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.
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.
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.
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.