Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘music’

 

To His Piano

by Howard Nemerov

 

Old friend, patient of error as of accuracy,

Ready to think the fingerings of thought,

You but a scant year older than I am

With my expectant mother expecting maybe

An infant prodigy among her stars

But getting only little me instead–

 

To see you standing there for six decades

Containing chopsticks, Fur Elise, and

The Art of Fugue in your burnished rosewood box,

As well as all those years of silence and

The stumbling beginnings the children made,

Who would believe the twenty tons of stress

Your gilded frame’s kept stretched out all this while?

 

 

Two pianos—the old upright rosewood box in Howard Nemerov’s poem and the shiny black grand in Vienna’s Schonbrunn Palace where I left the poem—are as different as can be. The music coming from each is different as well—Beethoven and Bach from one, Mozart and Strauss from the other.

 

But there is one (stretch of a) connection between the two. In the gilded Schonbrunn Great Gallery, lit by (electric) candlebras and crowned with a dramatic rococo ceiling mural, it’s easy to imagine young Mozart delighting the Austrian court with his glorious music. That is until the actual concert started. The music we heard in this tourist-y concert didn’t always match the fantasy (although I think the problem was coming from the string section, not the piano). Nemerov details a similar disappointment in the poem. His mother hoped for a prodigy and got instead Chopsticks played badly.

 

Still, rather than becoming a source of shame, Nemerov’s piano is an “old friend,” patient, unconditionally loyal, bearer of neglect and all the uncomfortable tensions in the household. Exactly what a son might wish his mother to be.

 

Poet, novelist and essayist Howard Nemerov (1920-1991) was born in New York City to a wealthy family (think nannies and white gloves). His parents owned a Fifth Avenue department store, but art more than commerce was the family focus. His dad was a well-regarded art historian, his sister photographer Diane Arbus, his other sister a sculptor.

 

Given the artistic milieu Nemerov grew up in, his mother’s hopes for a musically talented son have a special sting. She was, by Nemerov’s account, a cold and distant mother.

 

A high school football player and star student, Nemerov graduated from Harvard and served in World War II as a pilot. He was a famed professor at Hamilton, Bennington, Brandeis and Washington University in St. Louis. He was twice appointed as U.S. Poet Laureate, won the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. He was married to Margaret Russell and had three sons with her. He died of esophageal cancer.

 

couldn’t get to the piano, so left poem on the floor

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

poem is on the fence, next to my sister

poem is on the fence, next to my sister

 

Come. And Be My Baby

by Maya Angelou

 

The highway is full of big cars

going nowhere fast

And folks is smoking anything that’ll burn

Some people wrap their lies around a cocktail glass

And you sit wondering

where you’re going to turn

I got it.

Come. And be my baby.

 

Some prophets say the world is gonna end tomorrow

But others say we’ve got a week or two

The paper is full of every kind of blooming horror

And you sit wondering

What you’re gonna do.

I got it.

Come. And be my baby.

 

IMG_3864

 

To understand why I left Maya Angelou’s “Come. And Be My Baby” over a highway in suburban Maryland last week, you have to understand the atmosphere of persistent unease in the area and, more relevant, the nearly physical presence of the Cold War in my childhood home.

 

I was born three weeks after the Cuban Missile crisis in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. I don’t want to overstate the level of anxiety I grew up with, but my father’s periodic warnings that the Russians would be taking over soon were probably not conducive to childhood serenity. His paranoia was well-earned. He worked in the defense contracting industry, and as an ex-Naval officer, he had once been used as a guinea pig for nuclear bomb testing in Nevada. Everyone who lives in the D.C. area knows that the city has always been and always will be a target for enemies of our nation, but my dad actually planned for the day the target would be hit. When the bomb came, canned goods in the basement would keep us for a few days, and then we would move, all 13 of us, from wherever we found ourselves, to safer territory. He drew a circle around Washington with a radius of 200 miles to calculate how far we needed to go to avoid radiation poisoning. He decided that in the ensuing chaos of a nuclear bomb, our family meeting place was Morgantown, West Virginia. From my youngest days Morgantown, West Virginia was such an otherworldly place that when I first heard the Joni Mitchell song of the same name, I couldn’t believe Morgantown really existed. My sister remembers worrying, as a little girl, just how she was supposed to get to Morgantown by herself.

 

Let’s just say we didn’t take the stability of the world for granted.

 

End-of-the-world fears have been growing steadily everywhere in the last few months, but in Washington those fears seem a little more real. In this city of governance, policy and ideologues of every stripe, folks discuss ISIS, Gaza, Putin, and Assad like other people talk about the neighbor’s lawn upkeep. The memory of the Beltway Sniper is still fresh, and kids who grew up locked in for recess so they wouldn’t get picked off in the schoolyard now worry about taking the subway to work because of recent terrorist threats. At the time I left the poem, an ebola patient had just been transferred to NIH in Bethesda (now released, praise be), dangerous people were hopping the White House fence, and the headlines were full of the usual reports of international disintegration.

 

So I consider this poem-elfing a public service. I taped “Come. And Be My Baby” to the fencing on a pedestrian bridge along the Trolley Trail, a peaceful path that runs over and alongside some of the major arteries for big cars/going nowhere fast. (Notice that the bridge is fenced to prevent people from jumping off. There’ also this encouraging graffiti,

IMG_3878

which reads, “We all have a heart/we all breathe/the rest is up to you.”)

 

Of course, Maya Angelou’s poem is written in response to the struggles of African-Americans, but it transcends the particular as it lands, forty years later, as solace for anyone overwhelmed by all the blooming horror we live in.

 

Her call to love in the face of doom is a time-honored ploy of seduction. Think of “To the Virgins, to Make Much Use of Time” and these lines from “Dover Beach”:

 

Ah, love, let us be true

To one another! for the world, which seems

To lie before us like a land of dreams,

So various, so beautiful, so new,

Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,

Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;

And we are here as on a darkling plain

Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,

Where ignorant armies clash by night.

 

What’s different here, for me anyway, is that a woman is the seducer. Her tone is more mild than urgent, but no less effective. The punctuation lends her siren call its gentleness. She motions her lover over to her with the simple Come. Then she issues her invitation, as if she’s giving her lover time to consider it.

 

One line of the poem puzzles me: I got it. Is it I got it, as in, I got what you need, or is it I got it, as in, I understand all your worries? It depends on how the phrase is inflected. By chance I just found out I’ll have the answer soon. On November 4, an album of poems accompanied by hip-hop beats and gospel music that Angelou was working on when she died will be released. One of the tracks is “Come. And Be My Baby.”

 

I’ve listened to another one of the tracks (“Still I Rise,” link here–it’s great), and hearing Angelou’s deep and resonant voice makes me appreciate her poetry more than I used to. As Poetry Foundation writes:

 

Angelou’s poetry often benefits from her performance of it: Angelou usually recites her poems before spellbound crowds. Indeed, Angelou’s poetry can also be traced to African-American oral traditions like slave and work songs, especially in her use of personal narrative and emphasis on individual responses to hardship, oppression and loss.

 

And reading about her life makes me appreciate Angelou in a whole new way. I say this as someone who’s had a resistance to her. I loved I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as much as anyone, but the reverence afforded her poems and her person (and worse, her collaboration with Hallmark Cards on the Mosaic line), left me cold. The slightest scent of hagiography will send me running off in the opposite direction.

 

But what she lived through and what she accomplished! My goodness, I’ve come late to the party. Any one of the events of her life is enough for a movie, but her life is so jammed-pack with significant moments that The Maya Angelou Story would not be a believable script.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.56.13 PMShe was born in 1928 in St. Louis, but after her parents’ divorce when she was 3 or 4, was sent to live in Arkansas with her grandmother. Over the years she was shuffled back and forth between her mother and grandmother, eventually landing in San Francisco. During one of the visits with her mother, when she was 8, she was raped by her mother’s boyfriend. She confided in her brother, who told the family. The rapist was sent to jail, released after a day, and then murdered, reportedly by Angelou’s uncles. After his murder, Angelou stopped speaking. She blamed her speaking out for his death.

 

With the help of a teacher, the appropriately named Mrs. Bertha Flowers, Angelou started speaking four or five years later. And then her life took off. She became San Francisco’s first African American female streetcar driver while still in high school. She gave birth at 17 to a boy, and worked as a waitress and cook to support herself and her child. She married a white man, a Greek sailor and musician, despite the difficulties of interracial marriage at the time. She studied dance under Martha Graham, and formed a dance partnership with Alvin Ailey before he became famous.

 

She sang and danced at a nightclub. She recorded a Calypso album in 1957 and wrote and performed in an off-Broadway review called Calypso Heat Wave and later a film based on that show. She toured Europe in Porgy and Bess. As she traveled, she taught herself the language of every country she visited. She was fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and a West African language called Fanti.

 

In 1959 she moved to New York and joined the Harlem Writers Guild, befriending James Baldwin who became her mentor. Upon hearing Dr. Martin Luther King speak, she became an organizer for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

 

Screen Shot 2014-10-27 at 2.51.49 PMIn 1961 she performed in a Jean Genet play, The Blacks, along with legendary actors Cicely Tyson, Lou Gossett, James Earl Jones. She moved to Cairo with her son, where she worked as an editor at an English language newspaper, and on to Ghana where she served as an administrator at a university.

 

Angelou was devastated by the assassinations of her close friends Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Shortly after she produced a 10-part documentary on the blues.

 

She wrote the first of her seven autobiographies in 1969 (the last one published when she was 83), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. She wrote a screenplay, she wrote soundtracks, she acted in the television mini-series Roots and several other shows, she wrote music for singer Roberta Flack (listen here) and B.B. King (and here). She gave the inaugural poem for President Clinton, the first poet to do so since Robert Frost spoke at Kennedy’s inauguration. In 1996 she directed a feature film with Wesley Snipes. Along the way she published cookbooks, earned over 50 honorary degrees and awards–a Tony, an Emmy and the National Medal of Freedom among them–and in her last few months worked on the posthumous album I mentioned earlier.

 

She is exhausting. A lifetime of nonstop creativity.

 

In the poem I left on the bridge, Angelou lists three antidotes to struggle and stress: drinking, drugs and love. But her amazing life suggests a fourth one.

 

Creative work, in case you skimmed over that long biography.

Read Full Post »

I’m still a schoolgirl when it comes to summer’s end.  I dread the fall.  Pumpkins and football games make me anxious. Give me hot, humid weather, a little body odor, and a good book every time.

 

Speaking of good books, there’s still a few weeks to enjoy summer reading.  On a friend’s recommendation, I’ve been reading everything by Barbara Trapido that I can find. (Temples of Delight is my favorite so far.)  I can’t resist British humor and eccentric characters.  Also been reading Elizabeth Bowen, another British writer.  She’s as somber as Trapido is delightful, but oh, those sentences!  I don’t cry reading too many books, but  The House in Paris left me stunned and weepy.

 

On a lighter note, my summer song this year is “Pata Pata,” by Miriam Makeba.  Link here for the best audio version, but be sure to watch this video of Makeba singing the song.  Great set, great costumes, and Makeba’s stage presence is enchanting. I’m a Johnny-come-lately to “Pata Pata”–it was released in 1957–but it sounds current to me and I can’t stop dancing to it.  Makeba, an anti-apartheid activist, breast cancer survivor (at age 18), wife of Stokey Carmichael, and international star, is long due for a bio-pic.

 

So what have you been reading this summer?  And what’s your summer song?

 

Read Full Post »

 

when it was more important to dream than clean my room

 

When I was a teenager, and like other teens suffering from an awkwardness in inverse proportion to my romantic longings, I liked to sit by the fire during the holiday season and listen to sad music till tears rolled down my cheeks.  It was great.  Certain inchoate desires—to live a happening life, to be loved by a boy, to be Mary Tyler Moore, to just, just experience something I didn’t know what, something beautiful and swooning—such feelings found release there in the darkened rec room with the fire crackling and popping and the scratchy Richie Havens album on the phonograph.  For a really good cry, Haven’s decidedly uncheerful “I Can’t Take it Anymore” was gentle medicine.

 

I still need a sad song around the holidays.  Listening to music that draws out tears is as beneficial as lancing a cut.  For a short four-tear cry I listen to Lizz Wright’s “Dreaming Wide Awake,” a beautiful and lush song well-served by its title.

 

For a lighter kind of melancholy, I turn to Wilco’s “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).”  Actually, it’s not just a holiday song for me; I’ve been listening obsessively since Wilco released their latest album in September.

 

The song is about a man struggling with memories of a difficult father.  The man’s dead father was a condemning sort who condemned the son for not believing in a condemning God.  Songwriter Jeff Tweedy explains the spiritual issue at the center of the song:  “Now he’s [the father] going to know he was wrong and that there is an only loving God.”  It sounds heavy in summary, but bouyant and rollicking to listen to.

 

Wilco Jeff Tweedy Nels Cline by groovescapesTweedy is a real poet if you ask me.  Certain lines in this song, like so many Wilco songs, have earned a life of their own.  They walk around quietly in my head like old people, wise and world-weary.  Here’s one:

 

What I learned without knowing

How much more I owe than I can give

 

And another:

 

I fell in love with the burden

holding me down

 

You have to listen to the lyrics in context, so I encourage you to link here.  Be sure you have 12 minutes to spare.  And another 12 minutes after that because you may want to listen again and allow a mood of pleasant melancholy to wash over you.  It’s just the loveliest loveliest song.

 

My husband and I are going to a Wilco concert this weekend and we’ll hear it live.  Surely we’ll have yet another conversation about the meaning of the lyrics.

 

Here they are:

 

This is how I’ll tell it

Oh, but it’s long.

One Sunday Morning

Oh, one son is gone.

 

Against the weather dawning

Over the sea

My father said what I had become

No one should be.

 

Outside I look lived in

Like the bones in a shrine

How am I forgiven?

Oh, I’ll give it time.

 

This I learned without warning

Holding my brow

In time we thought I would kill him

Oh, but I didn’t know how.

 

I said it’s your God I don’t believe in

No, your Bible can’t be true

Knocked down by the long lie

He cried I fear what waits for you.

 

I can hear those bells

Spoken and gone.

I feel relief I feel well

Now he knows he was wrong.

 

Ring ’em cold for my father

Frozen underground

Jesus I wouldn’t bother

He belongs to me now.

 

Something sad keeps moving

So I wandered around.

I fell in love with the burden

Holding me down.

 

Bless my mind, I miss

Being told how to live.

What I learned without knowing

How much more I owe than I can give.

 

This is how I tell it

Oh, but it’s long.

One Sunday morning

One son is gone.

Read Full Post »

Tomorrow, March 8, is Fat Tuesday, a single day of excess before forty days of sacrifice and deprivation.  Here in Michigan the holiday is called Pazcki Day in honor of the jelly doughnuts everyone gobbles down.  But not for me.  The day I say It’s Pazcki Day! instead of Yes, I’m eating five Peppermint Patties because it’s Fat Tuesday is the same day I order a pop instead of a soda which means never because I don’t even drink soda anymore and because just saying the word pop would obliterate my entire sense of myself as a superior person who doesn’t say that word.

To celebrate Mardi Gras poem-elf style, I direct you to my latest song obsession, Spearhead’s “Red Beans and Rice.” The song, a great get-up-and-dance tune from the 90’s, is an antidote to the Allen Ginsberg poem of my last post, “C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization.”  On Fat Tuesday, food should be a celebration, not a symptom of moral decay.  (By the same band is the more recent hit, “Say Hey (I love you).”   Sorry, couldn’t get a link without an advertisement.)

Turn it up LOUD and have yourself a little Mardi Gras.

For those who will be celebrating Fat Tuesday New Orleans style, with lots of drinking, here’s a poem for you:

Be Drunk

by Charles Baudelaire

translated by Louis Simpson

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

Read Full Post »

I’ll be slowing down on the blogging for the next few weeks (which sounds a little like Lady Gaga saying she’s going to put more effort into her costumes), but I wanted to share my new favorite song.  Here’s Jamie Lidell with “Another Day.” (I’m not crazy about the video—best to hear and not see.)  It’s a crank-it-up, dancing-in-the-kitchen kind of song, just right for all the extra time I’m spending there this season.  What’s more, the joyful lyrics are a jingly-in-the-janglies fantasy for anyone in a long-term relationship.  Enjoy!

Read Full Post »