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The Crucified Earth: Jan Zwicky, Robert Bringhurst and Haydn’s ‘Seven Last Words’

Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurstcomposed new poetry for a week-long series of performances of Joseph Haydn’s “Seven Last Words” for string quartet, collaborating with a quartet from Early Music Vancouver that included Marc Destrubé and Linda Melsted on violins, Stephen Creswell on viola and Tanya Tomkins on cello. The last concert of the series took place on January 24, 2015, in Pyatt Hall in the Orpheum Annex in downtown Vancouver, with the space arranged as a café with candlelit tables, setting a mood of intimate intensity. Performing Haydn’s Op. 51 presents some unique challenges, not the least of which is what to do with what Bringhurst and Zwicky call in their programme notes “the presence of a text” in a work “designed as a magnificent musical envelope with seven pockets for spoken words.” The seven “words” are “seven short phrases from the Latin bible” that register in the rhythms and phrasings of musical lines, and it’s tempting to hear a form of textual mimesis in Haydn’s music, not unlike (for example) the fourth section of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, in which a “psalm” is delivered as a verbal recitation in the lead melody: “the musical phrases,” Zwicky and Bringhurst note, “rise from the meaning and shape of the text.” This noetic melopoeia seems to be what draws Bringhurst’s ear, in particular, to this work; his poetry recurrently pursues what he has called “the musical density of being.” I’m not sure that Haydn’s classicism would effect quite as much pull, although its measured textures mesh well with the chiseled exactitude of Bringhurst’s sense of line. Zwicky, too, shapes lyrical meshes of the musical and the philosophical in her poetry, and she has mined both Classical and Romantic European musical history for source material for her work.
In a pre-concert interview, Zwicky and Destrubé described the rehearsal process (at Zwicky and Bringhurst’s Quadra Island home), with Zwicky noting how for her, above all else, both poetry and music strove to realize an immediacy and a clarity, that the work could be taken in at “one hearing.” In their programme notes, Bringhurst and Zwicky describe how they developed a more ecumenically ecological set of texts, cued by the lines from the Latin translations of gospels that provided Haydn’s music with its original scaffolding, the seven last words of Christ at his crucifixion; noting that other poets – notably, Mark Strand – have written poems to accompany Haydn’s music, and that performances and recordings of the quartet have included interleaved readings from the biblical texts and other “poems on Christian themes,” they frame a pressing compositional problem:
After all these experiments, and in the face of Haydn’s own wordless eloquence, could there still be something to say? One reason to think there might be is, of course, that the crucifixion has never ceased. Man’s deliberate and vengeful inhumanity to man – and to just about everything else – is no less vivid and casual in the twenty-first century than in the first. So in 2014, when we were invited to supply some words for a performance of Opus 51 by Early Music Vancouver, we said yes. And our theme became what we thought it had to be in our time: the crucifixion of the earth.
This last phrase echoes the title of Zwicky’s award-winning 1999 collection, Songs for Relinquishing the Earth, as well as the text of Bringhurst’s “Thirty Words” (1987), which was revised and expanded in the subsequent decade into an ecologically-focused liturgy, his “Gloria, Credo, Sanctus et Oreamnos Deorum”:
Knowing, not owning.
Praise of what is,
not of what flatters us
into mere pleasure.
Earth speaking earth,
singing water and air,
audible everywhere
there is no one to listen.
(Selected Poems, Gaspereau Press, 159)
The kind of listening Bringhurst both calls for and wants to enact in his work refuses the “mere pleasure” of distraction and pushes instead toward the excoriation and even the extinction of the callous “inhumanity” of the human, an audibility that demands that “no one” be listening, not in the service of nihilism but rather of the dissolution of our domineering egocentrisms. Zwicky can sound, at times, less confrontational, but she is no less exacting in her demand that, as Rilke famous has it, we change our lives: “Learn stillness,” she writes, “if you would run clear.” The clarity of style and the communicative immediacy that she wants in her poetry incline toward just such an attentive stillness, an extinguishing of our all-too-human desires for control and agency: a relinquishing.
         I’m going to concentrate my commentary on the poetry, which I’m recalling from memory (none of the texts is published, and all were newly written for the Haydn) and from whatever notes I managed to take. The string quartet played with lyrical ferocity and focus throughout; their performance was, for me, a marvel of concentration and emotive power – not at all, I have to confess, what I expected from a concert of Haydn. As for the poetry, the first of the seven pieces was a colloquy, a dialogue between the two poets modeled on the polyphonic (that is, multi-voiced) forms of Bringhurst’s “The Blue Roofs of Japan” or “Conversations with a Toad,” or Zwicky’s Wittgenstein Elegies. Both poets exchanged admissions of failure, their mea culpas, with Zwicky intoning how, as human subject, “I” have “failed to let the great breath of you move through me.” Uncannily, the concentrated, collective intake of breath by the members of the string quartet was audible as they launched into Haydn’s music with fierce conviction and palpable energy, making the lines appear to breathe through them. If Zwicky and Bringhurst acknowledged human failure, that loss was answered by the creative drive of the music that followed, a gesture at some form of responsive forgiveness. Bringhurst’s poetic prelude to the second sonata  (“Today shalt thou be with me in paradise,” Luke 23:43) declared that “This is it,” that humanity needs to recognize that paradise is present to us on earth, if we can recognize it. To lead into Sonata III (“Woman, behold thy son,” John 19:26), Zwicky picked up on this same imperative, to behold, to come to awareness, but again stressing the haecceity, the this-ness or the present-ness of the earth as it is, vitally:
Look up.
It’s the sky.
And the rain that is falling
is rain.
(I have no access to the print text: the line breaks are based on how Zwicky paused as she read.) That honouring of things in themselves was counterpointed by Bringhurst’s hard-edged text for Sonata IV (“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Matthew 27:46), which began by declaring almost Miltonically that “Hell is the absence of heaven and earth.” Bringhurst also composed the poem for Sonata V (“I thirst,” John 19:28), which again took up a condemnatory tone: “They will take much more than everything you have.” Notably, Bringhurst’s texts often distanced and objured the human – theywill – while Zwicky’s texts tended to emphasize collective complicity – we will . . . . For Sonata VI (“It is finished,” John 19:30), Zwicky offered a list of extinct species, in what was perhaps the most deeply affecting moments of the performance. She also closed out the poetic part of the performance, leading into Sonata VII (“Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit,” Luke 23:46) with a lyrical framing not of guilt or condemnation but of tenderness,
                    a tenderness we can’t imagine
but still recognize, opening
and opening
its hands
(Again, my line breaks – not necessarily Zwicky’s.) That recognition, if only a prayerful gesture toward the relinquishment of shared self, a selflessness we might share at the limits of words, opened into a passionate musical response from the quartet, as the potentially cold edges of Haydn’s calculated classicism evolved into what felt to me almost Steve Reich-likerhythmic loops and cascades: a present-tense music that wanted to open our ears, collectively in that space and that moment, to hope and to possibility.

Robert Bringhurst and Anne Carson Translating Antigone (Audio)

Also on Sound Cloud, I have uploaded some audio of my paper, “Ecologies of Estrangement: Robert Bringhurst and Anne Carson Translating Antigone,” which I delivered at Beyond the Nature of Culture: Rethinking Canadian and Environmental Studies, a conference held at the University of British Columbia from 28-30 September 2012. It’s currently being expanded into a chapter, developing connections and contrasts between Carson and Bringhurst by assessing their work on Paul Celan (and Celan’s fraught relationship with Martin Heidegger’s poetic philosophy), and connecting their ideas on translation to Walter Benjamin’s “The Task of the Translator.” In this conference paper, the focus was narrowed to an investigation of the tensions between concepts of poetic ecology and poetic economy. To set things up, here is the opening paragraph, which also works something like an abstract:
Finding intersections between the aesthetics of Anne Carson and of Robert Bringhurst, if you are at all familiar with their extensive bodies of translations, essays and poetry, might appear counter-intuitive at first. Carson’s bittersweet, media-savvy postmodernity seems obviously at odds with Bringhurst’s latter-day highbrow modernism. Her work weaves its genealogy through Gertrude Stein, while his lineage derives from Ezra Pound. Her interest tends to be drawn by the fraught epistemic terrains of language, his by its ontic capacities. Her default to a bittersweet wryness contrasts rather markedly with his typically mindful  seriousness. Still, a critical collision of their work – around their different translations of the “Wonders are many . . .” chorus from Sophokles’s Antigone (lines 332-375) – might prove educational as we try to think through the complexities of how we, as human speaking subjects, aspire to frame the natural. Both Bringhurst and Carson exploit the divagations within the process of translation to call radically into question the results of human technē, and use this foundational Western text to voice critiques of the limits and the reach of poetic and cultural craft, of what people have done and have failed to do for their world.

These Poems, She Said: Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst

Jan Zwicky and Robert Bringhurst read together at Green College, at the University of British Columbia, on Wednesday, March 20, in the late afternoon: the last event in this year’s Play Chthonics series. I was set to introduce them to the 40-odd people who had come to hear them in the Graham House fireside lounge – a capacity crowd for a poetry reading, for that intimate space – and Jan reminded me about one of the first times we had met, which was in a two-term graduate seminar led by Don McKay at Western in the fall-winter of 1986-87. She was teaching philosophy at Waterloo, I think, but would come weekly down to London to audit the Monday evening class; her Wittgenstein Elegies had been published by Brick Books earlier that year. I was a master’s student, and was just getting underway writing what would turn out to be a thesis on the poetry and poetics of Robert Bringhurst, which McKay was supervising. The seminar was called “Poetry After 1945,” if I am remembering right, and each week was focused on a different book, a different poet – chosen, I’m pretty sure, not for any particular thematic or ideological reason, but because Don was interested in them, and he thought that theirs were poems that we ought at the very least to know about, to know: Robert Lowell’s Life Studies and For the Union Dead, Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares, John Ashbery’s Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror, Ted Hughes’s Crow, Dennis Lee’s Civil Elegies, and selected poems from Denise Levertov, Daphne Marlatt, Seamus Heaney, Charles Olson, others. One guy in the seminar was keen to do something with Sylvia Plath. (I remember also discovering, through Don, Charles Wright’s The Other Side of the River that year.)  And, near the end of term, Don had put on Robert Bringhurst’s The Beauty of the Weapons.
I don’t know what had drawn or what was drawing me into Bringhurst’s work at the time, whether I had picked it out from McKay’s syllabus, or found it on my own and then taken the seminar to hear more about it and to encounter those poems more fully. There was something that spoke to me quite forcefully and seriously in those days, from Bringhurst’s writing, something important. And he was also one of the few poets I had discovered who had a rigorous interest in philosophy, in thinking. What caught my ear was that Bringhurst didn’t ever merely namecheck Heidegger or Levinasor the Pre-Socratics, never merely rehearsed  Zen traditions (via Gary Snyder) or First Nations mythtelling; he took these inheritances up with a keenness, a self-awareness and a deliberateness that I had never met before, and he did it not simply in but through poems, as poetry. Bringhurst aimed to have his work converse, materially and essentially, with what Kinnell called(in his brief “Prayer”) “whatever what is is.” Later poems would make this conversation more formally explicit – his “Blue Roofs of Japan” had just appeared in Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, Bringhurst’s just-issued collection from McClelland and Stewart. The way I remember, it was this kind of poetically-informed conversation to which I hoped that seminar aspired.
By the start of second term, after I had been working at Bringhurst’s books for some time and with the in-class discussion of his poetry fast approaching, I was certainly aware that both McKay and Zwicky had been somehow more directly and closely implicated in his writing than I might have realized at first (although I knew McKay knew Bringhurst personally, and had sent him a few questions on my behalf about sources for poems). “Sunday Morning,” from Pieces of Map, is dedicated to them both, and suggests a kinship of thought and approach – around listening, around wilderness, around alterity and ontology – that Bringhurst characterizes as an interest, an inter-esse, in “the musical density of being.” Their poetry, in many and various registers, aspires to sing, to attain the condition of song. They were concerned, in the late 1980s, to reactivate a particular trajectory of the lyric, its noetic intensities.
So, what happened in the seminar was: one of the assignments involved presenting a close reading of a poem. I had chosen to examine Bringhurst’s “These Poems, She Said,” partly in response to an emergent line of questioning in the class around gender politics. Bringhurst placed the poem first in his selected, to enact a distancing irony, and to suggest a self-awareness about the contingency of the seemingly sculptural monumentality, the mythic reach, of the texts that followed:
         These poems, these poems,
         these poems, she said, are poems
                  with no love in them. These are the poems of a man
                  who would leave his wife and child because
                  they made noise in his study.
                  [. . .] These are the poems of a man
                  like Plato, she said, meaning something I did not
                  comprehend but which nevertheless
                  offended me. (Selected Poems 75)            
The gesture at Plato isn’t just a philosophy joke about an authoritarian metaphysian’s aversion to the erotic. (It’s worth comparing Zwicky’s recent Plato as Artist, which recuperates an alternative Plato.) Bringhurst creates a miniature Socratic elenchus, replete with self-deprecating irony. Uncharacteristically for Plato, however, the interlocutor in this poem is female; the text’s antithetical manoeuvres, shifting from iterated critique to discomfited reaction, both sustains the authority of the male poet’s voice – everything remains filtered through him, and he is the one who affirms, at the poem’s close, that the woman’s voice has spoken “rightly” – and also dismantles any grounds he might have, other than a kind of empty verbal aestheticism (“You are, he said,/ beautiful”), to claim argumentative high ground. He sounds like he wins, but he can win only by losing, since the love he craves entails receptive openness rather than the abstract and detached rhetorical management of a well-turned phrase or line. In the seminar, I think it was difficult for me to hear the conflictedness at the core of the poem, and instead I focused only its apparent claim to rightness, its mistaken feel of surety. This reading, as you can imagine, didn’t sit well with Jan, and she told me so. What she valued in the poem wasn’t any feint of attention or pretense of listening, but a deliberate, intentional disavowal of ego; the poem, for her, in the white space that slashes through its penultimate line on the page, opens itself to what remains otherwise, to its ungovernable outside. (As I write this, I don’t think those would have been Zwicky’s terms; this is me, I’m sure, re-casting her critique. But however she put it, her point was a good one.) She argued.
         What came out wasn’t just a corrective for me. More importantly, it was the sense that there were real stakes here, that something in this poetry mattered. And what mattered was the honing and the intensification and the acuity of thinking, of thought as an exacting, lyrical unknitting of selfishness, of self. That debate about poetics wasn’t just a remedial exercise, but an enactment of this rigorous openness, one that takes itself seriously. “Knowing, not owning” as Bringhurst puts in what he then called “Thirty Words,” which he would incorporate into his “credo” in later editions of his selected poems: “Praise of what is, / not of what flatters us / into mere pleasure” (Selected Poems 159). Neither Zwicky nor Bringhurst takes this demand lightly; poetry is careful, serious business, and since that evening seminar in 1987, I have tried to learn from and through their work – and I continue to do so – to correspond with, to be responsive to and responsible for, that care.
Robert Bringhurst Reading at Green College
         The Play Chthonics reading, for me, reactivated this commitment to a poetry that matters. Both Bringhurst and Zwicky presented principally new work, but their tactics and idioms were still closely and thoroughly enmeshed in the kinds of lyric thinking they have been practicing, in their distinctive ways, for decades, and for which I have, for decades, admired them. Bringhurst read from a set of what he called “language” poems, works that have little to do with idiomatic American experimentalism, but addressed themselves to the foundational becoming, the ontological pluralism, that he has pursued throughout his career. Zwicky’s poems, by contrast, focused elegiacally on the essential unknowability of things, on lost connections and on gaps and silences. But her poems also distill their music from that loss, a music that wants to draw out some of the human resonances with a world in which we are all implicated, to converse openly with the unvoiced plentitude of what we are not, which is also what we are. At different points, both she and Bringhurst coincidentally described encounters with a heron as an image of this attentive address.
         After the reading, I picked up a copy of a CD that Zwicky had recorded (in June 2011) called, simply, Jan Zwicky Reads. I have been listening to it off and on for the past month. As at the live reading, I find that as I listen certain of her lines seem to hang in the air, to resonate: “that bare light not yet sweet with birds.” Zwicky’s melopoeic technique, her mastery of the phonemic music of language, evident here in the audible meshwork of consonants and gently modulating vowels, is more than “sweet” craft; what inheres in these voicings – I’m sure that’s the right term for this lyric practice – is more than the mere pleasures of listening. Zwicky offers in small, in lines such as these, a musical elenchus, a negation (“not yet”) that highlights the hiatuses and epistemological uncertainties that poetry seeks to bridge, as metaphor, but also construes as its substance, as its inevitable shortfall, again as metaphor, as approximation, as asymptote: a version, I’d say, of what Bringhurst has called, translating Paul Celan, “the caught light’s closeness / to audibility” (Selected Poems 143). The sweetness Zwicky’s poetry seeks out is never the sugary or the saccharine, but is consistently a resonance, a harmonic sweet spot, where the disparate textures of an unclosed world can briefly, barely, touch and argue, catch and hum, collide and sing.