“Hunting in Maine is not obviously riven with centuries of class and privilege” writes Helen Macdonald in H Is for Hawk, a book that, though recommended with high praise by Robert Adamson almost two years ago, I’ve just gotten around to reading. I could plead “lack of time,” but the truth is I have a habit of resisting books that get a lot of attention in the press. It’s a perversion, but one I can’t seem to shake. Though many such books peak and then fade into oblivion, there are probably some (there must be!) that are “for the ages.” I can’t say for certain that Macdonald’s book will take its place alongside such great bird-of-prey literary masterpieces as “The Windhover,” “My Mother Would Be a Falconress,” and The Peregrine, but it is quite good.
For me the book held two big surprises: the first was that, while largely reviewed as a book about Macdonald’s grief for her father, it is more accurately described as a book about her relationship to a dead author: the emotionally complex Arthurian, T. H. White. The second surprise was that late in the narrative Macdonald travels to Maine to visit an American hawking friend. “There are no vast pheasant shoots [in Maine] where bankers vie for the largest bags, no elite grouse moors or exclusive salmon rivers. All the land can be hunted over by virtue of common law, and locals are very proud of this egalitarian tradition,” writes Macdonald. This trans-Atlantic cultural difference concerning hunting, though easily apparent, had never occurred to me. Perhaps because I neither hawk nor hunt.
Yet one can’t live in Maine and stay completely ignorant of hunting culture. Steve and I had only been here a few months when our then neighbor, a teacup-sized woman in her sixties with a neat hairdo, proudly told us that she’d secured a coveted moose-hunting permit that year and thus had a freezer filled with moose sausage, ribs, steaks, and other tasty bits. In ensuing years, I learned about the traditions of Maine hunting from stories students wrote. Their personal narrative assignments often included hunting anecdotes, especially when it came to writing about Thanksgiving, which is a hunting holiday in Maine. When families, food, drinking, and guns gather, the inevitability of eventfulness augments. I remember one story a student shared in which her wheel-chair bound Vietnam vet uncle shot a deer through a bathroom window while sitting on the john. I was so stunned by the image I neglected to ask: why on earth had he brought his rifle into the bathroom?
This particular kill was no doubt illegal, because there are laws about how near to inhabited homes you can hunt. Before we moved, the real estate agent who tried hard to undermine my dreams of a “cozy cottage” by driving us around to a series of dark, shabby capes, shared a fait divers that had recently shaken the region: a beloved local had mistaken a woman out hanging laundry for a deer and shot her to death. She had been wearing white gloves. I was so stunned by the image I neglected to ask: if it was cold enough to wear gloves, why was she hanging laundry outside?*
In describing the differences between British and American hunting, Macdonald quotes a hunter from a 1942 article published in Outdoor Life: “One of my grandfathers came from northern Europe [to the US] for the single reason that he wanted to live in a country where he could try to catch a fish without sneaking onto some nobleman’s property where the common people were excluded.” I think of the chauffeur-communist’s discomfort in those hunting scenes in Downton Abbey, or that scene from Renoir’s send up of the aristocracy, The Rules of the Game, in which the servants walk ahead of the nobles acting as “beaters,” hitting trees with sticks in order to rouse the prey. Guns, horses, riding kits, all very elegant, and stately. And very old world. When the privileged hunt in America, it’s embarrassing. Dick Cheney misfires and shoots Harry Whittington. Quail are released a few feet in front of him and he misses. A dentist goes to Africa and kills the lion everyone loves. It’s tacky and unappealing, and culturally inexplicable.
While hunting in the United States may not be “riven with centuries of class and privilege,” it might be—insofar as it has become connected to the debate over the second Amendment—be riven with something else: distrust of giving working, poor, and underclass rural people access to “free” food—the kind of unprocessed food privileged people like myself now pay dearly for in fancy restaurants serving delicacies such as “locally sourced” moose prosciutto and elk jerky. Doubtless there are rich people in the United States who own guns and hunt—especially in Texas or out west—yet I imagine they do so for sport, not food. I’ll admit, however, that when the issue of gun rights comes up—and I know hunters are always cited as “good” gun owners—the “poster child” that arises in my mind’s eye is a white, working class Mainer. The kind of person with a freezer full of deer or moose meat, the very same who would have either worked on or been chased off the estate of a nobleman in centuries past. But sometimes I also see a teacup-sized woman in her sixties with her small L. L. Bean-booted foot atop a downed 800-pound moose.
*this part of the story turned out to be apocryphal
As the bizarre statements about giving more “choice” to the sick come floating in from the anti-choice party hell bent on destroying Obamacare, I just happen to find myself easing out my evenings by reading two works about sickness: John Donne’s twenty-three meditations titled Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and severall steps in my Sicknes and Dodie Bellamy’s When the Sick Rule the World. They are speaking to each other in fascinating ways.
Enthralled by the Renaissance trope of the body as a microcosmic copy of the larger world, Donne’s Devotions often draw parallels between the sick body and the sick polis. His brilliant record of the perspective-altering powers of illness transforms his fever and spots into a faith emergency, an alchemy Frank O’Hara would later translate into “Meditations in an Emergency,” in which the threat is the “sicknes” called heterosexuality. Donne is greatly consternated by his state. When the physician comes to apply dead pigeons to his feet to “draw the vapors” from his head, he threads his fume to Virgil’s rumor: “That which is fume in us, is in a State, Rumor, and these vapours in us, which wee consider here pestilent and infectious fumes, are in a State infectious rumors, detracting and dishonourable Calumnies, Libels.” In empathy I feel a weight of dry grey feathers scratching at my tender arches. As Donne’s vapors drain he dutifully exercises an incredulous self-rebuke: “did I drinke in Melancholly into my selfe? It is my thoughtfulnesse; was I not made to thinke?” Donne believes he is the cause of his own suffering for not having dumbed it down.
We “assist the sicknes” and “make the sickness the more irremediable” not by bad habits, but by “sad apprehensions.” Sinfulness, melancholy, too much thinking, a triumvirate missing from those who are suffering in “When the Sick Rule the World.” “There is no such thing as a hypochondriac;” writes Bellamy, “there are only doctors who cannot figure out what is wrong with you.”
The narrator of her sly satire is just sympathetic enough with the weird world of the “sick” she portrays that we aren’t quite convinced that she’d be altogether unhappy that “perfume will be outlawed” when the sick rule the world. “When a student comes to class wearing perfume,” she writes, “my nose runs, my eyes tear, I start sneezing; there’s nowhere to move to and I don’t know what to do.” What do you mean there’s nowhere to move? Aren’t you free? Just move to another state! Or so says the congressman to those who cannot get coverage for pre-existing medical conditions in their home states.
My disbelief at the callousness of “right to be sick and go without insurance” arguments notwithstanding, as I dip into the world of Bellamy’s allergen-beset bourgeois I feel a kind of petulant libertarianism, my human empathy replaced by a Miss Piggy-like insistence on my need to wear perfume. I’m naked without it. It is true that I, a “well” person, blithely defy the oddly verbose sign outside of a certain building where I work: PLEASE BE ADVISED THAT THERE ARE PEOPLE WHO WORK IN THIS BUILDING THAT ARE ADVERSELY AFFECTED BY FRAGRANCE AND REFRAIN FROM WEARING PERFUMES. Who are these people? Why don’t they come forward and identify themselves? Am I the reason they are sick?
Pre-modern medicine’s apprehension about vapors, foul air, and effluvium was responsible for years of blindness to other channels for the spread of illness. The so-called “miasma theory” that 19th-century British physician John Snow contested, proving that polluted water not foul air was spreading cholera in the Broad Street neighborhood of London. The sick in Bellamy’s story have a pre-modern aversion to vapors and air. Their scripture might be the Talking Heads’ “Air,” with its repeated line, “Air can hurt you too.” They cannot abide smells of any kind. Preparing to attend a meeting of the sick, the narrator spends $30 on fragrance-free products, but her ritual cleansing fails. A TSA-style sniffing by the gate-keepers of the sick community reveals an odor that gives one of them “brain fog” and the narrator is forced to swathe her head in comic bandanas. “What will not kill a man if a vapor will?” writes Donne, “so neere nothing is that that reduces us to nothing.” He fears that it is “halfe Atheisme to murmure against Nature, who is Gods immediate commissioner,” yet he marvels that the “Ayre that nourishes us, should destroy us.”
As someone who grew up in a region that had “smog days” instead of “snow days”—a free day off from school, but don’t leave the house!—I understand the fear of poisonous air. Yet a world cleansed of all smells would flatten time and destroy Eros. The nose is the organ of memory and curiosity and hunger. “With what deep thirst / we quicken our desires / to that rank odor of a passing springtime!” exclaims William Carlos Williams in his Rabelaisian paean to his boney nose, “Smell!” What would such a “tactless” ass of acquisitive greediness do when the sick rule the world and “roses, gardenias, freesias, and other fragrant flowers will no longer be grown,” and the “sick will travel in packs commandeering porcelain-lined fragrance-free buses.” Despite their myriad aversions and sensitivities the “sick” in Bellamy’s story are a surprisingly vigorous, social bunch. None of them have actual diagnoses, they bear no resemblance to people who are, by conventional definition, sick. Rather, they have an identity based around the things in the world that they must avoid. Sickness as a vocation.
Bellamy’s community of the sick seems unfamiliar with the extreme isolation Donne’s fever creates. “No man is an island,” the Devotions most famous assertion, was written by a man islanded by illness. “As Sicknes is the greatest misery, so the greatest misery of sickness, is solitude; when the infectiousness of the disease deters them who should assist, from coming; even the Phisician dares scarse come.” I think of those stories we all read about Ebola victims being denied company even in death. Their corpses were toxic.
Sickbed literature tends to be a literature of solitude. The Death and Letters of Alice James, Keats’s Letters, or Ernst Pawel’s beautiful meditation on Heinrich Heine’s wretched last years, The Poet Dying. The communality and mobility of the sick in Bellamy’s story marks the phenomenon she’s satirizing as something new: her sick no longer must hide in the shadows like sexual deviants, or be locked away in sanitariums. They have been liberated. They have their own community, and when they rule the world “[p]retending to be sick will be a capital offense.”
Because Donne’s illness occasioned his meditations, I am thankful to it, and to the fact that he defied the physician’s orders not to read or write. Though penned in solitude, Donne’s metaphorical parallels between the human body and the body of the state populate his sickbed. Man is a little world with “inough in himself, not only to destroy, and execute himself, but to presage that execution upon himself.” I think of Bellamy’s sick bonding over the dangers of cellphone towers and electromagnetic fields. Yet for Donne “home bred” vapours—those we conjure with our “sad apprehensions”—are far worse than any foreign poison: “What Fugitive, what Almes-man of any forraine State, can doe so much harme as a Detracter, a Libeller, a scornfull Jester at home?” How very prescient and wise are the poets.
On our last trip to New York, to see L’Amour de loin, Steve and I made our customary visit to The Strand. Fantastic things can happen in this stiflingly over-heated survivor from the golden age of bookstores. This visit was no different. Adjacent poetry we ran into New York School scholar Andrew Epstein and his family, visiting from Florida, only seconds after Steve had bumped into Alan Gilbert, an old acquaintance from the 1990s poetry world, back when arguments over the value of L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E magazine, or whether you studied at Brown or Buffalo, seemed tantamount to the mid-century literary brawls of Manhattan’s mandarin set. It’s amazing how a big city can become quite small when you edit yourself into a rarefied field of interest. Social serendipities discharged, Steve and I carted our armloads of books to the check out, paid, and left them to be shipped home, already anticipating that gorgeous moment when, having nearly forgotten our excesses, a big box arrives on our Maine doorstep. Included in this recent parcel was The Collected Verse of Noel Coward. Not Coward’s song lyrics (I already own that volume), but his poems. Yes, apparently all throughout his long life Mr. Coward “derived a considerable amount of private pleasure from writing verse.” I shelved the bright red hardcover and didn’t give it another thought.
Until last week. An epic home renovation coming to an end, we had the opportunity to move some books. Always a pleasure. I took Mr. Coward’s verse off the shelf and began dipping in. Though he is decidedly a much better lyricist than poet, I did find pleasures in his mostly light verse thanks to the usual tonic of his strong, arch, and “irretrievably ‘period’’’ style, the same that comes through much of his writing, but especially through his memoirs, Present Indicative (1934) and Future Indefinite (1954). Many years ago these books saved me from some rather baroque prose habits I had fallen into while writing my memoir, The Middle Room. Stuck around chapter ten, my sentences becoming longer and longer, I found I had lost the ability to ignore any detail or event, no matter how trivial. A compulsive read-through of Coward’s memoirs schooled me in just how delightful it might be for a reader, bogged down in the minutiae of my narcissistic reveries, to come upon a sentence as simple as: “The days and weeks went by.” And thus Noel Coward, already a lifestyle icon, become an icon of literary finesse.
You can imagine my delight, therefore, when deep into my reading of Coward’s verses, my eye fell upon a poem titled “Convalescence” which just happened to bear an uncanny resemblance to my own poem, written decades afterwards, “Dividend of the Social Opt Out.” In shape, structure, and sentiment, the two poems share an identity, down even, in some cases, to word choice! Knowing that I had never before set eyes on Coward’s “Convalescence,” I had no other recourse but to label this simply divine convergence as an exemplary case of “Plagiarism by Anticipation.”
A term playfully embraced by Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle), “Plagiarism by Anticipation” is the idea that a writer from the past can anticipate, and therefore plagiarize, the literary works of the future. As Jacques Roubaud put it, “authors that predate the founding of the Oulipo who, drawing on Oulipian matter, reveal themselves to be copiers of the Oulipo.” So, for example, when ancient Greek writers wrote lipograms (avoiding certain letters), these writers were said to have plagiarized the popular Oulipoean constraint by anticipation.
Yet this formula of the past copying the future actually predates Oulipo. It refers to a theory certain early Christian apologists supposedly used to better explain the many overlaps between paganism and the gospels. The overlaps (baptism, virgin birth, resurrection, etc.) were explained as “tricks” demons played to test our faith, thus “Plagiarism by Anticipation” was also referred to by the more dashing term of “diabolical mimicry.” These terms were used in the nineteenth century by Theosophists Madame Blavatsky and G. R. S. Mead in support of their creation of a syncretic Gnosticism. However, a quick web search of “plagiarism by anticipation” or “diabolical mimicry” will lead you instead to The Jesus Mysteries, a popular 1999 book in which the writers confer upon the “desperate claim” that “the devil” plagiarized Jesus the distinction of being “one of the most absurd arguments ever advanced.”
I disagree. I think “diabolical mimicry” is an ingenious and charming claim, that is if you take it lightly. And there is little evidence that it was ever advanced in the way the gleeful “debunkers” would have us believe. None of the early apologists cited—Irenaeus, Tertullian, Justin Martyr—ever used the terms “plagiarism by anticipation” or “diabolical mimicry.” Their ideas were more in keeping with the Testament of Orpheus. I refer here not to the wonderful Cocteau film of the same name, but to a third century document in which the first poet bears witness to “the single and eternal pattern of the universe.” The Testament supports a popular Hellenistic legend that when a young man Orpheus traveled to Egypt to study with Moses, after which he rejected polytheism in favor of a single god: “He is the one” Orpheus writes, “self-begotten, and all things are brought to pass by Him.” This chapter proved far less enduring in the poet’s mythic biography than his infamous backward glance.
From Christian apologists to Noël Coward. An unusual journey indeed. And yet, in another divine convergence, during the writing of these musing I have been felled by a very nasty cold. Thus it is from my bed, in a quiet, empty house, cat beside me, that I seek my “hyperlinks” and final turn of phrase. This ghastly illness has, as Coward put it, given me “time / to invent a little rhyme.” I post “Convalescence” below, with a link to my “Dividend of the Social Opt Out.” Judge for yourself whether Noël devilishly hid his poem in the archives that the future may discredit the “virgin birth” of my little homage to the secret pleasures of the introvert.
To have been a little ill
To have Glucose and Bemax
To be still.
To feel definitely weak
On a diet
To be ordered to be quiet
Not to speak.
To skim through the morning news,
To have leisure,
The ineffable, warm pleasure
Of a snooze.
To have cooling things to drink,
Fresh Spring Flowers,
To have hours and hours and hours
Just to think.
To have been a little ill
To have time
To invent a little rhyme
To be still.
To have no one that you miss
This is bliss!
 In After Babel George Steiner, using Private Lives as his example, makes a very compelling case for what he calls the “irretrievably ‘period’’’ style of Coward’s dialogue. Thus I chalk up my attraction to Coward as one of my long list of nostalgic passions, a term I use throughout The Middle Room.
 For a helpful and measured look at this issue, click here.
As 2016 turned into 2017 my husband Steve Evans reminded me that this night was in fact the thirty year anniversary of the New Year’s Eve that could, from a certain perspective, be said to be the beginning of our relationship. In honor of which I decided I would share an edited excerpt from my memoir, pulled from the chapter titled “New Year’s Eve,” and describing real events that took place at a party I threw in my San Diego apartment on the last night of 1986, the first morning of 1987.
Rodefer, accompanied by two friends from Berkeley, was one of the first to arrive. In the presence of these out-of-towners he augmented his nonchalance and increased his poetic asides such that, where on a normal night he might mention “Visions of the Daughters of Albion” and move on, tonight he threw in several passing references to “Jack” Donne and “Andy” Marvell, as though he had just downed a few scotch and sodas with them at some mid-priced hotel bar. He prodded me on the issue of Steve, demanding: “Where’s Evans?” “Why isn’t Evans here?” holding his cigarette between his middle and fourth fingers and up by his face like a girl. I was relieved of this taunting by the arrival of Helena, attired in a perfectly fitted black rayon dress and black seamed stockings, her golden hair, smelling of the rose-hip conditioner she used, neatly parted in the middle and brushed straight over each shoulder.
Chuck and Scott came next, and then Jack, followed by a bohemian cortège, four or five boys who brought their own beer, ignored the central group, and instantly set about rifling through my albums and commenting on their relative merits as though customers in a record shop.
Flushed with alcohol and the swish of my black taffeta, I remained undaunted when Steve showed up in the company of Marianne Binken. [Read more…]
UMaine Today’s December issue has an article titled “The Making of an Opera” about my collaboration with Beth Wiemann on Until the War Is Over, the opera about H. D. and D. H. Lawrence we workshopped some scenes from last summer on the University of Maine campus.
Just as this story was at press Beth and I found out that Until the War Is Over had been selected by the John Duffy Institute for New Opera to be workshopped in March 2017 by a select group of professionals from the opera world (including Paul Cremo, Dramaturg and Director of Opera Commissioning Programs from the Metropolitan Opera). The Duffy Institute “seeks out and supports the work of opera composer/librettist teams by providing professional mentorship and a professional process for the development of their new work, with the intent to see the works through to full productions.” What a privilege to have the opportunity to keep improving and refining this work!
From my 2009 book Clampdown, this Christmas poem with a pagan title, Modranicht.
Right before the darkness turned around
and began to head in the other direction,
I had a dream that you and I were decorating
the Christmas tree and I asked you,
as we hung the aging trinkets—the crippled
pine-cone elf, the dry construction-paper Santa,
the several odd souvenirs from cultures
both Christian and un-Christian,
bought by my well-meaning parents
in homage to that naïve dream
formerly known as the “family of man”—
“How much goodwill would it take
on this cold mid-winter’s eve
to renew the genuine warmth
we used to feel towards one another?
How many prayers of peace,
or mummer’s carols, how many joyous songs,
with saturnine themes and themes solemn too,
how many earnest petitions?”
After untangling the string of mini-lights
with uncustomary ease, we passed
the neat lasso of green wire around
the sticky sap and slightly prickly needles.
With a confidence not unbecoming,
you looked me in the eyes and said:
“For you I guarantee that, by the end
of the season, sympathy and tender care
will outreach judgment and critique.
Two late-century soldiers will meet
in the desert, lay down their arms and embrace;
Martin Luther, out walking at midnight
will be awestruck by the elegant stars
peeking luminous through the German trees;
holly & ivy will grow up through the snow—
the burning bush, the drops of blood—
and Father Christmas, astride a goat, Kristkindl, Christ child, abolitionist,
a jovial elf, slender pipe in hand,
will rouse the Union soldiers to their
grim task again; and then, in homage
to these, and other half-reasoned-out rituals,
you and I will go hand in hand,
and hang a sprig of sage-colored mistletoe
on the arc of the new bassinet.”
Delirious I awoke from these words,
got out of bed, and tip-toed to the living room
to sneak a peek at the tree. There was thin silence
and the smell of pine. In the uncanny snowlight
the enchantment of the expectant scene
was no less powerful than when, as a child,
I had been entranced by the magical appearance
of the festive packages under the tree.
“Time of the wheel,” Yuletide,
the old solar tricks and the hopes
of what the New Year might hold in store:
dreams fulfilled and heavenly peace or,
it struck me, as a tractor-trailer passed
and shook the darkened house, perhaps
we’re on the eve of some fortune
less propitious. On this cheerless
point of suspicion, the folk personages
on the Christmas tree, with their frozen smiles
and arthritic postures, seemed, as they bobbed
their heads up and down, to agree with me.
“Mother Night” was written during Christmas of 2002, a few months before the start of the Iraq war. It was first published in Explosive magazine 9 in 2003, and will soon be included in an anthology of that same magazine.
I was surprised to feel an unexpected emotional consonance between November 9, 2016 (2:30AM) and September 11, 2001. A realist stun gun. Gaping mouth, chills, fear. An imagined film reel of spectacular violence. Ballooning. A wholesale readjustment of the world one thought to have known and understood. A creeping in of an unreal “reality.” And for some more than others, the unavoidable sensation that one’s physical body was anew a liability—will these borders be respected?
My imagination ill-fitted to this news and thus was slow to accept it. It began to throw a fit. I will not be coopted by bullies, it said. That’s what they do, bullies, they force you to think about them when you fall asleep, they haunt your dreams, they greet you upon waking with a knowing snigger. They capture your imagination. That’s their power. They pick on competent and successful people who follow the rules and prefer to avoid conflict. If you’ve ever been bullied, you know this to be true. And then there’s the shock of realizing that you are actually afraid of someone you’ve never respected. You doubt yourself.
I’ve always loved Pete Seeger’s version of “Die Gedanken Sind Frei” (My Thoughts Are Free). I listened to it with the utmost belief in the power of the mind to stay free, even when the body is imprisoned. But my belief in the mind’s power to stay free is not as strong as it used to be. The imagination, the poet’s stronghold, has a porous and democratic nature. It is vulnerable to fascists and bullies. “My thoughts will not cater to duke or dictator” Seeger sings. But it takes an enormous discipline of mind to keep them out. A lock down of the imagination. Death to the poet.
I wrote my mid-length poem “The Occasion” (Clampdown, 2009) about an evening “a few days after the start of the war,” in this case, the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I had been trying to find a way to write about that moment in a way that might capture the confusion, sadness, frustration, and divisiveness of it. But my voice was uncertain and I felt myself going silent. Then I came across John Greenleaf Whittier’s long poem “Snow-bound.” “How strange it seems, with so much gone / Of life and love, to still live on!” A perfect fit. I admired how Whittier’s narrative structure allowed for several distinct voices, how he set a scene and let the drama unfold. I tried to do the same. My narrative tells of a failure to come together, of a group of people, well-meaning, good-intentioned, imaginative people, poets, failing to find a common ground: “The war at hand had taken all our thought /and all of our imagination.” It was difficult to say anything, trapped as one felt in some perverse consensus:
of the past had marked us, for better or worse,
and no amount of preparedness or cash
could serve to save us when like targets we
stepped out into speech, powerless to know
the future or which way the tide of common
prejudice, though it be shaped by the uncommon
few, would turn at any given moment.
I’ll admit to a smallness: the worry that in this new clampdown the power of the imagination will find no quarter and all poems, obliged to resist, will cease to construct those habitable spaces of future hope we so desperately need to live. I do not care to write the poem or say the name of evil. Against the possibility that such a plea is mere “obfuscation of social and political realities in the interest of imaginative transcendence” (as Jonathan Culler reminds us many said of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”), I return to Adorno’s conception that, as Culler summarizes it, “there are other ways to participate in the social than to represent it.” I must believe that poems can speak important truths that transcend their historical moment. Time, again, to dust off Auden’s “September 1, 1939,” the oddly specific title of which belies its continued relevance: “I and the public know / What all schoolchildren learn, / Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.”
A final thought: “The Occasion” was much about the inability to find a consensus even among friends. About the disruptive nature of ideological confusion. Since Tuesday I’ve experienced something quite different. A kind of lovely and spontaneous solidarity among the like-minded. All of us who are deeply saddened and angered by the outcome of the last election. People simply wanting to be in rooms with each other. To share. To catch a glimpse and say, with eyes, no words, “I know, me too.”
To my mind, one of the best things the internet has done for poetry is to provide heretofore unprecedented access to the poet’s voice. Sites like ubuweb, PennSound, and Archive of the Now invite us to take our poetry in through the ear. The advent of the short clip, or poem “single” (as Charles Bernstein calls it) makes it so easy to sample a poet’s work, or even to compare different performances of the same poem.
This is a monumental change. Many of us remember how precious recordings of poets used to seem: passing around bootlegged cassette tapes of the 1965 Berkeley Poetry conference or of Spicer’s Vancouver lectures; cherishing the limited (but precious!) Caedmon catalog, John Gielgud reading T. S. Eliot, Stein’s few portraits, etc. Filching covertly from archives.
Thanks to Paul Blackburn (who died on Sept 13, 45 years ago) and many others, there were lots of recordings floating around in those analog days, the problem was how to get your hands on them. I wont ever forget finding a dusty old reel-to-reel spool, not even in a box, moldering away in my late colleague Burt Hatlen’s bottom desk drawer. On that fragile tangle of shiny brown tape was a reading Robert Duncan gave in Orono, Maine in 1971. As a legendary talker, Duncan’s is a case in which the “audio oeuvre” is arguably as important as the printed page. Through his recordings we can experience the humor and charm of his uniquely syncretic mind, which can sometimes come off as rather solemn in print.
When I discovered my love for opera, I never thought to wonder how this strange form of “musical drama” came into being. I fell hard and instantly, and, as with any coup de foudre worthy the name, rather than put my passion under scrutiny, I marveled at its previous absence: a kind of “where have you been all my life” followed by the censure of all who knew about the existence of such sublimity and yet had kept me in the dark! I would come to understand my love for opera as connected to my proclivity for high artifice and the kind of performed femininity (the diva) most appreciated by a certain kind of gay man. Indeed, my early education in the form was largely conducted by gay male friends. Years after Carmen—the first opera I saw—bewitched me, I discovered myself to be a poet, but I made no connection between the word art I practiced and the musical drama I consumed. But this was a mistake. For poetry and opera have, as Pound wrote of himself and Whitman, “one sap and one root.” The ancient tree from which they both grew was incited to the “movement of meaning through time” by the figure of Orpheus.
Orpheus was there at the birth of lyric poetry, the demi-god whose severed head washed up on the banks of Lesbos and set Sappho to singing. He was also there at the birth of opera. Written in Italy during the first decade of the seventeenth century, the first three musical dramas (later called operas) were all based on his story. Orpheus the lover and Orpheus the musician certainly proved attractive to Renaissance composers, yet I believe that they were also drawn to his identity as poet. For the birth of opera heralded a new respect for words in the musical world. Emerging in the midst of the dominance of forms written for several voices layered one over the other, such as the madrigal, this “new monadic musical style” was invented to showcase the “single vocal line.” Instrumentation, no longer the star, would accompany, enhance, and emphasize the words. This was necessary for the success of opera not only as a musical composition, but as drama. A story was being told. A story which, through music, could utilize emotion more affectingly than spoken drama.
In the past, the raw singularity of an individual’s emotional life had been represented most compellingly by lyric poetry (see what Longinus has to say about Sappho). In antiquity lyrics—as the way we still use the term betrays—were performed with music. But this music sounded nothing like opera, nor like contemporary popular song. Because classical prosody was quantitative, that is to say, written in a fixed pattern of long and short syllables, musical accompaniment did not effect the rhythm of such poetic compositions.  Thus in Sappho’s time, poems were not set to music, but rather the other way around. When we see those images of her and Alcaeus holding the lyre or barbitos, we shouldn’t imagine them bending their vocal lines or crooning a couplet like the guitar-wielding singer-songwriter of today. Instead we should hear, behind the dominant rhythm of the poetic line, a gentle strum, a breeze of inspiration. The music’s duty was to “augment the clarity of the sung words.” Something like this same goal, along with a theory that, though all the music was lost, Greek drama had been sung, inspired those Florentine and Mantuan Renaissance musicians and poets to create, almost by accident, the alchemical goldmine of music and poetry we now call opera.
Is it any wonder, therefore, that when I set about writing my first libretto, I too would be led back to the myth of Orpheus? It was spring of 2012. Composer, and now friend, Beth Wiemann approached me about working together on a chamber opera. After I recovered from the initial swoon of being invited to work in an art form I had so long loved, I began mulling over possible subject matter. My first idea was to write about the love affair between John Ruskin and Rose La Touche, but at this suggestion Beth looked dismayed (it turns out, there already isan opera about this Victorian episode!). An adaption of H. D.’s novel Bid Me To Live—which tells the story of H. D.’s near-romance with D. H. Lawrence—swam up as idea number two. Beth, whose musical allegiances are modernist-influenced, was more amenable to H. D.’s melancholy tale of bohemian writers caught up in the trauma of WWI. Green lighted, I set about redacting Bid Me To Live, a roughly 200-page roman à clef, into a 25-page libretto (which, after all, means “little book”). I did not think about Orpheus. But he showed up. Poetry, I’ve learned, takes a devilish pleasure in eclipsing our intentions. Orpheus appears in Bid Me To Live as the subject of a piece of writing that Julia (H.D.’s avatar) has shared in a letter to Rico (D. H. Lawrence). Julia’s long Orphic text ends with a plea from Eurydice: “Let me taste no blood-red seed, no, let me say this last, last word to make the severance complete. Go, Orpheus, look not back.” The hyperbaton of “look not back” becomes a point of contention for Rafe (Aldington), who finds the syntax too Victorian. The text functions as a plot point, a clue in a drama of jealously. Rico, for whom it was written in a spirit of identification and affection, critiques Julia for writing about a man. “How can you know what Orpheus feels? It’s your part to be woman, the woman vibration, Eurydice should be enough.” His criticism eerily rhymes with our times’ suspicion of the possibility of empathic representation across somatic borders—but in this historical instance the power is going in the wrong direction. Today it would be Julia’s right to critique Rico, not the other way around. Yet in H. D.’s novel her character comes, by her own accord, to agree with Rico’s critique. Dropping the male perspective entirely, the voice in H. D.’s poem “Eurydice” channels female rage. Is this why it still feels relevant, especially to young female readers? In the face of gender inequity the ability to think analogically, to remember that we are all ontologically connected, seems as remote as it did in the 1970s when people spoke of the “battle of the sexes.”
Yet the Orpheus of Renaissance opera is not only spared Eurydice’s rage, he gets to have her back. Their coupledom is completed and happy. The first opera, Jacobo Peri’s Euridice (1600), with libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini, was composed to celebrate Maria de’ Medici’s marriage to King Henry IV of France. It was performed with “limited scenery for a small audience” in some private rooms within Florence’s Pitti Palace. In order to make the story suitable to a happy occasion, Rinuccini removed Hades’s prohibition on the backward glance. Without a taboo to break, Orpheus was allowed to “male gaze” on his love to his heart’s delight while leading her out of the underworld. They live happily ever after. Guilio Caccini’s Euridice (1600) used the same libretto, and thus the couple found the same happiness. The third opera to be written, Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607) is the most successful of the three, and thanks to the Early Music revival, still in repertory. The libretto, by Alessandro Striggio, also arranges for a happy ending. In this version, however, Orpheus does lose his beloved for a second time because of a backward glance, but then, in classic deus ex machina fashion, Apollo intervenes and lifts Orpheus to heaven to be with his Eurydice. The Greek Orpheus is rewarded with Christian rhetoric: “for he obtains grace in heaven / who down below braved the inferno / and he who sows in sorrow / reaps the fruits of grace.” Though arguably a celebration in heaven is easier staged than the myth’s more typical ending (brutal dismemberment of the poet by angry Bacchantes) these operatic reworkings, far from perverting the myth, may have unconsciously returned to an earlier version of it. Evidence suggests Orpheus’s failure to retrieve of Eurydice, so important in the story as it has come down to us, so emblematic of our belief that men and women can never understand each other or be happy together, may have been a later development created in order to remove Orpheus’s powers as prophet and psychopomp.
Alas, no happy ending or love reunions are in store for the characters in Until the War Is Over, the name of the chamber opera Beth and I based on H. D.’s Bid Me To Live. It is a modernist account of a woman becoming an artist, and as a result the seams between her and the men in her life begin to fray. Not long after the period the book covers H. D. will be making a new life, with her longtime female partner, Bryher. A chamber opera is a merely a shorter opera written for a small ensemble. In this case: flute, piano, alto sax, double bass, and electronic sounds. In my libretto I unlocked H. D.’s roman à clef, restoring the names of the historical personages the characters were based on. In addition to language and scenes from her novel, I also used language from several of her poems, including “Hermes of the Ways” and “Eurydice.” Many modern operatic works are similar to the early musical dramas mentioned above in that the composition is not separated so neatly into aria (the emotional song) and recitative (the talky narrative bits) but instead follows a continuous melodic flow of the vocal line. This is most suitable to the words of a writer like H. D., written with a great subtlety of rhythm, without rhyme or meter. It is notable to those of us committed to the tradition of “speech-based” poetries, that the composers of the first three operas were hoping, with their new techniques, to come closer to representing natural speech, the result however, like the poems of even the most ardent of “speech-based” poets, is unquestionably art.
Selections from Until the War is Over are scheduled to be performed with “limited scenery for a small audience” in the public rooms of University of Maine’s black box theatre this coming Thursday.
 Kaja Silverman, Flesh of My Flesh 10-12. In a reading of Ovid’s version of the myth Silverman argues that “Orpheus’s repudiation of Eurydice dramatizes man’s inability to love women; his retreat to a remote location symbolizes the latter’s increasing solitude; the dismemberment of his body signifies the salutary disintegration of the male ego; and his descent to Hades and reunion with Eurydice stands for the arrival of the heterosexual couple” (10)
It has been so intellectually and artistically interesting to collaborate with composer Beth Wiemann on this chamber opera. Unlike poets, composers are reliant on musicians and singers to perform their works. A brief ten-minute scene of this opera was performed at the Hartford Opera Theatre last November. Now we’ll get to hear excerpts from three different scenes right on the University of Maine campus.