Fiddle Tune Poems
In writing these Fiddle Tune Poems, I was influenced by each tune’s sound—its rhythms, major or minor key, its melody and phrasing—that creates an underlying mood, and also by the images or narratives suggested by the names of the tunes. The poems take their titles from the tunes that inspired them. They stand on their own as written poems, but for performance, I’ve arranged them back inside their tunes to be played by a single melody instrument or, as is the case here in Plume, by a traditional band. “Bus Stop Reel” was composed by Anita Anderson, and “County Clare Waltz,” which concludes “The Star Above the Garter,” was composed by Andrew Levin. The rest of these tunes are traditional. “The Star Above the Garter” first appeared in Superstition Review. These pieces were recorded at The University of Alabama School of Music recording studio. The band is Jil Chambliss, flute and singing; Robin Behn, flute, penny whistle, and speaking; Dan Vogt, guitar; Roger James, fiddle; and David Myers, recording engineer. In the book Quarry Cross, when you come across these poems, you’ll find that they are accompanied by the music scores of the tunes that inspired them. But here in Plume, there is another dimension: you can read the poem texts and listen to the Fiddle Tune Poems as poem-and-band together. You’ll find them right after the interview. Enjoy!
An Interview with Robin Behn by Chard deNiord
Robin: It was at Breadloaf in the mid-eighties.
Chard: I was there with you that summer.
Robin: Indeed, a high time! I was working with Donald Justice, so he and I spent a fair amount of time together, and before long we realized we were both musicians and started playing sonatas together in the Breadloaf Barn where there was an old piano. Don was a fabulous musician. He’s one of my all-time favorite musicians I’ve ever played with; he could sight-read any piece of music at performance speed and be amazingly expressive at the same time.
Don was very kind to read the manuscript of my first book Paper Bird and have a word with me about it. We were standing on the lawn outside the Barn. “Have you ever considered writing about music?” he asked. My answer to him was something like “No. I think it’s a special language and readers who aren’t musicians wouldn’t understand what I was talking about.” A few days later, Don gave a reading from The Sunset Maker, a book chock-full of poems about taking piano lessons, composers, and the like. I was bowled over by the poems and forever convinced that one could indeed write poems about music.
In my second book, The Red Hour, I included poems about individual instrumentalists. Some people are really bound up in their identity with the particular instrument they play. They served as the basis of characters and narratives.
After The Red Hour, when I wrote Horizon Note, I included poems not only about playing music but also about the nature of music itself. I continued thinking about that in The Yellow House, even though that book is also quite visually-oriented and includes pieces about some abstract impressionists (spoken by a horse, but…). Now, in Quarry Cross, while I think of all of the poems as “stand alone” poems with their own lyricism, their own poetic-musical qualities in them, some of the poems in the book, the six poems presented here, have an additional relationship with actual music.
Chard: This is different than talking only about lyric writing. Matthew Zapruder—you sent me that piece he wrote for Boston Review—said “there are important and fascinating differences between lyrics and poems, just not the ones that are usually focused on. Words in a poem take place against the context of silence (or maybe an espresso maker, depending on the reading series), whereas, as musicians like Will Oldham and David Byrne have recently pointed out, lyrics take place in the context of a lot of deliberate musical information: melody, rhythm, instrumentation, the quality of the singer’s voice, other qualities of the recording, etc. Without all that musical information, lyrics usually do not function as well, precisely because they were intentionally designed that way.” So, you’re not writing lyrics, you’re writing poems, yet music plays such an integral role in the way you think about language.
Robin: Well, I’ve occasionally been accused of being a “musical poet.” I’ve never been a writer of song lyrics, except for writing the libretto for an opera recently. At first, I wrote too many words for each character to sing. My wonderful collaborators helped me see that I needed to keep it simple, to leave room for the music to elaborate on my phrases, to “say” what the characters were feeling, to provide transitions between scenes. I learned to write in the context of music. But aside from the opera libretto, I’m always writing poems, not lyrics.
Chard: I think a lot of other people are fascinated by what you’re hearing. When you give readings now you often play the flute or whistle before, during, and/or after you’ve read one of these fiddle tune poems. I’m wondering how you would explain that need you feel to play music during your readings. And in Quarry Cross, you’ve included music scores to go along with these particular poems like “The Rights of Man,” for instance— the score is there at the end of the poem, as it is with the five other poems.
Robin: You know how sometimes you can get a certain song stuck in your mind for a while, like a sound track of your life? I think a lot of people have had that experience. Or music can be the background to something else you’re doing. If you’re going to meet a friend at a jazz club, and you’re having a conversation with loud live jazz in the background, that’s quite different from if you met at a coffee shop where they’re playing soft recorded Baroque music. The mood you’re sitting in— mood is a simple word for it, but, you know, what does music do to us? The music around us has an influence on mood and thought, how we experience the feeling of being while we’re interacting with language.
Chard: How do you feel the music you’re hearing in the case of these six “Fiddle Tune Poems” affects the form and the structure of your language, as opposed to those poems that you haven’t put music to?
Robin: In all of my poems, I care that what’s written on the page is engaging to the eye in terms of its line breaks, its shape on the page, it’s “look.” And I also consider all of my poems on the page as indicators of how to read them out loud, or imagine them being read out loud—as musical “scores” of language. The same two things are also true of these Fiddle Tune Poems, with the added dimension that a particular tune’s sound and title had a lot of influence on how they were written. In the out loud versions of these Fiddle Tune Poems, in recordings like the ones here or at readings, I put these poems back inside the actual music. In that sense, their performance comes full circle back to how the poems arose to begin with.
I came to be acquainted with a lot of fiddle tunes starting about ten years ago. Although I’m trained as a classical musician, I’ve always loved Irish music—gigs and reels and so on. I started playing in a band called Waxwing. Our motto was “Traditional music taking flight!” We played fiddle tunes from Irish, Quebecois, and Appalachian traditions, with plenty of improvisation. All these tunes have two parts of equal length. And they are always played in a repeating pattern: the first part of the melody twice, then the second part of the melody twice, and then all of that repeats, like a circle, over and over. The leader of the band gives a signal to the other musicians to let them know when to stop. That same basic two-part tune pattern is a creative springboard for melodies and chord changes, and for improvisation. It’s like, in poetry, say, you have an English sonnet springboard, and you know you’re going to have fourteen lines and rhymes in certain places. It’s a structure that you can get into your bones and use while you are writing. These fiddle tunes with their repeating structure function the same way.
Chard: How is it that some of these tunes became particularly memorable for you, and ended up as Fiddle Tune Poems?
Robin: There is an old joke that goes, How do you tell one fiddle tune apart from another? The answer is, By the title! It’s a good joke because some of these tunes do get to sounding quite a lot like one another. But my favorite tunes are highly distinctive. That’s true for these six fiddle tunes, and what’s more, I love their titles. For each of these, I’ve had the tune stuck in my head and the title of the tune stuck right there with it. So, while I’m writing, I have in my mind’s ear and my proprioceptive memory the tune happening through time: what it feels like to play the tune (how the passage of fingerings feels in my hands on the flute keys as it goes, and in my breathing, since I’m a wind instrument player), and then also the tune’s title (its meaning, its length, tone, rhythm, and word-sounds), and a kind of roaming visual sense of the images suggested by the title and the sound, and how those images lead me on to other images. It’s a combined feeling-sense of being “in” all of that, endlessly circling. Usually, I’ve already memorized the tune without trying to. The act of writing comes from being under the spell of it.
Chard: What are the fiddle tune poems? And how did you work with the music for each of them?
Robin: So far I’ve written six of them. They’re in Quarry Cross with other poems that are not fiddle tune poems, but they blend right in with all the other poems. The first one I wrote is called “The Cliffs of Moher.” These are giant cliffs that fall to the sea on the coast of Ireland. The title of the tune, “The Cliffs of Moher” drew my attention because I had been to see these cliffs many years before. And so the title became, in my mind, a place to be. The tune is eerie and swirling (it’s in 6/8 time, with slurred-together groups—3 fast notes together— on each beat, mostly), and I heard the melody in my mind against the backdrop of the other, remembered sound, the smashing of the ocean against the cliffs. So I could hear the two sounds together: the driving yet mournful quality of the tune and the deafening, crashing sound of the waves against the cliffs brought to mind how human speech might have sounded to Victor the Wild Child of Aveyron when, as the story goes, he first heard it, and how mournful, and alone, he might have felt. So, that was the first fiddle tune poem I wrote. At the beginning, I did not have in mind that the music itself would ever happen “with” the poem in recording or performance; I simply thought of the music and title as a point of inspiration for the poem. Then I realized that the spoken poem could happen back inside of the music.
Chard: Which one did you write next?
Robin: Then I wrote “Quarry Cross,” which became the title of the book. The rhythm of the tune “The Quarry Cross” is deliberate, heavy – four beats per measure, but heard in 2/2, two groups of two notes–Da da, Da da—usually one somber note per beat. I love the soulful rendition played by fiddler Hunter Foote (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZLdYqwaJVgA). I found myself writing with four accents per line, grouped into two groups of two accents on each line, in rhymed quatrains with changeable rhyme schemes. Four lines of the poem out loud take up the same length of time as the first or second part of the melody. The poem’s lines “fit” into the duration and stressed rhythms of the tune, and so with this one, unlike “The Cliffs of Moher,” the poem’s rhythmic phrases match the tune’s phrases. Eventually I decided to perform the poem that way, with the music, rather than more of a voice-over as in “The Cliffs of Moher.” A quarry cross is a road or path going to a quarry; I pictured a contemporary couple hiking toward a quarry.
“The Star Above the Garter,” is a fast-moving, joyful tune. It’s in a major key, whereas the other two tunes I’ve described so far are in a minor key. This one has a brightness to it. When I hear this tune in my ear, it reminds me of dancing to the tune, and also playing it with my band. So I imagined a dance hall where the tune is being played by a live band, and a narrative to go with it. The mood of the character who stands outside the dance hall in the snow contrasts with the happy music going on inside the hall where the dancers are still dancing. At the end of the poem, there’s a line that says “Someone, ask her back in for the last waltz.” That’s a tradition in contra dance: the dancing ends with the band playing a waltz, and people get up and waltz as a sweet coda to the evening. Accordingly, when I arranged the poem into the music, I had the reel, “The Star Above the Garter,” segue into a different tune, a waltz, right after the last line of the poem. You might hear that change from music counting in 4’s to music counting in 3’s. I chose a waltz written by contemporary composer Andrew Levin (hear more of his waltzes at http://uncommonwaltzes.com), called “County Clare Waltz.” (Incidentally, The Cliffs of Moher are also in County Clare!)
Chard: Can you say something about how you go about performing these?
Robin: When I have a band available to play with me, like on these recordings, the music continues underneath the spoken poem. But if it’s just me, I’ll usually play the tune before the poem, read the poem, then play the tune again at the end. I want the tune to keep reverberating in the listener’s aural memory during the poem, and then be confirmed again at the end as the poem now “lasts” during the final music. I want the audience to be haunted by the tune the same way I was. I’m so delighted that Plume is including sound on its site for the first time to make this possible!
Chard: Can you give us a few words about the other three Fiddle Tune Poems?
Robin: Sure. “The Rights of Man” is my favorite Irish hornpipe, fun to play on the penny whistle. And of course The Rights of Man is also a book by Thomas Paine published in 1791, two years after the French Revolution. It’s a lively, rousing tune, and I found myself talking to Tom Paine in a tone suggested by the music. At the end of the poem I invite Tom Paine to listen to this tune about himself.
“Bus Stop Reel” is the newest tune here, written by contemporary composer Anita Anderson. It has a somewhat lurching, syncopated rhythm, and since it’s called “Bus Stop Reel,” I couldn’t help thinking about somebody standing at this bus stop. This poem cozies up to, but doesn’t quite become, song lyrics: it’s composed and spoken to and in the distinctive rhythm of the tune. The music is taking the speaker and shaking her about, and she can’t help succumbing to it. The music is taking her over, creating a pressured string of thoughts while she’s standing there in the cold, waiting a long time at the bus stop to go meet someone. So here, the rhythm of the music and the rhythm of the language are matched, but the music is in command.
“Mairi’s Wedding” is a Scottish song from early in the twentieth century, written as a gift for somebody’s wedding. The song lyrics say, in effect: Here we all are, a smiling throng parading along toward the happy event of Mairi’s wedding. We’re feeling jaunty! Full of bouncy camaraderie! But what would Mairi think if she were a contemporary woman and everyone was marching and singing like this to go to her wedding? She might think that’s a little strange, a little corny, pretty dated. The prose poem mulls over what Mairi might be thinking. Parts of the prose poem alternate with verses of the song, flipping back and forth from one century to the next, while the instrumental tune carries on throughout, much like the procession of villagers.
Chard: Is instrumentation important to you? You are a flautist and a penny whistle player, and you talked about Don’s piano playing as his musical inspiration. How important is it for you to think about the music in relation to your instrument, and does the poem then emerge from that connection or relationship?
Robin: That’s a great question. The poems emerge from not just a sense of “flute,” but also a sense of multiple instruments that are bound up in this kind of music. There’s always something playing the bass part—it could be a piano, often it’s a guitar—providing the rhythmic, percussive structure and chord changes—the “bottom” of the band. And then, on top, you have one or more melody instruments. These tunes are called “fiddle tunes” because usually a fiddle is providing the melody, but other instruments, like flute or whistle, can play the melody, too. With more than one top instrument you can take turns with the melody, or harmonize the melody, “talk” to the other melody instrument, or improvise.
Chard: This raises the question of the character of the instrument. It seems that the character of the instrument is as, excuse the pun, instrumental to you as the inspiration of the poem itself. Is there something that’s particularly important or appealing to you about the character of the flute or the penny whistle?
Robin: I think that because it is a wind instrument and you’re literally putting your breath into it… It’s organic, it’s hard to explain…
Chard: As opposed to plucking a string or hitting a piano key.
Robin: Yes, you are speaking through the instrument, using your hands, your whole body–it becomes your voice. And unlike many wind instruments, with flute, there’s nothing to push against: no reed or mouthpiece to provide resistance. So it’s up to your manner of taking air in and issuing it out, the dynamic shaping inside the mouth and in the throat and windpipe and lungs, and the passage of air through that whole system, and all the while you are holding up the flute’s not inconsiderable weight with one left knuckle joint and one right thumb, and the other fingers close off or open air holes that determine pitch, by milliseconds sometimes– that’s all one bodily engagement consisting of human body and flute body as one. The little penny whistle, by contrast, almost plays itself—very little air against a delicate resistance, tiny movements of the fingers over six holes.
Chard: It’s poetry in breath.
Chard: I’m fascinated by paradox here. There’s the discipline of music you’ve talked about already–the rhythm, the repetition, the notation that is just formal inherently, and yet so many of the poems from Quarry Cross aren’t put to music. I think, for instance, of your poem “Dream of the Cat on Three Legs”—it’s amazing the way the language emerges in this poem in form in contrast to, say, “The Star Above the Garter, “ which looks like a prose poem. I don’t know if it started out that way…
Robin: It did.
Chard: It doesn’t have that formal look on the page, so I’m interested in how the two complement each other. The discipline of music, and then the actual verbal expression in the book’s majority of non-music poems, often in free verse, that’s working with the music, the discipline of the music. These poems in which there is actual music in contrast to those poems like “Dream of the Cat on Three Legs” where the language is so haunting. I’m thinking of such lines as “Your suffering weighs what it weighs/ before you ever got here./ What happens here weighs what it weighs./ And suffering rhyming with purring/ a twin thing you wake with your mouth around/ also weighs what it weighs.” The verbal music here works without any apparent connection to or complementary inspiration from music. What verbal music are you hearing there without the need or obsession to complement it with music?
Robin: Right, I do think of my poems as existing both on the page as a visual phenomena and also as scores for being heard out loud. For me, when I’m writing, quite often I can hear how the next word or line sounds before or at the same moment I’m putting words into what I’m hearing. I don’t just think about it. So I don’t think of my poems as just transcriptions of thought—although they are that—they are, rather, transcriptions of a process that involves thinking, feeling, and hearing all happening together, going forward. Sometimes it sounds more like a musical language, and sometimes more like speech. Sometimes it feels like putting pieces into place, making something out of hunks of words. But it’s always being in the midst of building a temporal architecture out of sound. Patterns of sound interest me, and variations on patterns of sound. Occasionally, like in “In my Thorn Dream,” there’s a base-sound of great silence, the words trying their best to parry forth into it, but only able to move as if through thick water. That’s how I write poems that don’t have actual music behind them. I hope they are musical, each in a different way.
Chard: There’s a mystical quality to both—to the verbal music you create in a poem like “Dream of the Cat on Three Legs” and the other poems that you’ve written music to. I get the sense that in both cases you’re discovering “things you didn’t know you knew,” as the old saying goes. But there’s a strangeness in all of the poems in Quarry Cross that makes a kind of striking sense. These lines, for instance, again, from “Dream of the Cat on Three Legs”: “Would it say how it came to be installed/ by the workmen in the dream/ here in its new station/ on the pillow outside the screen door/ to the Office of the Starving Particular/ so that when they check in here, as they must,/ the Makers of Art—in the dream, you are one of them,/ one of the wearers of lavish headgear/ fashioned for the jagged brain-peaks of the uselessly brave.” Your reader, at least this reader, wonders where in the world this language is coming from. There’s an oneiric inspiration here that pertains to that paradox I was talking about, namely, a duende-like quality that exists behind the lines as well as in them. Can you imagine putting music to “Dream of the Cat on Three Legs”?
Robin: No, there wouldn’t be room for it.
Chard: So there are some poems that say, “No, I’m not a ‘music’ poem other than the music that’s right there on the page.”
Robin: Right, that’s what I would say about ninety-five percent of my poems. The so-called “music” is made with just words. The fiddle tune poems started out more like a side project. I was curious what I would do if I were under the influence of actual, pre-existing tunes. With all the rest of my poems, I seldom have a sense of a project that I’m pursing.
Chard: A lot of poets don’t have that sense of project outside of the poem itself.
Robin: Right, and I mostly don’t either. In writing Quarry Cross, I gave myself—I wouldn’t call it a project—an invitation. I invited myself to not be shy about talking about dream: actual dreams you wake up and remember, or a dream in terms of wishing for something, or a dream like the dream of a better world, or the dream full of those archetypal figures Jung talks about. It gave me a way, perhaps a shorthand, for entering into essences—sometimes surreal?— just kind of believing that the reader would come with me.
Chard: Well, it is surreal, at times, but it’s not like you are leaving the reader out on some weird cliff! It’s also working effectively in a metaphorical way.
Robin: I don’t want to be left on some cliff (unless it’s the Cliffs of Moher!). I also wanted to find some ways to talk about the nature of art, about why do we make art, why do we need it.
Chard: You’re using your imagination in a remarkably free way in this book, trusting it to lead you to memorably strange, even vatic expression. Coleridge called it “fugitive causes,” which he said poetry contained as “a logic of its own, as severe as that of science” and that it arrived at this logic in its own way which was “more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes.”
Robin: Exactly. He certainly does that in his poems. And I’ve long thought about Coleridge’s distinction between imagination and fancy, though I think about it differently than I used to. Fancy, for me, now has its place. Something about these old fiddle tunes is fanciful—arrived at from folk re-iterating old tunes, giving us what we expect. I like playing off against that.
Chard: We see things when we listen to music and we also see things when we’re writing. Do you feel that one over the other conjures imagery more powerfully?
Robin: No, not really. I think what one perceives with eyes looking out at the world and what one sees in the imagination and what one hears in both of those places are all one, all faucets open at once. I love how poems let you do that. The Fiddle Tune Poems, with their sounds and titles, provide a head start on imagery sometimes.
Chard: Many poets and philosophers have commented that music is the highest art form. Plato’s remark is perhaps most famous: Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”
Robin: I’m not sure about hierarchies of art, but, yes, music is sublime, ineffable, foundational, essential, universal… You really can’t say what music means or is, and it’s crucial because of that. I love to wrap language in or around or through or under the influence of music while being, ultimately, at its service!
Fiddle Tune Poems
At an old village hall, sometimes called a grange, “The Star Above the Garter” is being played by the band. The dancers are arranged in long lines, and as the caller calls out the sequence of figures, each couple dances once through the sequence with every other couple as they come down the line. There are actually two tunes here: the second is “County Clare Waltz” by contemporary composer Andrew Levin. County Clare, it happens, is where another of these poems, “The Cliffs of Moher,” is set.
She is waiting for him outside the dance hall. In deepest snow. She has changed into her boots, the brown ones, the brown leather ones the color of a chestnut horse. Stamping there. Breathing in little swords and whips, the air snapping in half from the cold. Her dance shoes over her shoulder tied together by long laces in a clumsy epaulet. She is waiting for orders, for something to happen, the way the dance caller made everyone swing and star, gypsy and progress, forward and back like a kaleidoscope that would be a perfect model of time itself were it not for the fact that the tune began and ended. It just ended. Now she’s sweating beneath her wool coat, waiting for him outside the grange.
What had she almost told him when he came down the dance line and they circled their tight circle before passing on to the next? The breath reeling out of her, their gazes locked to keep from spinning off the earth to where the music came from so long ago, like light from a long-dead star—that music played by the fiddle and bow, the wooden door sawed in half again and again, portal to the underworld that seals and seals itself back up as the song spools out…
It was his hand, the calm, dry, pulsing, uncomplicated balance of his hand, then up to his face, and then up to the face, the simple beard and lop of dark hair and the quick, almost canine, grin. And everyone called up out of their sideline chairs, the dead crossing over to take hands with the living, to come, when you least expect them, down the line. Why did you come here when you could have been doing the dishes, furiously polishing old harms? Or privately dancing in living room, porch, kitchen, bed, before anyone has ever chosen to unsubscribe from earth, to purposefully drown?
She is standing in snow deep enough to drown her. Waiting for him to walk out by himself which is how the dead travel when they come back to poke the ashes of the earthly dance. Her body, sweat right through, taking on the chill.
Star, it’s your music, but it is not your fault.
Someone, ask her back in for the last waltz.
Waiting at a bus stop, the speaker has this tune in mind and finds herself caught up in its spikey, syncopated rhythm. “Bus Stop Reel” is a contemporary tune by Anita Anderson.
Some times whilst waiting for the bus, my feet start to move and it is not, in the least, ever so slightly subtle. Feet start-to start-to move. Better set-my shop-ping down-cause. Feet start-to start-to move. Get-ting real-em bar-rass ing-but feets. Start-to start-to go. Back to their true origins. In mist. Or as hooves or claws. Who knows what they’re plotting…
Some. Times you dream of me. Raw daylight, I’m ascending gritty stairs. To the bus whilst. Thinking of your quadriceps. And you. Knowing what I do. Or do. Not wear beneath. My skirt. Which you won’t ever know unless the bus material-izes.
Which. Hasn’t happened. Yet al-though it’s gotten. Wolfishly cold. Here is. An icicle to pen this tune in wolf-peed snow. Art has. High purposes like. Warming the inside of the. Brain. With its. Intricate rhythmical. Fires
like the fire in The Inheritors. A favorite book of my dad’s. He. Liked the image of the prehistoric fireball they. Took turns carrying. For the good of all. Its in-finite smoldering and. The sense. It wasn’t just about. Individual hankering. He. Would have liked you for your. Eager etymologies! And how. You waltz with me. And make your mouth a soft nest when you say my name. Even if it wasn’t a bird’s. Though the fact it is. A bird’s or a man’s name. Iz extra lovely.
Some-times, whilst waiting for the bus my feet they start to move. Better set my shopping down. Getting realem. Barrassing. Back to their true origins. Mist. Hooves. Claws.
This will keep looping till the bus de. Cides to come.
Some-times whilst waiting
Traditionally, a “quarry cross” meant a road or path leading to a quarry. Here, the lovers dreamily recall having taken a hike to a quarry, and the idea of cross circulates as both a shape and a sign of sacrifice.
My head on your shoulder,
my leg thrown over,
your hand in my hair,
your other hand, there.
My sigh like the lessening light
going finally, all the way, out to sea,
my combs on the table like lashes able
to see what deep quarry creatures see.
Red Rover, Red Rover, and then you roll over,
your knees drawn up in the dark.
Old stars above you, old stars below you,
old starlight blanketing the ground,
you lean out over your old wooden skis
and go ahead again. You let yourself fall.
And turn up the slope. And fall. And turn.
And dare that sweet abyss.
My mouth on your ear,
my shadow worn sheer.
Your dust in my voice,
this kingdom of choice.
Red Rover, Red Rover, now let me turn over
my memory knotted with sticks from the day
we hiked the hills that rose like hopes
of something, something, trying to pray
toward the quarry signposted that-a-way—
behind me your steady footfall-voice,
a cough, sting, blood, my backward glance
but the quarry entrance was not erased.
Red rock, red thunder, then we, together,
gazed over the ragged rim:
a blood-rust, bone-worn planet-gash,
a man-plundered, bombed-out, gap-gawked space
and did what we could to make amends
—crumbs for the crows
—an altar of stones
meagerest meaning, tiny recompense,
then skidded like tears down its skeleton face
to lay in that missing meteor’s bed
and seek the smooth skull of each other’s head
and kiss the ancient dust away,
myself thrown wide to the beam of you
we made a moment’s quarry cross.
A human flickering, at most.
A flickering quarry cross.
Huge waves crash against the Cliffs of Moher that rise 702 feet from the sea in County Clare. What would words sound like, crashing into the ear of someone who had never heard human language before? And this old Irish reel? A churning of gulls in the misty updraft.
What if someone took such
a large bite out of you
your crying swelled out
to the end of the world?
How would you bear the onlookers
in their painfully blue and red jackets,
your picture taken and taken
from a distance judged safe?
As when they brought the boy in
from the wolves who raised him,
with a pike and a cage.
No one could talk to him.
Their persistence sounded
to him like crashing.
They made of him a living
monument and, a few of them,
The doctors passed him off
till not even the lowliest expert
had a use.
What was there to do?
He who was neither
wolf nor man, who bit back
at their entreaties
with his chiseled face?
Here is a tune
to help him dance or sleep.
It is a little like
the music in him
which is to say a moth’ring
mouth and a maw.
A mordant, dormant tune
from which he cannot fall.
This poem is titled after the rousing hornpipe “The Rights of Man,” and speaks directly to Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man, who wrote “Whatever is my right as a man is also the right of another; and it becomes my duty to guarantee as well as to possess.”
Here you are again, Tom Paine,
constructing from scratch like a cake
the elaborate organized layers,
concept upon concept, creed upon creed,
by which the seeds of man,
the many rising kinds of men and
many flavors of women, shall be shaped
into a thing of peace that will,
if you are right about these rights,
and if young Washington listens,
be a ceaseless Rube Goldberg contraption of a jolly good self-
perpetuating country, the way God on his best
good hair day dreams.
Molecular? Spectacular? Oracular? Vernacular?
What shall this song be, your music that calls
from the gizzard of the common man
a listing of his rights, his left-behinds, his thefts,
his faintest inclinations toward the good that,
rightly codified, could shine?
We have some rights today.
We’re mostly fed, and mostly said
to be allowed to vote, love, dance, finally
marry whom we please,
safely get sick if the boss has a plan,
and vote and piss at will if we are not in jail.
On rights, you were right, Tom Paine.
We’ve kept the “e” that ends your name.
We wouldn’t want it said again
how, given rope, we’d, ourselves, hang
on to what you said. Dear Tom.
Dear. Beautiful. Dead. “Thoughtful optimist” man.
We want the stuff you knew about. The stuff
that isn’t stuff. We want the system wherein
we are kingless, queenless, none of that fluff.
We want for God to tell us to put down
our cardboard burger crowns, dear peoples,
on the sacred ground.
Down come the crowns! Mums’ crowns, dads’ crowns,
thee and me crowns. A million zillion heads of state
all equal, on the ground. It’s a dance we do,
or listen to. We want our rights. We won them. They’re
the right to pose as our true selves.
The right to drink ourselves to death.
The right to ink the tattoo down into our starving heart
and change our mind again.
Tom Paine, thanks for the Rights of Man.
Your rights were right. We’ve set them so. We even have a song that goes:
“Mairi’s Wedding” is a popular folk song originally written in Gaelic.
The part I woke up singing was the chorus, the jaunty heft, Mairi’s long hair not flowing so much as writing on the air for it was an aire and I was playing in a band, a band of villagers and a rubber band and a band with an and and a pick-up band, I was playing my wooden flute, the one I’ll get in deepest Asheville, a town made all of ashes of the druid tree they torched to extract the one pure flute they make replicas of now.
I was next to the mandolin and you were playing your fiddle hung around your neck by a contraption of ribbons and gleaming birds and spaghetti though they don’t make that in the country where Mairi lives, where she survives to this day on pure unadulterated unpasteurized hummingbird milk. If I were Mairi it would be cool to be folksy, unashamed of loving eight bar phrases where the dancers’ feet come down like a herd of elks stepping up to the bar, where the tonic in the glasses is designed for elk lips and they all sip at once, going forward and back. Arm and arm and heel and toe: a Twister game, Mairi in junior high, her first smooch with that boy she will marry: the thing they’ll make the song about, though if you told her that then she would have been grossed out and become a cheerleader instead of a milkmaid on the spot.
Everyone should have a song about themselves! Everyone should have someone write a song or a poem about them and that goes double for those of us gushing pixels at everyone else. So today Mairi’s wedding is about our wedding, notwithstanding it might be a challenge to pull off what with a fiddle for a stiff curvaceous tie and me in my mandatory naked dream attire. We will have to get dressed sometime or other in this life or decide to be clothed, forever and always, only in music.
Meanwhile, we can sing these old Irish tunes that reek of sweet milk, a little caveman nipple in them—even when, as occasionally happens in these dour, flagrant days, there is something truly, deeply, lavishly happy to sing about!
Jil Chambliss, flute and singing. Jil is an internationally-known Celtic flute player and singer. https://jilchambless.weebly.com/
Dan Vogt, guitar. Dan is a versatile guitarist and owner of the Guitar Gallery. https://theguitargallery.com/
Roger James, fiddle. Roger is a professional violinist in the Alabama Symphony Orchestra who moonlights as a fiddle player. https://alabamasymphony.org/
David Myers, sound. David is an audio engineer at The Moody School of Music. He plays trumpet as a freelance musician and is pursuing his D.M.A. in Music Performance at the University of Alabama. https://music.ua.edu/
Robin Behn is the author of five volumes of poems, most recently Horizon Note, The Yellow House, and Quarry Cross which is just out from Plume Editions/Madhat Press. https://madhat-press.com/collections/plume-editions
Her new resource for young writers is Once Upon a Time in the Twenty-First Century: Unexpected Exercises in Creative Writing. Robin has played in traditional bands and classical chamber groups, written, arranged, and performed in these Fiddle Tune Poems, and written the libretto for an opera, Freedom and Fire! A Civil War Story. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BP8Ha-R9uUw&t=2097s
She teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Alabama and lives in Birmingham. https://robinbehn.com
Chard deNiord is the Poet Laureate of Vermont and author of six books of poetry, including Interstate, (The University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), The Double Truth (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), Night Mowing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), Sharp Golden Thorn (Marsh Hawk Press, 2003), Speaking in Turn (a collaboration with Tony Sanders), Gnomon Press, 2011, and Asleep in the Fire (University of Alabama Press, 1990). He teaches English and Creative Writing at Providence College, where he is a Professor of English. His book of essays and interviews with seven senior American poets (Galway Kinnell, Donald Hall. Maxine Kumin, Jack Gilbert, Ruth Stone, Lucille Clifton, Robert Bly) titled Sad Friends, Drowned Lovers, Stapled Songs, Conversations and Reflections on 20th Century American Poets was published by Marick Press in 2011. His poems have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, The Antioch Review, the American Poetry Review, The American Scholar, New Ohio Review, The New Republic, and The New York Times, Best American Poetry, and The Pushcart Prize. He is the co-founder and former program director of the New England College MFA Program in Poetry and a trustee of the Ruth Stone Trust. He lives in Westminster West, Vermont with his wife Liz. https://www.charddeniord.com/