From “Peter Quince at the Clavier” by Wallace Stevens.
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound
And thus it is that what I feel
Here in this room, desiring you
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk
Time and again, I’ve found that something I’ve felt and have tried to articulate has already been beautifully captured in one of Stevens’ poems. My last blog post on music touched upon this, the sense that music is more feeling than sound–the way you feel as you play and the music moves through you, and the way you feel as you listen to and are played upon by the music.
This poem is more about desire than music or feeling, however, or perhaps more about how desire plays out on a palette of color and sounds and rhythms. Stevens has been called a “musical imagist,” but he also notes the close correspondence between poetry and painting. In particular he’s known for his idea of the “Supreme Fiction”–how the mind/imagination “creates” reality.
When you read the poem posted in full below, you may not fully understand or appreciate all it implies as it references Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night Dream and relates the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders). But the feeling of the images–the sounds of the words and the colors and shapes of the images as they sweep through your mind–is dreamlike and moving in a way that speaks to some truth that lies just below consciousness. As dreams often do.
Music is like that too. We feel its “truth” although we may not be able to articulate it.
There’s a new book out called “The Jazz of Physics” by Dr. Stephon Alexander. He writes about how the structure of the universe is like a musical composition, both arising from a “pattern of vibration.” I haven’t read the book yet but a review in the New York Times by Dan Tepfer concludes with this quote: “[T]he reason why music has the ability to move us so deeply is that it is an auditory allusion to our basic connection to the universe.” Tepfer sums up: “This not only feels true; it is what musicians live for.”
Dr. Alexander may be on to something. One of the most beautiful verses in the Bible refers to the creation of the universe as “when the morning stars first sang together.”
We humans have been alluding to a powerful connection between music and the universe for a long, long time. Is it any wonder we feel music more deeply than sound?
Stevens’ poem in full.
Peter Quince at the Clavier
Just as my fingers on these keys
Make music, so the self-same sounds
On my spirit make a music, too.
Music is feeling, then, not sound;
And thus it is that what I feel,
Here in this room, desiring you,
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna:
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
In the green water, clear and warm,
The touch of springs,
For so much melody.
Upon the bank, she stood
In the cool
Of spent emotions.
She felt, among the leaves,
Of old devotions.
She walked upon the grass,
The winds were like her maids,
On timid feet,
Fetching her woven scarves,
A breath upon her hand
Muted the night.
A cymbal crashed,
And roaring horns.
Soon, with a noise like tambourines,
Came her attendant Byzantines.
They wondered why Susanna cried
Against the elders by her side;
And as they whispered, the refrain
Was like a willow swept by rain.
Anon, their lamps’ uplifted flame
Revealed Susanna and her shame.
And then, the simpering Byzantines,
Fled, with a noise like tambourines.
Beauty is momentary in the mind —
The fitful tracing of a portal;
But in the flesh it is immortal.
The body dies; the body’s beauty lives,
So evenings die, in their green going,
A wave, interminably flowing.
So gardens die, their meek breath scenting
The cowl of Winter, done repenting.
So maidens die, to the auroral
Celebration of a maiden’s choral.
Susanna’s music touched the bawdy strings
Of those white elders; but, escaping,
Left only Death’s ironic scrapings.
Now, in its immortality, it plays
On the clear viol of her memory,
And makes a constant sacrament of praise.
I played piano as a girl and always regretted giving it up. Lately the thought that I may never play again, never again experience the pure pleasure of music playing out through my finger tips onto the keys–to lose that forever– seemed too sad to bear. So I bought myself an electronic piano, something I could set out on my dining room table to play.
Nothing so romantic as a baby grand–but it has the touch and feel of the real thing. I can close my eyes and listen and imagine that heavy-breathing instrument bowing beneath my body as I play it.
The music I want to play is the kind that sweeps you away–Chopin, Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven . . . . What I yearn for, and seem to remember, is the kind of playing where body and music meld, where the notes sway through my body and spill out on the keyboard, like some lover I’m caressing. A musical love-making.
Of course, it’s a fantasy. I never played so well as a child, and I can’t imagine that the clumsy relearning I’m now experiencing will ever evolve into that. And yet I seem to “remember” something like this happening as a child when I played, perhaps at some rare moment when it all came together immensely well.
How my fingers, my whole body, knew where to go without thinking, without reading the notes. How it was almost as if the music was playing me, and I’m as much its instrument as is the piano. Or even more, as if we were playing each other–the score, my body, the piano–all playing together in unison, to create this “thing” we’ve become.
I don’t know if concert pianists feel this way about their music-making, if this is a memory of how it can be, or just some intense pleasure-making I’ve imagined when listening to some music that moves me, when I feel it flowing through me as if I were part of it, or it part of me.
And so I’m learning to play again, in this very painful, clumsy, halting way that all beginners experience, even those who once played before. Yet it’s still a thrill, touching fingers to keys, hearing the sound it makes vibrate through me. I know I may never play so well in reality as I play in my mind/memory/imagination, but then I don’t have to. I already have it. That experience. I’m already “it.”
This patient, clumsy practice is just the homage I pay to what could be, and to the tremendous hard work needed to reach that point of perfection. Playing well is a rigorous undertaking. And the outcome of all that practice is not guaranteed.
But this thing I’ve heard and experienced when listening to the music of those who have reached this pinnacle, makes me want to at least attempt to master some measure of that kind of music-making. I want to practice enough to feel at some point the table turn, and my fingers become the mute instrument of the music at play.
Do you play a musical instrument? Does it play you?
I found this quotation at Zen Flash, and realized it’s just what I needed to hear.
Nothing ever really attacks us except our own confusion. Perhaps there is no solid obstacle except our own need to protect ourselves from being touched. Maybe the only enemy is that we don’t like the way reality is now, and therefore wish it would go away fast. But what we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know. If we run a hundred miles an hour to the other end of the continent in order to get away from the obstacle, we find the very same problem waiting for us when we arrive. It just keeps returning with new names, forms, manifestations until we learn whatever it has to teach us about where we are separating ourselves from reality, how we are pulling back instead of opening up, closing down instead of allowing ourselves to experience fully whatever we encounter, without hesitating or retreating into ourselves.
~ Pema Chodron ~
Maybe it’s what all of us need to hear when troubling things keep popping up over and over again in our lives. They come for a reason, because we have something yet to learn.
I wrote in my blog post about major life changes how I put writing on hold to raise my children without the frustration that comes with constant interruptions. It seemed like the wise and selfless thing to do at the time, to wait until they were grown to write. Now I wonder. Especially since confronted with the same dilemma so many years later as I help raise my granddaughter.
Maybe what I need to learn is not to be “selfless” in putting aside the writing, but to examine why I feel such frustration at being interrupted, or why I feel I need uninterrupted time to write, or why I am so easily distracted? Or, contrarywise, why I feel writing is so important–some “sacred” task I must nurture in peaceful silence?
I don’t know the answer yet–what I have still to learn from this experience. But I want to examine it more closely, as Chodron advises:
Where am I separating myself from reality?
How am I pulling back instead of opening up?
How am I closing down rather than allowing myself to experience fully what I am encountering, without hesitation or retreating into myself?
What’s more, I find myself revisiting my relationship with my own children when they were young as I wrote about in my last blog post, looking at it through this new lens of raising a grandchild, as if there is something that needs re-examining? What is it I need to learn and set right? Or learn and let go?
Just yesterday a new hurt arose that echoed an old one from a year ago. This time I recognized immediately how here again was something repeating itself and challenging me to ask what I need to learn. And so I did ask, and learn. And the hurt melted away.
Why do we allow ourselves to be blindsided by these troubling repetitions, to think, oh no, here it is again, and suffer needlessly? Instead of seeing how they come to help us learn what’s needed, and be healed.
“I watch them every summer, the hot hills crouched like a lion beside the road, tawny skin pulled taut across long, lean ribs. I would take my hand and trace round ripples of male muscle, feel the hot rise and cool dip of his body. . . .”
So begins a poem I wrote years ago as a young woman driving along the Central Coast of California on my way to class at Cal Poly University in San Luis Obispo. I loved the commute along highway 101, especially that stretch between Pismo and Avila with the golden rolling hills studded with oak groves towering up beside me on one side, while on the other side lay the Pacific Ocean, cool and shimmering, far below.
My commute was a kind of communion with silent companions that lay still and passive while I moved past them, watching them fervently. I traveled with my hands stretched out, tracing the changing contours of the passing landscape with my fingers. I felt the silky coolness of the sea, the soft brush of the hot hills– physically, intimately, intensely. And I felt as if I was leaving part of myself behind as I streamed past them
It was an overwhelming feeling, permeated by a sense of longing and loss, because that sense of connection, of “oneness,” I felt so keenly, was so fleeting. A waft of perfume, a balmy breeze, that slowly dissipates and disappeared.
Knowing this, sometimes my watching was like a spurned lover or jealous mistress. Sometimes like a distant voyeur, or persistent suitor, watching and waiting, watching and waiting. Waiting for that moment, as my poem concludes, when the lion so still and silent beside me would “rise, stretch his sensuous body against the sky with one low moan” and “pursue me”.
Pursue and devour, was the unstated implication. “Swallow me whole” is the metaphor that comes to mind these days—consummation.
All that waiting paid off, it appears. My relationship with the natural world has matured over the years. How I remember so long ago watching the streaming stars passing overhead on those hot, balmy nights, and being filled with a deep sense of longing and loss. This too must pass, I thought, and it was almost unbearable. But no more.
Now when I say goodnight to the stars before going to bed–the nights hot and balmy or crystal clear and cold–there’s no sense of longing. When I turn away toward the house nothing is lost. It’s all a part of me now. A sustaining presence.
And the passing days and nights, that sense of fleetingness that the poets have mourned over the ages, is “a dark stream streaming through me,” as I write in another poem. It’s all one, the stream and the streaming. It always was.
For those curious, here’s the complete poem I quoted earlier, written so long ago and recently revised.
Hot Hills in Summer Heat
I watch them every summer, the hot hills
Crouched like a lion beside the road,
Tawny skin pulled taut across
Long, lean ribs.
I would take my hand and trace
Round ripples of male muscle,
Feel the hot rise and cool dip
of his body.
I see the arrogance—rocky head held
High against a blazing sky, the patient
Power unmindful of the heat
that holds me.
One day he will rise, stretch his sensuous
Body against the sky with one, low moan.
On silent paws he will pursue me.
And so I wait.
[I first posted this in September 2012 with the original version of the poem. This post features the revised draft. It’s a work in progress, as all things are, it seems.]
“What a mystery is the air, what an enigma to these human senses! On the one hand , the air is the most pervasive presence I can name, enveloping, embracing, and caressing me both inside and out, moving in ripples along my skin, flowing between my fingers, swirling around my arms and thighs, rolling in eddies along the roof of my mouth, slipping ceaselessly through throat and esophagus to fill the lungs, to feed my blood, my heart, my self. I cannot act, cannot speak, cannot think a single thought without the participation of this fluid element. I am immersed in its depths as surely as fish are immersed in the sea.
Yet the air, on the other hand, is the most outrageous absence known to this body. For it is utterly invisible. . . .
[T]his unseen enigma is the very mystery that enables life to live. . . . What the plants are quietly breathing out, we animals are breathing in; what we breathe out, the plants are breathing in. The air, we might say, is the soul of the visible landscape, the secret realm from whence all beings draw their nourishment. As the very mystery of the living present, it is that most intimate absence from whence the present presences, and this a key to the forgotten presence of the earth.”
I hope you enjoy this. Wishing you all a Holy Night full of light and love.
I love this song, not only for the haunting melody and beautiful lyrics, but also because night has always seemed holy to me.
When I walk out beneath the stars on a cold or balmy night, I’m awestruck by such beauty and mystery and magnificence. I feel humbled and incredibly grateful, as if witnessing the hand of the divine writ large across the sky.
The images below are my gift to you. They reflect what this season is all about for me, a sense of the sacred and sublime–scenes of the birth of Christ and families celebrating Christmas.
Photos of spectacular sunsets and winter wonderlands–nature in all her glory.
And finally, images of an infinite universe stretching out and wrapping about the earth as…
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I am so angry at the outcome in Ferguson, that there was no indictment to allow a court of law to settle the matter of guilt or innocence in the killing of an unarmed young Black man. It seems this tragedy was bungled from day one in every way imaginable. At the very least a special prosecutor should have been brought in rather than allowing a district attorney that the community did not trust lead the investigation.
I do not know, now does anyone, whether Officer Wilson was justified in shooting Michael Brown. If he was truly so in fear of his life that he shot an unarmed man who in self-defense–a man who some witnesses say was surrendering and that others say was charging him. No one will know now, because the case will not go to trial to determine that guilt. It was a small thing for a grieving family to ask for–a trial. How could such a simple thing be denied?
I feel for the family of Michael Brown, for a community that lives in fear of the police, who seek justice for their dead sons. I can’t imagine what that would be like–to raise a black son knowing that any kind of brush with police could end in his arrest or shooting or death. And that it was far more likely for my son than for the son of my white neighbor, or the son of a police officer, or the son of a mayor.
When I look at how angry this injustice makes me–when I am so removed from the situation–I can fully understand how the anger of those who are intimately affected could turn into a rage that would upturn police cars and set them on fire. I can understand, without condoning, because anger, unchanneled, is wild and destructive.
My prayers now are that this justified anger is channeled into action, into changing an unjust system of law that allows community oversight of police departments, that requires body cameras for police officers, that ensures members of law enforcement represent demographically the community they serve. And that channels that anger into political action that unseats mayors and governors who are as tone-deaf as these in Ferguson, Missouri, were.
Today I am trying to channel my anger into action by writing this blog post. I know that not all my readers may feel the same as I do about the outcome of that Grand Jury, but I hope that all can sympathize with the mothers of Black sons the way that I do. And pray for the day when all our sons and daughters, whatever their skin color or economic status, will be treated equally in the eyes of the law, with justice and restraint and compassion.
Wise and lovely words to lean into: “My friend now calls herself Grandmother. She is learning to wear the robes of a big archetype. She is learning to walk gracefully into a different season of her life, walking in a different body. One with a slower pace and a wider lap, more spacious, deeply rooted in her own story”
My writing group started up again this week. A lovely circle of women who have been writing together for years now allowing me to guide them. A friend had shared with me that in the moon of October we are under an auspicious time for manifesting what we most desire. So I asked the group to ponder this question: what do you most desire now? The responses were rich and varied. One woman wrote a lovely poem about The Sudden Rose, that experience of something sweet and surprising arriving unbidden, how she wants more of those. Ah, yes, indeed.
This month my husband had surgery for one of those things that beset men in their elder years. All is well. In the process we talked about aging and ways we can embrace the lessening of capacity when that comes, how to live into this new phase of our lives…
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It was a huge inspiration to me then as now, full of practical advice about the craft of writing—its how and why and what–as well the thrill of writing, and the mystery that lies at its heart.
Below, you will find a “dialogue,” if you will, between Dillard and me on the practice and art of writing. Mind you, it will be a dialogue between master and novice. While I’ve been writing all my life, I haven’t done much with it, until recently. For all my years, and all my years writing, I’m still what you might call an “emerging” writer.
Still, from a very early age, I’ve always thought of myself as a writer. It’s what I am. Nothing else I could say about myself rings as true. How else could I identify myself?
As teacher, activist, community leader? I was all that, once upon a time. But it was what I did, not what I was. And besides, even then, even in those roles, writing was the way I made my biggest contribution to those fields. I taught writing, I wrote as an activist, I let my words and the passion of those words drive the work.
As a mother? Maybe. Although my children are grown and no longer need mothering, or at least need less of it than I have to give. I mother my writing now.
As wife? Perhaps. Although my husband and I grow more apart the older we grow. We still connect, but sparsely. Our marriage is mostly skeletal now: bone, little flesh. But it still provides a kind of structure for our lives, shapes our days, a spare drawing: a few lines, lots of white space. The space that holds my writing, or waits for it.
As lover? Oh yes. I am that. My life is shot through with love. I cannot lift my head without finding something to love. I could sit still and do nothing all day but love. I dither away my days loving sky and oak and bird and bee. Loving rock and rose and river. But the writing is all wrapped up in that. The loving and the writing are so closely intertwined, it’s hard to tell them apart sometimes.
Truth-Seeker? Without a doubt. My reading is endless, and the thing I am looking for in my reading is that nugget of truth, the thing that pierces me with its truth, that hits me full in the face, that I taste and say, yes, salt. That I taste and say, yes, bitter. That I taste and say, yes, sweet, and I feel that sweetness spreading through me. And I know then, this is true.
But the truth-seeking is all wrapped up in writing, the reading and the writing wrapped together, and all of it is tied up in love. A big, bright bow of love.
I seek the truth of the things I love, and writing is the instrument I use to do that.
So how does one write? How and when and what?
Let’s see what one master has to say on the subject. Below are a few nuggets of wisdom drawn from Dillard’s book, and my responses to them.
Learning to Write
At one point, a student asks Dillard: “Who will teach me to write?” She answers:
The page, the page, that eternal blankness . . . ; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act . . . ; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut; the page in the purity of its possibilities; the page of your death, against with you pit such flawed excellences as you can muster with all your life’s strength: that page will teach you to write.
Practice and persistence are her answers. And perhaps, too, simply having the will to write, and the courage to face a blank page, to “ruin it,” knowing that so much you write will be thrown away.
It’s sitting down, again and again and again, and simply doing the work. We learn from that. Like practicing scales on a piano, over and over again—monotonous but necessary. Doing so, we learn something about the simple mechanics of writing as well as its rhythms, its flow, its necessity. And if we are lucky, the very act will carry us into the flow. We will no longer be practicing. We will no longer be playing those notes. We will become the music, and feel it pouring effortlessly through us, as us.
This more than anything may be how we learn to write: When we learn to love it, love being the writing, love letting it flow from us. This is what brings us back to that blank page, again and again. The chance to experience that, to let the writing flow through us as mere instruments of the muse.
It doesn’t happen often. It’s not what gets the work done, the novel written. But, for many of us, for me at least, it’s what fuels the desire to write, what makes me think I am a writer, that mind-soul-meld. When I’m there, in that, I’m home, in a way I rarely experience outside that, except, sometimes, in meditation, in mindful contemplation, in deep moments of love, when I’m all love, when there’s only love. That’s why I write. To be that. To be me.
What to Write
The passage below is probably my favorite in her whole book, because she’s saying something I had not heard another writer say in quite the same way. And it strikes me as “true.” It gives me license to pursue some of my own quirky interests.
A writer looking for subjects inquires not after what he loves best, but after what he alone loves at all. Strange seizures beset us. Frank Conroy loves his yo-yo tricks, Emily Dickenson her slant of light; Faulkner the muddy bottom of a little girl’s drawers visible when she’s up a pear tree.
Why do you never find anything written about that idiosyncratic thought you advert to, about your fascination with something no one else understands? Because it is up to you.
You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.
My own astonishment, yes. To give voice to the things that seize me, that take me by the throat and shake me. Or is it me taking the thing by the throat and shaking it? Trying to shake loose its truth, the thing I want to know, the thing I know is there, but haven’t quite gotten it yet. The thing that must be seen, must be spoken. The thing I need to say.
When I look at the things I write about, that I’m drawn to write about, that seize me, here’s what I see, what I’m drawn to explore:
The gap between appearance and reality; between what’s real and what’s not, and how we can ever truly know for sure. If it’s possible at all.
The dark and the light, good and evil, beauty and brutality, the foolish and profound: how they play together, how they are all wound up in each other, how it’s almost impossible to tear them apart, as least in our ordinary, daily experiences. They lay side by side, or one on top of the other; they copulate over and over, and we, this life itself, is what they give birth to.
Mind and matter, nature and art, science and spirituality: They too seem rolled into one. It’s hard to separate the one from the other. They are shot through with each other. What fascinates me is how certain patterns emerge over and over. How they seem to tell us something about Life, about ourselves, about what this whole world stretching out beyond the cosmos is all about. If you pay attention to the patterns, to the fractal self-similarities, you taste something that smacks of truth. Of what we were created to discover.
When to Write
This is my great failing, my falling, my torment.
One day when I was a young mother, I decided that I would put off my writing. I would wait until my children were grown. I found when I wrote I worked myself into such a torment, into such a heated frenzy, that when my children came home from school or needed something when I was writing, I could not tear myself away. Or if I did, I was in a rage, and I resented them. I did not want to spend time with them. I wanted to write. That’s all I wanted.
And I hated that. Hated being that way, feeling that way, toward them. I thought: they are little only a little while. I want to enjoy them, every minute I can of their young lives. I want to be here now, with them. So I put my writing away, taking it out only when I knew for certain I had the time to devote undisturbed, with the understanding that my children came first. My writing was hidden away in a drawer like a caged beast. It growled at me. It said: I will make you pay for this.
So I wrote less and less. And the years went by, and the children grew up. But there was always something more important than writing to devote myself to: teaching, social justice, community work, politics; saving the world, preserving the environment, protesting for peace, for a living wage; helping the poor, the homeless, the disenfranchised.
And the years went by and all the writing I had done was work related: political, social, economic.
Then I retired to write full-time. And here I am. But do I write full-time? No. There’s beds to make, and floors to shine, and gardens to weed, and windows to wash. There’s non-stop news on cable aabout wars and scandals and school shootings and missing planes and police brutality and social unrest. The whole world, it appears, spinning out of control, and I must witness its unraveling.
There’s the internet too, Facebook and Twitter and Google and a thousand interesting stories, important stories, must-read stories, calling me like Odysseus’ sirens, driving my boat onto those rocky shores, turning me into a grunting boar, rooting for the latest news; or turning me into a statue of myself, frozen, unable to move.
I let my fierce beast out of its drawer at long last, and it curled up like a kitten and went to sleep.
So now I must wake it, shake it, make it roar again. And then I must tame it. But how, how?
I read what Dillard says about taming the beast. And I cling to it like a life boat.
What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being: it is a life boat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. Each day is the same, so you remember the series afterward as a blurred and powerful pattern.
So I create my schedule. I cling to it like a life boat. And someday, someday soon, I hope to climb all the way inside. I hope to inhabit my life boat. To live there. Waiting for the writing to emerge as a “blurred and powerful pattern” stitching my days together.
There’s more. So much more from Dillard’s book I want to share with you. Next time.
But today, today I must shake out my schedule. I must return to my novel. I must resist the news and internet and beds and gardens. I must be a shut-in. I must shut myself into my novel. I must do the work of writing.
READ PART TWO OF THIS DIALOGUE
OTHER BLOG POSTS ON MY WRITING