Friday, September 16, 2005

A Weekend of Music and Poetry

There are no “open days” this weekend. Instead it is action packed. Maybe I like it that way, instead of having options about how to use my time or even doing nothing, which I still have trouble doing.

Tomorrow morning, Deborah and I are playing 3 pieces for an adult chamber music class at GWU. At first I thought this sounded intimidating, but now it seems like it will not be any scarier than playing for Bill, who catches every mistake we make. There are usually about 10 people who come to the class, taught by Dr. Jessica Krash, who has a lot of impressive degrees and who teaches music composition in the Music Department at GWU. The idea is that we play our pieces and then get the feedback of the group for things that we either did well or might improve upon. What I have observed in previous classes has actually been very gentle criticism. We got toughened up by coaches like Evan at Chautauqua, so this should be a piece of cake! Anyway, instead of saying anything profound about what we are playing, Deborah and I basically plan to tell the group how much fun we have had working together to learn these pieces.

Then in the afternoon, I need to get everything ready for our poetry reading by the river in the moonlight evening. What is so bizarre about this is that I don’t have the slightest idea who is coming. We sent out the invitation to a lot of people and specifically didn’t ask for RSVPs. The request was for those who come to bring a dish to share and one or more poems to read to the group. I offered to bring drinks and paper products. I’m also bringing a big piece of baked salmon. I hope some salads and desserts show up. This is quite contrary to the way I organize most things, but more in keeping with a relaxed approach to life.

We do know a few people who are coming. We are providing rides to two older women. The evening was organized because of a comment made by 90-year-old Florence that she wished she could read poetry and dance by the light of the moon. This is her wish come true. The other person is our friend Mollie, who is 75 years old and who is recovering from cataract surgery this week. Deborah and Neal will be there. Their friend Steve (who is a poet) and his wife Daryl are actually driving down from New Jersey just for this evening. My friend Doug from work is also coming. Beyond that it will be a complete surprise.

I had fun last weekend choosing poems I wanted to share. I probably won’t get to read all of them, but it was fun finding poems that spoke to the way I am currently feeling.

David Budbill escaped from city life many years ago to live on Judevine Mountain in northern Vermont, where he writes poetry and music. He is a strong anti-war activist and is greatly influenced by Zen philosophy. His poems are frequently read on Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac.

Tomorrow by David Budbill

we are
bones and ash,
the roots of weeds
poking through
our skulls.

simple clothes,
empty mind,
full stomach,
alive, aware,
right here,
right now.

Drunk on music,
who needs wine?

Come on,
let’s go dancing
while we’ve still
got feet.

All This Ego by David Budbill

All this ego
all this drive
to get somewhere
at the finish line
death sits

one leg
over the other
hands folded
in his lap
a little smirk
on his face.

Easy As Pie by David Budbill

The Emperor divides the world
into two parts:
the Good and the Evil.

If you don’t accept that,
the Emperor says
you are Evil.

The Emperor declares himself
and his friends:

The Emperor says as soon as
Good has destroyed Evil,
all will be Good.

Simple as one, two, three.
Clear as night and day.
Different as black and white.

Easy as pie.

The Beautiful People by David Budbill

He is young
and handsome.
She is young
and beautiful.
They are wealthy
and intelligent.
Everything they turn
their hands to
a great success.

Maybe they will figure out
how not to die.

Ugly Americans by David Budbill

Americans climb all over the earth to get that they want.
They bomb anybody anywhere anytime if they feel like it.
And all that just to get some more oil or bauxite or human chattel
to make more gas or plastic or aluminum or sneakers or cars.

What causes all this pride, this hubris, all this greed?
How come we assume the entire world is ours to pillage?
Why do we just automatically presume that every poor person
in the world was born to be our servant?
Where did we get these ideas?

March 1640, a town in the Massachusetts Bay Colony,
the annual town meeting: from the minutes:

Resolved: that the earth is the Lord’s
and the followers thereof.
It was so voted.

Resolved: that the Lord may give the earth or any part of it
to his chosen people.
It was so voted.

Resolved: that we
are his chosen people.
It was so voted.

Carnal Vision by David Budbill

My carnal vision
never goes away.
My love, my lust –

for life, our flesh,
is always here.

Food, music, sex,
the delights of the eye,
ear, nose, and fingertips –

it’s how I know
I am alive.

It’s Now or Never by David Budbill

Eat, drink, and be merry, for
tomorrow you will surely die.

Get together with your friends.
Enjoy the pleasures of the flesh.

I’m pretty sure this is all we get.
I can’t be absolutely certain, but

of all the people I have known who
have passed over to the other side

not one has sent back any news.

Lucia Perillo’s most recent book of poems is The Oldest Map with the Name America (Random House, 1999). ******************************************************************************

Skin by Lucia Perillo

Back then it seemed that wherever a girl took off her
clothes the police would find her –
in the backs of cars or beside the dark night ponds,
opening like a green leaf across
some boy’s knees, the skin so white and taut beneath the
moor, it was almost too terrible,
too beautiful to look at, a tinderbox, though she did not
know. But the men who came
beating the night rushes with their flashlights and
thighs – they knew. About Helen,
about how a body could cause the fall of Troy and the
death of a perfectly good king.
So they read the boy his rights and shoved him spread-
legged against the car
while the girl hopped barefoot on the asphalt, cloaked in
a wool rescue blanket.
Or sometimes girls fled so their fathers wouldn’t hit
them, their white legs flashing as they ran.
And the boys were handcuffed just until their wrists had
welts and let off half a block from home.

God for how many years did I believe there were truly
laws against such things,
laws of adulthood: no yelling out of cars in traffic tunnels,
no walking without shoes,
no singing any foolish songs in public places. Or else they
could lock you in jail
or, as good as condemning you to death, tell both your
lower- and upper-case Catholic fathers.
And out of all these crimes, unveiling the body was of
course the worst, as though something
about the skin’s phosphorescence, its surface as velvet as
as a deer’s new horn,
could drive not only men but civilization mad, could lead
us to unspeakable cruelties.
There were elders who from experience understood these
things much better than we.
And it’s true: remembering I had that kind of skin does
drive me half-crazy with loss.
Skin like the spathe of a broad white lily on the first
morning it unfurls.

Christina Pugh’s poems have been published in The Atlantic Monthly, Harvard Review, Columbia, Poetry Daily, and other publicantions. She teaches at Northwestern University.

Rotary by Christina Pugh

Closer to a bell than a bird,
that clapper ringing
the clear name
of its inventor:

by turns louder
and quieter than a clock,
its numbered face
was more literate,

triplets of alphabet
like grace notes
above each digit.

And when you dialed,
each number was a shallow hole
your finer dragged
to the silver

then the sound of the hole
traveling back
to its proper place
on the circle.

You had to wait for its return.
You had to wait.
Even if you were angry
and your finger flew,

you had to await
the round trip
of seven holes
before you could speak.

The rotary was wired for lag,
for the afterthought.

Before the touch-tone,
before the speed-dial,
before the primal grip
of the cellular,

they built glass houses
around telephones:
glass houses in parking lots,
by the roadside,
on sidewalks.

When you stepped in
and closed the door,
transparency hugged you,
and you could almost see

your own lips move,
the dumb-show
of your new secrecy.

Why did no one think
to conserve the peal?

Just try once
to sing it to yourself:
it’s gone,

like the sound of breath
if your body left.

Philip Memmer’s poems have appeared widely in journals, including Poetry, Poetry Northwest, and Tar River Poetry. He lives in upstate New York.

Knowledge by Philip Memmer

My philosopher friend is explaining again
that the bottle of well-chilled beer in my hand

might not be a bottle of beer,
that the trickle of bottle-sweat cooling my palm

might not be wet, might not be cool,
that in fact it’s impossible ever to know

if I’m holding a bottle at all.
I try to follow his logic, flipping the steaks

that are almost certainly hissing
over the bed of coals – coals I’d swear

were black at first, then gray, then red –
coals we could spread out and walk on

and why not, I ask, since we’ll never be sure
if our feet burn, if our soles

blister and peel, if our faithlessness
is any better or worse a tool

than the firewalker’s can-do extreme.
Exactly, he smiles. Behind the fence

the moon rises, or seems to.
Have another. Whatever else is true,

the coals feel hotter than ever
as the darkness begins to do

what darkness does. Another what? I ask.

Bill Knott is the author of ten volumes of poetry. He is an associate professor at Emerson College.

Poem by Bill Knott

Fingerprints look like ripples
because time keeps dropping
another stone into our palm.

The Fate by Bill Knott

Standing on the youthhold I saw a shooting star
And knew it predestined encounter with the sole love
But that comet crashed into the earth so hard
Tilted its axis a little bit not much just enough
To make me miss meeting her by one or two yards.

Lawrence Raab’s poems have appeared in such magazines as Poetry, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and The Nation. He is professor of English at Williams College.

Request by Lawrence Raab

For a long time I was sure
it should be “Jumping Jack Flash,” then
the adagio from Schubert’s C major Quintet,
but right now I want Oscar Peterson’s

“You Look Good to Me.” That’s my request.
Play it at the end of the service,
after my friends have spoken.
I don’t believe I’ll be listening in,

but sitting here I’m imagining
you could be feeling what I’d like to feel –
defiance from the Stones, grief
and resignation with Schubert, but now

Peterson and Ray Brown are making
the moment sound like some kind
of release. Sad enough
at first, but doesn’t it slide into

tapping your feet, then clapping
your hands, maybe standing up
in that shadowy hall in Paris
in the late sixties when this was recorded,

getting up and dancing
as I would not have done,
and being dead, cannot, but might
wish for you, who would then

understand what a poem – or perhaps only
the making of a poem, just that moment
when it starts, when so much
is still possible –

has allowed me to feel.
Happy to be there. Carried away.

T. S. Eliot: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1919)
Eliot was born in St. Louis and educated at Harvard University, but most of his adult life was passed in London. In the vanguard of the artistic movement known as Modernism, Eliot was a unique innovator in poetry and The Waste Land (1922) stands as one of the most original and influential poems of the twentieth century. As a young man he suffered a religious crisis and a nervous breakdown before regaining his emotional equilibrium and Christian faith. His early poetry, including "Prufrock," deals with spiritually exhausted people who exist in the impersonal modern city. Prufrock is a representative character who cannot reconcile his thoughts and understanding with his feelings and will. The poem displays several levels of irony, the most important of which grows out of the vain, weak man's insights into his sterile life and his lack of will to change that life. The poem is replete with images of enervation and paralysis, such as the evening described as "etherized," immobile. Prufrock understands that he and his associates lack authenticity. One part of himself would like to startle them out of their meaningless lives, but to accomplish this he would have to risk disturbing his "universe," being rejected. The latter part of the poem captures his sense defeat for failing to act courageously. Eliot helped to set the modernist fashion for blending references to the classics with the most sordid type of realism, then expressing the blend in majestic language which seems to mock the subject.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot

S'io credesse che mia risposta fosse
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma perciocche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s'i'odo il vero,
Senza tema d'infamia ti rispondo. (1)

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized (2) upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust (3) restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question . . .
Oh, do not ask, "What is it?"
Let us go and make our visit.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo. (4)

The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
And seeing that it was a soft October night,
Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair--
[They will say: "How his hair is growing thin!"]
My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin,
My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin--
[They will say: "But how his arms and legs are thin!"]
Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.

For I have known them all already, known them all:--
Have known the evenings, mornings, afternoons,
I have measured out my life with coffee spoons;
I know the voices dying with a dying fall
Beneath the music from a farther room.
So how should I presume?

And I have known the eyes already, known them all--
The eyes that fix you in a formulated phrase,
And when I am formulated, sprawling on a pin,
When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall,
Then how should I begin
To spit out all the butt-ends of my days and ways?
And how should I presume?

And I have known the arms already, known them all--
Arms that are braceleted and white and bare
[But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]
Is it perfume from a dress
That makes me so digress?
Arms that lie along a table, or wrap about a shawl.
And should I then presume?
And how should I begin?
. . . . .
Shall I say, I have gone at dusk through narrow streets
And watched the smoke that rises from the pipes
Of lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windows? . . .

I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.

. . . . .

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep . . . tired . . . or it malingers,
Stretched on the floor, here beside you and me.
Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, (5)
Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?
But though I have wept and fasted, wept and prayed,
Though I have seen my head [grown slightly bald] brought in upon a platter, (6)
I am no prophet--and here's no great matter;
I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.

And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: "I am Lazarus, (7) come from the dead
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"--
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: "That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all."

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the
And this, and so much more?--
It is impossible to say just what I mean!
But as if a magic lantern (8) threw the nerves in patterns on a screen:
Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
"That is not it at all,
That is not what I meant, at all."

. . . . .

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, (9) nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous--
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old . . .I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves
Combing the white hair of the waves blown back
When the wind blows the water white and black.

We have lingered in the chambers of the sea
By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown
Till human voices wake us, and we drown.


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