettle into camp.*  This project has touched on the Pre-Raphaelites, those 19th century hipsters with their love for the middle-parts of the Middle Ages, and one of their leading lights Dante Gabriel Rossetti had a moniker that seemed to mix angels and demons with some flowery notes. Or then there’s the pioneering Canadian poet who decided to flesh out Sappho’s fragments with his own poetry: Bliss Carmen. But let’s suppose you’re writing a comic novel set then. You want a character name that’s really, really over the top. If so, you might then independently invent the name Algernon Charles Swinburne.

Sorry, already taken.

I can remember first running into the name in a poetry anthology while a teenager. I laughed out loud at its outrageousness. Algernon had been dead for a bit more than 50 years, but as we shall see, I doubt he minded my noting that. Honestly, I laughed for myself, but of course as a teenager who liked poetry I may have needed to laugh at that name out loud too. Young men in my place and time weren’t much for poetry, but I could suppose a name like John Keats could slip under the radar. Algernon Charles Swinburne, on the other hand, could have written poetry like Robert W. Service and he’d still have such a foppish name.

I went to read his poems anyway. Or I tried to. They didn’t seem outrageous to me — their effect was more at ornate, over-decorated boredom. And his poetry seemed to have nothing to say other than its fancy dress. In the years since, I’ve occasionally looked at a few Swinburne poems, and nothing has changed that opinion.

Algernon_Charles_Swinburne,_1862

Portrait of Swinburne by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Let’s forget poetry for a moment, what product does he use for that much body?

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This year while reading some accounts and memoirs of early poetic Modernists I did notice something odd. More than a few of them went through a Swinburne phase.**  I had known that the Pre-Raphaelites (Swinburne knew and was associated with them) and their “Forward Into the Past” revivalism of earlier literary and visual styles was an influence on some Modernists, but the things they sought to revive tended to be simpler than the mainstream Victorian style: old ballads, flatter painting, hand-hewn furniture, that sort of thing. Swinburne just seemed rococo through and through.

But there was another element that may have attracted them. Swinburne’s poetry was considered in the late 19th century to be, well, hot stuff, erotic, even transgressive. Swinburne’s contemporaries thought that Swinburne if anything reveled in those characterizations. Oscar Wilde (here we go again with the Victorian names) might be thought as someone comfortable with this, but more than one article I’ve read notes that Wilde said of Swinburne “A braggart in matters of vice, who had done everything he could to convince his fellow citizens of his homosexuality and bestiality without being in the slightest degree a homosexual or a bestialiser.”

School poetry anthologies skipped over that part, but Swinburne’s indirection in his poetic diction isn’t going to cause me to create a “radio edit” of today’s piece, his love sonnet “Love and Sleep.***”

So, what’s going on in this poem? S-E-X of some kind, though the down and dirty details are hard to suss out. A lot of what you may “see” in it is portrayed by implication and connotation. The “nudge, nudge, wink, wink” elements of the famous Monty Python sketch can be invoked in close readings here. I don’t want to play the Eric Idle character from that sketch for you, but I must risk being a mixture of risqué and ridiculous if I’m going to talk about what the poem does with language and imagery. Here’s a link to the complete text of Swinburne’s poem that I used for today so you can follow along as I go through the sonnet line by line.

  1. Classic mechanical clocks of that era might strike to mark the hours of nighttime. They don’t stroke. Make of this what you will.
  2. The lover, or perhaps some dream, imagining, or otherwise non-corporeal manifestation of them arrives at the poet’s bed.
  3. Flowers are invoked. Georgia O’Keefe, Judy Chicago, and Cardi B have yet to be born. Details in Swinburne’s imagery sometimes seem contradictory in a way I find hard to read. Something “pale as the duskiest lilly’s leaf” is hermetic. Is what is being viewed pale or dark?
  4. Erotic nibbling, or call for Van Helsing? You decide.
  5. Skin. Bare skin. Victorians are getting hot and bothered now. A lot of care in trying to describe the skin’s tone that just confused me. Wan (pale again) yet…
  6. “Without white or red.” Is Swinburne color blind? Is this night-vision gray? Even readers who are POC are getting confused here. One reading informed by those bestiality rumors: cephalopods. Students who find this post later: don’t put this in your essay, it will not help your grade.
  7. Well, the lover appears to be female, and she’s going to be allowed to speak. Thanks patriarchy!
  8. She speaks like a veddy veddy proper lady too — but apparently interested in “Delight.” Is that what the kids are calling it now?
  9. “Her face” is honey. Good, let’s keep this PG.
  10. Her body is “pasture” which borders on Surrealist de-humanizing imagery, though by implication this may be portraying the poet as a horny ruminant — so equality! If then: several stomachs. He can go all night.
  11. English poets love the word lithe. I’m not sure why, other than to prove they can enunciate without lisping. I don’t think Victorian English winter heating systems were well-ranked, and even in modern Minnesota we have our own personal erotic frissons with hands far from warm. Anyway, in Swinburne’s poem, the hands are “hotter than fire.” Let’s hope the beloved wasn’t chopping jalapenos in the kitchen before coming to bed.
  12. “Quivering flanks.” Good, someone’s having fun. “Hair smelling of the south.” In the mid-19th century Swinburne was living with William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti in a house in Chelsea just north of the Thames. Luckily for poetic romance, this was a few years after this smell that would have come from the south.
  13. Feet. Thighs. More skin. Swinburne may have had trouble describing it, but he knows it’s sexy.
  14. “Glittering eyelids of my soul’s desire.” The arrival of Mark Bolan is prophesized by Mr. Swinburne. Get it on! Bang a gong. Get it on!

The poem’s title may be an indication this is a dream or imagining. Those on the material plane could suggest it’s a report of the great lover Swinburne, post quivering flanks.

Now, can singing help this text out? That’s plausible, as song lyrics can escape close examination and play to Swinburne’s strengths in meter and rhyme.**** And absurdity and mutual laughter are not enemies of eroticism. I give you a testimonial, available with a player gadget below for some of you, or where that’s not seen, this highlighted hyperlink which will open a player in a new tab window so you can hear my performance of “Love and Sleep.”  A couple rough spots for the acoustic guitar track I had to throw down quickly, but I love the C# minor11 chord I throw in at the end, even if I don’t know what color its skin is.

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*By the 20th century Americans were much more straightforward with their name-branding. “Robert Frost” is the best name for that poet of New England’s cool stoicism. Ironic, what with the Anti-Semitism, but then what’s a better name for the poetic force that sought to revive the freshness of poetry’s texts, carefully weighing his words, than Ezra Pound. And for someone who would grow up to like the most honest poetry of the New York School, I can thank my family for Frank Hudson.

**As late as The Sixties, the anarchist and sex-very-positive  musical group The Fugs would perform a Swinburne poem just as they would perform Ginsberg and Charles Olson. Not suitable for the easily, or even not so easily, offended, The Fugs usually skipped the euphemism in their name, and as far as looseness in performance and vocal perfection they could make The Replacements sound like The Captain and Tennille. Don’t blame them, but they were a big influence on Dave and myself forming a band.

***Once again, I have to thank the Fourteen Lines blog for bringing this poem to my attention. This summer he’s had me look again at Joyce Kilmer, and now Swinburne. Well worth reading and following if you are interested in shorter poetry forms and expression. Like this project, Fourteen Lines doesn’t limit what they present to the poets they like the most.

****After all, pace Mr. Bolan: what the heck is “I’m just a Jeepster for your love” mean anyway? Did it seem exotic Americana to Marc? Just easier to scan than “I’m a Humbler Super Snipe for your love?” Perhaps, just as Paul  Éluard would have it, the beloved makes you “Speak without having a thing to say.”

Silent Steps

Rabindranath Tagore is surely one of the most remarkable writers ever to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. If you’re a veteran of this project you might recall that a few years back when Bob Dylan won the same Nobel there were objections from poets and novelists that song-writing wasn’t literature, and that giving such a Nobel to Dylan was unprecedented and wrong.

While “Wrong” is a debate, unprecedented was an error on the part of the objectors, even though they often stated their objections from a stance of knowledge, craft, and learning. I was explaining this to someone earlier this summer, who had innocently asked your hosting windbag here if songwriters hadn’t taken over some of the place that poets occupied a century or more ago. The concise person would have just agreed with a “Yes,” but I wanted to tell him the story of the 1.5 songwriters who like Bob Dylan had already won a Nobel Prize for Literature.

The .5 songwriter in my tale was William Butler Yeats, a great poet who once decided that if the ancient bards presented their poems with music, that he should revive that practice. He went so far as to commission the building of instruments to accompany his poems and setup a tour from a professional performer* to realize this aim. “Yeats, The Musical” was not a success, and when Yeats won his Nobel it was largely for his poetry printed on paper.

Tagore was a much more significant songwriter than Yeats’ case, though Tagore wasn’t just a songwriter. He made other 20th century polymaths like Albert Schweitzer look like pikers, with copious literature in all forms, political activism, painting, teaching in several areas, social reform work, and more. But for those who spoke his native language, Bengali, he was a very well known and liked songwriter. Nor was he just a poet with a sideline as a lyricist. Tagore the composer had his hand in not one, not two, but three South Asian national anthems.

When Tagore won his Nobel for literature, there was one book most Westerners could read of his: Gitanjali,  a work he had translated himself into English. That title references songs, and from what I’ve read it consisted of Tagore’s prose-poem-ish adaptations of his song lyrics. Yeats himself knew this, remarking in an introduction in the 1912 English edition of the book that because Tagore was a songwriter all strata of his society knew his work intimately.

Today’s song is my adaptation of the 45th piece in that 1912 collection, using my own music. “Silent Steps”  may seem familiar even if you are not familiar with Tagore or his beliefs. I hear echoes of Hebrew psalms and prayers, and the other Middle-Eastern-origin religions such as Islam and Christianity too. Are you instead secular? I’ll come back to you.

I lightly adapted Tagore’s phraseology for much of this piece to make it more singable in English, because one of Gitanjali’s  chief issues is that it often doesn’t sing in our tongue. I departed more widely for the final verse. Tagore’s image there is hard for me to follow, and even if I haven’t clarified it much, I was moved to modify the image.

Tagore originally wrote this in English as the final stanza:

In sorrow after sorrow it is his steps that press upon my heart,
and it is the golden touch of his feet that makes my joy to shine.

See what I mean about hard to sing? But let’s get to the overall issue. What are, or whose are, the poem’s titular “silent steps?” To those familiar with Tagore’s beliefs, it’s the godhead, manifesting itself through nature and human consciousness attuned to it. Tagore is saying that human awareness that the godhead is present and manifest in its creation is consolation in times of sorrow. His “press upon my heart” is perhaps more at “seal,” as in the Hebrew Song of Songs  “Set me as seal upon thine heart, as a seal upon thine arm.” And the touch of the feet more at something like the Christian “If I could touch the hem of His garment, I know I would be made whole” line that has been used in many Christian song-settings.

Silent Steps

The text of my adaptation used for today’s song-setting of Tagore.

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To be audaciously critical of the great man Tagore, his concluding stanza lacks visceral power. I thrashed around a bit to come up with a different image that may be adjacent to Tagore’s. My last stanza says in effect: as we walk in the footsteps of our life, trying to follow our precepts and finding in that journey the inescapable sorrows of infirmities and imperfection, we feel not only our own lowly footsteps on the path, but the pressures of (unrealized) perfection and completeness pressing on ourselves. All of our footsteps polish the surfaces of the paths we trod — and that the higher consciousness (the godhead consciousness for believers) does the same to us. We try to make life shine in our footsteps — and the limits of trials, troubles, and tribulations that press down upon us in turn polish us. Our joy shines because of those pressures, those rubs.

I said I would get back to the secular among this readership, because I don’t think the poem requires agreement with Tagore’s beliefs, or any adjacent religious beliefs either, to retain power. The godhead manifesting in a chariot would please the Biblical prophet Ezekiel, or 20th century Midwestern Afro-American Fenton Johnson, and so too the onrushing, unstoppable “time’s winged chariot” of 17th century English poet Andrew Marvell, who recasts that cosmic sound as a booty call. In American sports idiom, “hearing footsteps” is when a player senses a play-ending tackle is forthcoming. The successful player knows that, just as the unsuccessful one does — but the successful ones are able to continue to complete their task despite that knowledge.

For all I know, the heaven of death and reunion with the godhead and the heaven of oblivion may be two neighborhoods of the same city.

The small graphical player will appear below for some of you to hear my adaptation and performance of Rabindranath Tagore’s “Silent Steps.”   If you are reading this where that player doesn’t appear, this highlighted hyperlink will also open a new tab window to play it.  Thanks for reading and listening!

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*From accounts Yeats was (like myself) somewhat pitch-challenged as a singer. And he didn’t exactly want his poems sung, thinking that a complex melody might detract from the words. Yeats instead choose some kind of middle-ground for the vocalist of which we have no extant recordings to demonstrate. From some research I did a few years back, the closest we may have to understanding what he was proposing was his “Song of the Wandering Aengus”  which Burl Ives and Dave Van Ronk and then Judy Collins performed back during the midcentury “Folk Scare.” Van Ronk said in performance that he learned it from an actor Will Holt who was also a folk singer, and it’s speculated that Ives and/or Holt may have learned the melody he used from another actor (Sara Allgood) with connections to the Abbey Theater, where Yeats was a foundational force. Here’s how I recounted that story a few years ago back here.

I Am Laughing in the Dark Underground

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

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

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

Pompeii Body Cast

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

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

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

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

I am laughing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Helen Hunt Jackson’s August

Let’s start another roundabout Parlando story. We’ll move from one less-famous poet to another lesser known one through a third one. You’ve heard of the third one.

When I was a teenager and started writing poetry I was quite surprised that I did that. Surprised, and impressed with myself. Writing poetry wasn’t something anyone else I knew did; that meant that the nature of my achievement was clouded, obscured. That singleness added to my sense of achievement with those first poems. I recall sending off a poem to something that presented itself as an Iowa poetry contest. My expectations with that weren’t clear either, but eventually I noted that I wasn’t contacted as the winner.

I considered that result. I thought I was writing poetry and was therefore in the cohort of the greats in poetry anthologies and textbooks. Yet, apparently, I wasn’t even the best poet in my small lightly populated state in a random year. Puzzling.

Well, I was  in the cohort of those that wrote poetry, I just didn’t grasp then how large the numbers that unusual choice would total up cast against the population of the world. I have the same blank opportunities to solve when writing a poem — then as well as now — as prize-winning poets, or those who have reached the minor levels of success poetry is allowed in our culture. What achievement the result reaches — or the different, more quantifiable, question of what level of recognized achievement it reaches, that’s what differs. Still, I’m their equal before I begin.

Emily Dickinson may have had similar questions. When she reached out to Thomas Higginson, the Atlantic magazine contributor, with her packet of verses, she presented herself as wondering about the level of achievement she had reached. Many wonder now if she was being coy, but do we know what she knew, or what she suspected about her poetry? Dickinson’s situation was different from mine* in that though she lived in a smallish town, it was a college town, and so we know that some others in her circle had literary interests, even if her immediate family apparently didn’t. Her friend, eventual sister-in-law, neighbor, and increasingly suggested love interest Susan Gilbert wrote poetry and read Dickinson’s verses. Dickinson also made a habit of sending some of her verses in letters and with gifts to others, though I don’t know enough about how they reacted to that verse. Higginson testifies that she tended to wear people out.

But Emily Dickinson was not the most successful poet from her small town during her lifetime. Another woman, almost exactly the same age, eventually became a well-known writer and poet in her time.

That writer, born Helen Fiske, was a grade school classmate of Emily. Unlike Dickinson she fell into the usual path of marriage and motherhood, marrying at 22. Her first husband Edward Bissell Hunt may have been a remarkable person himself. Dickinson herself thought so. Dickinson wrote in a letter after meeting her friend’s husband that he “Intrigued her more than any man she had ever met.” Edward Hunt was a military engineer, and when the Civil War came, Edward Hunt set to developing some sort of self-propelled torpedo. It was while working on that secret weapon he was killed in an explosion at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Eventually she remarried, adding the second married name as Helen Hunt Jackson, and became a successful writer. Among those that spoke well of her poetry was Ralph Waldo Emerson and that same Thomas Higginson who Emily Dickinson reached out to.

Wikipedia says that Louisa May Alcott, Sidney Lanier, James Russell Lowell, and Christina Rossetti all had poems anonymously included in this collection too.

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In 1876 while visiting Amherst Fiske sought to encourage her childhood friend to submit a poem to an anthology she was working on that was to be called “A Masque of Poets.”   This anthology had a gimmick: none of the included poems was to have an identified author. The reader was going to have to encounter the poems each without the authors reputation or a preconceived notion of what that author would be on about. As it turned out, Helen Hunt Jackson had to work hard at convincing Dickinson to allow one of her poems to be included. In the end, Dickinson’s poem was given a special place in the order of this book, as the last poem in the collection (other than a long verse novel that makes up the last half of the book).

We leave this part of our story with an oddity: Emily Dickinson almost never saw her poems in print while living. Perhaps the most widely seen exception to this was her poem that appeared without her name in The Masque of Poets, and this happened because of the efforts of her friend and successful poet who we now have forgotten. What Emily Dickinson poem was it? The one that begins “Success is counted sweetest/By those who ne’er succeed…”

Sucess is counted sweetest in Masque of Poets

Here is Emily Dickinson in print. But no name.

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So now let us return to Helen Hunt Jackson and her poetry, now little known and even littler read. Today’s audio piece, “August”  is from her sonnet sequence containing a poem for each calendar month. Here’s a link to the text of the sonnet.

Jackson’s view of August is distinctive, and it’s far from upbeat for this last month of summer splendor. She starts by calling it silent** (save for the somewhat sinister connotation of insect hums). She calls what color August has “pathetic,” “vain,” and “artifice.” And loss of summer is at hand. Besides being widowed at a young age, Jackson had more than the usual 19th century history of young death of siblings and children. Perhaps that undercurrent of loss informed this cold pastoral of a warm month.

Content aside, this poem’s sound is exquisite, with assonance and internal rhymes richening it. Many lines break, or can break, in the middle, which I decided to accentuate in my performance. I found it a better poem than its forgotten status and elements of 19th century poetic diction would have it be.

The player gadget to play my musical performance of Helen Hunt Jackson’s “August”  is below for some of you. If you don’t see that player, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to play the performance. I’ve been working with some larger arrangements and noisier stuff in the past week, so it was a nice change for me to perform this piece with only acoustic guitar and a little subdued bass. Besides my music, I added one extra line of my own at the end of Jackson’s sonnet, my small exchange writ in water from one unknown poet to another.

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*Oh, there’s those little matters of differences in talent and level of innovation. But let’s leave that off for now.

**I am noticing much less birdsong in this dry August from the dawn choirs of let’s say June.

A July Afternoon by the Pond

I’m much enamored of this clip where Jack Kerouac appears on Steve Allen’s show on network television. This happened in 1959 when there was only triune TV culture in America —and less than that, there were often only two sides to things. Allen is going to open here by taking the side that Kerouac was an authentic writer of merit. The other side? Kerouac was a tiresome imposter best able to fool young people, who of course didn’t know any better.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old. I think of Walt Whitman. I even think of old Walt Whitman the father we never found. I think of Walt.  Whitman.

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At around two and a half minutes into the clip, Allen and Kerouac have this interchange:

Allen starts it by asking “Who else writes poetic type prose, Thomas Wolfe I guess…”

“Walt Whitman” Kerouac quickly responds.

“Uh, huh.” Allen laughs, perhaps thinking Kerouac was making ironic reference to the criticism that free verse was really prose not deserving of being called poetry.

“His Specimen Days…”   Kerouac then repeats this for emphasis. He really wants to get a plug in — not for his book, but for this lesser-known Whitman book.

“Oh, I thought you were putting me on there. All right, we’ll look into that.” Allen says.

This is all prelude, what follows is Kerouac reading to a jazz combo backing with Allen apparently playing live on piano and meshing well. You may or may not like that sort of thing, but if you’ve stuck around here, you probably at least tolerate it. Me? It gets me, every time I view it, when Kerouac comes to the part where he reads “In Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out…” Kerouac, the East Coast guy who traveled back and forth to the West Coast, had some notice, some feelings of that state in-between* that was not either/or. It’s a coincidence, but Iowa is where I would have been in 1959, not necessarily crying — or not, for sure, not. I’d be looking then at those night stars from Iowa ground, the sky that Kerouac says he can see in New Jersey, remembering his Iowa nights.

So, as that filmed interchange left off promising to do in 1959, let’s look into Walt Whitman’s Specimen Days. Today’s piece is Whitman, looking at his ground, his water, his skies, on a hot summer day in a section of his book titled “A July Afternoon by the Pond.”   Here’s a link to the full text on which I based my performance. One can easily see what Kerouac drew from Specimen Days.  Whitman’s consciousness is free-flowing** and seems informal, off the cuff. Yet it takes care to catalog a lot of the moment it’s describing at length. There’s no legendary telegraph paper roll, but Whitman does roll on without pause or paragraph. Spontaneous Bop Prosody before its time? Close enough.

I’ll leave you with one more light by which you can read or listen to this piece. Whitman wrote and collected Specimen Days  while he was dealing with the aftereffects of a stroke. As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been working on a theme of infirmities recently. That infirmity is not indicated in “A July Afternoon by the Pond,”  but Whitman, in his convalescence, prescribed for himself a heavy dosage of nature observation. A young person could have seen this pond, but the man who included this piece in his late-career book, was an older man. The eternity the Whitman here sees in the natural world is not the eternity of innumerable afternoons to come as it might be for a young person, but instead the observation of age and infirmity, that of an ongoing nature that will be there after he’s gone, mysterious and as yet unsolved. I love Whitman’s final two words here: “Who knows?” He doesn’t expect you to solve it either, only to share the mystery with him.

You can hear my performance*** of “A July Afternoon by the Pond”  either of two ways. There’s a player gadget embedded below for some of you. But some ways of reading this blog will not show it, and so I also provide this highlighted hyperlink that will open a new tab window to play it.

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*One summarized view of Kerouac’s vision of Iowa is collected at this blog link.

**More so than my performance includes, for reasons of length and production schedules. I had one musical track down when I recorded my performance of Whitman’s words, and found that I had to rush the text too much to get it all in. Rather than re-record the musical foundation or damage the groove of the words, I ended up editing Whitman’s text on the fly, leaving out some of the digressions.

***As it happens, in the end I didn’t use the musical track that caused me to trim back some of Whitman’s digressions. What you will hear is a two-part improvisation (based on the chord structure of the excluded track) that I recorded to respond to my reading of the words, much as Steve Allen needed to respond to Kerouac in the video clip above. The two instruments are a hollow-body electric guitar and the distinctive voice of my Fender Squier Bass VI, an electric bass that includes two higher pitched strings above the usual four for a bass, giving it access to a baritone guitar range here. Using that facility, there are some high F notes in this piece, played on this bass, that are not available (other than as harmonics) on a conventional bass.

Answer July

It’s time once more to perform the brilliance of Emily Dickinson. Today’s text, “Answer July”  is Dickinson in her seeming simple mode. Read quickly, it might strike one as almost a nursery rhyme or maybe as one of those playful listing or counting folk songs. Here’s a link to the full text of the poem.

But when I looked again, “Answer July”  appears to be a debate or interrogation between nature’s seasons and the consciousness of souls, a rather strange thing to put into such a brief and unfancy piece of poetry. Emily Dickinson loves strange, and if you’re a reader or listener who’s stuck around here, you’re comfortable with it too. What’s being debated here?

It starts with the poem’s speaker — let’s call them Dickinson, though obviously, it’s a creation of Emily Dickinson, and as its creator she knows more than this character — demands of nature’s mid-summer month of July just where certain summer things are. July, like a party in a legal dispute or sidestepping debater replies that the things that would allow it to produce those summer things are not in its control. There could be a supply chain issue, and maybe the real problem is with its supplier: the spring month of May.

Bee in Flower by Heidi Randen

Where is the Bee — Where is the Blush? Got it right here Emily.

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May is called in. “Nay,” says May. Tell me about supply chain issues! I’ve got suppliers too, like winter. Subpoena the jay, a winter bird.

The jay is sworn in. Look I need food in the winter they testify. Where’s the leftover autumn corn, the periods of hazy-thaw less-severe cold, and those burred seeds still in their protective casing? The implication here is that we could next look to question fall, though by now we suspect fall will blame summer. And round and round we would go.*

Dickinson gives us two lines that may be a break in the circle. When July, the first month/season to be questioned ends their reply, I think July suggests that May/spring is not a calendar month, but instead a creature of the questioner in the poem. The syntax is broken and unclear here, so who speaks each word is uncertain — but at the time I performed it, I went with this understanding (in paraphrase): July replies (answering to Dickinson’s opening line of questioning) “You’ve called on me to answer. Well, I’ve got one for you, ‘Where is May?’ Come on, you (thee) answer! Because I know what you should answer when asked about where things spring from: ‘It’s me.” That is, Dickinson, July questioner, is responsible.

I could be wrong on that somewhat convoluted reading. It could also be July saying “If May was here, they could answer your question for you (thee) and for me too.”

And then again, as the poem ends, the jay has a cryptic answer to where it can find its winter sustenance: “Here — said the Year.” Unlike summer, winter seems like a time of scarcity, but nature provides the jay what they need. There the implication is that Dickinson’s original complaint to July about where are the summer things she wants is being answered by the jay saying that nature will provide, if your soul seeks for things rather than asking for it to be summer ample and at every hand. This reading of the last line is what drew me to my more complicated reading of the earlier “Answer Thee — Me —” line. The poet Dickinson is telling the character of the questioner in her poem that it’s not the seasons that provide, it is the soul that seeks that finds. She is her own spring, summer, harvest and survival.

Musically I had some fun with this one. On one hand the harmony is simple, a I V progression, but I used some less-common voicings for the Ab (it’s an AbMaj13) and Db (a DbMaj7) and I played sitar.**  Why not! Emily loved strange, and if you’ve stuck around here this summer, you have to have some tolerance for that. The player gadget will appear below for some of you, but don’t ask July where it is if you don’t see the player. Instead, click this highlighted hyperlink, which will open an new tab-window and play my musical performance of “Answer July.”

 

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*Once again, I’m working on my theory that Emily Dickinson’s sharp intelligence was surrounded by a family that worked as lawyers, and that may have provided a frame for some of her poetry. As I write this there happen to be many supply chain issues ascribed to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and other causes, but neither legal precedents nor logistical savvy is the real subject for this poem, rather it’s about a Transcendentalist understanding of how the soul must partner with nature.

Emily Dickinson herself was also a gardener and the Dickinson household raised a wide variety of food and feed crops. Any farmer or gardener knows that it’s not just the calendar page that brings in food and crops, but effort and seeking.

**Well, not exactly. I’ve never owned a real sitar. I have owned an electric sitar with a plastic rounded bridge that sought to emulate their buzzy sound. I’ve used MIDI “virtual instruments” that allow a guitar or keyboard to play sitar notes with attempts at following sitar articulations. Today’s piece uses a Line6 Variax guitar that has a sitar sound setting, and it tracks guitar string vibrato precisely, a necessity for this piece’s main sitar line motifs.

The Dragonfly

This summer, amid the seasonal lower traffic volumes for The Parlando Project, I’ve been featuring some uncharacteristic pieces where Dave Moore or I have written the words as well as the music. But today we’ll return to the proper mix, using a text by English Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson.

I saw today’s text first over at Kenne Turner’s blog, where it was included as a short stand-alone lyric poem entitled “The Dragonfly”  in the midst of a series of excellent  photos of varieties of this creature.  Here’s a link to that post which will also let you read the text I used. Other blogs have published the same text under this title, and I assumed it was a uncharacteristic very short nature poem by Tennyson. Let me thank Kenne for bringing this poem to my attention.

Long-time readers here will know I like concise poetry, and this one, so concentrated in its charged notice of this strange yet charismatic insect in a moment of transition captured my interest immediately. Earlier this month I performed “The Dragonfly”  along with Dave playing keyboards, and you’ll be able to hear how it came out below. Sure, it is a Victorian poem, though not excessively so. Just a few words might need 21st century explanation. That “sapphire mail” is the insect’s chitin exoskeleton portrayed as if armor, not a blue envelope delivered by some postman. “Crofts” is something of a Britishism and means a humble field. The moment Tennyson seems to be describing is the ending of the years-long nymph stage of the dragonfly, as the mature winged insect splits open its old hard exoskeleton emerging a moist new winged creature. In checking on the zoology of this, I read that dragonflies spend the majority of their life as immature, wingless, nymphs before becoming the strange fascination that we see, and only then think: dragonfly.

I’ve mentioned infirmities and transformations a good deal this summer, and I thought this transformation more clearly ecstatic in nature, and that it would be a good break from the more gothic material I’ve been working on recently.

So there I was, I had this text, cloaked in language and poetic diction that said “Victorian,” but also prophetically Imagist in its concise approach. I had music to perform it with, and then a decent recording that brought it into existence.

Dragon at the Door 1080

Summer, time to fly thro crofts wet with dew, and not just more screen time.

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Then today, I decided to see what else I could say about this poem when I present it here. It was then that I found that it may never have been intended as a short poem, but was instead part of a long, very philosophic poem by Alfred Tennyson called “The Two Voices.”   Here’s a link to that text. When I say philosophic, that might sound a bit bloodless, but Tennyson’s own working title was “The Thoughts of a Suicide”  — and no, that’s not a literary plot, like “The Lady of Shalott.”   It appears* that “The Two Voices”  is something of a less-favored and less fully-achieved early attempt at the matter that produced what is thought of as Tennyson’s masterpiece “In Memoriam AHH.”   So, “The Dragonfly”  a simple nature poem? No, nature isn’t simple, even if beautiful. The matter Tennyson was grappling with was the unexpected death of his friend, supporter, and literary compatriot, Arthur Hallam, at the age of 22.

It would be appropriate to insert your favored curse word here. I’m an old man. The death of folks I know, then knew, is a commonplace of age, and painful, though touched too by a strange partnering with an idea that death is closer to me — if only demographically at this moment. But young, brilliant, helpful, a man with whom, it is recalled, would fall and roll down in the grass with the similarly young Tennyson, overcome by paroxysms of laughter at some bit of passing humor — how can one express that kind of loss?

Imagism says that you can enclose that unexpected death of a vibrant and cherished youth inside a short poem, made up of a moment of exacting and clarifying observation; a poem that is furthermore modest in its emotional expression and that doesn’t say what something like that event feels — showing instead what one examines with our two, small, dark eyes, our meager allotment compared to the giant multitudes of eyes that make up most of the dragonflies’ head.

Can it do that? I don’t know. Interesting to try. I sensed only this mysterious/glorious transformation when I first read “The Dragonfly”  excerpted from it’s longer setting in “The Two Voices.”   I really did intend for it to be a bit of a break here, but I’m left with informing you of my honest experience of this poem as I do regularly in this Project.

For some, the player gadget will appear below to hear The LYL Band perform Tennyson’s “The Dragonfly.”  Don’t see a player? Turns out a lot of ways to read this blog won’t show that, so I provide this highlighted hyperlink to open a new tab window and play it as well.

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*Given that I’ve only seen Tennyson’s “The Two Voices”  in its entirety this afternoon, I’m not able to tell you more about it other than what I’ve quickly gathered. Victorian poetry doesn’t generally attract my attention, even if most of the Modernists that do attract me grew up during the Victorian era, and, even in rebellion, would be impacted by it.

The Final Minute

Patience appreciated reader. You know we sometimes start one place here and then teleport to somewhere else near the end.

The NBA finals concluded last night, settling for this year the championship of the world’s premier basketball league. Best as I can tell, there’s not a lot of sports-fan overlap here, and to be honest my sports interests atrophied by the time I reached middle age to the point that it’s mostly a skimming of the sports news.

Still while researching something else last night I noticed a live-updating article on a news site for the finals game in its last quarter. I opened a tab in my browser, and in between reading other links germane to my research, checked back on how it was going.

A tied and then two-point, one-possession game eventually entered its final minute, and around there the Milwaukee team, possession by possession, started to assure its win. Even though it is a business, and even though the losers will get paid too, these moments in sports still build into an Aristotelian Poetics agony. One side is partly hoping no one screws up the increasing likelihood; the other side increasingly knows hopelessness. Compounding this, the obligatory strategies of the game mean the endgame is prolonged with timeouts for court position and play caretaking, and desperate, clock-stopping intentional fouls.

Fireworks spent

July remains of bang, light, spent.

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And so, patient reader, it was then, as we continue our summer death, infirmities, and transformation tour here at the Parlando Project, that I thought of this song by Dave Moore that we had performed over a decade ago. Things sticking in memory is one test of artistic validity, and out of hundreds of different songs that Dave and I have performed since then, to recall this one seemed meaningful.

When I dug it out and listened to it this morning, I heard its infirmities: a simple rhythm-machine beat, Dave misses some intended notes in the vocal, my guitar part is not much. The combo organ sound that Dave uses is not hip or fashionable. But still, I think the piece did more than charm my memory. Near the end, Dave lets out a quatrain that still says something about our lives, about infirmities and death:

“You can’t make this up.
It makes up itself.
You can’t make it be
more than anything else.”

We all have our lies, our lives, our arts. We strive, and then someday, strived, to make them. Two out of the three are artificial, and yet from that we still try to discover truth. In the end, death makes up itself. Funny game.

A player gadget will appear for some of you to play this performance of Dave Moore’s “The Final Minute.”   If you don’t see it, this highlighted hyperlink is another way to hear it.