Friday, May 25, 2018

On Power Lines and Sense of Place

Last Sunday morning, I went to the 9th Annual Massasoit Community College Arts Festival. The festival takes place at the college's Canton campus--Massasoit also has campuses in Brockton and MIddleborough--and at its center are three shows for artists at different stages of their lives: The Annual Massasoit Students Juried Exhibition, the Regional High School Arts Exhibit, and the Open (to the general adult public) Juried Show. In addition, there's food, live music, a "Giant Steamroller Printmaking Demo," and plenty of local crafters, artisans, and Massasoit student groups from whom to purchase goods and artifacts. The day's concluding awards ceremony honors the creators of the three art shows' most outstanding works.

The student art shows particularly impress and inspire me--always make me hope the young artists will (continue to) enjoy, trust in, and develop their considerable talent. It's the former (always) teacher in me who loves looking at the art for flashes of insight into what these young artists are trying to learn and to say to the world.

I loved the high school show's Best in Show painting the minute I saw it--and became immediately curious about what had motivated Canton High School's Srimayi Chaturvedula to create "A Sense of Place, Painting."*

When I thought to myself that this particular landscape wasn't what I would have expected a high school student to want to paint, I wasn't at all focused on what might make it a wonderful challenge for serious young painter: the reflecting puddles at the roadside, the subtle variations in the muted cloud cover, the shadows accompanying the light of early morning or descending evening, the unity created by the gently sagging power lines.

What spoke to me was the way the humble elements of the street scene coalesced to convey pristine, gritty serenity. I loved how everything was gilded and consecrated by natural light--and also parsed and sliced by the abundant power lines in the foreground. 

I imagine that some might wonder why Srimayi Chaturvedula chose to include the power lines that could be viewed as standing between her and her subject: why did she not just paint the yellow light, the distant church, the still puddles, and the darkened houses? 

For me, though, those power lines are an essential element of that place, which represents not only all those places that can't afford to bury power lines underground for aesthetic or practical reasons, but all those neighborhoods that didn't begin as "residential." I live in such a place and neighborhood. Just beyond the living room and dining room windows of my condominium, which is located in a converted factory building, are thick power lines; you can easily see them in the adjacent photo I took last winter. Early on, it bothered me that they trisected my view of sunrise and storm; then they simply became part of the view from "home." When the squawking outside my window is particularly loud, I know the crows are perched on them.

Power lines were on my mind when I went to the public library the day after the Arts Festival. Browsing the poetry books, I came upon Lifelines: Selected Poems 1950-1999 by Philip Booth, which I hadn't seen there before. Among Stanley Kunitz's words on the back cover were the ones Srimayi Chaturvedula had chosen for her painting's title: "In . . . [Philip Booth's] deep-rooted sense of place, the probity of his spirit, the integrity of his art, I find an essential beauty."*** I was reminded of Jeanne Braham's Available Light: Philip Booth and the Gift of Place, which inspired me to make a special trip to Castine, Maine, Booth's home, a couple of years back, an experience I blogged about. I recalled that in one of the photos in Braham's book, a veritable thatch of power lines spanned Main Street, Booth's usual route to and from the harbor and the center of town. 

Castine was/is lovely, enchanting and picturesque from many vantage points, but still real and functioning. Maybe it's the authenticity and solidness of such inhabited places that accounts for their heft as both anchors and forces in our lives. We may delight in and appreciate their photographic beauty, if they possess that, but what most settles and centers us, what makes them beautiful to us in a different way, is their functionality in which we participate and our sense of belonging to them, being "at home" in them (if we're lucky).

That idea of functioning in them productively is important: these places that we feel in our bones aren't just where we go to kick back, escape, or lick our wounds. They're also places we do things, or get ready to go out into the world to do things. In Wednesday's Boston Globe, before the Celtics won Game #5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, sports columnist Christopher L. Gasper referred to a Jane Austen statement as he talked about the Boston Celtics' return to home court after their road losses in Cleveland: "There is nothing like staying at home for real comfort."** Yes, home often "feels better," he acknowledged, but home by itself isn't enough, he cautioned: ultimately, the Celtics, not the T.D. Garden, were have to get out on the court and do what it would take to win.

The more I've been reading the poems in Lifelines, the more I've been appreciating that living one's life in a beloved physical place does not make life an idyll. In "Dayrise"*** from his collection called Before Sleep, Booth describes his and his wife's post-breakfast wood-cutting "before I try to home-in on today's unwritten poem": "we go out into winter to fell next year's wood:/ with her small ax and my stuttering saw, we cut near the bog,/ on the low spruce crown of the woodlot we call Cold Knoll" (155).**** First there's work to be done for home, and then there's work to be done at home. The word "home-in" makes writing itself an act of homecoming. "Try" reminds me that there's always effort involved in coming home in order to reach out to the world.

Let's face it: Castine couldn't write poems for Booth anymore than the T.D. Garden could play basketball for the Celtics. 

That said, our work--our most earnest efforts to reach our goals, pursue our dreams, fulfill the responsibilities we've chosen or others have chosen for us--often go particularly well in those places where we feel most in touch with our authentic selves, most in tune with the lives of others, and most alert to--and sometimes even in step with--the rhythms and ways of the world. These connections that create "a sense of place" are power lines of a different type than those Srimayi Chaturdvedula painted. But like her power lines, they provide energy and stability.

We may hunger for beauty, but that's not the same as needing perfection by some external set of standards; we may yearn to strive earnestly, but that's not the same as needing to succeed. It's wonderful to feel deeply connected to a place that inspires and comforts more than it disconcerts and challenges. In fact, it's a privilege that many of us don't always recognize as such.****

So I leave you with a piece of advice: paint, record, or otherwise make note of what you see--all of what you see. Don't try to sanitize it, clean it up, improve it. Once you see it, sit with it for a while, get really used to it before you judge it (if judge it you must). And if it's your nature and practice to judge, try instead to love it or some part of it. You may be surprised by who and what becomes beautiful and comprehensible. You may feel eager to get to work. Or different. Or just plain peaceful and more connected. It's never bad to feel increasingly connected to the world and those in it, to experience yourself as taking your "place/ in the family of things."****** It's never bad to discover that what gently sags is lovable, beautiful, and very important.

* I am worried my attempts to get this photo to capture the gradations of color in this subtle painting do not succeed. 
*** Booth, P. (2000). Lifelines: Selected poems, 1950-1999. New York: Penguin Books. 
**** SNote: it's not just the balance of these that confers privilege; it's also that some level of being disconcerted and challenged can lead to individual and collective growth and needed activism.creen Shot of part of Werner Tree Farm Photo:  
*****  Note: It's not just the balance of these that confers privilege; it's also that some level of being disconcerted and challenged can lead to individual and collective growth and needed activism. I also write this knowing that many people don't have places in their lives that support their dignity and physical safety, let alone their happiness and peace of mind. For this reason, we must learn to cultivate  to some degree in ourselves and one another a "sense of place" in connection to places that desperately need transformation and change.
****** Last line of Mary Oliver's "Wild Geese": 

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Approaching the "Distant Light"

So already, every once in a while I encounter a work of art that instantly becomes a compelling irritant, a beloved and beckoning itch I can't scratch, something I see out of the corner of my eye that keeps distracting me with sincere but indecipherable promises.

Renée Fleming's 2017 album Distant Light has been just such a tempting, genuine, mesmerizing torment. I've struggled to speak to myself about the music and poetry joined here, let alone to blog about it. 

It's an album about love--human love and God's love, too, I think--and sorrow, and its architecture is part of its power. It begins with Samuel Barber's "Knoxville: Summer of 1915, op. 24," which I first heard years ago--and loved immediately because of its enigmatic woodwindy beginning that's answered almost immediately by the calm, lyrical authority of the strings. Until I read the CD/album notes, I hadn't known that Barber composed it while both his father and his aunt were ill and nearing death. James Agee's text, which Barber sets, is almost pure, blissful recollection of childhood: it includes a prayer that asks God to "remember [my people]  . . . in their hour of taking away."* Sorrow and death will come, but hopefully gently; the intimation of it is not enough to banish sweet memory or the love of life and all its uplifting and transient moments.

Next comes Anders Hillborg's "The Strand Settings," song settings of three sections of Mark Strand's Dark Harbor and one other poem, and then a set of Björk Guðmundsdóttir songs arranged by Hans Ek. It's these two song cycles that have left me wordless, captivated, and, frankly, envious of the bold voices and confident uncertainties of all the artist-seekers involved.
The speaker in "The Strand Settings" speaks as someone with much adult experience; that the world is much with him/her is especially evident in the third song/poem, which begins with the line "The sickness of angels is nothing new" ("Dark Harbor XXXV,"** p. 355).*** Much of what transpires in the first, second, and fourth poem-songs happens between the speaker and his/her beloved, between whom there's so much intimacy and so much distance. This tension is being negotiated against a vast backdrop that sometimes holds and cradles, other times muddles and mystifies,  and sometimes does both simultaneously. The orchestration emphasizes the context in which the poems' human actors--or is the speaker sometimes conversing with God, who seems both present and doubted?--are operating. The last of the four songs, which I'll write more about later in this post, ends with a not fully understood dissipation of sorrow--relief that's welcome, genuine, and baffling. 

Hillsborg's settings lead us to Ek's, and we're happily arrested by Björk's electrifying creativity, which challenges our assumptions of what's positive and what's negative in order to get us to see what we need and already have. Her songs deserve an entire blog post of their own, but the last of them, less feverish than the other two, surrounds us in rounds of sound so we can know and feel the love that is everywhere around us. Architecturally speaking, by the end of Distant Light, we're back to where we began, surrounded by love. Again the orchestration shimmers. The more I listen to the CD, I more I wonder how much of the music is coming from the compositions and the performance and how much from inside of me, inside of any of us.

At some point, I've been practically obsessed by each one of the album's "new songs." But "Dark Harbor XI," the fourth of "The Strand Settings," was the first to captivate me fully.  It's about liberation from sadness (and therefore suffering), time, persistent mystery, and human relationship--I should probably call it love--that makes endurance tolerable. It's terrifically tender and strangely definitive.

Here it is, in its entirety:
A long time has passed and yet it seems
Like yesterday, in the midmost moment of summer,
When we felt the disappearance of sorrow.

And saw beyond the rough stone walls
The flesh of clouds, heavy with the scent
Of the southern desert, rise in a prodigal

Overflowing of mildness. It seems like yesterday
When we stood by the iron gate in the center 
Of town while the pollen-filled breath

Of the wind
     drew the
     shadow of
     the clouds
Around us
     so that we
     could feel 
     the force
Of our free-
     dom while 
     still the
     of dark.
And later 
     when the rain fell and flooded the streets
And we heard the dripping on the porch and the wind 
Rustling the leaves like paper, how to explain

Our happiness then, the particular way our voices
Erased all signs of the sorrow that had been,
Its violence, its terrible omens of the end? (330)***
It was "a prodigal/ Overflowing of mildness" that spoke to the core of me. An extravagance of mildness--such a juxtaposition! An overflowing of something that's more apt to slip in through an open window or slide across a threshold than to cascade and proclaim. And the position of the adjective "prodigal" at the end of not only a line but a stanza, creating a momentary hiccup--as if the poet might be struggling to describe the sudden--is it sudden?--experience of sorrow's absence after his having become reconciled to its constant presence. He's freed without fanfare and announcement--but with bounty.

Still, liberation is always a process, a letting go of old ways, and as such it requires adjustment. That's why the speaker and his companion--I believe the two of them have weathered this sorrow together, loving each other--"feel the force/ Of our freedom while still captives of the dark."

Finally, he recollects their joy, probably expressed with quiet rather than raucous exuberance, that banished their thoughts of the deep sadness they'd long borne, and of the thoughts of mortality woven through it. Maybe sorrow's departure and the temporary hiatus from acknowledging mortality contributed equally to their experience of true happiness.

Beneath the Strand's expression of motion and emotion happening in shadows past and present is Hillsborg's music. The strings build beneath the first two stanzas, mounting and amounting, ascending and unfolding with the voice to a higher ground, and then retreating some, as liberation is contextualized with reference to memory. 

The texture changes, becomes more unsettled as recollection continues in the third and fourth stanzas: woodwind and other instruments--Bruce Hodges identifies them as "wind chimes and four wine glasses (a glass harmonica)"*****--add points of color, spattering percussively; the voice soars highest on the word "freedom." 

Beneath a further recollection in the fifth and sixth stanzas, the strings again are steady, accommodating, and reassuring. A kind of vibrant but controlled ringing very close to the end of the piece reminds us that the couple's carefree distance from thoughts of mortality is but a temporary reprieve. And finally, a peaceful resolution, perhaps because our mortality is a familiar truth we're practiced at living with. As Hodges describes it, “Dark Harbor XI,” [is] . . . buoyed by the ensemble’s sweeping texture, slowly turning and sparkling as if in twilight."*****

There was a time when I felt "a prodigal/Overflowing of mildness." I will never forget the simultaneous lightness and gravity of that moment. Was it winter, or was it just my personal winter that was over? I can't recall. Conscious that my emotional landscape had shifted, but also not quite sure I should trust the shift, I had no impulse to sing from the rooftops; instead, I just walked around my neighborhood, feeling I was finally actually seeing it again, now that the veil that had interposed itself between me and life had lifted

You might think that the itch and the corner-of-my-eye distraction that I mentioned at the beginning of this post was a deep-seated desire not to have to revisit the deep sadness that preceded my liberation. But that's not so: every day the news reminds me of dignified human endurance--of pain, of loss, of hardship, of injustice--of sorrows more terrible, traumatic, and unrelenting than the relatively short-lived personal sorrow I endured. People endure, hoping or simply refusing to embrace their suffering as meaningless and/or permanent. As the poet Richard Blanco put it recently when he was talking about Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" on NPR, "We find a way to go on . . . to make meaning out of life still, to get up in the morning." 

No, it's not the plentiful darkness that requires our human endurance that's the irritant; it's the distant light that I want to trust and don't quite. When I'm talking to other people about it--I personally interpret this distant light as God--I can say and believe, "The Distant Light shines for us, especially when we reach toward it." What I can't do with any conviction is personalize this and say, "The Distant Light shines for me, especially when I reach toward it." Instead, I stand with Strand's speaker in the poem "Black Sea" on a night-time rooftop where he "gazed at the sea," . . . "waiting for something, a sign, the approach/ of a distant light," and then wonders at the end of waiting: "Why did I believe you would come out of nowhere? Why with all/ that the world offers would you come only because I was here? (437).***

It makes me uncomfortable to admit this. But given that so many people reach toward the light through prayers that others have written and in the company of fellow congregants saying those same prayers, I have to assume that I am not alone. A beloved minister friend of mine who died many years ago used to say, "There is no faith without doubt." If he was right, then I exemplify his statement. The desire for faith isn't faith, but it's probably a necessary ingredient.

It's National Poetry Month--only one day left now--and I've been reading a lot of poetry. At the same time, I've been reading Abigail Pogrebin's My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew and therefore thinking a lot about the relationship between belief in God and religious traditions that direct us to contemplate death, remember sorrow, recognize fragility and impermanence, and celebrate. The combination of poetry and spiritual memoir is a good one for me. Still no answers, but some meaningful agitation and consolation, courtesy of others' wisdom and perspectives, including those of Renée Fleming and Anders Hillborg who teamed up to select several highly evocative Mark Strand poems to set for voice and orchestra. 

It occurs to me that nowhere in the post have I mentioned the gorgeous--knowing, humble, confident, artful, bravely expressive--singing of Renée Fleming. I took it for granted that she would fuse all of the album's artistic, imaginative elements, and transport me into a place of meaning, beauty, and hope--and she did! Distant Light reminds me that great art and artists have the power to convey our most fundamental yet complex human experiences, and that beauty inspires us to endure.

* Agee, J. (n.d.). Samuel Barber: Knoxville summer of 1915. Retrieved April 22, 2018, from [Actual link:]
** You can read this whole poem in a comment about the photo on this link:
*** Strand, M. (2016). Collected poems. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
**** Hodges, B. (2013). Renee Fleming meets Anders Hillborg [Review of concert The Strand Settings]. Seen and Heard International.
***** Partial screen shot of

Monday, March 19, 2018

Singing "The Sounding Sea"

Broad Cove, Inverness, Nova Scotia
So already, the Unicorn Singers and Broad Cove Chorale, the two South Shore choirs directed by Margo Euler, are in full-throttle preparation mode for our upcoming spring concert. This spring's program will immerse our audience in a phenomenon as common as weather--and just as dominant, compelling, essential, and indifferent. That phenomenon: the sea.

"White Point #3" by Scott Ketcham
Presenting the sea sometimes as setting, sometimes as subject, "The Sounding Sea" reflects a variety of perspectives and purposes through a range of musical expressions. There are ballads and arrangements of traditional songs, some about historical personages; pieces that present a sequence of the sea's states and moods, sometimes with commentary; and compositions designed to provide a direct experience of the sea by making it audible. 

Sometimes the music's purpose is political as well as musical. Sally Lamb composed  "Glee! The Storm is Over,"* a setting of an Emily Dickinson poem, in conjunction with the Cornell University Chorus's "No Whining, No Flowers" commissioning project. It's hardly the usual women's choir fare with its lyrics about shipwreck victims and its dissonant voices assuming the roles of clanging buoy bells on a turbulent sea. The Broad Cove Chorale--I'm singing in both it and the Unicorn Singers this season--is sandwiching this piece between a more typical, very lyrical piece in which a woman bids the wind to hasten her lover's return and an exuberant but cautionary tale about the legendary eighteenth-century female pirate, Anne Bonny. Women can choose to do other than wait, wish, and wail.

"Full Fathom Five," Vaughan Williams' setting of lines from The Tempest, casts the Unicorn Singers as bells. But the most haunting and evocative Unicorn pieces are the two in which the choir becomes the sea. 

In "As is the Sea Marvelous" by Matthew Lyon Hazzard and "The Sounding Sea" by Eric William Barnum, the choir sings, speaks, hisses, and exhales in order to sound like waves as they swell, spill or crash, and then retreat. Sustained hh, sh, ff, and s (the "s" in the middle of the word "listen") sounds stretch and overlap, trade places; glissandi abound, linking pitches in imitation of the waves' rising and falling motions; crescendos and decrescendos alternate, working in tandem to render the changing volume of waves that crest, sometimes pound or break, and then slip or drag themselves back across the pebbly shelf. All voice parts are needed to convey the water's simultaneous forward and backward movement. Sometimes hands clap and feet stomp when the sound's all about force.

The combining of musical and "non-musical" sounds might sound gimmicky--but it's not. If anything, it authentically augments the music's ability to convey the shifts and turns that are characteristic of the stories of the sea and of the sea itself. I think of them as being represented visually by the sheet music's numerous hairpin dynamic markings. Things change course, sometimes by as much as 180°; ambiguities abound, shaping human destinies nonetheless. To be becalmed is not to be calm. "Glee, the great storm is over," but oh what heart-breaking flotsam the waves push toward the shore. Tragic fates are shaped in pitiless moments. Spirits soar in breath-taking other moments that lead to peace. And whatever is true in the moment may only be true in the moment: all is permanently in flux.

After my husband and I visited Cape Breton last summer, I blogged about the uneasiness I felt with the ocean: even though--or maybe because--for six of our seven days we saw it at its most scenic, azure-perfect, I knew there was another side to that sea story that we were not experiencing. A few weeks ago, I happened upon a description of that other side in an Alistair MacLeod Cape Breton short story:
Detail from "The Cemetery at White Point"***
"It is the second of November . . .. Each day dawns duller and more glowering and the waves of the grey Atlantic are sullen and almost yellow at their peaks as they pound relentlessly against the round smooth boulders that lie scattered as if  by a careless giant at the base of the ever-resisting cliffs. At night, we can hear the waves rolling in and smashing, rolling in and smashing, so relentless and regular that it is possible to count rhythmically between the thunder of each: one, two, three, four; one, two, three, four. 
     "It is hard to realize that this is the same ocean that is the crystal blue  of summer when only the thin oil-slicks left by the fishing boats or the startling whiteness of the riding seagulls mar its azure sameness. Now it is roiled and angry, and almost anguished; hurling up the brown dirty balls of scudding foam, the sticks of pulpwood from some lonely freighter, the caps of unknown men, buoys from mangled fishing nets and the inevitable bottles that contain no messages. And always the shreds of blackened and stringy seaweed that it has ripped and torn from its own lower regions, as if this is the season for self-mutilation--the pulling out of the secret, private, unseen hair" (98-99).
The sea is "Marvelous," but we marvel at what horrifies as well as enchants. Given the range of the shifts and turns that the whole Unicorns/Broad Cove program and some of its individual pieces present, it's very appropriate that it borrows its title from the George William Curtis poem that Barnum set to music.

The first stanza--
"O listen to the sounding sea
     That beats on the remorseless shore,
O listen, for that sound will be
     When our hearts shall be no more."
--reminds us that the shore feels nothing, least of all a sense of wrong-doing, and that when we are dead and gone, the sea's rhythms will persist, mourning us not at all.

But immediately we're handed a welcome emotional hairpin turn: the second stanza transforms our alienation and sense of insignificance into warming connection and intimacy: 
"O listen well and listen long!
     For sitting folded close to me,
You could not hear a sweeter song
     Than the hoarse murmur of the sea."
The poem pivots on the power of human touch: from our position of being "folded" against the speaker, maybe against one another, we can embrace the sea's "sweeter song," feel gladdened and lifted up. And what is music if not human touch?

The Unicorn Singers and the Broad Cove Chorale sing of MacLeod's "roiled," "anguished" sea, but also of that azure sea that invites; that rollicking sea that promises adventure, employment, and renown; and that wide-stretching sea that billows and pacifies. It's a moving program--sensual and meditative both--and no less timely though most present-day travelers of vast distances board airplanes more often than ships.

So join us if you can on April 8 in Hingham, Massachusetts to experience the sounding sea in all its incarnations and evocations. 

And one final thing. My beloved aunt Elayne Selig died on Monday, March 12, 2018. She was an ardent swimmer, but her favorite place to swim was the ocean, no matter how cold the water was. I will be especially thinking of her when we sing Eric Whitacre's "The Seal Lullaby." 

* You can listen to the piece to clicking on the image of the sheet music's cover. 
** “‘In the Fall.’” Island: The Complete Stories, by Alistair MacLeod, W.W. Norton & Company, 2000, pp. 98–117.