Friday, June 25, 2004


It was clear within a few measures that the piece's title referred not only to the instrument for which it was written, but to the dynamic in which it was to be played: soft. And also, by extension, to the substance -- the topic, the agenda, the motive -- of the music, a long piano piece by the contemporary American composer Morton Feldman. The piece was about softness. A specific type of softness: audible softness. Which is a matter solely of dynamic, not of precision. Of quietness, not yielding, blurry texture.

So immediately the subtext of the piece (a subtext common to all pieces, of course) became evident: listen. It was a bodily imperative. It pulled me, the listener, bodily, toward, into, the music. The better, as the tale goes, to hear it with, my dears. It called my ears themselves into question. Those fleshy sound cones and their little whinging diaphragms, their jiggling ossicular chain, the chambered nautilus of the cochlea, the ionic fluxing nerve strings, the big dark brain and all its dark little drawers. It ordered the body: sit still, lest your creaks and rustlings overwhelm the music.

It was a new piece to me. And, as difficult contemporary music, lacked the predictable gestures and pathways of baroque or classical pieces or popular songs. Listen to enough baroque music, and you can predict where it will be a few measures hence. Anticipatory hearing. Listen to a familiar piece, and the brain hums along, anticipating its every move, trumping it, racing it to the resolution. It's comfortable and comforting, like an old friend's face that one doesn't really see anymore. But the Feldman piece was a difficult stranger, and, unschooled in any musical vocabulary that would help me talk to myself about it -- this is a sonata, this is a fugue -- I was at sea.

Which was a good place to be. The piece was setting the body up to listen as carefully as possible. Demanding it. So I took some breaths and let go of thoughts much as one does while doing sitting meditation and directed my attention to the sound. Of course, the listener was there, too, most of the time, like the thinker in sitting practice. But it was keeping a low profile -- more nagging, than, say, the thought "these seats are really hard," but low enough.

Along with being soft, the piece was slow, with lots of sostenuto. Chordal rather than contrapuntal. So slow that the very onset of the sound of each chord broke open and revealed itself as a complex event -- hammer on and off string, vibration. Which led backward to key, finger, arm, brain-eye-ear: the pianist. The signs on the page before her. Thence to the composer, and his ear and mind and hand and musical experience.

So chord followed chord, slowly, softly, complex, shifting, dissonant. Into the body. Within the body. For brief moments there was simply the music. Sound and time. The sound now. The sound just past -- echoing, resonant, in memory. And pure receptivity and emptiness.

Then suddenly, deep into the piece, a crashing chord: forte. A hundred bodies startled. A hundred adrenal glands squirted out little jets of adrenalin. A hundred hearts went from andante to allegro. The chord decayed -- loud faded to soft -- and, even within it, the stately succession of slow, soft chords continued.

It was an amazing moment in an amazing piece.

It was a piece about listening. About attention. About the nature of sound, and the nature of hearing. In the same way that abstract expressionist art is about the nature of color, line, and their interactions. One can write about it, sure, but mainly it's between the sound and the ear, the canvas and the eye.

And it struck me, later, that this was a quasi eucharistic experience, a communion. The audience was one body, one ear, united in the aural body of the music. The pianist -- the marvelous Ursula Oppens -- was the priest who caused the transubstantiation of sign into living sound.

Ordnance Music

It was a perfect early summer evening in Boston, in that vanishingly small window between cold, damp spring, and oppressively hot midsummer. The concert was at Jordan Hall at the Conservatory; as we walked toward the hall, my husband, an alumnus, marveled aloud at how his memories of his days there over twenty years ago were less than vivid.

As we settled into our seats, I thought more about memory.

My first time in Jordan Hall had been in 1971 or 1972. I attended a concert by the Dutch recorder virtuoso Frans Brueggen, and wrote about it in my journal with the ecstatic enthusiasm of the unworldly undergradute that I was then. I suspect that the writing was the reason that I remember it so well. My husband and I tried to recall the times we'd attended concerts at Jordan Hall together, and could, between us, exhume a mere fragment: some program that included Stravinsky's L'Histoire du Soldat, with narration by the late, locally famous public radio classical musical host, Robert J. Lertsema.

But I could, oddly enough, remember quite clearly where I'd sat those two times -- on the left side of the hall in the 70's, and on the right balcony for L'Histoire. How will I remember last night's concert ? Will I remember the thin, quiet man who sidled up to me in the Dunkin' Donuts as I waited for my husband to get coffee, and whispered do you have any spare change ? Will I remember our conversation about memory ? How does the likelihood that experience will fade from memory effect its value ? What fragments am I shoring up against what ruin ?

Jordan Hall is small, old and beautiful. Filling the back wall of the small stage are ranks of organ pipes; gilt cherubim cavort above them. The stage pillars are ornately carved, and the ceiling rises to a tall, windowed dome.

As I considered the organ, I found myself doing some mental calculation.

Does its existence counterbalance, or nullify in any way the existence of guns and bombs ? Windchest for warchest ? And, if so, is there a strictly numerical relationship -- one pipe organ equals 1000 small arms or a cache of machine guns or an SUV packed with explosives ? One clarinet equals a grenade; one oil painting a surface to air missile; one poem a magazine full of bullets.

Or maybe it doesn't work that way at all. Maybe the ordnance nullifies the organ, vox humana and vox angelica, rendering it as culturally irrelevant and outmoded as the pudgy-kneed cherubim. I gazed at the two side-by-side pianos -- black steinway grands -- on the stage. They reminded me of coffins. I imagined them exploding, performer and all. Limbs, keys, wire sprayed everywhere, ceiling to floor. Such a thing could happen.

I thought back to Brueggen in the 70's. During one of his pieces, likely some baroque sonata, an actor was stationed in an easy chair beside a floor lamp, and read the newspaper through the whole piece. As if to say: ho hum. Wallpaper music. Easy listening. Backgound music. I seemed to remember that the Boston Globe had even noted this little gesture of self-critique on its editorial page. Had Vietnam been the context of his small protest ?

The Jordan Hall cherubs, I reflected, were not without irony. Not simply decorative kitsch, but serious irony. A reminder similar to Brueggen's man-in-the-armchair.

This was a concert of the Conservatory's annual summer piano institute, which I assume includes among its students the most avant garde and promising of young musicians. And the pianist was Ursula Oppens, well known for her performance of new music. Modern music, post-modern music. Music that takes the dislocations and brutalities of the zeitgeist into account. Music that is post-tonal, post-Auschwitz, post-Hiroshima, post-AIDS, post-Church, acknowledges randomness, the death of God, and the ongoing ascendency of greed, cruelty and force in the world. Broken-hearted music. Which does not mean joyless.

Here's a poem I wrote six or seven years ago in an even more bitter frame of mind.

iii. Like Birdsong

Can you recall what music was before
the instruments were reclassified
by raw material, flashpoint, melting point,

before drumsticks, mallets, bows and violins
were kindling wood, before stripped bassoons
and clarinets, split for firewood, burned,

before the necks of cellos and bass viols,
the unstrung harps and gutted baby grands
were stacked up for cordwood, before the flayed

drumheads and sheared-off strings were stitched
into rucksacks, hairshirts and mattresses,
before trumpets, cymbals, glockenspiels, trombones,

spitvalves, thumbrests, leafsprings, and ligatures,
were all cast into the defiler’s fire,
fusing to a useful, dull alloy

and every last sixty-four cents’ worth
of water vapor, ash and quicklime
dispersed like birdsong on the afterwind ?

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Take That, Sigmund

I was walking along the river path today with my camera. It was around noon, and I saw a worker from a nearby plant unwrapping his lunch on one of the pathside split-log benches. I approached, smiling. He stared back, and said:

That's quite a lens.

I acknowledged my macro lenses heft and utility. He continued to stare, seemingly dumbstruck, so I moved on.

But it IS quite an impressive looking lens, and he was not the first passerby to comment on it. And so far, all the strangers who have commented on it have been guys. It's not that only guys strike up conversations -- I've had any number of brief, pleasant chats with women strollers, bikers and dog-walkers, and none of them have admired my big lens.

Even in my Freudian days, I'd never really connected with the concept of penis-envy. It seemed far fetched. Silly, even. Who'd want one of those inconvenient-appearing, oddly hydraulic, stuck-on, after-thought-like dangly things ? I was, all in all, rather pleased not to be burdened with one. And not to be burdened with the attendant worries about comparative size and function that seem to plague some men. Not that we women are free from body-part size issues. Who's got the smallest waist, longest legs, biggest breasts: these are the measures our surreptitious glances take.

But today, on the riverbank, with my camera, and without even trying, I'd become the alpha male.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Get Your Grimy Little Mitt Off MY Constitution

I'm no student of government, law and social policy. I'm about as far from a "wonk" as one can get, although I love the word and would like somehow to apply it to myself. (Wildflower wonk ?) But isn't one of the chief bits of rightist republican dogma the states rights thingy ? I mean weren't we reminded during the recent Orgiastic Reagan Obsequies of one of the Gipper's first political speeches, some deeply coded gem delivered in the deepest bowels of the south, that extolled "states rights" AKA the "right to racial segregation" ?

Yet when it comes to marriage rights, the prospect of individual states deciding for themselves to move into a 21st century of tolerance and freedom, sends the same folks into a dither about the the "confusion" that will result. And sends them scuttling to the federal Constitution, into which they propose to ram some rights-denying, homophobia-enshrining, church-and-state-separation defying nonsense.

My fellow physician, the loathsome cat-murdering thoracic surgeon and gay basher Dr Frist, currently Senate majority leader, has decided that there's no time like the present for Constitution desecrating. And, of course, "it's not political."

So The Mitthead's going to Washington. To testify before the Judiciary committee. And, again, it's not "political," as his various highly remunerated, unsavory (homage due here to that master of complex political epithets, RiAF) mouthpieces have been reminding us. The Mitthead has no aspirations whatsoever toward the White House. Uh huh. Right.

It's to prevent confusion.

Is "prevent confusion" going to become the new right wing code word for legislating homophobic bigotry ?

Viz: "He will argue that, even if gay marriage is confined to Massachusetts residents, some of those married couples will eventually relocate and test the limits of their rights in other states, and the issue will no longer be confined to Massachusetts. He is expected to call for a federal constitutional amendment as the only way to avoid that confusion nationally."

And, for that matter, doesn't the constitution already contain confusion-avoiding language that guarantees all (that's A-L-L) citizens equal protection under the law ? And some thingy about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ? So wouldn't a clause prohibiting same sex marriage make the document internally self-contradictory ?

Myself, I think it's time for the Mitthead to do the only honorable thing. Follow his Connecticut colleague Governor Rowland's example and resign in disgrace.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Transcendental Etude IX

She'd found herself, of late, counterpoising the time before her birth with the time after her death. It was a strange exercise in parsing eternity that, for some odd reason, she found comforting. A mind game that she didn't dare deconstruct, for fear of unearthing its utter bad faith.

There was no doubt that, deny it as she might, she was looking for consolation. That she still harbored after all these hard boiled years a teeny tiny flame of theological optimism that, at the very last moment, a deus ex machina would arrive and solve, or better still, abolish the problem of mortality. She pictured Jesus descending in a Power and Light bucket truck, smiling in his hard hat, revealing that all that Heaven stuff was true after all. Or at least some temporal guru -- roshi, sensei, teacher, lama, priest -- would materialize and give her the one teaching or practice that would do the same: abolish death.

The funerary phrase echoed in her mind:

I am the resurrection and the life. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.

Now how exactly does that work ? Her husband, dismissive and sardonic, claimed that this was the prize nugget of literal, personal immortality that drew people into the Christian fold. Eternal life. No death. You get to stay you forever. With all your friends and family. In Heaven, the proverbial far, far better place . The place of one's reward . She suspected that, at the bottom of her quest for transcendence, lay a primitive wish to continue as herself in perpetuity. The whole gnarly package -- lank hair, bundled neuroses, crinky neck, bad bones, stifled and raging appetites, propensity for melancholia, everything. How could it be otherwise ?

Self-love. Who would have thought it ? The word cried out for a German translation. Selbstliebe. Like some Freudian affliction. The French amour propre was too genteel. She thought of Erik Erikson, that old Eight Ages Of Man psychoanalytic nemesis of hers, each of whose developmental stages from basic trust vs. basic mistruct to ego integrity vs. despair she'd flunked, spectacularly. She'd been thinking, lately, of the last stage. The one she was approaching. If she ever, that is, got herself out of the muck of stagnation vs. generativity or where ever she'd been floundering these past few years.

Ego Integrity. The phrase pissed her off. It seemed so smug, so complacent, so self-satisfied. Like a room of carefully arranged trophies. Fetschrifts. Diplomas. Honoraria. The last piece of the jigsaw clicks into place. All one's oral rages and anal shamefulness successfully overcome. Inhibiting guilts and inferiority replaced by entrepreneurial and optimistic industry and competence. A proud and firm sense of identity flourishes in place of role confusion. Intimacy ("mutuality of orgasm with a loved partner of the other sex with whom one is able and willing to share a mutual trust and with whom one is able and willing to regulate the cycles of work, procreation and recreation so as to secure to the offspring, too, all the stages of a satisfactory development") is ascendent over bitter isolation. One is generative, productive, forward-moving not stagnant and fallow.

Then, finally, full of enough Ego Integrity (and blissfully unafflicted by its negative counterpart, despair) so as "not to fear death," one, well, dies.

Not to fear death ??? Did it really say that ?

The whole project struck her as some booster clubby extrovert's manifesto.

She arranged her failures on Dr Erikson's epigenetic staircase. Issues with food. Shame of her body. Shyness, withdrawal. Sexual conflict and ambiguity. Divorce. And, of all things, motherhood. Herself, a mother ? Unbelievable. Then medicine. What was she thinking when she signed onto that ? And poetry ? A failed dilletante. Religion ? Was there ever a bigger misfit ? Oddly enough, as she went though the familiar litany of self-grievance, it seemed more like gazing at old wallpaper than wrestling with despair. She thought of the early journals she'd written, full of discussions of these very things, yet full of anguish. Where was that anguish now ? Furthermore, she reflected, weren't some of the character traits that she had found useful in helping her understand and exist in the world -- ambivalence, restraint, modesty, even inhibition -- products of Eriksonian epigenetic failures ?

What was that Thomas Merton had written ?

Despair is the absolute extreme of self-love.

Was that not another way of putting the first two noble truths ? That life is suffering, and that suffering arises from clinging ?


But still, there it was. That nagging little selbstliebe that kept her stealing sidelong glances at the hard-hatted hunk in the bucket truck, wondering what in Heaven's name he meant by that wink.


Grass used to be, well, just grass. The green stuff around the house that Dad fussed over and mowed. The lawn. When I became a homeowner I found I was also a defacto lawnowner. Plus the proud owner of an oblong backyard filled with barkmulch. Determined to make good on our suburban obligations, we hired a gardener to install a back lawn. Twice. And then I, two dead lawns under my belt, and armed with a rake and a bag of seed, played sower. Flung handsfull of grass seed about, willy nilly, and dutifully hosed it down each morning and evening. A crop of frail blades emerged and were soon overcome by a burgeoning swathe of crabgrass.

So I gave up and bought a weed book. And began to study the natural ecology of our weed lawn. Left to its own devices, the back yard greens. Crabgrass, clover, yellow wood sorrell, bedstraws, speedwells, madders, nutsedge and, later, spurge all appear. Plus dandelions, hawkweed, poorman's pepper, shepherd's purse, swallow wort, chicory -- all sorts of interesting little plants, little niches, a patchwork of derelict flora.

Fred, across the street, put in a lawn this year. Replaced the dusty, half-green patch where he used to park his car. Within a week his threadbare dirt patch became a lush emerald swathe. Our sidefence neighbor, former owner of a child-betrodden, toy-strewn dirt-and-mudflat backyard, put in a lawn, seemingly overnight. Lush, green, landscaped. The first we knew about it was a note, taped to our back door, which said, basically, Ahem well hello would you kindly cut down your maple trees which cause us no end of shade, mold, rot and mildew.

Later today, soon in fact, I have to mow my weedlawn. A neighborly obligation. I keep my weedlawn tidy. I do spare interesting plants and plant clumps. I have no interest in cutting down maple trees or obtaining my own emerald sward. I would have to hire a gardener. Men with machines and poisons. An army. To protect my lawn. Nah. There are enough battles in the world.

At the river, the grass is ascendant. Magnificent. Prolific, prodigal, carzily diverse. Seedheads -- or, latinately, inflorescences -- sprout the most extravagant sexual doohickeys, and toss back and forth in the wind and sun. (My botanic vocabulary is not what it might be.) I look, and look, and look, never tiring of the wild display. Grasses, flaunting and disseminating and inseminating. And between them, flowers. Wildflowers, weeds. Rushes, sedges. The meadow renews itself. There are technical words for all these parts, these flowers and stems ans seeds and leaves -- and each plant has a name. Has two -- common, and latin, low church and high church. Like our beautiful language, English, that saxon and latin chimera. Seed head, inflorescence. Grass. Panicum. Poaceae. Agrostis. I think of the millions of poems in the world. Poems written, read, poems fertilizing the brainbeds from which other poems grow, poet to poet, generations of poems -- and suddenly the world's surfeit of poems that once dismayed me by its sheer size, delights me, delights me as a meadow does, succeeding itself year after year.

See ?

Thursday, June 17, 2004

Wild Garlic Struts Its Stuff

I've finally identified the flame- shaped plant that I've been admiring: wild garlic. The pods have opened, revealing beautiful pearly white spheres, from which tiny blue flowers cantilever.


Sunday, June 13, 2004

Earthly Delights 3


Blue-Eyed Grass


Downy Brome Seedhead

Baby Queen Anne's Lace


Dame's Rocket


Fringed Sedge

Hop Clover

Maple Leaf Gall


Red Clover

Rosa Multiflora

Sheep Sorrel


Soft Rush

Tower Mustard

Whorled Loosestrife