All Souls’ Night

Today’s words are from a poet who’s been forgotten, but this one poem seems to have outlived all her other work largely because it’s a fine short ghost poem with a definite shiver from an ambiguous ending. The poem was called “All Souls’ Night, 1917,”  and it was first published in 1920 in the author Hortense Flexner’s first collection Clouds and Cobblestones.  That book’s acknowledgements indicate “All Souls’ Night”  was never accepted by any of the many publications Flexner had published in toward the beginning of her career, and a selected poems published shortly after Flexner’s death in 1972 does not include it. So it was never her most famous or noteworthy poem while she lived.

Why did I hear of it, why is it out there on the Internet in 2022 to be read? Because of its eerie qualities “All Souls’ Night”  has made a number of contemporary lists of Halloween poems.*  To read or hear it once is likely to impress you of its value as such, and you can read it here with this link, or listen to my brief musical performance below. Our discussion has spoilers, so read or listen first. My performance is only 2 minutes.

clouds and cobblestones cover

I’ve looked at clouds and cobblestones from both sides now, and still somehow…

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Now that you’ve experienced “All Souls’ Night,”  let’s suppose you’re interested in at least a few questions that the poem might bring to mind after you read its 12-lines with their unambiguous chill. Yes, there’s a window here — just as there was in Sara Teasdale’s nursery last time — but either side of this window’s glass has questions.

Outside the window, there’s a date 1917 ending the original title. The poem internally mentions nothing about World War I which was ongoing that year and would still be a universal memory when the poem was published. Several other poems Flexner wrote and published around this time deal with the war, and one short play of hers, Voices,  that was produced on Broadway in 1916, is about the despairs of war.**

Given that WWI is no longer in most any living soul’s memory, I’ve chosen to drop the 1917 in today’s title, as have some of the re-publishers of fantasy or Halloween poems that are featuring it. Outside this poem’s window we only know there are “hosts of lovers, young in death.” Maybe it’s me, but when I first read the poem, I thought the many lovers would be pairs, many of the lovers throughout time who are now dead and stayed in their passionate youth, and the poem does not directly disabuse that notion. But in the 1917 WWI context, one presumes the dead were soldiers, freshly dead. Whatever Flexner’s intent, I think the former has, potentially, greater impact today, even with our current European war. Can we simultaneously allow how Flexner might have intended her ending to be read, and allow how you or I as a modern audience can see the two groups or characters in this poem?

In the poem’s ending, the poem’s speaker, in a warm room next to a fireplace on the other side of the window asks that their warming fire should be allowed to die down, to eliminate the warmth and light on their side of the glass. It’s implied the poem’s speaker is there with others, a party perhaps, as the fire has been set for cheer in the poem’s opening line. With the onrushing crowd of ghosts outside, the insiders are now told at the end: hush, dim the light, turn the room cold so that the ghosts are unaware of them. This is an ambiguous statement if you think about it.

It can be read three ways I think. One, this is simply self-preservation, the ghosts might be vengeful toward the living. In the WWI context the dead might blame them for starting or not stopping the war. Or the folks inside may be smug, and the ghost lovers are their opposite. The insiders may be saying those outside lovers are the not-the-elect living, and that they would steal the warmth, which the insider speaker concludes they will not be able to use, being they are creatures who didn’t stay living and warm. Or lastly the poem’s statement may be one of pity: we shouldn’t be happy, we shouldn’t flaunt our warmth and light to those dead who now can have none of those things.

If, in the WWI context, Flexner has the ghost lovers to be likely the partners of the not dead inside, then the last reading is the most likely. But the reality of any  of those readings is that the cheer, the warmth, and the joy inside the glass must cease. At least for the night, the light and temperature must equalize to death-like on either side of the window. That is the poems genius: it’s chilling on both sides.

At the time of the performance, I went more with the middle reading in my internal approach. I was tempted by that contrast, even if my reading isn’t correct, perhaps because I see so much in our current culture where the other is cast as undeserving. Their desires are a distorted, improper grabbing for joys, things they haven’t earned as members of “the elect.”

This touches on religious beliefs, so one more factor: the poem references All Souls’ Day, a Christian religious holiday. I’m not sure if Flexner wishes to put a religious overlay on her poem, other than an occasion for ghosts. The Flexner family were 19th century German Jewish immigrants to America, and beside Hortense, there are several notable members. The foremost Flexner was her uncle, Abraham Flexner who I see credited with (among other things) the founding of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, the eventual American home of Albert Einstein. Abraham was raised Orthodox, but became an agnostic. I have no info on what religious customs Hortense Flexner may have been knowledgeable about.***  All Souls Day as a traditional Roman Catholic holiday was devoted to praying for those dead not in heaven, in purgatory, and was separate from All Saints Day, which was reserved for the saints who got right into heaven. Protestant Christianity dispensed with those twin holiday distinctions and more or less considered it one holiday.

OK, here’s the part about my short musical performance of “All Souls’ Night.”  I got out the virtual orchestral instruments again and started writing orchestral string parts to go with acoustic guitar. To help with the ghostly air there are two non-acoustic instrument tracks that are mixed at an almost subliminal level: a somewhat overdriven electric piano and a suitably unreal synth patch. You can hear it with the graphic player were it’s seen, or with this backup highlighted link.  I still have other pieces planned for our Halloween series this year, so check back or click Follow to experience them.

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*Poets.org, a long-time online poetry repository, has “All Soul’s Night, 1917”  as it’s only Hortense Flexner poem, and references it under themes where a search might find it, but I may never know what the Ur-source is for this poem’s revival.

**Don’t think big time. There were more theaters then, and the Broadway theater where it was produced was The Princess, which sat only 299, and we don’t know how long the run was. I have watched a low budget amateur performance of Voices. It’s an earnest to a fault two-hander with a young French WWI-experiencing girl and another mysterious character who turns out to be Jeanne D’Arc.

***I went down a happy rabbit hole reading about the Flexners. Hortense was a feminist and a suffrage activist, college educated and eventually a literature professor at two of the “Seven Sisters” women’s Ivy League schools. She’s also some kind of relative to Kenneth Flexner Fearing, a lefty poet who became a pulp-noir novelist around mid-century.

Let Us Be Midwives!

Here’s a second part of my short series marking August 6th, Hiroshima Day, the day the first atomic bomb was dropped on that city, killing tens of thousands.*

Did the previous post’s intentionally odd linkage of personal grief with the deaths of thousands seem thoughtlessly, even offensively, narcissistic? Or did that consideration never occur to you? Not to make a show of putting on the hair shirt, but that sort of question does occur to me.

I’ve come to an acceptance that with poetry that charge is hard to avoid. A poem — one performed to an Internet audience like this project has, or to one spread over time on a silent page — works as a connection between one voice and the audience of one, as one. We may talk usefully of inspirations or conceptually of muses, we may choose to represent causes of multiple voices, but in the end a poet, or any writer, is asking for your attention with a claim from their attention. It’s that simple.

So, must what we put in our poems’ attention field be important, generally important? That’s a heavy burden to put on a few singing words, perhaps making also a claim to be novel, beautiful, even a source of pleasure. The bombing of Hiroshima passes any test of consideration surely, but today’s piece by Sadako Kurihara (translated by Richard Minear) makes choices in portraying this epochal event.

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Imagery beyond poetry. The intense flaming light from the Hiroshima blast burnt shadows onto walls.

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Although short, it’s a narrative poem, and its story has power as story, so I’m not going to summarize it here today, asking instead that you take the 2 ½ minutes to listen to the performance of it. Let me instead tell you a little bit I’ve learned about its author.

Kurihara was an anarchist poet who grew up in an increasingly militarized and authoritarian Japan before the war. Living away from her country’s cultural centers and holding unpopular ideas, she and her family lived a life of poverty and obscurity, marked only by occassional run-ins with the authorities. Throughout the war, she continued writing poetry, though publication was out of the question. On August 6th she was at home in Hiroshima when another country’s military dropped an A-bomb on it. The poem I perform today was completed by September and was published early in 1946 after the defeat and occupation of Japan. It predates by a few months John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”  article that helped form widespread attention to the particulars of today’s event. It therefore is likely one of the first poems written or published about the bombing.

Sadoko Kurihara

Sadoko Kurihara

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The poem reads like an eyewitness account, though from what I’ve read in the past few days about it and its author, it’s based on events she heard about from those who had sought shelter in the basement of her city’s central post office.** So, there’s a choice here. Kurihara used someone else’s story, a vary particular one, to portray one aspect of this large event, one small enough to fit into this short narrative poem.

In the last post, I talked about how near grief can seem larger than massive suffering. This poem uses that effect to do its work. My performance of Kurihara’s “Let Us Be Midwives!”***  has a player gadget below so that you can hear it. Some ways this post can be read will not show that gadget, so I provide this highlighted link to also play it. I’d originally thought I do a more complex musical setting for this poem, one that would somehow (that I’d have to figure out) express the massive horror and scale of destruction. But I lacked anything like the time, focus, and opportunities to do that. Instead, the music has a simple and entirely major chord guitar part that I performed live in one-take, and I spent most of the compositional time making the drum part. In the end I decided to add nothing else, as I think Kurihara’s poem is powerful enough to earn your attention without further elaboration. If you’d like to read the poem yourself, here’s a link to four of  Sadako Kurihara’s poems including this one.

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*There will be no ethical discussion today about the decision to drop the bomb, nor any attempt to adjudge and weigh the evils of any side in World War II. Not that that isn’t important, but it’s nothing I want to try to summarize in a few hundred words. Any reflexive “How many American lives were saved, so spare us the stories of Hiroshima” take should pause and consider that Kurihara opposed that war and her country’s militarism. That would be like accusing Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five  as cozying up to Nazis.

**This may bring to mind stories of others sheltering in the largest ruins of their cities today.

***The poem was further subtitled, in the translation I used, “An untold story of the atomic bombing” but it is also referred to under another English translation of the title as “Bringing Forth New Life.”

Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.) for National Poetry Month

It’s Easter and time to close my short Edward Thomas series for National Poetry Month with a short elegy written by a poet both less and more known than Thomas in the United States.

But before I get to that, let me fill in a few spaces in the Edward Thomas story. I ran into Thomas while researching Robert Frost’s stay in England before WWI. During this time three things happened that are part of our story: Frost published his first poetry collection in London (no one in American publishing was interested in Frost then). Frost was praised by Ezra Pound as an authentic new poetic voice and he finally gains attention in America. A man who made and kept few friends, Frost made one with Edward Thomas. Accounts have it that it was Frost himself who told Thomas that he was a poet who could and should write poetry, starting off the around two-year binge of poetry writing that comprises Thomas’ legacy today.

Thomas’ poetry, metrical and rhymed like Frost’s, has, like the best of early Frost, a sense of the direct object that the Imagists (promoted by Pound) were all about. Read quickly and with casual attention this poetry can seem cold or slight. Who cares about the red wheelbarrow, or that it’s quiet in an English village when the train stops except for a spreading universe of birdsong, or that there’s an abandoned woodpile in a frozen bog? Where’s the breast beating, the high-flown similes, the decoration of gods and abstracts?

In the face of World War I, a war the old gods and abstracts seemed to cause and will onward — to the result of turning “young men to dung” as Thomas said last time — all that seemed beside the point. Thomas knew that, and knew that. He was philosophically a pacifist, an internationalist. None-the-less in 1915, in his late 30s and the sole breadwinner for his family,* he enlisted in the Artists Rifles. He had one other offer: Frost had asked Thomas and Thomas’ family to join him in America.

There’s this other famous point in the Frost-Thomas connection: what may be Frost’s most beloved poem, “The Road Not Taken”  was written about his friend Thomas and their walks about in England. Frost meant to gently chide his friend’s intense observation and concern for choices on smallest evidence, though many who love the poem today take it as the motto for the importance of life choices. Some misremember Frost poem as “The Road Less Travelled By,”  when in the text the poem’s speaker says the two roads were ‘really about the same.”  Thomas’ two roads in the matter of the war were not “really about the same.”

Thomas chose to sign up with the Artists Rifles. You may think, “What an odd name? What’s up with that?” Well, it was what it sounds like. It was founded about 50 years earlier by some painters who wanted to start their own volunteer military unit. It saw action in some of the British colonialist battles before WWI, and in-between it was sort of a shooting club, a weekend-warrior kind of thing. Sound like an old-school-tie/old-boys club? I guess it was. Even during WWI it was invitation-only from existing members. So what happened with it during WWI? It produced junior officers, the kind of lieutenants and scouts that would account for the unit having some of the highest casualty rates in the war. So, there you have it: an exclusive club where the winnowing greeter is waving you in to the trenches and a mechanized manure-spreader of a war.

Busts of Mars and Minerva are featured in the unit’s insignia. “Artists Rifles” sounds kin to Sex Pistols or Guns & Roses, doesn’t it?

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While still in England and in training with his unit, Thomas was able to mix with his circle of friends. He shipped out to France in 1917. He was killed a few weeks later, during what he thought was a lull in the battle. A late shell or sniper got him. He’d written about 100 poems, none of them published at the time of his death. His friends, other poets, wrote elegies. I know of at least three. Here’s a link to a post on another admirable blog, Fourteen Lines, which includes two of those elegies to Thomas.

One of them is by Robert Frost. Re-reading it again I think, Frost must have been so grief stricken that he’d forgotten to be Robert Frost. It’s filled with the kind of fustian crap, romanticism, and poetic diction that Frost the rhyming Modernist was all about throwing off. I tend to forget the poems that don’t give me strong pleasures, so maybe I’m overlooking something, but this elegy may be the worst poem Robert Frost ever wrote. By the time I got to “You went to meet the shell’s embrace of fire” I was through with Frost’s attempt.

Oh, if he could have concentrated on the concrete, the palpable. He may not have known it, but the records of the British military recorded the meagre personal effects found on Thomas’ body: a small notebook/journal, a watch, a compass, a copy of Shakespeare poems…and “Mountain Interval,”  one of Frost’s poetry collections now published in an expanding career in the United States.

So, to end the story of Edward Thomas, who found himself as a poet in middle age writing about how England changed as war arrived, only to die in that war, I chose to perform the second one in Fourteen Lines’ post “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  by Eleanor Farjeon. Farjeon, like yesterday’s Edna Clarke Hall, was a young woman enamored of Thomas** who like Frost and Hall enjoyed walks with Thomas in the countryside. While few Americans are familiar with any of Thomas’ poems,*** Farjeon wrote the lyrics to the hymn song “Morning Has Broken”  which became famous on the back of a Yusef Cat Stevens 1971 performance, and as I write this it may be being sung in an Easter service in my country. So, many Americans know a Farjeon poem, but since Yusef Cat Stevens was known as a songwriter, most probably think he  wrote the words.

Farjeon’s elegy for Thomas doesn’t’ make the mistakes Frost made. It begins as particular and offhand as Frank O’Hara’s masterpiece elegy “The Day Lady Died.”   I don’t know if it’s intended, but after yesterday’s poem of Thomas’ “Gone, Gone Again”   Farjeon picks up with Thomas’ love for apples, speaking of a package of English apples she’d sent to him at the front and of the budding apple trees in the orchard around her. Like “Morning Has Broken,” “Easter Monday”  starts in Eden, and where can we go from there?

The oblique grief of her last line? What can I say…

I may or may not do a lyric video for this one, but you can hear my performance of Eleanor Farjeon’s “Easter Monday (In Memoriam E. T.)”  two ways now. There’s a graphical player below for some, and for those without the ability to see that, this highlighted link.

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*It hadn’t occurred to me, but some have pointed out that a steady paycheck, even if soldier’s pay, may have been one of Thomas’ motivations. His freelance writing work was always running to catch up with the bills.

**Thomas’ wife was open to these relationships, and was friends with Hall and Farjeon before and after Edward’s death. As I said last time, Edward Thomas’ emotional and love life would make a fascinating TV series.

***In England, Thomas is better-known. “Adlestrop”  often ranks in best-loved poem surveys there.

Gone, Gone Again for National Poetry Month

We continue today our National Poetry Month series where we re-release some of our favorite performances from the early days of this Project in the hopes that more ears will be able to hear them. Today’s piece steps forward a couple of years from yesterday’s, where in “Adlestrop”  British poet Edward Thomas had written with beautiful attention about the sweet nothingness of a day of peace while the precipitating event of World War I was only hours away.

Today’s poem, “Gone, Gone Again”  (also known as “The Blenheim Oranges,”)  was written about the same English landscape, only after the war had broken out. If “Adlestrop”  is a poem about present nothingness, then “Gone, Gone Again”  is a poem about absences. It starts with the calendar march of time until autumn, but now the boat landings* are unusually quiet and empty. Next Thomas notes the apple harvest** was not looked after. The apples have grubs, no orchardmen are looking after them, and instead of autumn harvest, they are simply falling to the earth to rot.

There’s a stanza that follows that starts by enigmatically referring to “When the lost one was here —” It seems impossible to determine who that is. It could be anyone missing their soldier overseas in the war, but one of Thomas’ biographers thinks it likely a young woman artist Edna Clarke Hall*** who had what was at least an emotional affair with Thomas. I wondered if the “lost one” could be American Poet Robert Frost, a man who never had many friends, but who had struck up a strong friendship with Thomas while Frost was in England before WWI. Frost had planned for Thomas and his family to emigrate to the United States so that they could continue their friendship, but then the war.

I’d guess the reason there isn’t more speculation on a possible particular “lost one” is that the same stanza ends on a couplet so strong that the opening two lines are overlooked. That couplet? “And when the war began/To turn young men to dung.”

The lyric video. There’s a picture there of the Blenheim apples to get citrus out of your mind, and when we get to the lost one, a photo of Edna Clarke Hall and then Frost.

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The concluding four stanzas develop the theme of an abandoned house, something which rhymes with my own experience of abandoned farm houses in the American Midwest. The concluding stanza mourns the schoolboys who wantonly vandalize these absences, to which Thomas gives full and poetic attention.

I’ve always been happy with the music I composed and realized for this performance, including some parts for muted horns and woodwinds. I did mis-sing a number of Thomas’ words in the recorded take that was otherwise “the keeper.” I hope that won’t detract. On the other hand, one mistake I made I still consider an accidental improvement: “grass growing inside” in place of Thomas’ “grass growing instead” is not only a stronger image, it’s a better rhyme.

Three ways to hear my performance of Thomas’ “Gone, Gone Again:”  a player gadget is below for regular browser viewers of this blog, others may need to avail themselves of this highlighted hyperlink — and we’re continuing our special National Poetry Month series extra feature yet once more: there’s a lyric video above.

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*Quay is an uncommon word in American English. I learned it first from an avid Scrabble player, who probably triple-word-scored with it. A quay can be a seaside dock, but from some knowledge of the landscape Thomas wrote about, it’s likely a river or canal landing he speaks of. With the men overseas in the war, I’d assume the regular canal traffic in the English countryside would be reduced.

**Blenheim Oranges are a British apple type. It’s possible Thomas chose this particular apple not just because it was cultivated in the area of England he knew best, but because it’s named for an estate built for the victorious English leader in a battle fought centuries earlier in Blenheim Germany.

***I knew nothing of her, and research is so rewarding when you come upon a character like her. She’s fascinating, and abundantly talented in an era when women artists weren’t considered. Edward Thomas’ emotional and love life is complicated enough that it would make a tremendous series, with characters any screenwriter or actor would hunger for.

Adlestrop for National Poetry Month

You’ll sometimes find Edward Thomas filed under “War Poets,” but his best-known poem “Adlestrop”  is a unique peace poem that emerged from a journal entry written a few days before war broke out in Europe in 1914. In Thomas’ “Adlestrop”,  nothing happens — the sweetest nothing.

This poem is lesser-known in America than it is in Britain, but its achievement deserves to be celebrated more generally. Now, I won’t knock the accomplishments of the World War I “War Poets,” but from the time of Homer it’s been assumed that the heightened events and sorrows of war can make powerful poetry. But to write poems about the day before a war, the minutes of mere inconvenience amid beauty so ordinary we will not burnish it on paper, that’s a rarer thing.

And now, with a new war being waged in Europe, the “Adlestrop”  moment may have gained fresh power for us.

The new lyric video.

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Adlestrop is, and was in 1914, a tiny English village in the Cotswolds. Edward Thomas did take a train ride a mere four days before Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated tripping off the first world war. He was journaling at the time, a busman’s holiday for a man who made his living freelance writing at a “bills-to-be-paid” rate.*  In his journal he noted the heat and the sleepiness of the train station (which was outside of the town’s edge). An avid naturalist, he made exact notes of the plants there, and the birds. Oh, the birds. Thomas’ writing is always full of bird-song.

Here’s what he wrote on June 24th, 1914, the first draft of what would become the poem:

Then we stopped at Adlestrop, through the willows could be heard a chain of blackbirds songs at 12.45 and one thrush and no man seen, only a hiss of engine letting off steam.

Stopping outside Campden by banks of long grass willowherb and meadowsweet, extraordinary silence between the two periods of travel — looking out on grey dry stones between metals and the shining metals and over it all the elms willows and long grass — one man clears his throat — a greater than rustic silence. No house in view. Stop only for a minute till signal is up.”

The final poem, the one we know and perform below, was then written after the outbreak of the World War. It transforms that entry’s already poetic detail into that masterful poem of nothing, the sweetest nothing. The poem’s final zoom out to “Farther and farther, all the birds/Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire” seems an invention, a choral work derived from a smaller bird-song ensemble in the journal entry.

The performance features one of my better examples of melodic bottleneck electric guitar playing. You can hear this performance three ways: a player gadget below for some, this highlighted link for others, and a new lyric video that you’ll see the picture/thumbnail/link for above.

One other note: my own accelerated posting schedule for National Poetry Month 2022 is wearing me down a little this April. I have more pieces like “Adlestrop”  that I plan to re-release yet, but it’s possible that I may reduce frequency in the second half of the month.

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*Thomas wrote around a hundred poems in the just over one year that he worked at writing poetry. His work for hire productivity was prodigious too. One stat that is often noted was that he once reviewed 19 books in one week.

Zeppelins for National Poetry Month

Here’s another piece from the early days of the Parlando Project that we’re re-releasing for this year’s National Poetry Month. This is the place where I’d often encourage you to listen to the musical performance made from this poem, but I also could see why you might want to skip it and wait for tomorrow’s.

The poem “Zeppelins”  is by F. S. Flint, a too-little-known man who rose from poverty to help launch English language Modernism early in the 20th century as one of the original Imagists who shucked off the expectations of overused poetic tactics and filigree for what he called “unrhymed cadences.”  As a piece of poetry, I think it still sounds modern, still hits this listener with an impact you can feel.

And there’s the rub regarding this poem. It intends to be disturbing, to communicate an intimate dread and revulsion. Not everyone respects Williams’ “Red Wheelbarrow”  celebration of utilitarian beauty for its insistence on simplicity. There are probably even some who won’t “get” Frost’s exuberant ode to the shaping of nature’s gusts to singing words. But neither of those poems will disturb you, and our lives may have enough disturbance that I can see one not wanting to seek out a poem that gives us more of that. Flint’s poem is the story of one of the first aerial bombing raids on a city, an attack in May of 1915 on London that caused around 100 casualties, including children.*

Furthermore, this poem from 1915 is disturbing for another reason: it’s still topical. It was so when I first posted it in 2017 — cities and towns were being bombed and civilians killed then. So it is today. As another bombing witness was wont to say: “So it goes.”

Imagism in action. Note how Flint intimately invokes confusion, dread, and fear directly in this rapidly accelerating narrative poem

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So skip today’s poem if you don’t want to be subjected to that, if your life is already strafed. I’ll understand. Poetry like “Zeppelins”  can serve as a powerful witness, we should respect that, but I can see why we may ask poetry for something else too.

The performance is available three ways. You’ve seen the picture of the lyrics video above, you may see a graphical player below to play the audio of the performance, and then there’s this highlighted link to also play it.

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*I felt obligated to put an advisory on the video, not because I desire a world of poetry that cannot frighten or offend, but because such a piece may be too much for children who may be introduced to poetry during National Poetry Month.

Babi Yar–Testament

I know this Project has an international reach, with listeners and readers in many countries. This is natural, because interest in poetry and music is borderless — but this month many areas of our world are also following the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. There’s no shortage of news, opinions, and analysis of that matter available anywhere where such things are allowed to be freely discussed, and I’ll not be adding personally to that here today. Some of you may be saying “Well, you must speak out! The situation is clear!” I agree that the situation seems clear to me too. I don’t believe I need to be an expert on the matter to have my villain and my set-upon victims, and my mere words in this Project’s small but valued audience won’t add that much.

But one of the Parlando Project’s mottos is “Other People’s Stories.” This lets me call in others’ words to bear on this. Neither of the poems I’ll use excerpts from today were writing about the current invasion, but they weren’t writing about things unconnected to it either. I won’t explicate their words here in any length, I’ll let those words speak for themselves today.

In place of that, let me give you a short description of how I came to create this piece which I call by the names of the two poems I used parts of: “Babi Yar – Testament.”

In the news this month I read that some ordinance in the invasion has landed on the site of Babi Yar, which is the hallowed memorial site of the execution of 33,000 people, mostly Jews, during the German invasion of Ukraine in WWII. The primary reason I know of that horrific event was from a poem I first heard as a teenager, named as the place was: “Babi Yar.”  “Babi Yar”  was written by a young Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and the event of this poem was extraordinarily noteworthy in 1961 when it was published. First it was a poem read internationally by a Russian citizen that included criticism of the Soviet government and some elements of Russian history. Those of my age may know how unique that seemed at that time. After all, even the term dissident hadn’t really escaped from the Soviet regime back then.

And the poet? He was young, good looking, and a powerful reader of his poetry. Yevtushenko was seven years younger than Allen Ginsberg, and roughly as famous for a time after this young Russian was put on the cover of mass-market American magazines.

The whole thing was strange enough that some folks even thought there was a double-game being played, usually around the idea that Yevtushenko was the Soviet equivalent of the Black employee who is given the desk by the door to demonstrate that the firm they worked for didn’t discriminate on color. “See we’ve got our bright rebellious youth too, and there’s really no suppression of speech much less imprisonment for literature in the USSR.” One Yevtushenko, it was supposed, allowed the suppression of a multitude of others.

Let’s leave it at that, because the important thing I want to mention, is that the main reason I knew of the site of Babi Yar was from the man’s poem, the utter empathy it expressed for the victims who died there, and the statement that his native country hadn’t properly memorialized that spot. I often go into the background of poems here, but the poem had a power outside of that.

It’s been around 60 years since I heard or read that poem (I’m not sure which came first) and I wanted to revisit it. I was so bad at remembering the correct spelling of Yevtushenko’s last name that my first web search for some Scrabble rack of a bad guess with “poet” added in the search window brought up another poet instead: Taras Shevchenko.

I don’t know why I read that link to Shevchenko’s Wikipedia page, but that 19th century man has been called the bard of Ukraine. I knew nothing of him, though his wiki entry is long and detailed. An accidental cross-link had now occurred: I read of an attack during the current Russian Ukraine invasion, yet thought of a Russian poem and poet — and in searching for that, came upon a much-honored Ukrainian poet!

Today’s audio piece uses part of Shevchenko’s poem “Zapovit”  translated* as “Testament”  read by myself, mixed with several sections of “Babi Yar”  read by Yevgeny Yevtushenko himself.**

This is the video showing the full performance of “Babi Yar”  that I excerpted for my mashup.

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The piece you can listen to below may seem like the sort of thing I used to do when I recorded with other musicians, but it has elements of remarkable accident too. The drums and bass parts were generated by a little box that I normally use only to practice with.***  I played a chord progression in rhythm into this box and it then generates a drum pattern in time with that and a bass line to follow the chords I played. Next recording pass, I played my reverse Stratocaster to add a guitar part to that bass/drums rhythm section, mostly using that very characteristic Strat “quack” two-pickup setting. Thinking that I might want a different option sonically, I played another take using an Epiphone semi-hollow-body guitar. This left me with two takes of guitar over the same beat. I figured I’d listen to one, then the other, and decide which sounded better later. Not an unusual tactic in these days of digital multi-track recording that.

When I first pulled up the tracks later that same day, I forgot to mute one of the two different electric guitar parts, and instead I heard the two tracks simultaneously. They seemed to weave with each other, even engaging in what sounded like responses — as if two guitarists were standing toe-to-toe and playing at each other. Without planning to, I’d played each part differently against the beat in a way that coincidentally complimented the other part. I decided that was the perfect accident for my Russian/Ukrainian poetry mashup.

I next moved to weave in the parts of “Babi Yar”  as read by Yevtushenko and my own reading from Shevchenko’s “Testament.”   The final addition was to play some layered synth. The completed piece has Yevtushenko, his poem, and the Stratocaster in the left channel and my reading of an English translation of Shevchenko’s “Testament”  in the right. My aim was for it to sound something like a live jam, but I’ve tipped my hand today as to the artifice creating that impression.

Even with those parts separated in the stereo field, and two writers from two now combatant countries, it’s not really a dialectic. By a widely scattered coincidence both poets seem to reference the socialist anthem “The Internationale.”   In the translation I used, “Testament”  speaks of “Arise, sundering your chains,” while “Babi Yar”  wishes for “The Internationale”  to “thunder when the last antisemite on earth is buried for ever.” Each poem speaks of graves and outrage. Yevtushenko’s poem and expressive reading focus on the suffering of Jews, long persecuted in Europe even outside of the enormous atrocity of The Holocaust, and he audaciously claims to take on that suffering as a non-Jew.****   Comparing atrocities and suffering — oh, I cannot bear to do that tonight — but each suffering victim is their own suffering, each death their own death. Amid the current bombs and guns I won’t put that on a scale.

To hear my mashup of parts of “Babi Yar”  and “Testament,”  you can use a player gadget below where you can see it, or this highlighted hyperlink is an alternative way where you don’t have access to the player. The full text of “Babi Yar”  is here, and the full text of “Testament”  is part of Shevchenko’s Wiki page.

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*Wikipedia credits Vera Rich for the translation I used. The use of the translation on the Wikipedia page may well indicate it’s free for reuse.

**In this case, I haven’t obtained express rights to use these parts of Yevtushenko’s performance. I normally would not do this here, but it’s such a powerful statement that speaks to feelings that I and some others have with the current crisis, so I went ahead and used it for this non-revenue Project today. If any rights holder objects, I’ll promptly remove it.

***The box is the Digitech Trio. I think I’ve used it once or twice here before in this Project’s over 600 audio pieces. I thought I might play my own bass line, but I couldn’t “untangle” the drum parts from the bass, and leakage into the guitar mics of the backing parts would have been another problem— and then generally, some of the issues I’m dealing with are a reduction in my time to record, or to record with others, or even my own body at my age being up for playing.

****I don’t recall anyone objecting to Yevtushenko’s poem’s statements back in the early ‘60s that “I seem to be Anne Frank,” “I am each old man here shot dead,” or his concluding statement that he has “no Jewish blood” yet he must he hated “now as a Jew.” Yes, I hear earnest empathy there, even risk in his time and place as well — but I could see some saying now, or even then, “You’re a fine, famous poet Yevgeny, so good words, but what do you really know of living  that?”

As I navigate the Parlando Project and one of its goals, “Other People’s Stories,” I try to recognize similar things. My current working theory is that I’d rather get it half-right than not try at all, and I don’t feel any level of prominence that lets me stand in front of and obscure others who want to tell their stories particular to their lives.

The Story of the Mystery Patient

As I mentioned as January ended, this February has been challenging for me to keep up with this Project and it’s associated tasks. I still hope to have new pieces soon. In place of a new encounter and performance with a poem or other text, let me do one of those posts where I pretend this is a normal blog

I know nothing other than what I read in the news about the situation in Ukraine — and that news with Ukraine now is, in short, mostly about what is feared to be an imminent invasion. I’m sure this Internet is full of folks with takes and information and policy positions if you feel the need for that, but instead I’m going to tell you a little story from my youth.

Back in the 1970s I was working the overnight shift in an urban hospital’s Emergency Department. Overnight, those 11 PM to 7 AM shifts, are probably not good for one’s health or social life, but I rather liked them. Staffing is much lower, and there was in my day almost no administrative or support presence. No crowd of attending MDs looking for proper deference to their priorities, no administrators to set or enforce policy in between meetings. Therefore, hierarchies were radically flattened at night, and I got to see and participate in a lot of different medical things.

My ED then was staffed with myself, a registered nurse (RN), a clerk who typed in information to print up a chart and the handy labels that would be pasted on lab requests/samples, and a family practice resident*  Just down the hall from our suite of four treatment rooms was a door with a buzzer where anyone from the ambulance patients we’d expect after incoming radio calls, to those who’d called their doctor and clinic and were told to drive to the hospital for further evaluation that couldn’t wait until morning would appear. And then too, the walk in.**

I worked nearly 20 years in hospitals, most often in Emergency Rooms. This stock photo looks about the right vintage.

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On the night I remember, the buzzer rang and there was an older man at the door. He had apparently walked up alone, and I usually was the one who went to the door to see what was the matter. And that was the issue from the start: he was speaking some foreign language, and he seemed to have only a scattered understanding of English and almost no English words to reply with. He looked to be in his seventies, had no obvious injuries, no severe distress. He moved slowly, but was walking.

Our door had a big lit-up Emergency Room sign, we could only assume he’d come in for treatment, but for what? You might assume that any 1970s urban hospital would have multiple language interpreters on hand, but that was not the case in ours then. And frankly, we wouldn’t even know what interpreter to call because we couldn’t figure out what language the man was speaking. Some words sounded a bit like German to me, so we called up a nurse working that night who spoke some German to come down. The RN and I hooked our mystery man up to the cardiac monitor, and the resident MD did a quick exam to see if we could figure out why this man had come to us. I think I may have even done an EKG on him, with no obvious issues found.

We looked for an ID in his clothes once we’d put him in a hospital gown and on a stretcher. There was none.

The nurse who spoke some German arrived. She got to her first preliminary question, which might have been “What is your name?” “Or why are you here?” and the mystery man exploded. At least some of the reply was in German. And our volunteer nurse interpreter said his angry words were that Germans had killed his family. How much German did he know? Made no difference, he wasn’t going to answer questions when asked in German.

I next got a bright idea. One of that class of residents was a young doctor who had a great facility in European languages, speaking at least a half-a-dozen of them. He wasn’t on call, and it was 4 AM, but I thought we should call him in. Given the infamous hours that residents worked in those days (maybe still do) that was asking a substantial favor, but he agreed to come in early. I was busy with something when our multilingual resident MD arrived. At one point he thought maybe Russian, and tried that. Later, I heard that once again the mystery patient became angry. Our resident didn’t know the man’s native language, but he got back something that was similar to our German speaking nurse — Russian was not a welcome language to our mystery patient.

Our multilingual resident was a smart guy though. One of the old-guard attending doctors on the hospital’s staff was Ukrainian American and had written a book dealing with Ukrainian culture in Ukrainian, a copy of which was on the shelf in the hospital’s medical library. Our resident showed that book to our mystery patient he later told us, and there was a quick realization that that was his language. After the regular day got underway, the older Ukrainian American doctor found that the man was one of his patients who was somewhat confused and had wandered to the hospital thinking that his doctor might just be there in the middle of the night.

So, as I said at the start, I know nothing about Ukraine — but I do think of that man who appeared in the night at the door of my Emergency Department and demonstrated how little I knew of him and what his country had been through.

Long guns, a poetic example.

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What to bring forward for a musical piece today? How about this one about war and violence that combines a line or two of language expression from Afro-American singer Howlin’ Wolf with second generation Swedish immigrant Carl Sandburg’s poem about countries that pack those long guns. Player gadget below for some of you to play it, or you can use this highlighted link otherwise.

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*Family Practice was the improved modern evolution of the old school “General Practitioner,” and the program that our hospital had treated that generalism like any other specialist residency to give the doctors who went through it a great deal of practical experience in things they would encounter. Almost every one of the residents I worked with there and then were fine people, who would come in some degree of unsure in the Emergency Room and leave after three years as the kind of doctor that I would want for myself or my family. Doctors and regular medical educators ran that program, but experienced nurses were so important in that too. Each June brought in new residents who really needed the steady hand of nurses at night to guide them in practical medical logistics and solutions.

**There was an indoor hockey rink across the street that had a fairly full set of bookings that ran until midnight. Yes, we needed to keep a lot of suture kits in stock.

The Cenotaph

Remembrance of warfare is a complex thing. There are forces for forgetfulness and memorial fighting inside us regarding war, and the entropic forces of time passing put a thumb on the scale as years pass. This Wednesday was once Armistice Day, the day when, for a mere two decades or so, countries celebrated solely the end of “The War to End All Wars.” In America this date eventually became Veterans Day, a holiday to celebrate all those who served in the military, particularly during wars—whereas we already had a spring holiday, Memorial Day, established in the years after our Civil War, to decorate graves of the fallen and to remember their deaths.*

In Great Britain and other countries in the Commonwealth, November 11th continued as the Remembrance Day, and the deaths of WWII or other subsequent conflicts were incorporated, and the holiday remained unchanged, save for the erosions of time. It remains a solemn day. The Sunday nearest the 11th has royal celebrations in London centered around a memorial there, The Cenotaph,** and it’s still customary on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month to pause for a couple of minutes of silence to remember those who died seeking to reach that Armistice Day. This results in an odd divide: Armistice Day was generally a festive, celebratory holiday in 20th century America with joyful parades celebrating surviving veterans.

But that is just the surface of the complexity of the remembrance of war, where the questions of the wisdom or justification for a particular war are adjacent to the undeniable sacrifice of the war’s dead. Those questions are left to the war’s survivors who, from some level of power or acquiescence, made those judgements. In America, so fraught are those two strands of thinking about wars, that we have come to strictly segregate these two issues, out of fear or concerns that to speak of the evils of wars is to speak evil of our dead countrymen, or that to speak of the folly of some wars would denigrate the last full sacrifice.

The_Cenotaph_the_Morning_of_the_Peace_Procession_by_Sir_William_Nicholson

This painting by William Nicholson shows the temporary London cenotaph that was put up for the first Remembrance Day in 1919. Note the flowers strewn at it’s base, and a woman adding to them in this portrayal by Nicholson and echoed in Mew’s poem.

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Today’s piece, “The Cenotaph,”   was written by a British poet, Charlotte Mew in time for the first anniversary of the Armistice, the first Remembrance Day, in 1919. Here’s a link to the full text if you’d like to follow along. It begins with nods to conventional rhetoric about the sorrow of those who lost loved ones, it voices sentimental tropes of the dead in “splendid sleep” and the grave as a bed. I was not sure how to perform those lines. Mew’s poem is complex, not just in syntax and some long lines and sentences that can trip up the breath. If one was to read it with only casual attention, more than three-fourths of it can seem a conventional Victorian poem of mourning—but read or listen to it all the way through!  It ends with a statement of anger so shocking that it should make you reconsider how you read the opening body of the poem. No spoilers here—it’s best to experience this by reading the poem or listening to my performance via the player gadget below.

In my performance I tried to subtly undercut some of those early phrases, but I’m not sure if I (or anyone) can successfully portray the totality of Mew’s poem. Musically I got to write a fanfare, something I hadn’t done before now, and then there’s a quieter, contrasting motif played at the end on a bassoon and two English horns.

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*In some ways the American Civil War experience was similar to the British WWI experience, as the levels of mass casualties Americans suffered in the mid 19th century conflict previewed the shocking casualties the British and Commonwealth soldiers suffered in WWI. America entered WWI late and suffered proportionally fewer deaths from the combat.

**The London Cenotaph in Whitehall, central to Remembrance Day activities in England, particularly since the advent of mass media, is not the only one. Many other cities erected their own versions. Cenotaph means “empty tomb” and the imposing markers were meant to be local sites for decorating and mourning the war dead that were largely buried near foreign battlefields as the logistical challenges of so many dead prevented them from being repatriated. Mew is not in fact describing the particular London Cenotaph in her poem, for when she wrote her poem it didn’t even exist yet, though it was planned and a temporary structure was in place by the first Remembrance Day in 1919. So like Keats’ “Grecian Urn”  it’s not a  cenotaph, but the concept of a great war memorial in the center of the marketplace that she grapples with.

Mew’s 1919 poem appears to be the first WWI poem to discuss the Cenotaph concept. I’ve yet to find the text of a 1920 poem by pacifist veteran Max Plowman written after the monument was completed, and there is this remarkable 1922 poem by Ursula Roberts, also called “The Cenotaph”  that seems to echo Frances Cornford’s non-war-related “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”  from 1910.

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

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

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

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

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

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

young Charlotte Mew

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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