“Paying attention is a form of reciprocity with the living world, receiving the gifts with open eyes and open heart.” –Robin Wall Kimmerer
Sometimes, it takes a long time to see something. Maybe you’ve looked at something before and recognized it, but really seeing it can be a different thing altogether. Painting on silk, as Ann Pervinkler does, the artist has to pay attention to shape, angle, blending of color and use of space, but more than that, an artist wants what she’s painting to come alive–to have spirit and life. When I saw Ann’s turtle pillow, I felt the turtle was swimming right to me, and immediately thought of my experience some years back while snorkeling beside a turtle in Sri Lanka.
When I first saw the turtle, I was elated since I’d never before swam so closely alongside such a large turtle. It seemed the size of a small, round picnic table! It moved through the water with grace and ease. Close enough to easily touch the turtle, I began to see it in a new way. You can watch this video version of the poem as I read it to the accompaniment of Kanako Fukumoto on the violin and Satsuki Fujishima on piano, (“Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence,” by A. Senju/ Kimi wo Shinjite.) The turtle in the video was filmed by Marina Goodyear in Malapascua, Philippines.
The Curious Turtle
She wasn’t like other turtles plowing along the ocean bottom tearing up coral with her beak.
She didn’t hide under a rock when I swam by for fear of what I might do. No.
She held intently her full mouth of food as the surge swept her. Trailing a string of bright bubbles she paddled straight to me, placed her face with its glistening eye next to mine and peered into me.
I stared into her eyes’ gleaming depth, her gaze a recognition. Somehow, she knew me.
The universe spinning through its layers of mystery, I’d entered another world, felt how Eve must have felt in the garden before the fall, naked, vulnerable and scintillatingly alive.
When we give ourselves to something with our full attention, looking with the eyes of our heart, we see the world anew. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote in The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Not a mere backdrop we are moving through, when we look at at something or someone with the eyes of the heart, we become more aware of our interbeing with everything around us, the enormous wonder of reality.
In her 1982 essay, “Living Like Weasels,” Annie Dillard wrote about encountering a weasel and being “stunned into stillness…Our eyes locked, and someone threw away the key…the world dismantled and tumbled into that black hole of eyes.” Dillard’s description is very similar to my experience when the turtle’s eye met mine. I saw a depth there, felt what even might be called a wisdom. No longer merely an animal simply to identify and swim beside. I’d met another being with a history, a presence. When we looked in each other’s eyes, something in me woke up: the turtle’s life had depth and a way of knowing beyond my knowing–and one to learn from. I understood the turtle saw his life equally important to mine with his own interests and pursuits. Reality had expanded.
The encounter with the turtle was a gift, changing the way I see not only turtles, but animals and the natural world as a whole and my relationship to it. We can see the world as objects or we can look into the eyes of the world and see it as a marvel alive with presence.
Artists use their skill to help us see the world with the eyes of the heart to help us recognize the wonder that surrounds us that we might otherwise miss without their assistance in bringing it to our attention. Looking into the eyes of a live turtle paddling by, or into silky turquoise water the turtle Ann Pervinkler’s pillow swims through, or the tree branches rolling with wind along the road as you ride home from work–wherever you find yourself, the world is alive and is speaking. Open the eyes of your heart. Listen.
“I will sing in San Francisco if I have to sing there in the streets, for I know the streets of San Francisco are free,” said Luisa Tetrazzini during a period when an unresolved dispute arose with Oscar Hammerstein who wanted her to sing only in New York. Considered one of the greatest opera singers of her day, on Christmas Eve, 1910, Tetrazzini sang to a crowd of a quarter million at Lotta’s Fountain in San Francisco. What a spectacle it must have been! When met with a wall in her negotiations with Hammerstein where no movement or resolution appeared possible, rather than continuing the fight head on, Tetrazzini moved around the obstacle. In that choice, a different world opened to her with open arms. For Luisa Tetrazzini, those arms were found in the people of San Francisco. The Chronicle’s headlines of that event demonstrate the city’s love for her.
Tetrazzini’s audience were those who had experienced the loss of family members during the great earthquake and fire of four years earlier, as well as the many who had left loved ones and their homelands behind in the difficult search to fulfill a dream of finding a better way to live than that of enduring the unbearably difficult hardships they faced in their home countries. Tetrazzini understood her audience that December night, and spoke to their hearts when she sang “The Last Rose of Summer.” The lyrics, written by the Irish poet Thomas Moore, describe the image of a remaining single rose holding on to its stem in winter’s cold, as a metaphor for being alone in a world where those you have loved are now gone.
Days grow short in December, and people long for warmth and light–desire to gather around a fire and drink something warm, and perhaps tell stories. The Christmas holiday is often a time where people return to be with their families to do these very things. We want our experiences during this time to be full of light and joy, though the reality is that many do not have family living nearby or family to turn to for warmth and acceptance. Sometimes situations we live with or in are very difficult, and loneliness and sorrow can roll over us like great clouds moving across the horizon, catching us up in its seemingly unending breadth and dimension.
Present that Christmas Eve in 1910 to listen to Tetrazzini sing, and also named Luisa, is the character in my book, A Space Between. Newly immigrated from Calabria in southern Italy, she describes her story and the experience of Tetrazzini singing that evening.
MAKING A LIFE
In San Lucido I spun linen, silk and wool—thread sliding through my fingers season after season as I stared out at the sea’s horizon, wondering how I could twist together my life’s frayed, thin threads into something bigger than summer’s white sun and winter’s cold, narrow room.
We’ve made a life here together, Gaetano and I, loss, and hope, wound together in a garment of fog that rolls in from across the Pacific. I walk through my neighborhood, a thimble full of narrow streets— a world no bigger than before but strange. Chinese, Germans, Spaniards, Greeks, we are loose threads dangling beneath this country’s clattering loom of tongues, pale faces and pale ways, trying to see how we might find our way into its fabric.
Gaetano has his barber’s shop, but I’ve given up weaving. That was my other life. The children are my weaving now—their lives binding this world to the one we came from, their eyes, the rosary beads I pray through, reinventing the world in America.
Arduino and Giovanni wait at the window in the other room. I knead the bread, stir the soup. Soon, Gaetano will arrive, his footsteps echoing outside the door. All day he cuts hair, a little here, more there, massages the scalp a bit, a splash of cologne to go—our lives hang on thin strands of hair.
We’re not city people, though we’re living in one. We miss our villages’ gold walls, the thousand colors of blue swirling like music across the sea and sky.
We don’t know opera, but when Luisa Tetrazzini sang at the corner of Market and Kearney on Christmas Eve soon after I arrived in America, we joined the throng.
She sang “The Last Rose of Summer,” her white dress glowing amidst the flood of dark coats and hats.
Clear, pure, her voice floated and danced on wings above all two hundred fifty thousand of us standing in the crowd that December night, clinging to its flame.
It lifted us from the bare dirt floors of our past, the longing for the worlds we’d left behind, and let us believe that fire and dreams are stronger than iron— have substance equal to earth.
To those huddled together in San Francisco’s winter streets that Christmas Eve in 1910, Tetrazzini created a shared experience that unified them with others. In doing so, she enabled them to recognize in the midst of their difficulties they were also part of each other and a shared hope.
We live in a world of growing struggle today as well. People across the continents feel bowed down, bent over with difficulties, and are struggling to right themselves. In Chile recently, opera singer Ayleen Jovita Romero broke curfew to sing into the streets from her window “El derecho de vivir en paz” (“The right to live in peace”) composed by folk singer Víctor Jara, who was murdered in the 1973 military coup by General Augusto Pinochet.
In India the Guardian reports Gandhi’s great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, saying, “”For the first time in independent India…laws or systems are being attempted to be imposed which discriminate, which differentiate, on the basis of religion…There should be a debate on the ramifications of [the CAA] internationally,” says Tushar. “It concerns every democracy and it concerns everybody who believes in inclusivity and in the liberal ideology…“It’s not what you profess, but what you practise that makes the world realise who you follow,” he said of Modi.” Protests in India are being met with increasing violence. Similar to Chile, in India, too, actors, artists and singers have raised their voices to speak against the injustices.
It is not in India or Chile alone, however, that the masses of everyday people are protesting injustices regarding the lack of basic human rights. Across the world from Myanmar to Colombia, current ways the systems we live inside are functioning are creating crises. Though democracies are built around the idea that diverse perspectives have value and need to be heard, and though our current economic systems are built around the exchange of each other’s diverse strengthens, we humans struggle with adapting to change, wrestle with how to communicate effectively across cultural divides, and, in general, fall short of making progress toward loving our neighbors as ourselves or treating them with respect. Finding a way to create social contexts where people are not merely toiling to survive, but can flourish is extremely challenging.
Stepping into a wider view during these troublesome times, it’s worth noting how everything in nature is interdependent on the life around it for survival. To live only unto ourselves and for ourselves is to die. Though we may think we stand on the outside of others’ problems or feel the natural world is ours to use as we wish, we are actually share struggles that arise, as what one person or one country does ripples through the interactions between other countries and their citizens as well, affecting the atmosphere of our social contexts, as well as influencing our relationships to the natural environment.
The words from Moore’s poem, “The Last Rose of Summer,” speak directly to this interconnectedness. “I’ll not leave thee, thou lone one! / To pine on the stem;” writes Moore. How empty and meaningless a world where no friendship is given or exchanged. We need each other, including interactions with the natural world that not only sustain, but regenerate life. As Moore’s poem goes on to say,
When friendships decay,
And from Love’s shining circle
The gems drop away.
When true hearts lie withered,
And fond ones are flown,
Oh! who would inhabit
This bleak world alone?
When our spirits are lifted, our bodies are lifted too. Music can sustain us, can heal. This is something most of us have experienced and intuitively know, but there is also a growing body of researched evidence to demonstrate this. Robin Seaton Jefferson’s recent article in Forbes, NIH Bets $20 Million Music Can Heal Our Brains describes music’s wide range of healing capacity. Our bodies physically benefit from music, as neurologist Alexander Pantelyat from John Hopkins University explains, in this video. Engagement in making music, activates more parts of the brain than just about any other activity,” Pantelyat states.
Imagine yourself standing alongside Luisa in the poem above, newly immigrated to America in the cold December night, or imagine yourself walking the streets of Santiago as Ayleen Jovita Romero sings into the street and you recall your disappeared family members who wanted the right to live in peace, but were instead killed, or imagine yourself a person of Muslim faith standing beside your Hindu neighbors asking for your life to be held in equal value as those you live alongside of in India, and listen here as Diane Syrcle singing the “The Last Rose of Summer” that she recorded for me to be able to share with you. Perhaps as you listen, you, too, can find yourself in the story of those who have longed for friendship and care to be extended to them, so as to not be left in this bleak world alone.
In the midst of life’s challenging experiences, we need ways to find others’ stories in our own story. Music in its ability to unify both body and spirit, can help us discover a path to walk toward that place of being together.
Trane knew and blew rage
that was prayer prayer that was
rage engaged heart and mind
enveloped listeners in all
that could be
felt or known
in this miserable destructive
alluring astonishing enduring
world that enmeshes all
who pass through
conscious or unconscious
all is carnal spiritual joyous
In a world where words are so often manipulated and used in a way to distort or hide behind, music can move us into a place beyond words that enlarges the heart, becoming a prayer without words. Poetry tries to speak what is true, and to name what can’t be named. When experience becomes to large for words, music can become our poetry. As Newell so aptly describes, certain music in its melding of opposites–the miserable with the astonishing, the carnal and spiritual, the conscious and unconscious–is prayer as it moves beyond what can be articulated, and gives voice to the heart’s deepest suffering, joys, and yearnings.
Bertrand Russell wrote, “To be without some of the things you want is an indispensable part of happiness.” Much of life is about loss, about learning how to let go. It is in this bitter sweet space of letting go into transformation–of not clinging to what is, but of opening our minds, hearts, and arms to all that is passing, that we find meaning. Loss helps us to identify how all we have is gift, and can thus provoke in us an attitude of gratitude and openness that allows our spirits to expand. The boundaries between the known and unknown is the space where struggles occur, and where change and growth unfold. It is the space where stories live, and stories can teach us how to live.
Autumn is a season between a world of fruitfulness and emptiness. Today, in an early afternoon amble around my neighborhood, the perfume of the redwood’s fallen leaves lifted from the earth beneath my feet as I walked. Much is dry and fallen at this time of year. The garden has gone to seed. Though the garden isn’t as beautiful as when it’s wearing its lush spring foliage or when offering its summer fruit, the seeds it produces as it lets go its life are beautiful for all the potential stored there, and for the promise of what they will bring. The memory of how to grow is embedded into their very fibre, each seed a storehouse of physically embodied knowledge. They know how to absorb nutrients, how to grow, how to create and recreate.
Some years back, while visiting Italy, I sat on a balcony overlooking Naples Bay at sunset as a boat pulled across the water into a flame of orange and red sky, and disappeared beneath the horizon. I thought then of how like this scene it must have been for my husband’s immigrant grandparents when they journeyed from Italy to America–the feeling of deep longing and loss, as the shore of their homeland vanished from across sea, and they recognized they were leaving everything they knew for a world they knew little about. What an enormous risk it was. Their decision changed their lives and the future of all the descendants who came after them. From the point of departure, their lives were lived in the space between two worlds–the one they were born into, and the one they adopted in coming to the US. They never again returned to the land of their birth.
The lives of our ancestors are the seeds of our lives. Rising from the loam, the choice they made is the perfume of life now lived as a result that journey they took.
Art in general, and music in specific, can bring together body and spirit to create an interior spaciousness where we are more willing to widen the heart’s boundaries. Art arises at the intersection of loss and the need to find meaning and beauty. Art lives in the borderlands, in the space between where struggles exist. Music educates the heart. When I first heard Après un rêve, by Fauré, sent to me by a colleague I worked with in New Delhi, India, it evoked for me a sense of deep loss and a longing unable to be articulated in words. Immediately, the image of the ship I’d seen leaving Naples Bay and the journey my husband’s grandparents took in their hopes of finding a better world sunset came to mind. Imagining myself into that space sparked questions leading to research and many additional poems. That journey of imagination changed my world.
Words are written thought. They have no physical weight, yet they can transform lives, can create or destroy worlds. Imagination is a seed. In searching to find, sense, hear, visualize and name the moments that defined and embodied the grandparents’ loss and their immigrant journey–the world they loved and left, as well as the new world they found–an entire world opened that was previously hidden. Whole histories were unveiled that I never before knew.
Performed by Renata Bratt on cello, and Vlada Moran on piano, and recorded by Lee Ray, Faure’s Après un rêve on the link below is a gift to all–prayer without words. You can listen to the music, then listen again while while reading the poem below, “Luisa Leaves Home,” the initial poem I wrote in the series of poems that eventually unfolded into my newly published book with Boridghera Press,A Space Between. Maybe you will sense how the music inspired the poem, and perhaps it will be for you, too, a seed of some sort that opens for you a world.
Luisa Leaves Home
Footsteps on the hard cobble last twilight— harsh echoes that clattered through the brain
while I sat at the window, listening to a child calling “Papa, papa,” from a window above as his father
wended his way up the steep hill from the sea, coming home from work.
Wind pushes the walls, and I unlatch the door to narrow streets, barren hills sloping abruptly into sea.
It is morning now, and I am leaving this life’s empty cupboards,
going out of the stony house, the sun’s lemon heat, the salted fish,
out from the familiar rooms and names, out of all I know.
Down to the water, light rising on the last day from the white shoreline as it greets the ocean’s immensity, I go.
Slowly, the boat pulls from shore, the hull breaking open the vast expanse. From the sky’s broken window, birds cry.
Father, mother, a silent photograph held in my palm, I lean forward over the stern, into the rain, and cutting wind.
The ancient Pali text of “The Five Remembrances” says, “All that is dear to me and everyone I love are the nature to change. There is no way to escape being separated from them. My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.” The grandparents’ journey of a hundred years ago parallels journeys people of our own time in various locations are taking now at great risk in order to create a better life for those they love and those that will come after them. May we all find the music that carries us into a wide place of being, and may the actions we take create consequences that allow the lives of those who come after us to have greater access to love and fulfillment.
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.
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,
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.
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.