Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Trilobite Love Song

My thousand eyes are upon you.
Even when I molt, when others would dream
in an agony of pain denial, I stay alert.
I watch for your every passing.
Everything I sense about you
     from infrared to ultraviolet
     is in perfect focus at every distance.
Not even a feeding cave or a narrow crevice
can hide you from me: I know
the subtle song of your feet and feelers.
The mottled markings on your thorax
make me go rugose:  I cannot help it.
The intricate spines of your cranidium,
stretching like the finest sea-flower,
drive me to impolite excesses.
     (Oh I have mapped them and would
     ten times trace them with my ten
     appendages if only you would permit it!)

Greater order, you
     have never noticed me,
     a bottom-feeder for all you know.
Yet I have followed you for years now.
I listened silently as you and all those others
formed into a linked circle, a thousand-feeler,
ten-thousand spine symphony of singing.
I think the earth stopped in its orbit
when  you played the click-click-click symphony
of the revered master click-rrr—click---rrr-click---ahk.
All I could so was weep inside my calcite lenses
and let my spines go limp.

How could you know my dream of you
     inspired me to swim higher
     beyond the blue-green fringe water
     into the blazing Greater Light,
where I lay gasping with salt-dry gills
     click-clicking your name
as the Greater Light plummeted
     and the blue-white Lesser Light
     stole in to replace it —
just so do I, the lesser, pursue you.

I am not worth
     one twitch of your pygidium tail
but I am convinced of a destiny
since ever I first looked upon you.
I guard your molting against all predators,
though you have never known it.
When I was younger, I traced
lewd messages on the sand floor,
wiping them out as fast as I wrote them –
oh, things that would embarrass you,
one typical juvenile verse went something like:
          I want to hold my click-click
          against your click-click-ack-click
          until we grrrr-te-te

So as you see, I am not much of a poet,
even less a courtier. My only hope
is that you have held yourself aloof,
that perhaps in your greater essence
is a greater shyness. Or, hope of hopes,
that you have seen me all along,
and only need my boldness. Oh, dare I?

Without your prior enrollment and slow
unrolling, without that stretch of feelers
and the ensuing embarement of thorax,
dare I approach and say the words
of surrender and engagement:

Thou, greater than me, and whom I love:
I lay my eggs at your feet.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Brahms' First String Quartet

For more than ten years, I have been writing program notes for chamber music concerts. I will begin to share these, with a link to a video of a performance of the works. At some point I might have enough notes for a little book. Audiences and musicians have been amused and informed by my notes, so I hope to pass along the pleasure.

Johannes Brahms (1833-1897).
String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 51 No. 1 (1865-1873)
I. Allegro
II. Romanze: Poco Adagio
III. Allegretto
IV. Allegro
Happy was the lot of Louis Spohr, a composer who outlived Beethoven and composed 36 string quartets. Far less happy was the lot of composers who trembled under Beethoven’s shadow: Mendelssohn did a youthful quartet fully in the “manner” of the master’s intimidating last works, but then abandoned that high and difficult style for a more genial output; Schumann created three masterful quartets in 1840, and then no more; Schubert capped his quartet career with masterpieces worthy of his musical hero, but he was dead two years after Beethoven. Other composers shied away from the genre, and some, like young Dvorak, were just beginning to find their way.
By 1865, Brahms, the most self-conscious of all composers, had composed and torn up twenty quartet attempts. Some were played privately by friends: all were rejected and nearly-all destroyed. This one he kept, and revised, and revised, and revised. By 1873, Brahms had two quartets ready, his Opus 51, the first of which, in the high-stakes key of C Minor, we hear tonight. Brahms was 40 when he published these quartets, and he had still not completed his first symphony, another case of predecessor-panic.
The first movement is a tight-fisted sonata form, with not one note wasted. The two principal themes follow one right upon another. The first theme, although it surges upwards heroically, also has three successive downward leaps, making its return and contrapuntal use easy for any listener to recognize. The second theme, heard immediately after two long-held octave notes on the viola, is more songful, melismatic, chromatic, exactly the kind of theme we will find in his symphonies. The working-out includes sections in sunnier C Major, and then a slide into mysterious C-Sharp Minor. These modulations change the harmonic palette even while Brahms continues his tightly-worked counterplay of themes. One masterful touch in the first movement is that Brahms brings back his second subject, set one pitch higher than the “home key,” so that, although one is hearing a recapitulation of a now-familiar theme, is distinctly different in tone-color (you will hear this after about three bars of distinctly weird pizzicati). The coda is more agitated and shows us that Brahms knows the full weight of writing his first quartet in the “tragic” key of C Minor, although he imitates Bach in having the last note be a broad chord in C Major.
Like Beethoven, whose C Minor “Pathetique” sonata opens out into a melting song in A-Flat, Brahms choose this key for his second movement. This “Romanze” is intimate music, and although the thematic material is based on the main theme of the first movement, this music takes us to a different world altogether. The players are more together than pitted against one another, and we sense a pastoral mood, with suggestions of distant horn-calls. A more meditative middle section, sliding into the minor, hints not just at nature, but nature seen in solitude, but then we are brought back to the “song without words” material from the opening. If the first movement is about nervous nest-building, the second is a celebration of the natural world.
There is no Scherzo for a third movement, as you might expect from a 40-year-old composer still too timid to write his first symphony. Instead we have a moody Allegretto molto moderato e comodo. The key is F Minor (the relative minor of the A-Flat Major key of the preceding movement). The interplay between the violin and the other strings is not so much playful as sinister, and the folkish interlude with odd open-string sounds from the second violin and viola (an effect he had picked up from Haydn’s “Frog” quartet). In mood, I find this one of the loneliest pieces of music in the repertory – not so much a depiction of a lonely character, as music that springs from a solitary nature. If one had to paint this delicate music, I would envision a walk in a November wood, with gray and brown tones predominating. Perhaps, in the middle section, our solitary stroller sees some geese flying overhead, or some ducks nestled along a distant stream. Then, turning his back, he knows he is alone again, and the opening music returns.
In the busy and exciting Finale, Herr Docktor Brahms employs a technique that he would perfect in his symphonies: a short “motto” theme followed by two principal themes. By the time Brahms exposes and unfurls these handsome melodies, full of energy, there is scant time for a big development section, so there is a highly compressed one, followed by the recapitulation of the three ideas, and then a coda. This finale, based on material from the first movement, forms a solid bookend against the assertive first movement.
Brahms is given credit, in his Opus 51 quartets, with re-establishing the genre and encouraging others to go where, previously, only a few hardy souls had tread. We would probably not have the Bartok or Shostakovich quartets, had Brahms not summoned the courage to issue these works. Quartets love to play the Brahms quartets. For listeners with time and intent, it is a revelation to listen to them with score in hand. For the concert hall listener, the rewards may be mixed, as there is a difference, perhaps, between “quartet music” and “music for quartet.” Brahms himself may have sensed that the architecture of absolute music was too complex or dense for the quartet, so he almost immediately made a version of the music for piano four-hands. The outer movements may be daunting, but in the two inner movements, the lyrical gifts and nature-painting instincts of Brahms come to the fore. Or it may simply be that repeated listenings are called for to make the outer movements reveal themselves. Either way, we are grateful to have a time and space to sit quietly, and make it our business to absorb this great work.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Waltz in Five-Four Time

We come to the windows
on rainy nights.
Dogs bay behind us.
We press our hands and faces
against the panes.
The waltz beyond the curtains
lures women and men
to brazen whirl,
hands so daring and confident,
slim waists turning,
strong legs keeping time.
We hear the beat
but not the melody,
we see the figures
but not their visages,
barred by lace and lock,
senses numbed by leaded glass,
by the storm behind us.
Do they know we are watching?
The servants pass by,
trays heaped with wines and sweets.
No one comes to the curtain,
no lady, alarmed, cries out
and points toward us,
no one observes
           our hunchback silhouettes
in lightning fire.
No carriage came to take us.
But then, we do not dance.
We, the beggar’s ragg’d children,
unchurched half-breeds.
They dance to threes,
we only hear five/four in thunder time,
lopsided beat of the lame man’s waltz.

A howl! A yelp! The dogs are coming!
We will be torn to bits if we do not run.
I leave an angry handprint,
tar-black on their white-washed shutter,
before we dash for the darkling moors.
One day we’ll sing at their misfortunes.
One night we’ll dance upon their graves.

As You Read This

You think you are alone.
I watch your hands
flash white
at turn of page,
follow your eyes
from line to line.
Hands do not blush,
the reading eye
cannot avert,
the mind
does not suspect
my omnipresence.
Counting the beat
your fingers trace
these lines.
You even whisper them
as though my ear
were intimate.
You never suspect
I dream of you,
touch back
your outreached consciousness.
Concealed amid typography,
sighing in each caesura,
intake of breath at every comma,
I am like a boy in the shrubbery,
lover in moonlit garden,
a bare toe jutting
     amid the footnotes.
Though you be shy,
doe-wary and skittish,
I stalk this poem,

alert between letters.
Watch all you will
for hawk and hunter,
I am in and on the river
of word-flow.
Casting my net
   mid-ship between stanzas
I shall catch you.


Among the ways I have tried to express it
was the arbor of roses over your door
constructed at night by carpenters,
tip-toed in raccoon quietude,
pounding felt-covered hammers and oiled nails-­-
the roses you snubbed to an icy death
that snowy morning you never looked up,
or back, suitcased to cab for that
solitary European vacation
I helped you plan /

Among the ways
were the moonlit serenatas with mandolins
that elbowed each other behind your fence.
The tenor who labored my verses, your name
he said had too many vowels, the high C
half-voice for the paltry fee I offered.
Yes, the same players who fell from the willows
attempting to get my poems heard
over the tomcat rhapsody
and the din of your air conditioner /

Among the ways
were the commonplace words, veiled in a blush
that punctuated our seldom discourse. Not even
“Hello” could be dropped from the tongue single-edged.
Yes, the same words, like “dinner” and “alone” —
(“Just us?” “Yes, the two of us.” “Get back to you.”) —
that registered blank in your eyes.
the silent phone, the cobwebbed mailbox
say all that need be said

Among the ways
are those men left over from Fu Manchu
who follow your other admirers about
like dacoits, eyeing the alleys and parapets
for places to make their kill and escape.
Strange how your exes are turning up
dead, or missing/presumed, or reportedly
away with their new enamoratae.
I never planned to spend so much
of my inheritance on hit men

Among the ways
are the midnight oaths and promises
I make to dubious monarchs of love,
half-seen in the smog of my sulfurous hearth,
as I barter to Eros in Pluto’s coinage
a year of my life, for a night of yours.
The incense clears, the brimstone pall
clears out to dawn-light, the mowers
start up at the edge of the graveyard,
and no, you are not there;
you are never there, nor will you be.
Cruel bargain, I am a year more old,
and you a year younger. The gulf
already great between us, becomes a rift,
a continental shelf, extinction crater /

Be gone, be gone. I am done with this.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Chaucer's Prologue to The Parliament of Fowles

(A loosely metrical, free-verse adaptation, with slight explications of Cicero's Dream of Scipio.)
This is in the form of a poetic improvisation, made without reference to any other modern English version and using only the glossary and notes for The Riverside Chaucer, Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio,” and the personal assistance of Hermes, the god of sudden inspiration.)

Not years enough, in life so short,
to learn a craft so long, Ars longa, vita brevis
whose effort’s hard, whose winning hurts,
whose painful joys slides snakily off —
by all this I mean Love, whose working
wonderful astonishes my senses,
so painful indeed, that when I think on it,
I know not whether I float, or fall.

1 The Lyf so short, the craft so long to Lerne,
2 Th’assay so hard, so sharp the conquerynge,
3 The dredful joye, alwey that slit so yerne,
4 Al this mene I by love, that my felynge
5 Astonyeth with his wonderful werkynge
6 So sore iwis, that whan I on him thinke,
7 Nat wot I wel wher that I flete or synke.

Though practice of Love have I no knowledge,
nor of how well He pays his followers,
well have I read of his ways in books,
of both his miracles, and his cruelty.
There read I well, he will be Lord and master;
I dare not say how painful his strokes,
But “God give me such a Lord!” Ah, say no more!

8 For at be that I knowe nat love in dede,
9 Ne wot how that he quiteth folk hir hyre,
10 Yit happeth me ful ofte in bokes reede
11 Of his myralles, and his crewe yre.
12 Ther rede I wel he wol be lord and syre,
13 I dar not seyn, his strokes been so sore,
14 But “God save swich a lord!” — I can na moore.

What use is Love? a moment’s friction or
a whole life’s education? —
I read so many books, as I did say —
and why at all am I essaying this?
because just now I happened to behold a book,
a certain ancient text in antique tongues,
and there I sought to learn a Certain Thing,
so eager for it I read the whole day long.

15 Of usage, what for luste what for lore,
16 On bokes rede I ofte, as I yow tolde.
17 But wherfor that I speke al this? Not yore
18 Agon, hit happed me for to beholde
19 Upon a bok, was write with lettres olde,
20 And therupon, a certeyn thing to lerne,
21 The longe day ful faste I redde and yerne.

For out of old fields, as old wives say,
Comes the new corn from year to year,
Just so do old books, seen with new eyes
yield all that is new, that we call Science.
But now to get down to my business here:
reading that one book gave me such delight,
that all that day my own small soul seemed lost.

22 For out of olde feldes, as men seyth,
23 Cometh al this newe corn from yer to yere;
24 And out of olde bokes, in good feyth,
25 Cometh al this newe science that men lere.
26 But now to purpos as of this matere:
27 To rede forth hit gan me so delite,
28 That al the day me thoughte but a lyte.

This book of which I make such mention —
I'll tell you how its title reads. It is:
The Dream of Scipio, as told by Cicero
(yes, Marcus Tullius, our old Roman friend!)
In only seven chapters, Heaven to Hell,
and Earth, and all the souls that dwell therein,
are all encompassed, and I mean
as quickly as I can, to share the gist.

29 This bok of which I make of mencioun
30 Entitled was al ther, as I shal telle,
31 “Tullius of the Drem of Scipioun.”
32 Chapitres sevene hit hadde, of hevene and helle
33 And erthe, and soules that therinne dwelle,
34 Of whiche, as shortly as I can hit trete,
35 Of his sentence I wol yow seyn the greete.

First off it says, when Scipio arrived
in Africa, to meet Massinissa, that King
of Numidia embraced him in joy –
they talked of his great forebear till the sun did fade.
Then in his sleep his ancestor appeared,
great Scipio Africanus, Carthage’s conqueror!

36 Fyrst telleth hit, whan Scipion was come
37 In Affrike, how he meteth Massynisse,
38 That him for joie in armes hath inome.
39 Thanne telleth [it] here speche and al the blysse
40 That was betwix hem til the day gan mysse,
41 And how his auncestre, Affrycan so deere,
42 Gan in his slepe that nyght to hym apere.

The book relates, how from a starry place
the ancient Roman showed him Carthage
[the city he pillaged and sowed with salt],
forewarned him of his own ill providence,
and told him that any man, learned or ignorant,
that loved the common good, with virtue’s ways —
that man shall go to a blissful resting place,
where joy without end awaits him.

43 Than telleth it that, from a sterry place,
44 How Affrycan hath hym Cartage shewed,
45 And warnede him beforn of al his grace,
46 And seyde hym, what man, lered other lewed,
47 That lovede commune profyt, wel ithewed,
48 He shulde into a blysful place wende,
49 There as joye is that last withouten ende.

And then he asked, if folk that here be dead
have life and dwelling in some other place,
and Africanus answered him, “Yes, doubt it not!”
and that the present life we live, whatever
way we go, is in itself a kind of death,
and that the righteous folk shal Heavenward wend;
and here, he showed the Galaxy

50 Thanne axede he, if folk that here been dede
51 Han lyf and dwellynge in another place.
52 And Affrican seyde, “Ye, withoute drede,”
53 And that oure present worldes lyves space
54 Nis but a maner deth, what wey we trace,
55 And rightful folk shul gon, after they dye,
56 To hevene; and shewed him the Galaxye.

And way below it, the little earth our home,
so tiny compared to the vastness of things.
Later, the ghost showed Scipio nine spheres.
from which he heard the harmonies and notes
that come by nature from thrice times three —
the wellspring of all music and melody,
the basis of all our harmony!

57 Than shewed he him the lytel erthe, that here is,
58 At regard of the hevenes quantite;
59 And after shewede he hym the nyne speres,
60 And after that the melodye herde he
61 That cometh of thilke speres thryes thre,
62 That welle is of musik and melodye
63 In this world here, and cause of armonye.

Then Africanus bade him: if the world is a mote,
deceptive and full of bad fortune,
to take no delight in this lower world.
Then he revealed to him, that ages hence
all the great stars will spin back home
from where they started, and all that man
has done in this world shall be forgotten.

64 Than bad he hym, syn erthe was so lyte,
65 And dissevable and ful of harde grace,
66 That he ne shulde him in the world delyte.
67 Than tolde he hym, in certeyn yeres space
68 That every sterre shulde come into his place
69 Ther it was first; and al shulde out of mynde
70 That in this world is don of al mankinde.

Then he prayed Scipio to tell him
how he might himself arrive at Heaven’s bliss
and the ghost said, “Know thyself first immortal,
then look to your work and direct yourself
to the common good — you cannot miss
your chance to come swiftly to that place
where clear souls live in eternal bliss.

71 Thanne preyede hym Scipion to telle hym al
72 The wey to come into that hevene blisse;
73 And he seyde, “Know thyself first immortal,
74 And loke ay besily thow werche and wysse
75 To commune profit, and thow shalt not mysse
76 To comen swiftly to that place deere,
77 That ful of blysse is and of soules cleere.

But breakers of the law, if truth be told,
and lecherous folk, once they are dead,
shall whirl about the earth in pain,
age upon, fearful age, and then at last
they shall be forgiven of their wicked deeds,
and they shall come into that blissful place,
where all who come to God receive his grace.”

78 But brekers of the lawe, soth to seyne,
79 And likerous folk, after that they ben dede,
80 Shul whirle aboute th’erthe always in peyne,
81 Til many a world be passed, out of drede,
8i And than, foryeven al hir wikked dede,
83 Than shul they come unto that blysful place,
84 To which to comen God the sende his grace!”—

The day had fallen, and gave way to night,
which robs all beasts of their business.
Men too — it was too dark to read —
and so, undressed for bed, I went —
my thoughts filled up with a heavy burden,
for I had a Certain Thing that I did not want,
and I did not have a Certain Thing I wished for.

85 The day gan faylen, and the derke nyght,
86 That reveth bestes from her besynesse,
87 Berafte me my bok for lak of lyght,
88 And to my bed I gan me for to dresse,
89 Fulfyld of thought and busy hevynesse;
90 For bothe I hadde thyng which that I nolde,
91 And ek I ne hadde that thyng that I wolde.

But finally my spirit, at the last,
so weary from my labor of the day,
took rest and put me fast asleep,
and in my sleep I dreamed, as I lay,
that Afticanus, just in the same array
as Scipio saw him that time before,
just so he came to my bedside and stood.

92 But fynally my spirit, at the laste,
93 For wery of my labour al the day,
94 Tok reste, that made me to slepe faste;
9S And in my slep I mette, as that I lay,
96 How Affrican, ryght in the selve aray
97 That Scipion hym say byfore that tyde,
98 Was come and stod right at my beddes syde.

The weary hunter, asleep in his bed,
dreams that he never left the wood;
the judge dreams that his case moves forward;
in the carter’s dreams, the cart rolls on;
the rich dream of gold; the knight fights foes;
the sick man dreams he drinks of the cask;
the lover dreams he has his lady won.

99 The wery huntere, slepynge in his bed,
100 To wode ayeyn his mynde goth anon;
101 The juge dremeth how his plees been sped;
102 The cartere dremeth how his cart is gon;
103 The riche, of gold; the knyght fyght with his fon;
104 The syke met he drynketh of the tonne;
105 The lovere met he hath his lady wonne.

Can I not say but that the cause of this
was that I had read of Africanus,
and that’s what made me dream he stood there.
But what he said: “You’ve borne yourself well.
You found me in that tattered book —
found me despite the footnotes of Macrobius,
a monk who understood me not at all.
Let me repay your labor with something ... ”

106 Can I not seyn if that the cause were
107 For I had red of Affrican byforn,
108 That madde me to mete that he stod there;
109 But thus seyde he, “Thou hast the so wel born
110 In lokynge of myn olde bok totorn,
111 Of which Macrobye roughte nat a lyte,
112 That somdel of thy labour wolde I quyte” —

Venus! Cytherea, thou blissful lady sweet,
who with your fire-brand conquers
whom you please, you who made me dream this very vision,
be thou my help in this, for you lead best,
as truly as the sail turns north-north-west,
so as I begin my vision to write,
so give me strength to rhyme and indite!

113 Citherea! thou blysful lady swete,
114 That with thy fyrbrond dauntest whom the lest,
115 And madest me this sweven for to mete,
116 Be thow myn helpe in this, for thow mayst best!
117 As wisly as I sey the north-north-west,
118 When I began my sweven for to write,
119 So yif me myght to ryme, and endyte!

The Middle English text is that published in The Riverside Chaucer.

The Dream of Scipio,”, translated by Michael Grant, from Cicero: On the Goo

Death and the Maiden

after the German of Matthias Claudius The Maiden: Pass me by, oh, pass me by! Go, ...