art, community, music, Uncategorized

Finding Our Lullabies

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Some bees sleep in flowers, I learned this week, in globe mallows to be specific, their bodies cupped by blossom, and dusted in pollen as they dream. This is a lovely image to keep in mind before drifting off to sleep. We need something gentle in our lives to help us turn away from fears that seem to greet us at every turn. Violence, poverty, pain, disease, death–there are already too many hard things in this world. We long for something soft to encourage and remind us goodness and beauty are still present as a natural part of our ecosystem, and to affirm us that wealth and power aren’t requirements for their existence.

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dragonfly

The Los Angeles Times tells us in Mark W. Moffett’s Op-ed article, “Are we really so different from other species?” that it’s difficult for people to act to save non-human species when they see them as of lesser value. “A significant body of research suggests that how we perceive animals and how we perceive people is closely linked,” writes Moffett. “Brock University scientists Kimberly Costello and Gordon Hodson had research participants read essays enumerating the human-like traits of animals. Mere exposure to this perspective caused even those with entrenched prejudices to think kindly of immigrants — to regard them more as equals — despite the fact that the essays mentioned nothing about humans.” Amazingly, if we can see how animals are more like us, we feel greater empathy toward people we see as not like us. To know and value other forms of life such as animals and plants, can help us value life in general, and that is an aspiration worthy of our effort. When we don’t see others as valuable as ourselves, we don’t act.

Recently, I visited Port Angeles, Washington, a city on the edge of the Olympic Peninsula facing the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Sitting on the wharf on a Wednesday evening, I was enjoying the Backwoods Hucksters’ fabulous blues and bluegrass concert there, and noticing those who got up to dance by themselves in the space between the audience and stage. Fully engaged in the music and their moves, they didn’t care a hoot about the impression they might be making on others. One of these dancers was a quite elderly woman in a white dress with pink and lavender flowers. She wore a long sleeved purple shirt over the dress, a small gold cross around her neck, large framed glasses, and thick brown cotton stockings that had a large run in them. She could barely move her feet, but raised them up a few inches off the ground in time with the music, turned around slowly, and every now and then lifted her head and both arms. Her face was mostly expressionless, though she was obviously enjoying herself as she didn’t sit down for quite some time.

After a while, a man likely in his early forties wearing a suit rode across the front of the audience on his bike. Parking it, he came over to the elderly woman, and without a pause or any verbal communication, took her in his arms and continued the dance. It was an endearing thing to witness–how they continued on as the music played, the younger man’s feet moving nimbly as he turned the woman, and swayed with her from side to side,with the music’s rhythm. I imagined he was her son, and he knew how well she loved music. He didn’t see her as somehow different and not worthy of attention or connection. I noticed no sense of labored obligation in his expression. Simply, they danced, expressing a refreshing togetherness in the moment. Music has a way of doing that–uniting people, opening us to each other, allowing us to look beyond how we might appear in someone’s eyes, and simply to be together in the moment with each other’s presence as a gift.

Ilya Kaminsky, in his book, Deaf Republic, a book with poems and a play in two acts, the setting of which is place in a fictitious country permeated with violence during a war, writes a beautiful lullaby. The music of his lines express a tenderness,

Lullaby
by Ilya Kaminsky

Little daughter
rainwater

snow and branches protect you
whitewashed walls

and neighbors’ hands all
child of my Aprils

little earth of
six pounds

How soft and gentle these lines feel, and all the more so because the words are offered amidst the book’s larger setting of violence and oppression. When faced with loss or horror, the expression of any small tenderness is heightened even more. We see the preciousness of life in every day expressions of care or nurturance, realizing these aren’t necessarily as commonplace as previously thought.

Rainwater is gentle, restorative, creating a kind of song as it falls to earth, and Kaminsky highlights this in his words holding assonance in the repetition of sounds in rainwater and daughter. Interestingly, Kaminsky identifies snow as something protecting the young one, though snow is cold and can be harsh. In his lines, however, snow is soft, and is connected to images of neighbors’ hands who reach back into a childhood world where spring lived, holding this small earthen being of six pounds–what one might be at birth. 

Both Kaminsky’s poem and the dancers in Port Angeles inspire me to reach beyond the borders of myself and my limited world of thought when considering what might be possible. What dance might I still be able to do, how might I let go more of ego and expectations if I allowed some of my boundaries to be more permeable in order to live more peacefully with myself and with greater generosity in my heart toward others as well as myself? What lullaby can I create in the midst of whatever fear or war I might find myself in the midst of struggle with–either metaphorically or real–that will work toward allowing us all to expand together into a spirit that enables us to sleep more peacefully at night though we know there is work to do the next day–like the bees curled inside cups of flowers? This is a lullaby to connect with.

What we nurture in our hearts and minds gains solidity. As Toni Morrison stated in her article in The Nation when speaking of the value of art, “There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.” Similarly to Kaminsky writing his lullaby’s gentle words inside a context of disruption and war, Morrison goes on to say, “I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.” Lullabies are not always sweet. One many of us know from childhood talks about a child’s crib hung in a tree bow that rocks then breaks, the baby falling to the ground–not exactly a comforting picture. The thing is, though, the parent is there, singing to the child in the midst of the brokenness. I want to hear more of these kinds of lullabies from people. In our brokenness, we can hold on to each other through our offerings of creativity that function like these lullabies.

Our music, our creativity, is important to our survival. Similar to Pythagoras’s idea of the heavenly spheres creating music as a result of their vibrations, physicists today theorize that all of what we see with our eyes are possibly held together by the minuscule vibration of matter. Recognizing our interconnection to the music vibrating inside all life allows us to thrive.

Here is my offering to you, and a lullaby of sorts, my new chapbook, To Find a River, out this week with Dancing Girl Press, a small collection of poems exploring themes of loss, and nurturance across time and cultures in settings of deserts and gardens. I hope you will read them, and find in them a music to carry you through a hard or empty place you might sense in your life–that the poems in this short volume will be a voice singing in the night for you, connecting with you beyond brokenness, and carrying you into a recognition of a shared world.

AnnaDunes
Anna in the Red Dunes of Saudi Arabia, photo by Michael Citrino
art, music, poetry, spirtuality, Uncategorized

Enlarging Our Hearts With Music and Michael L. Newell’s Poetry

Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and turn my back to loneliness. — Maya Angelou

Music moves and swells inside the pages of Michael L. Newell’s new book, recently out, Meditation of an Old Man Standing on a Bridge.  From the fiddler’s bright allegro at a local dance, to childrens’ “symphony of shouts echoing across fields” when released from school in the poem “Celebration,” to nature’s melody in the “songs of streams” trailing across stony earth in the poem “Voice of Waters,” the touch of music’s many moods thread through Newell’s work. Having spent much of his life abroad, Newell’s poems spread the wide spaces between the Andes, Saudi Arabia, London, and Rwanda, and music features as a central theme threading together the distances.

One of the most moving poems in Newell’s collection, “Serendipity,” is a narrative poem written during his time in Rwanda. The poem begins with the poem’s speaker walking down a dirt road, headed home from work past laundry drying on the lines outside houses with corrugated metal roofs, bricks placed on top to hold them down, when a choir singing in Kinyarwanda captures his attention.

voices rising and falling from the home’s
living room, a beautiful repetitive melody
enhanced by constantly shifting harmonies,
counterpoint melodies, and one male voice
chanting or speaking underneath the rise
and fall, the same voice lifting in ecstatic

soaring flight above the others, a song at once
celebratory and deeply sad, the melody ascending
and tumbling, repeating itself again and again, every time

Newell describes the music so distinctly that when reading his words, I, too, am standing on the pathway caught up in the harmony and sweep of sound. “I stand still,” writes Newell, “eyes shut, and listen, nearly weeping.” People passing by on the path where he has been standing for ten minutes join in, pick up the melody, and carry it out into the neighborhood as they move on, music drifting through the air as they go.

The poem continues with someone in a large vehicle stopping by to ask if the poem’s speaker is okay. Upon learning he is standing there because he was caught by the choir’s beautiful singing, the driver, fully understanding what is implied, turns off his truck’s engine to give the choir his full attention. By now, though, the music has fallen silent. Here Newell takes the moment and expands our understanding.

I do not know whether the music was religious,

or folk song, or political, or celebratory, or grieving,
but hours later I still hear the music
as I go about my nightly ablutions. I realize
I have been changed without ever seeing those
responsible for the change. I have heard
on a dirt road from a ramshackle home, music

rough hewn, homemade, finer than I could find
in a concert hall while entertained by highly trained
professional musicians. I have heard music
from the blood and marrow of people singing
because it defines who they are. I have
listened to the heartbeat of a people.

The music described here is not merely people singing to get the notes down, the rhythm tight, the harmonies smooth. This music emerges from the very center of the self, “from the blood and marrow of people singing/ because it defines who they are,”as Newell says, resulting in the deep expression of being that carries us into a wholeness where time stops and we are simply present and fully alive. Whether our lives are surrounded by joy or submerged in pain and grief, listening with full attention, we know we are in the presence of something shining, and are replete. This is what Newell can do in his poems–take us out of ourselves and immerse us in life. This is why it’s worth reading poetry in general, and why you will want to read Newell’s Meditation of an Old Man Standing on a Bridge.

“Poetry is rooted in sound,” says poet, musician, and editor of Prairie Schooner, Kwame Dawes, and neuroscience backs up this statement. In the February 2017 article of Neuroscience News, “Is the Brain Hardwired to Appreciate Poetry?” the research of professor Guillaume Thierry and his colleagues at Bangor University has shown that even though we might not be able to say why, something in our brains responds positively to poetry’s construction and its stress patterns repetition of consonant sounds. Sensuous and beautiful, focusing and intensifying emotion, not only Newell’s poems, but poetry itself is a kind of music whose play of sounds can draw the reader to it.

Though poetry’s effect on us is different from that of music, (see more about that in this study, “The emotional power of poetry: neural circuitry, psychophysiology and compositional principles”) since ancient times, poetry and music have been linked. Containing rhythm, meter, repetition of sounds, euphony, and sometimes rhyme, poetry uses words with a focus on its auditory element. NPR has a page where you can listen to the interesting effect of poetry blended together with various jazz musicians with, Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “One Art,” sung by Nancy Harms with composer Jeremy Siskind’s piano, or Amiri Baraka’s poem, “Yes We Can,” with David Murray’s composition, among other examples.

Like poetry, music changes us. I remember listening to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for the first time years ago, transfixed by its haunting beauty, the emotional intensity it evoked–how it could plummet into the depths of human soul, climb to the penultimate heights of spirit, whisper the heart’s tenderest thought and longing. Tom Barnes’ April 23, 2015 article in Mic, “Scientists May Have Finally Discovered Why Humans Make Music,” discusses Leonid Perlovsky’s research at Harvard University where he explains, “music’s power comes from its ability to help human beings overcome cognitive dissonance, the feeling of emotional discomfort we feel when we learn novel information that contradicts existing beliefs.” Barnes explains how a variety of research shows people most often respond to dissonance by tossing out the new information or pushing back the old. Music, however, “soothes the difficulties involved in processing conflicting information.” Additionally, Barnes’ article goes on to report, “neuroscientist Daniel Levitin in a 2013 meta-analysis of more than 400 neurochemical music studies, found that listening to music had a more measurable effect on people’s anxiety and cortisol levels than did anti-anxiety drugs,” a significant observation. Music has the ability to break down walls between people, to soothe tension and unite them. We can see this ability exemplified in the choir directed by Mica Hendler in Israel, bringing together Palestinian and Israeli young people, as well as in the inspiring music collaborations found at Playing for Change where musicians and singers from around the world are recorded in their various every day environments and then woven together into a unified piece.

Life is a journey we’re all on together, each of us affecting the other as we co-create the world around us in all its complexity. When differences divide us, we are challenged to find ways to communicate and connect that enable us to reach beyond the things that divide us. Poetry focuses the reader on the specific moments and details of life, and we need poems like Newell’s “Serendipity,” that cause us to listen from the inside out. Music moves beyond words into the enlarged world of spirit, a place beyond sharply defined boundaries and ramshackled habits of understanding. Art can heal. We need music, poetry, and art that rises up from our blood and marrow joining us together in a larger place of being. We may be worlds away from what feels like home either mentally or physically, as was the person standing in the middle of the road in Newell’s poem. We may have differences in opinion that may not be resolved, but music can carry us to a larger place where we can at least listen to each other with soft hearts, allowing ourselves to shut off the motors of defensiveness–where we can wait on the roadside for the music to rise up.

Expanding the vehicles that nurture our awareness of being and nurture our ability to greet each other fully can help us avoid traveling through our lives without ever hearing the beauty in others’ voices different from our own. Both music and poetry are gifts of this kind. They help us express and experience our lives more fully. Poetry asks to be read slowly, wants us to pay attention to the implicit, to touch the difficult and complex, feel the tears beneath the beauty, see the human side of experiences. Poetry enables us to look with greater gentleness, sensitivity, and kindness at the questions that rise up between us. While recently attending the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey, I met the poet, Betty Neals. We spoke about the connection between music and poetry. She is the voice speaking on this link to Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s jazz piece, “Theme for the Eulipions” from the 1976 album, Return of the 5,000 Lb Man. The music opens with Betty describing the desolation of a railroad station at 2:00 am on a weeknight. As I hear her speak, I picture myself in a cold and isolated train station with insects circling florescent lights, flakes of suspended particulate matter from city smog caught in a night sky, empty tracks leading out into the obscure dark. Poets, artists and musicians are Eulipons, Betty explains as she reads. Music, “the duty free gift for the traveler.” Then the music rises and takes off, and we are carried away on a journey far beyond loneliness and despair. May we all find and perhaps join the Eulipons.

If you’re interested in a copy of Michael L. Newell’s book, Meditation of an Old Man Standing on a Bridge, contact me and I will put you in touch with how to do that.