Monday, April 30, 2007

Swan Song

Benjamin Britten (whose birthday fell on St. Cecilia's Day) composed this piece both to honor an important English musical tradition and as a nod to Henry Purcell, with whom he felt he had a particular kinship. W. H. Auden wrote the words, which are listed below.

One cannot, however, just read the text. This piece, one of my favorite choral works, and arguably some of the best vocal music of the 20th century, needs to be listened to to get the full impact.


In a garden shady this holy lady
With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,
Like a black swan as death came on
Poured fourth her song in perfect calm:
And by ocean's margin this innocent virgin
Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,
And notes tremendous from her great engine
Thundered out on the Roman air.

Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,
Moved to delight by the melody,
White as an orchid she rode quite naked
In an oyster shell on top of the sea;
At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing
Came out of their trance into time again,
And around the wicked in Hell's abysses
The huge flame flickered and eased their pain.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

I cannot grow;
I have no shadow
To run away from,
I only play.

I cannot err;
There is no creature
Whom I belong to,
Whom I could wrong.

I am defeat
When it knows it
Can now do nothing
By suffering.

All you lived through,
Dancing because you
No longer need it
For any deed.

I shall never be
Different. Love me.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,
O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,
Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all
The gaucheness of her adolescent state,
Where Hope within the altogether strange
From every outworn image is released,
And Dread born whole and normal like a beast
Into a world of truths that never change:
Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange.

O dear white children casual as birds,
Playing among the ruined languages,
So small beside their large confusing words,
So gay against the greater silences
Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,
Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,
O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,
Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,
Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

O cry created as the bow of sin
Is drawn across our trembling violin.

O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain.

O law drummed out by hearts against the still
Long winter of our intellectual will.

That what has been may never be again.

O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath
Of convalescents on the shores of death.

O bless the freedom that you never chose.

O trumpets that unguarded children blow
About the fortress of their inner foe.

O wear your tribulation like a rose.

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions
To all musicians, appear and inspire:
Translated Daughter, come down and startle
Composing mortals with immortal fire.

W. H. Auden


And so ends Poetry Month for this year.

Friday, April 27, 2007

What Is Man?

The big highlight of my monthly trip to Mt Auburn (aside from seeing my doctor; he's a hoot!) is the leisurely walk along the Charles and bit of lollygagging in Harvard Square I indulge myself in afterwards. For some reason yesterday, I felt particularly drawn to Harvard Yard, to Emerson Hall, to this line from the psalms:

1 O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth, Who hast set thy glory upon the heavens!

2 Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings hast thou established strength, Because of thine adversaries, That thou mightest still the enemy and the avenger.

3 When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

4 What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him?

5 For thou hast made him but little lower than God, And crownest him with glory and honor.

6 Thou makest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; Thou hast put all things under his feet:

7 All sheep and oxen, Yea, and the beasts of the field,

8 The birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, Whatsoever passeth through the paths of the seas.

9 O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth!

(More pictures of Cambridge if you're interested.)

Thursday, April 26, 2007

My dad, ever the good sport and a patron saint of Patience sent this along both for Poetry Month and to cheer me up:

"I thought of Ella Wheeler Wilcox's poem for the April blog:

Laugh and the world laughs with you
Weep and you weep alone
For this grim old Earth
Must borrow its mirth
It has troubles enough of its own.

These lines begin "Solitude," first published in the Feb. 25, 1883, issue of the New York Sun.

I did a search on Google to find the date and among other things came across the stuff below. It is almost better than the poem."

Thanks, Dad.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Shakespeare's Birthday fell on a Monday (the 23rd) this year. It also fell a day after my having to say difficult goodbyes to a dear friend, to give him back to his land, his world, his life across the ocean.

XXIX. Remembrance

WHEN to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time's waste;

Then can I drown an eye, unused to flow,
For precious friends hid in death's dateless night,
And weep afresh love's long-since-cancell'd woe,
And moan the expense of many a vanish'd sight.

Then can I grieve at grievances foregone,
And heavily from woe to woe tell o'er
The sad account of fore-bemoanèd moan,
Which I new pay as if not paid before:

—But if the while I think on thee, dear friend,
All losses are restored, and sorrows end.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Yin Accounting.

I don't know that I've ever mentioned this before, but I work in financial reporting for a fairly large not-for-profit. It was kind of a stretch at first, as when I first started, I couldn't identify an income statement if it jumped up and bit me on the nose. To say that I was intimidated by my colleagues, not to mention upper management, would be an understatement.

After a while (and a few finance courses at the local community college), I became less intimidated (though no less confused) and actually quite fascinated by the universality of some concepts. Take nothingness, for example:

Thirty spokes converge on a single hub,
but it is in the space where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the cart lies.

Clay is molded to make a pot,
but it is in the space where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the clay pot lies.

Cut out doors and windows to make a room,
but it is in the spaces where there is nothing
that the usefulness of the room lies.

Benefit may be derived from something,
but it is in nothing that we find usefulness.

From Victor H. Mair's translation of the Tao Te Ching.

This concept is sometimes called "negative space," I believe, in some visual arts, like painting for example. One way of looking at a musical composition is by imagining sounds as being arranged around silence (see John Cage). Little did I know that I'd be hitting upon this when being asked to do things like designing reports that looked at trends in variances, for example.

Sorry for being gone for so long. Sometimes life throws a succession of curveballs and you have to either duck or take some lumps. I've been doing plenty of both for quite a while, actually.

Hey: speaking of curveballs, I know that earlier this week I was supposed to be a good Bostonian and keep my eye on Matsuzaka (aka Dice-Kay)'s debut, but I ended up being transfixed by that crazy curveball Seattle's new pitcher throws. Wow.

End of Winter

Bare-handed reach
to catch
incoming curve.
Leap higher than you thought you could and

-Eve Merriam

Okay, so we dealt with one Northeaster yesterday, and there's another one predicted for the Marathon weekend. Still, we just had Opening Day, darnit. It's Spring.


Poetry on baseball, gosh darnit. How much better could it get than that?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

We do
doodely do doodely do doodely do
What we must
muddily must muddily must muddily must
doodely do
doodely do doodely do doodely do
Until we bust
bodily bust bodily bust bodily bust.

-From Kurt Vonnegut's Wampeters, Foma and Granfaloons.

Life in a bureaucracy ain't all that it's cracked up to be.


Update: May he Rest in Peace.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Friends of the Cold

Detail from Three Friends of Winter by Zhao Mengjian, Chinese, 13th Century

On my wintry way to work this morning, I noted the sorrel and chives peeping out of the semi-thawed dirt in my garden patch. About a block away from the house, my peripheral vision caught a flash of gold: the first forsythia of the year. Arching overheard were maple buds on the verge of becoming bright red blooms.

Surely all these will survive the cold and the snow predicted for the rest of this week. They were bred to thrive in this adversity, to show us what a real stiff upper lip is, to pave the way for the tenderer harbingers of spring.

This brought to mind the Asian classic "three friends of winter," ume-plum, bamboo and pine. Here's a bit of poetry on that:

Peach and plum in springtime, don't be too proud of your blossoms;
Think instead of the faithful pine and green bamboo at year's end.
What season changes these noble stalks and their luscious evergreen?

-Kim Yuki, Korean, 17th century

Pure white plum blossoms
Slowly beginning to turn
The color of Dawn

-Yosa Buson,
Japanese, 18th century

My spring is just this:
A single bamboo shoot,
A willow branch.

-Kobayashi Issa, Japanese, 18th century


Also, there's an interesting exhibit which touches on this at the Sackler. I think it's only up for another week at the most, so sorry for the late notice. If you do have the free time, however, go see it. I really enjoyed it.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Pablo has been coming over for dinner several nights a week since forever, it seems. Sometimes he brings a bottle of wine. Other times, maybe some fruit or cheese and crackers. A few times, when I was dead broke (happens more times than I'm comfortable with - it's expensive to live here and no one gets into my line of work to become rich), he shopped for groceries. While I cook, he reads. While I do dishes afterwards, he reads. If it's not too late, we'll move from the kitchen to the living room, I'll take up my knitting, and he'll continue to read.

In this manner, we've made our way through quite a pile of books. Currently, we're alternating between excerpts from Twain's Life on the Mississippi and Herodotus's Histories. (This begs the question: was Twain an American Herodotus or was Herodotus a Greek Twain?)

Today is my dinner partner, storyteller and friend's 39th birthday. As always, I wish him much comfort and happiness, and I hope that his day is a pleasant one.

A Happy Birthday

This evening, I sat by an open window
and read till the light was gone and the book
was no more than a part of the darkness.
I could easily have switched on a lamp,
but I wanted to ride this day down into night,
to sit alone and smooth the unreadable page
with the pale gray ghost of my hand.

-Ted Kooser

Monday, April 02, 2007

Though I enjoy fresh and new for this venture, sometimes it's nice to revisit old favorites. These three keep turning up in my spirit at about this time every year:

This, as, though technical Spring has been here for a couple weeks, a "winter mind" is necessary to make sense of an Easter that could very well be a snowbound one.

This, because when Spring *does* get around to making an appearance, it's a subtle one whose cues are unmistakable for us Northern Types.

This, because I'm starting now, with much help from my loves, to feel my way out of the earth like a seedling making its way towards the sun. (It's been a very difficult couple years, sickening, dying and now starting to come back. I couldn't do it without my army of 'tus' know who you are.)

(What looks like about the only translation of the Rodriguez. Go figure.)

Sunday, April 01, 2007

April Fooled!

March does not have and never did have 32 days. Being caught with my head in the clouds and my pants down, I don't have much planned for the moment, save for an a propos bit by Emily Dickinson:

This, and my heart beside –
This, and my heart, and all the fields –
And all the meadows wide –
Be sure you count – should I forget
Some one the sum could tell
–This, and my heart, and all the Bees
Which in the Clover dwell.