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Some Country Music (poetry)
It has been more than a few months since I last posted. Well, yes. Here is an impromptu piece composed yesterday in reaction to the American election. More things to come when I can.
Some Country Music (for Wednesday 9 November 2016)
Place of lost welcome, place of faithlessness, place of the disenfranchised, place of glib hunger, walled off place, place of broken windows, place of honey, place of gouged certainties, place of barely invisible menace, place of unrequited promises, place of vinyl siding, despondent place, place of recycled batteries, place of scorched all-season radials, place of without, of the less-than-remarkable, place of uneven hygiene, stolen place, place of dissolving hazards, place of smeared lipstick, place of tossed-off b-sides, place of jeans with the knees torn out, tongue-in-groove place, place of small mercies, place of the difficult, that and not this place, place of compassionate hatreds, place of leaky pipelines, place of the backward and the unredeemed, another place, place of the more-or-less, place of coal-fired remorse, place of chained bicycles, place of a few more regrets than you thought you had, place of stale ketchup-flavoured potato chips, punk place, place of the awful and brave, place of stark miracles, place of poorly sutured gunshot wounds, someone else’s place, place of comb-overs, place of flight risks, uncharted place, place of robust decrepitude, place of sweet fritters, unlikely place, place of the remainders, place of special sauce, place of conflicted dreams, place of beatings, place of income splitting, place of diversified wants, place of barren shelves, of selective plenitude, unthinkable place, place of cracking asphalt, place of various plastics, unspeakable or unspoken place, place of adoptive parents, place of hatreds, place of cinched foreign aid, place of disheveled love, of amateur pornography, long-haired place, place of manicured lawns, place of unrepaired elevators, place of cream corn, place of unqualified expertise, place of the quick, this mortal place, place of almost, place of everyone’s worst nightmare but your own, place of loss and profit and loss again, place of bleak water, place of deficits, place of contaminant-free topsoil, place of deadfall, place of stillness, place of thin government, place of rampant loneliness, deplorable unceded place, place of discarded cellophane wrappers, place of careless attraction, place of risk, pride of place, place of cheap stainless steel, place of fallen stars and wheat futures, agnostic place, no better place, place of refuge, place of excluded hearts, place of fraught witness, place of those who can laugh and weep at the same time.
On Stephen Burt, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Place
Stephen Burt delivered the 2015 Garnett Sedgwick Memorial Lecture at U. B. C. yesterday on “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Place.” For those who don’t know his work, he’s a professor in the English Department at Harvard University, currently teaching courses on “ways of reading and ways of hearing poetry” and on literature and sexuality; he’s also written extensively on poetry and poetics, particularly on the work of Randall Jarrell, and he’s published three collections of poetry. What I have discovered I like most about Burt’s critical writing, apart from its combination of clarity and intensity, is a willingness – or better, an articulate desire – to recoup lyric vitality from ideologically and aesthetically disparate poets, writers who, as he puts it, tend to disagree “in first principles, and . . . come from all over,” yoked by an inclination to stylistic difficulty (see his Close Calls with Nonsense, page 6). Poems communicate texturally, for Burt, and those textures can sometimes be recalcitrant and forbidding, seemingly within the purview of intellectuals and literary academics; but poems also communicate, nonetheless and despite themselves, with certain affective immediacies, and it’s that public reciprocity that also draws his eye and his ear. As he puts it addressing himself in “Over Nevada,” a poem describing – circumscribing? – the prospect from an airplane window over Las Vegas, poetry distills formally from language a vital creative muddle, interstitial reciprocity, Simonidean coinage, exchange, indebtedness and gift: “How could you ever sort out or pay back what you owe / In that white coin, language, which melts as you start to speak?“ The communion of readers is fleeting and spectral, , but also, despite its frustrations, it is of this exact shortfall, it is this exact shortfall, that lyric language materially speaks.
His talk drew out a conceptual antithesis that marks the lyric, an ambivalence between the transcendental, “departicularized” tendency of lofty abstract language – that it happens anywhere, outside of history – and the concrete particularities of descriptive circumstance, that whatever happens inevitably has to happen somewhere, to someone. What’s interesting for me aren’t the terms of this opposition, which are so general as to be fairly banal, but Burt’s energetic investigation of the tensions between them as the stuff and the source of poetic work. Most loco-descriptive poetry, he argued, connect outward geography – I’d suggest, physiography – with “inner life” – I’d suggest not only physiology but also psychic topography. What persists, despite claims by Charles Altieri and others that the poetry of place has long since run its course, is according to Burt an intuitive sense of commonality tied to imagined place: that place, however articulated, is still intersubjective, communal. He concentrated on the work of two key poets, for him: C. D. Wright and Mary Dalton. Quoting from Wright’s “Ozark Odes” – “Maybe you have to be from here to hear it sing” – Burt developed the homonymy of here and hear to suggest that Wright’s poems generate the textures and particularities of place apophastically, allowing the reader access through lyric attention, through the melopoeic richness of her geographically precise diction, to a phenomenologically rich encounter with that particularity. You hear the place, you sense it, palpably, in Wright’s words, despite and even because of her skeptical refusal to claim communicative success. The withdrawing “melt” of her language, in other words, is also recombinant and evocative, a plenitude. Burt gestured at Elise Partridge’s poem “Dislocations” (from Chameleon Hours, 2010 version) which also presents a “hybrid” form of lyric apophasis, refusing to lay claim to any naïve or grandiose transcendence while also, at a moment of surprising intensity, discovering how poetic intelligence still fuses to its descriptive objects, as “you feel your strengths intermingling.” One of the pleasures of Elise Partridge’s poetry, Burt said, is that its “attention to place does not preclude migration from one place to another,” and that some of her best work inheres in those transitions and intermediations. He concluded his talk with an investigation of some of the poetry of Mary Dalton. He was especially taken with how human geography and dialect words, in her poems, “imply the physical geography that the words produce.” He focused on the seductive estrangements of encountering the moments when she seemed to open her Newfoundland word-hoard. “Maybe you don’t have to be from there,” he concluded, “to hear it sing.”
Taylor Ho Bynum on Wreck Beach, 28 August 2014
Sunset on Thursday, August 28, was supposed to happen, according to my smartphone app, at about 8:00pm – although sunsets are attenuated diminishments, not sudden closures of the light, so the timing was no doubt loose enough. But I was still running a bit late, and cutting it close. It was about 7:45. Taylor Ho Bynum had announced that he was beginning his west coast bicycle tour this evening with a sunset fanfare on Wreck Beach, Vancouver’s famously clothing-optional strand, at the tip of Point Grey on the University of British Columbia campus. I wanted to be there to hear him play. Getting to the beach involves descending a fairly steep set of 400-odd wood-framed earthen stairs. I had rushed past some former students at the top, saying hello but that I was headed for what I thought was to be a solo concert of improvised cornet music on the beach that was about to start so I was sorry but I had to go. At least, that’s what I think I said. I took the stairs two-at-a-time as I started down, but that soon proved to be too dangerous a tactic, so I dialed the urgency back a little and settled into a one-by-one descent. Tanned and mellow, loosely garbed nudists and dreadlocked dudes passed by me on their way up from a day of sunbathing in the heavy, bronze August light. The staircase itself is shadowed and cool, snaking along a gully in the cliff-side amid stands of west-coast cedar, poplar and the odd birch. Clumps of oversized ferns open in the various cusps of hillocks a few metres off the south side of the path. As I made my way down, at speed, I was pelted by what looked in the dimness like scissor-winged dark moths, small meandering swarms of them newly airborne, a sign of the oncoming night. One or two clung to the folds of my t-shirt. I brushed them off, and, passing the green plastic Johnny-on-the-Spot, emerged from the trees onto the beach sand at the foot of the stairs.
I couldn’t see anything that looked like a concert. It took a moment to orient myself. Scattered beach-goers were still perched against logs, facing the Georgia Strait, watching the sunset in the west across the water. A naked, deeply tanned old man nodded and passed me. Nothing out of the ordinary seemed to be happening. I thought I might have missed Taylor Ho Bynum.
And then I heard what sounded like a Harmon-muted horn, a little faint, off to the right of the stairs. Perched against one of the many driftwood logs that serve as breaks and that define limited privacies amid this reach of open public space, Taylor – shirt off – was playing to some seagulls who had waddled up to him, curious. I came over and sat on the log next to his. There seemed to be a few other people around the space, at their own chosen logs, who were listening, too. Most of the folks around us were couples, however, out for some kind of romantic postcard moment. The seagulls squawked at Taylor’s playing, and he engaged in a little playful conversation with them, before they wandered off. The couple I took for lovers looked over, once, then went back to themselves. The Harmon mute on the cornet gave his sound an intimacy, a hush that was a little swallowed in the rhythmic wash of ocean on sand, and in the wide-open air. You had to be sitting close by to hear.
Taylor finished what he was playing, set down his horn, and put on his shirt. I came over to him and said hello. He’s a very affable, open person, and chatted for a few minutes, telling me how on the very first leg of his bicycle tour – what would probably amount to 1800 miles over the course of five or six weeks, from Vancouver to Tijuana, playing concerts and ad hoc gigs along the way – he had fallen and cut his leg and arm; he had just been washing his cuts in ocean water, which he told me he hoped would work as a kind of natural antiseptic. (Taylor’s own account of his accident, and of playing on Wreck Beach, can be found in his on-line journal for his Bicycle Tour.)
Another listener, whom I recognized from jazz festival gigs this past June and whose name, if I remember right, is Michael, sat down on the log opposite, and joined in the casual talk.
Taylor noticed that the sun was beginning to set in earnest, and said he ought to play some music, like he’d intended. He was concerned that he might be too loud for the thinning community of beach-goers around us, so he placed a soft hat over the bell of his cornet. He improvised an angled fanfare for a little under ten minutes, eventually removing the hat and letting the horn sing out a bit more fully. Michael and I sat a few feet on either side of him as he played, facing the water. The open ocean seemed more or less to swallow up the sound – I don’t think there was a danger of him being too loud here – while the cedars lining the embankment behind us occasionally bounced a cluster of notes back toward us, gently resonant. He was recording himself on an iPad that he had placed to his right, against the log. He put both performances on Sound Cloud – they’re called “Gulls” and “Wrecked at Sunset” (the latter presumably in honour both of Wreck Beach and his crash) – and you can easily make out the ways in which he shifts from counterpointing his lines with the aural textures of the local biosphere through a form of call and response, leaving space for those ambient sounds to overcome his notes before reasserting his voice in tandem with that soundscape, shifting foreground and background, and finally, to my ear, melding his voice into that variegated chorus. You can hear at the close of “Wrecked at Sunset,” if you listen closely, the trees returning his melodies like ghosts.
For those few minutes, it felt like Taylor had begun to initiate a musical ecology: situated and embodied, even a little wounded, this wasn’t a “concert” but a shared auditory space, or better: a temporary entry into the layered networks of place, a kind of sonic reciprocity. The inescapably linear monody produced by the cornet gains depth and polymorphous heft by combining expressive assertion with attentive deference, by concocting instances of responsive, correspondent exchange. A conversing. Not playing for so much as playing along, playing with.
|Actual sunset with which Taylor Ho Bynum was playing on Wreck Beach– including a couple in the right foreground.|
After Taylor finished, and we chatted a little more, one of the RCMP officers who patrol the shore strolled past, and politely suggested that the beach would be closing at dark, and it was time to go. Taylor picked up his horn, and played the Miles Davis outro tag-line from “The Theme,” a light-hearted nod to the historical spectres of improvisers who inevitably haunt our musical memories and an acknowledgement, by quirkily twisting jazz convention, of the ways in which this was no concert, no outdoor club date. He packed up his horn, and picked up his bike, which he had carried down to the beach and which he would have to carry back up the stairs with him. And that was that.
Hearing John K. Samson’s "Highway One West"
We have been reading John K. Samson’s Lyrics and Poems 1997-2012 in one of my current undergraduate classes. One of things I want to interrogate critically about this book is the nature of that “and” in its title: what can these texts tell us, as close readers and as attentive listeners, about the relationship between lyrics and lyric, between song and poem? I’m looking to describe a certain nascent melopoeia in John K. Samson’s conception of how words work, in his conception of the cultural work of both singing and saying, of performing. What, he seems to be asking in most of these pieces (repurposing a famous provocation from Rainer Maria Rilke), what can singers and singing be for in a destitute time such as ours?
I say nascent because, as you thumb through the book, you’ll see that most of the lyrics are printed as if they are prose, like brief essays or prose-poems. Spatially – at least, on the page – this visual arrangement in discrete typographical blocks echoes the cover design (which gestures, as well, at the cover for his 2012 album Provincial and at the graphic design of his webpage), a grid page from an old ledger, sections of which have been filled in with brown and blue hashmarks in pen. The effect, I think, is to gesture at an imaginary map of a parceled rural landscape, the Latin squares of prairie agricultural space. Hand-drawn lines – lines of ink but also lines of poetry – take on topographical resonances. These are songs preoccupied with articulating a human subject in space, with what amounts to placing oneself. In Canada, questions of who I am often become, following a lead from Northrop Frye, questions of where I am and where here is. But rather than fall back on mythopoeic cultural nationalisms – generalizing an Anglo-Canadian psyche as Frye might by locating and defining its (or our) territorial idiom – Samson queries that relationship, and tends to inhabit its inadequacies, and to create a pathos from and within that shortfall. In Vertical Man / Horizontal World, Laurie Ricou reframes the prairie psyche as nascent rather than determinate (and please pardon the gender bias here, which I think is symptomatic of the time at which Ricou’s study was published): “the landscape, and man’s relation to it, is the concrete situation with which the prairie artist initiates his re-creation of the human experience.” Ricou understands this particular landscape as initiating re-creation, as aesthetic disturbance, not as affirming a particular regional identity. The persona, the speaking or singing subject, of a Samson song is usually “left or leaving,” remaindered or else in the process of departure, “undefined” (as the lyric to “Left or Leaving” puts it), but always seeking a positional relation, for better or for worse, with a sense of home, tracking the “lines that you’re relying on to lead you home.” Those lines are also literally nascent, at least in their print form; reading the prose, you can hear metre and rhyme begin to realize themselves, as if lines were gently beginning to extricate themselves, audibly, from an undifferentiated (undefined?) verbal flow, a lineated poem emerging – although not quite emerged – from the prose. It’s not so much that the prose-poem aspires to the condition of song as it is that we experience a sort of hiatus, a space of what the lyrics for “Left and Leaving” might call “waiting,” between conception and realization, between text and song: a betweenity Samson thematizes as “and,” as an unclosed ampersand.
The printed lyrics to “Highway One West” realize this betweenity both typographically and compositionally. The poem begins and ends with nine single-word lines. (The exception is the first line, which adds an extra word, tellingly the first word of the poem, another “And . . . .”) Framed by these narrow plummets, between them, are five lines of what look like prose – although they’re not prosaic in any sense, but tend toward metaphorical density:
roll over the gravel shoulder, thump into the ditch,
engine cut, battery dying, the station metastasizing
tumours of evangelists and ads for vinyl siding,
the city some cheap EQ with the mids pushed up
in the one long note of wheat.
The 9 + 5 + 9 line-structure mimics a kind of overlapped sonnet. (“(manifest)” and “(past due)” from Reconstruction Site are both sonnets, in fact.) More than this ghostly resonance with literary form, however, the spatial disposition of the lines offers a visual analogue to the physiography in which the subject finds himself immersed. If you turn the page sideways, you can see the high-rise buildings of Winnipeg – or at least of “the city” – emerging in the centre of a flat prairie, the horizon created by a line of upended words. “Here,” the last word of the poem, is produced as a mimesis of distant surveillance, too far away to walk back to. The where of the poem is too far, moreover, from everywhere else; it is an elsewhere, alienated and alienating.
Notably, the song begins in performance with the looping repetition of the last segment (“Too far to walk . . .”), accompanied by a heavy, slow down-strum on the electric guitar, the repetition reinforcing the sense of resigned exhaustion, that “here” might be both everywhere and nowhere. The sounds coming over the car radio – not music but distant voices, a verbal garbage offering false promises of commercial or spiritual satisfaction – metastasizes into diseased noise, rough static. Sound technologies – both for recording and reproduction – offer another metaphorical (as opposed to metastasized) resonance to the geographical descriptors; that urban bump in the middle of the landscape mimics a graphic equalizer with the midrange sliders pushed up. The song gestures, in part, at the electronics used to produce it, and to reproduce it. But if, both visually and sonically, the lyrics and the recorded performance gesture at alienation and at loss, the text also frames and even recovers a degree of expressive potential – finds its voice – from within those horizontal margins, pulled over onto the shoulder of Highway One West, the Trans Canada. The page layout also mimics, coincidentally perhaps, a photograph of John K. Samson, used by The Globe and Mail, that looks like it was taken somewhere out on Highway One.
(I don’t know whom to credit for this photo.) The singer’s image, particularly with his back turned to the lens, echoes the middle section of the poem, while the highway and prairie skyline are picked up by the one-word horizontals. (Again, the page has to be turned sideways to see the mirroring.) What this accidental similarity suggests, for me, is a version of Ricou’s vertical man / horizontal world. The song itself has only a vestigial subjective presence: there is no “I” among the words, which are primarily objective and attenuated. But the voice, the speaking subject here, presents itself, ghosts itself into the song, as a hiatus, an opening in the mids and in the midst of this landscape. The singer pauses on the shoulder, at the left-hand margin of the road and of the page, to look out and, especially, to listen. The song models, I want to suggest, a late or “weak” practice of attention, an opening of the self to audibility – both heard and hearing, left and leaving – that positions the subject as initiating its own recreation, cobbling itself together from interpellative fragments that he tries to hear, see and identify with as maybe, elsewise, his own.
Vowel Meadows: Seamus Heaney’s Catches
Like so many, I have been very deeply saddened to hear of Seamus Heaney’s death this morning. Like so many, I have held his work closely for many years, and have heard and continue to hear in my mind’s ear the echoes and soundings of his careful resonant lines. He remains a presence. He has been for me one of the few poets who maintained a thorough and unwavering faith in the capacity of the lyric to speak in and to and with our late world. He seemed always to believe, when others fell away, in the essential and abiding interdependencies of earth and speech. He listened. Spoken, his poems each found a particular catch in the voice.
I have been re-listening to The Poet & the Piper, a collaborative recording he produced with Uilleann piper Liam O’Flynn a decade ago. Most of the poems Heaney reads on the CD have to do with folk music, with listening, with voice, and many of them are closely familiar to his readers. The second-to-last track is a recitation of “Postscript,” a poem that comes from his 1996 collection The Spirit Level:
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
The rhythmic lilt and lift – setting the withheld beat that closes “capture it,” for instance, against the firm iambic heartbeat asserting itself in the rhymed phrase, “a slate-grey lake is lit” – is all Heaney, and reinforces the medial position, “neither here nor there,” in which he characteristically positions himself in his later work. But this shore-line sense of self and place – and the geography is specific and significant: Clare south of Galway on the western edge of Europe, the light and wind smashing and buffeting in from the mid-Atlantic – has little to do with poetic diffidence or last-Romantic fraughtness. (Are those Yeats’s nine and fifty swans?) This isn’t, for me, Heaney’s more violent version of the poet’s body as an Aeolian (or even Uilleann) harp. Rather, his lyric frames and expresses a different order of self awareness. What catches and moves him involves both the estranging sublimity of the oceanic – the bottomless centre of his “Bogland” well – and the necessary inadequacy of language, its pathos. The “catch” in the last line, I think, names both the beautiful and moving brokenness of speech and the song-form – a catch is a traditional round – that utters this insufficiency and makes it sing, in second-hand human terms. The poem, with its opening unlinked conjunction, sounds to me more like a promise to make time “some time” to revisit that sublimity than an assertion or claim to have done it. His autochthony – emblematized in a diction obsessed with turf and rock and root and water – strikes me never as a given but always as a coefficient of desire, as want. In “Postscript,” he wants to keep the experience unfinished: a futurity, a need. And it’s this address to uncaught air and light, to the medial textures of encounter, that lets Heaney’s poem do its deep, keen work, that crafts his faith.