It was so good to begin piano lessons again today. A good teacher is priceless, and I do have one—Stefanie Jacob of The Prometheus Trio. As a performer, she knows how to suggest improvements (and to catch errors) that I would never see for myself. In the Bach Partita 2, I’d been playing thirty-seconds twice as fast as they should have been, and was struggling with the suggested fingering of a passage that, she pointed out, I could easily play with two hands instead of one. She also showed me where to be freer in my tempo and where I could bridge “hands alone” work with “hands together” by tapping the rhythm in one hand while playing in the other. In the Toccata by Golec, again, I was playing double time in certain passages. She pointed out that the advantage of playing for shorter periods of time throughout the day, because of my shoulder, is that I can isolate trouble spots in all the pieces, including this one, and work on them intensely instead of just playing the whole thing through, over and over. And with the Beethoven op. 109 she gently reminded me (again) that with Beethoven, one simply cannot fudge accuracy in the left hand for the sake of speed. And that where the left has the voice, one must shape it, not just bang it out.
I soaked up every suggestion and left refortified with new ideas to work on throughout the week. This is what a good teacher does.
Elegies. I wrote earlier this week about Edward Hirsch’s new book Gabriel, about the death of his troubled son. It arrived yesterday, but I have not yet had time to start it. It is a 78-page unbroken poem of three-line stanzas which begins:
The funeral director opened the coffin
And there he was alone
From the waist up
I peered down into his face
And for a moment I was taken aback
Because it was not Gabriel
It was just some poor kid
Whose face looked like a room
That had been vacated
In my last entry here, I was thinking about the use of music and poetry—what they do and how we can talk about their usefulness. I said that I have come to believe that poetry and music help us modulate, in a safe way—as safe as it gets–the extreme emotions that come from living. Elegies are perhaps the best example of this. I could point out many examples, both in music and in poetry, but the one that is freshest is the one posted today on poets.org called “In the Absence of Sparrows” by Daniel Johnson, friend of James Foley, recently beheaded by the ISIL, or ISIS. (It is also a long poem, and you will need to use the inner page scroll to see it all.)
Why so long? Well, it takes a long time even to start to work through all the conflicting emotions.
Hirsch speaks in his elegy, from what I’ve read so far, about his son; Johnson to his friend. The difference may lie in whether or not one is ready to speak directly to the dead. In my case, it took a long time to work through my emotions to the degree that I could write as if speaking directly to her. Earlier in this blog I shared the beginning of my latest elegy to my sister which, at present, includes about nine pages: theme, five variations, interlude, and return to theme. However, I have written many shorter elegies about and to her since I became an adult: all, I’m convinced, in an effort to come to terms with her sudden and traumatic death. Only in the later ones, however, have I spoken to her directly, as in this unpublished one from 2001:
A Final Poem for You
Fog beads the iron fence’s crop
of spider webs.
I trip over your stone trying to find it
in thickening fog,
biting air for a moment warmed, immobilized,
on the late winter prairie.
I stand red poppies, red carnations
in the gritty brass urn
I turn right side up. They aren’t as sweet
as the wind-whipped
red roses our mother scythed for you,
dead at sixteen.
Finding your sheer prom gloves inside
her drawer, I could not slip
in three fingers, your hands so small,
one leg stunted
at ten, the other deliberately broken to match.
After all, perhaps
she was not too protective, our mother;
maybe from the time
they placed you carefully in her arms she sensed
the tenuousness of your touch.
Maybe she took one look at you and knew
you were fair game
for all earth’s predators and hovered,
as if her worry could
protect you, baring its blunt ineffectual fangs
at the twice-paralyzing virus.
Fifty years after that final, lung-stilling, brutish,
uncontrollable summer of polio,
I can breathe deep, speak your name, talk
to you, say goodbye.
You’ve unveiled to me the griefs of Persephone and
Demeter, their mutual loss,
but never the second half: their reunion,
unless it was in her death
or the births of my three daughters: an
embarrassment of riches.
I still marvel at their sturdy legs,
large hands, difficult
tempers, but not out loud. Who knows what weakens
the spirit’s resolve to stay?
what broadcasts ‘victim’ to hades’ realm?
I stoop beside the furrow
through which you sank to obediently eat death’s seed.
My blooded flowers stand
sagged with passing, heavy visibility
on stiff stems, sentinels.
From miasma neither do poems much protect,
seen and seeing for only
a little way before they too fly
apart in the teeth of the wind.
I knew even when I first wrote it that the title was ironic: that there would be no such “final” poem, just as there is no “final” coming to terms with a loved one’s death.
Yesterday, in this blog, I considered the relatively popular belief that the arts, especially among unpaid amateurs, are “useless” indulgences for those who have no “real work” to do: who are insulated from the terrors and hardships of the world. Even a cursory knowledge of art history would show this not to be the case; yet the idea somehow persists, at least in some cultures and sub-cultures. What “good” does Daniel Johnson’s poem to James Foley do in the face of such brutal terrorism and cruelty as that which resulted in his death? Do we have the “right” to “indulge” in the arts while others elsewhere in the world are suffering intense injustices and brutality? Poems cannot halt evil; they “fly/ apart in the teeth of the wind.”
One of the few organizations to which I regularly donate money is Women for Women International, through which I “sponsor” a series of women in war-torn countries such as Afghanistan. My $30 a month allows a woman to partake in year-long classes which will teach her to:
“Earn and save money – Women learn basic business skills and a vocational skill with earning power in their local markets. They begin to save and receive support to establish cooperatives after graduation.
Develop health and well-being – Women learn how to manage their health, including reproductive health and stress management. They also learn about the importance of good hygiene and nutrition for their families. They are connected with local healthcare providers.
Influence decisions in their homes and communities – Women learn their fundamental rights and those recognized in their countries, and are encouraged to educate other women. They learn the importance of civic participation, voting, and negotiation.
Connect to networks for support and advocacy – Women build support networks. They share ideas and resources, invest in business together, and help each other find solutions to common challenges.”
One of the things we sponsors are asked to do is to write letters to our “sisters,” telling them a little about ourselves and encouraging them in their struggle to rebuild their lives. A frequently-asked question among such sponsors and letter writers is “Should I tell them about my vacations, happy times, and such as that when they are struggling and suffering so much?” Perhaps surprisingly, the answer is YES: remind them that such things still exist and can still be possible for them.
And that is my answer to those (including sometimes my own self) who question the “usefulness” of art. Music and poetry remind us of, yes, what has been lost, but also of what is possible, and of how the center can once again be sought, and found.
An organization called FilmRaise has created a 52-minute documentary called “Beyond Right and Wrong,” in which “a woman who survived the death of her five children wonders if she can forgive the man who killed them. A victim’s daughter strikes up an unusual friendship with the bomber who killed her father. And two men—one Palestinian, one Israeli—form a bond after tragedies claim their daughters. These survivors of conflicts in Rwanda, Northern Ireland and Israel-Palestine share their stories of loss and recovery in their own words.”
Women for Women International will receive $5000 for every 10,000 viewers. It is free. If you would like to watch it, click on the link above.
Daniel Johnson, in his poem to James Foley, writes:
is in the streets, my brother. Beauty is in the streets.
We are taught, if we are lucky, by good teachers who care, and who understand how to make the magic of art come alive. We use what we are taught in order to “worry” the great questions, to wrestle with the dead, to make meaning of what is otherwise meaningless. We create beauty in order to remind ourselves and others that beauty is not only possible; that, indeed, there is no other option.