Shall I Tell You? (on Ravel’s Tzigane)

is a desert
dust storm
And then,
and then

the salted scent
of wet caliche blows
down the city street,

and children
step out in rainbow shoes
running to catch rain
on open hands
on arcing tongues
faces, spinning, lifted in glee

but the dissonances,
too much:
too much water,
too much lightning,
flowering thunder,

children fleeing
squealing home,
to tell the adventure
all over again.
beneath raven braided


*regaño = a scolding

My thanks to my musician friend who pointed out the  possible poetry in a stray comment on Ravel. ~LD


And Echo (plus) It ended — NaPoWriMo2015 #21





I had no idea how these would look once posted, but in the preview at least they are legible and nearly as cool as they look on my work table. I couldn’t choose, so I’m including both. Now I’m only short 3 in 30 days.

“And Echo” is taken from an unknown page in Khaled Hosseini’s _And the Mountains Echoed_ and “It ended” is taken from Martin Zusak’s _The Book Thief_ (which my sophomores and I are reading). I always love erasure / blackout poetry. I’m fascinated by the way ideas entirely unrelated to the original text jump out. ~LD

A Word on Notes … A Note on Words

Recently, a musician friend sent me this quotation and the question that follows: “If I could express the same thing with words as with music, I would, of course, use a verbal expression. Music is something autonomous and much richer. Music begins where the possibilities of language end. That is why I write music.” — Jean Sibelius

Would you debate this one?

#25 Violin & Piano Sonata

#25 Violin & Piano Sonata — Mozart

At first I leaned toward agreeing with Sibelius about nuance and richness of music. One reason I don’t write much about music as a generality is that I’ve read too much bad writing about music: “It always meets me where I am and never asks any questions. It can pick me up when I’m down, and mellow me out when I’m sad / mad / jealous / etc.” And to some extent that has also been my experience with music. But to a much greater extent, my experience with music is cerebral as well as emotional and tends to defy words.   Like many other people, my life has been bookmarked with music: the sweet and sorrowful memory of my great loves, losses, accomplishments, ridiculous decisions, and moments of simply living — at the beach, in the forest, on my bike, in the city, under Christmas lights, holding hands, kissing in the rain — all come with their accompanying harmonies, melodies, drum lines, oboes, cellos, electric bass, and of course, violins. Suggesting that, in fact, music does tend to speak deeper and, indeed, embrace more widely than mere language.

As I learned a second language, and came to be able to use it (relatively) well, I became aware of many limitations in my native language. As a writer who works toward a precarious mix of precision of words and bending of language to build an idea or an image, such limitations quickly frustrated me. I solved this problem by using Spanish words where nothing quite “fit the bill” in English, even though I know that most of my readers aren’t bilingual. Here again, music overcomes the limitations that culture, education, and social expectation impose on language.

But then I ran across (with an entirely unrelated motivation) a TED talk by Jamila Lyiscott in which she addresses the problems and joys of being “articulate” in her 3 languages. (It’s worth a look. Her talk / poem brought me to tears – no small feat.) She says, “I speak a composite version of your language because mines was raped along with my history. I speak broken English so the profusing gashes can remind us that our current state is not a mystery.” Listening to her speak I thought again about the way that being bilingual has changed the way I write, and even what I write about. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve become convinced that the changes in my poetry over the last five years or so are indebted to my daily immersion in my second language. I don’t think that anything other than someone else playing with language(s) could have made me think those exact thoughts. Not even music.

nobody told you

…no one alerted you…

In the end though, I can’t fully agree or disagree with Sibelius. There are times when language reaches places that music doesn’t even try to reach. When I write a poem, I know that readers will see the exact images I write, even if they don’t attach the same emotion to them that I do. I know that I use words to reach certain unspoken taboos, emotions, memories in readers, and I’m also aware that the places my words touch are not fully predictable.

I think much the same about music. Sibelius and Rimsky-Korsakov and the other favorites tell stories in musical phrasing and pitch and key (and …), which have the advantage of bypassing languages and cultures in ways that language cannot, or are unlikely to do. Still, I feel certain that the government of Germany in the 1930s and 40s did not hear the same stories in Wagner that I hear. That music reaches me as a listener is without question; that the intent remains intact from Sibelius’ ear to my ear, must remain a question forever, as I cannot sit down and ask him about any given piece. His experience is not my experience, though we are both human and from Western cultures. These intersections in culture may influence my response, but I can never know if my response is the response he sought.

I’ve heard and read artists of many genres who say that it doesn’t matter that their audience “gets” the same thing that they imagined. The matter and substance that the audience picks up go far beyond the original intent, encompassing both more and less than “intended.” In this sense, art is not a spectator sport. In spectating we also participate actively, a fuerzas, and in general the artist and her intent is no longer a factor. The art becomes art via the interpretation of, and interaction with, the audience. Without that dialogue, art of any stripe is meaningless.

A little piece of me (the bogus English teacher part) wants to suggest that perhaps Sibelius should have put a bit more time into his writing, maybe experimented a bit with things outside his ken and comfort zone. Maybe in words, too, he could have transmitted more than he imagined. But then again, his music has left so much to think about, so much to experience in the worlds and scenes he weaves over our eardrums and nervous systems. Perhaps, he was right. At least for himself.

So to answer the question, I don’t think I’d debate Sibelius at all. But I wouldn’t mind sitting down over a good glass of wine and talking it all through with him in front of a Finnish fireplace. I’m certain I would learn much about how to listen and be a better audience of music. And, who knows, he might learn a thing or two, as well. ‘-)


Parts of a letter: thinking out loud in the cold

The thing about art is, as Beethoven said (Is this true? Is this a myth someone told me to make a point when I was a youngling? I will look it up later. Anyway, in my head a grizzled, bitter Beethoven speaks) there is nothing new in music (or any art). There are seven basic notes: C, D, E, F, G, A, and B, their sharps and flats, repeated at higher or lower pitches, but the combinations are essentially finite. Measurable. Maybe even predictable to an extent (enter math).

What varies infinitely (or seems to – maybe this depends, like so many things, on one’s take on God and creation) is the certain curve and weight and touch that imparts “feeling” to a piece. What varies infinitely is whether we hear the same stories that Maxim Vengerov does in an Ysaye piece (unlikely, unless we happen to have the good fortune of being one of his master class students), or some other story entirely. With good, solid study, the stories should come near to being the same, even among musicians who’ve never met, but are unlikely to be what Ysaye himself saw as he composed. (Insert Shakespeare and Harold Bloom as the expert here if you like. Same result.)

What this tells us about a text like, say, The Hunger Games is not that it’s bad, or even especially good, but rather that Collins’ perspective on things like feminism, survival, capitalism / socialism, the conflict between love and self are presented sufficiently intelligently and artistically to pull in readers who might not otherwise have considered such important ideas (if they were forced to read them, say, for class). Ideally such texts lead them to read and appreciate (if not always enjoy), other, more complex, more artful works on similar ideas.

Naturally, many young readers aren’t ready to go there (neuro-biology works against them), but sometimes readers go back to books (and other works of art) like an old friend after they’ve matured, and see the bigger ideas then. (And yes, there are more than a handful of knuckleheads who never get it. Still, my teacher brain insists there is hope for human enlightenment. ‘-)) Even Harry Potter has at least some artistic value for bringing the old Greek myth figures back to the front of people’s minds. Ok, maybe not the front, but not the pit of intellectual despair that was 9th grade lit class with Odysseus.

So reading those books has value to the extent that they open a door for readers to be intellectually warmed up for 1984, Gatsby, The Old Man and the Sea, Lord of the Flies, Shakespeare, A Clockwork Orange, and the rest. I read “lesser” works because working with young intellects is part of what I’ve chosen to do with my life and I need to know how to talk to them with some authority about the big ideas in the little stories that get their attention. Sometimes such works even have the added bonus of being “fun”, which is too often undervalued.

Perhaps the fact that we read / enjoy / participate in mediocre and bad art eventually leads us to greater and greater feats of human imagination. At the very least, the mediocre and the bad may lead us to think differently than we did before.

I agree that the artist must create for him/herself. But it seems to me that the great value in art must go beyond the interior world. Visual image (dance, flat art (like painting), sculpture, film) and auditory image (music, speech / language) become ways of relating to the world and the experiences you live. Creating art is a way of making meaning out of the (sometimes) apparent meaninglessness of being human; I’d go so far as to suggest that art requires the artist to consider an audience, even an unreal one, to offer a serving of perspective (like a glass of wine on a tray) in order for the meaning to be, well, meaningful.

And yes, I know, I’ve just effectively destroyed all my reasons for not writing lately. I think sometimes that I work harder at not writing than I do at writing. ‘-) I’m pretty sure I’ll be cold and dead before I can really not write. Weaving language and words into meaning are my skin and heart, maybe even my soul. Only my ridiculous, flawed, grown-up human brain gets in the way. ‘-) Ego is a powerful dismotivator.

I loved what you wrote: “Art (in any form) is a gift from God … designed for … people who understand it to keep them happy even when everything else is shit. (I could not find a simpler and more complicated definition than that). Life is like running in the freezing cold in the middle of the woods, and art is like finding a nice cabin with a fireplace inside, to stay there forever. One who enjoys art should never have to quit [the cabin] ever again.”

Once in a while the only way to get to complexity is simply. I’d add that life is like running NAKED and BAREFOOT in the freezing cold. But I can’t help thinking that art need not be a consolation prize.


Independent of the Rain

Frog park across the street from me...

As usual, I missed the total lake photo, but it’s the desert, you have to be quick on the draw, and I’ve no camera of my own…this is late in the day Friday, September 14

Well, we finally got real rain.  Something like twelve hours straight of full-on downpour.  The streets became rivers and the parks became lakes, and most of the buildings I know about became harbors for scattered indoor showers. Most schools cancelled class, but not ours. When my taxi driver called to tell me he was stranded with his car kaput, I stood out in pre-dawn trying with my cell phone to find a ride to school. I heard the toads wailing in the park across the way, under the white noise of steady rain.  I could have stood listening to them all morning. We desert rats have spent the last forty-eight hours plus in a delicious and disorienting haze of water and cloud.  The roads have been so bad, and drivers so inept on the inundated by-ways that whenever possible, the best option is to stay home.

My cats were happy I was home when the thunder rolled through again.  They crowded onto the arm of the official chair, purportedly to supervise my blog reading and writing, but all three of us knew the real reason.  As more creatures of the desert than even I am, they are scared spineless of thunder. I, on the other hand, am comfortable far away from tornado alley and enjoy the occasional bouts of heavenly racket that blanket me in inspiration.

To my surprise, words didn’t “just come” with the rain this week.  I sat here on Thursday and Friday nights and again most of the day Saturday with a blank word document waiting for the inevitable outrush, but nothing happened.  Since I don’t buy into the concept of writer’s block, I knew that wasn’t it. I considered writing a book review of a book I’d read long ago, but it was a non-starter as I didn’t have the book at hand. I tried to write a rain poem, but somehow with the rain coming down both inside and outside, the realized wish didn’t have the same effect. I tried just a letter, but no matter how exotic it may seem to my loved ones, my day-to-day life is thankfully, remarkably, dull and ordinary.

While waiting and exploring my mind, I got vaguely political about the teacher strike in Chicago and actually posted a reaction on FB to a one minute TV news report in which parents’ scrambling for childcare was mentioned three times while only one of the teachers’ actual points of contention was mentioned one time (and that was, of course, the non-starter contention of inadequate pay).  I have long since learned to have a healthy mistrust for such reports. So much is revealed in what is left unsaid. As my post was reposted — and responded to, with greater and lesser amounts of venom — on someone else’s FB wall, I was reminded of Enlightenment thinkers and writers who “posted” in 18th century pamphlets and  the nearest thing there was to newspapers, with abandon and even delight.

Swift would do well to rewrite, with minor tweaks for locations and names, his “Modest Proposal.” I was glad to remember another time when political and social discourse was heated and far too often hateful. Swift wrote,  “I profess, in the sincerity of my heart, that I have not the least personal interest in endeavoring to promote this necessary work, having no other motive than the public good of my country.” How his essay drips with sarcasm and hyperbole! How admirable his ability and willingness to talk back to lesser wits who could not wrap their brains around the power with which Swift wielded the pen.

I first consciously realized the manipulative (and restorative) nature of language following my senior year in high school when I travelled to Germany and lived there for six weeks in the summer of 1986, five weeks after the Chernobyl accident in the Ukranian region of what was the USSR. (My folks were sufficiently spooked by the threat of radiation that they almost didn’t let me go.) The first “real” expression I learned in German, and have never forgotten, was “nach dem regen kommt die Sonne” [after the rain comes the sun]. That year, the Germans replaced “regen” with “Reagan” — a wholly political commentary – the first I’d ever heard (really heard and understood) against the US. I struggled to wrap my brain around the Germans’ distaste.

That summer I also witnessed my first ever, political protest in the market in Saarbrücken: a protest against nuclear armament and in part, against nuclear power.  Katja and her mom and I carried our hand baskets full of fresh vegetables and fruits (I mainly remember the strawberries) while people my age marched around the perimeter of the market with placards I could not read, but with “Reagan” appearing on most.  Katja and her mom explained the protest as best they could in the car on the way back to Riegelsberg.  I blindly struggled to “get it.” But “getting it” came to be part of who I was before I understood intellectually what I was struggling for.


“99 Red Balloons” was still popular in the US and in Europe that summer, perhaps in reaction to the Chernobyl disaster. The day that I bought Nena’s 45 single in a record store in downtown Saarbrücken, I saw the album art on The Scorpions’ Love at First Sting and even though it was a “bit” out of my price range, I decided I needed it too much to just walk away.  A few days later at a biergarten fest, I heard, mixed in with polkas and other local favorites, a cover of “Still loving you.” My listening repertoire never quite recovered my long-time favorites of Simon & Garfunkel, Barry Manilow and Judy Collins.


Articulation of who I have become since, and as a result of that trip has proven difficult to nail down, at best. But occasionally, when it rains I can come close. Borders and nations are imaginary constructs jealously guarded by those that would have us believe in them. Folk songs and music in general, cross borders without passports or identification in a way that we mere humans can only dream of. As sure as we may be of our political, religious, social beliefs, there is always, always another way to see everything and it behooves us to keep that in mind anytime we have a conversation about anything remotely emotionally charged.

I read Burdick and Lederer’s The Ugly American before I went to Germany that year.  And somehow I still managed to insist on a liter of Coca-Cola on every shopping trip, despite what I know now was an outrageous price.  There is a photo of me standing in the Wegener’s kitchen in my morning glory sweats with the liter bottles of Coke on the counter, and I can’t help but feel a little sick at my stomach.

In my 21st century kitchen, I keep a 4 oz. bottle of Coca-Cola for days when my tummy is disagreeable. And when it rains, here in the desert, I remember that after the rain, comes the sun. ~LD

there I was

The coffee was great, but I always wanted my Coca-Cola.