The Consolations of Music

January 20, 2017

I sat propped between two friends at an early music concert.  They had taken me there because I was in utter despair, sunk so far into myself that the world seemed far away, seen through the wrong end of a telescope, barely audible. That continued as I sat there, the sense of blackness, of falling through space, for maybe half an hour.  And then I heard a few notes, and a few more.  Faint signals, but enough to reach me, and from then on I knew I would come back to myself, my life, even pleasures.  Music is the consolation that never fails me.  My book Sharp Stars is suffused with music, with the joy of writing poetry again after a long silence.  I’m in mourning right now, as many of us are.  I am throwing myself yet again on the consolations and joys of music, on its own and in poetry.  As long as we can hear it, and maybe make some ourselves, there’s still hope.  I think of Whitman, “I Hear America Singing”; Langston Hughes, “Weary Blues”; Marianne Boruch, “Little Fugue”; Betsy Sholl, “Lullaby in Blue”; Phil Levine, “On 52nd Street”; Robert Pinsky, “Street Music”; Mark Strand, “Delirium Waltz”; Robert Creeley’s “Water Music.”  Please add your own–the ones that you turn to.

 

 

ALLEGRO

 

 

I play Haydn after a black day
and feel a simple warmth in my hands.

The keys are willing. Soft hammers strike.
The resonance green, lively and calm.

The music says freedom exists
and someone doesn’t pay the emperor tax.

I push down my hands in my Haydnpockets
and imitate a person looking on the world calmly.

I hoist the Haydnflag – it signifies:
“We don’t give in. But want peace.’

The music is a glass-house on the slope
where the stones fly, the stones roll.

And the stones roll right through
but each pane stays whole.

 

 

Tomas Transtromer

trans. Robin Fulton

 

 

 

DON’T LET ME BE LONELY [MAHALIA JACKSON IS A GENIUS]

Mahalia Jackson is a genius. Or Mahalia Jackson has genius. The man I am with is trying to make a distinction. I am uncomfortable with his need to make this distinction because his inquiry begins to approach subtle shades of racism, classism, or sexism. It is hard to know which. Mahalia Jackson never finished the eighth grade, or Mahalia’s genius is based on the collision of her voice with her spirituality. True spirituality is its own force. I am not sure how to respond to all this. I change the subject instead.

We have just seen George Wein’s documentary, Louis Armstrong at Newport, 1971. In the auditorium a room full of strangers listened to Mahalia Jackson sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth” and stood up and gave a standing ovation to a movie screen. Her clarity of vision crosses thirty years to address intimately each of us. It is as if her voice has always been dormant within us, waiting to be awakened, even though “it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, (and) through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.”

Perhaps Mahalia, like Paul Celan, has already lived all our lives for us. Perhaps that is the definition of genius. Hegel says, “Each man hopes and believes he is better than the world which is his, but the man who is better merely expresses this same world better than the others.” Mahalia Jackson sings as if it is the last thing she intends to do. And even though the lyrics of the song are, “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me,” I am hearing, Let it begin in me.

 

Claudia Rankine

 

 

 

AMERICA, I SING BACK

 

for Phil Young, my father, Robert Hedge Coke, Whitman, and Hughes

 

America, I sing back. Sing back what sung you in.
Sing back the moment you cherished breath.
Sing you home into yourself and back to reason.

Oh, before America began to sing, I sung her to sleep,
held her cradleboard, wept her into day.
My song gave her creation, prepared her delivery,
held her severed cord beautifully beaded.

My song helped her stand, held her hand for first steps,

nourished her very being, fed her, placed her three sisters strong.
My song comforted her as she battled my reason

broke my long held footing sure, as any child might do.

Lo, as she pushed herself away, forced me to remove myself,
as I cried this country, my song grew roses in each tear’s fall.

My blood veined rivers, painted pipestone quarries
circled canyons, while she made herself maiden fine.

Oh, but here I am, here I am, here, I remain high on each and every peak,
carefully rumbling her great underbelly, prepared to pour forth singing—

and sing again I will, as I have always done.

Never silenced unless in the company of strangers, singing.

 

Allison Adelle Hedge Coke


BIG BAND THEORY

It all began with music,
with that much desire to be

in motion, waves of longing
with Nothing to pass through,

the pulsing you feel before
you hear it. The darkness couldn’t

keep still, it began to sway,
then there were little flashes

of light, glints of brass
over the rumbling percussion,

the reeds began to weep and sing,
and suddenly the horns

tore bigger holes in the darkness—
we could finally see

where the music was coming from:
ordinary men in bowties and black

jackets. But by then we had already
danced most of the night away.

Sharon Bryan

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  • Reply Sheila Bender January 20, 2017 at 6:54 pm

    I have turned to a piece of prose this week from a novel I recently read and loved, All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, a Canadian writer:
    In the book, one sister, Elfrieda, is leaving home to join an orchestra. Her sister, Yoli, asks her what’s hot about playing the piano. Elf replies:

    “…the most important thing was to establish the tenderness right off the bat, or at least close to the top of the piece, just a hint of it, a whisper, but a deep whisper because the tension will mount, the excitement and the drama will build…and when the action rises the audience might remember the earlier moment of tenderness, and remembering will make them long to return to infancy, to safety, to pure love, then you might move away from that, put the violence and agony of life into every note, building, building still, until there is an important decision to make: return to tenderness, even briefly, glancingly, or continue on with the truth, the violence, the pain, the tragedy, to the very end.”

    Today this passage reminds me that these next months and years will not be easy ones for any of us–those longing for the fantasy of safety guaranteed by a father figure and those of us who know it is up to us to guarantee the construction of social safety nets and institutions that honor culture and art, diversity and equality. Writers Resist must maintain its momentum.

    • Reply sharonbryanpoet January 20, 2017 at 6:56 pm

      Thanks. This is beautiful, and apt.

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