Poems & Essays

24 Aug

From This Body–Music

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O my people—they loved words. Misunderstood bible verses, nursery rhymes, and misquoted lines of Shakespeare. There’s nothing like the early seventeenth century rhythms of King James’ English. It’s why so many folks hold on the KJV, when better translations abound: why should we work to understand something in our minds, when its rhythms have already beat their tattoo into our bodies? By the time I entered school, I knew deeply, though I could not express it, that poetry was holy, to be spoken—and like all holy, spoken things—often just beyond the grasp of understanding, and shimmery. This is the gift of my inheritance, and it will be my daughter’s, too.

But both of us, we want more.

My grandmother would hold me to her skin, wrap her cotton robe around our bodies and sing, “I have a baby Kangaroo…” It’s a song I’ve kept close and given to my daughter. My aunt, ever near, would blare pop & punk from every radio she could dial in. By the time I was in middle school, my primer was the hymnal of John Bon Jovi. And yet, for all this, there was no music in the house where I grew up. Something about it got under my mother’s skin, made her angrier than usual. Sometimes, she’d tolerate it in short bursts, but always reluctantly, with breath held. The writer in me wants blur my mother into someone too sensitive, too easily moved by sound waves crashing in her ears. But the TV—with its constant cacophony and contained fire—was never a problem for her. Only music. I’m certain that my mother’s rejection of song and my hunger for it are deeply entwined. 

My daughter, she sings and dances with abandon. She does not hide her love for music: she chooses dresses that twirl, night lights that wink like disco balls. She bangs her mini-piano so out of tune; we are a house of percussion. And she howls, “Rock & Roll!” while strumming her blue hound-dog guitar, with its four strings and pre-set songs. My daughter, who always wants to be with, to be together, has begged me to play this blue-plastic thing, its tiny strap over my head. How do I tell her, there are limits to my music?

In my childhood home where bible verses were flung like so much steel in the war of emotions, my brother and I pilgrimed another way: we Our-Fathered ourselves into the trance-like lyrics of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” while REM’s “Losing My Religion” took us to the kingdom and the power and the glory. How surprising then, that for all I understand of anapest and line-breaks-as-half-comma-pauses, I cannot carry a tune. I cannot even blend my voice into the background of a choir. I cannot, from this body, make music. I tried my heart against a saxophone, an alto beast in a giant wooden case, drug from busstop to blacktop to holiday march. That sax sang as poorly as I did. The transition from alto to baritone only marked my rough-breathed failure as a dirge. 

So silenced, in my teen years I tumbled privately through the iambic feet of The Canterbury Tales, through the anaphora of El Cid—and Beowulf. O I could not tell you which I loved more: kenning & caesura, or Seamus Heaney for giving them to me. How I wanted to write as these writers wrote—in allegory, in epic catalogue, in flourishes of musical language. I wanted my words in aria. Poe did it with “The Raven” and better with “Annabel Lee”— In her sepulcher there by the sea, / In her tomb by the sounding sea. 

Of course, there were the Norton tomes to keep me: the mystics (Julian of Norwich, Hafiz), and saints (James, Augustine), and the poetry of Johns Donne and Milton. For novels, I meditated in the magical (Allende, Marquez, Bulgokov, Rushdie), the tortured (Tolstoy, Solzhenitsyn, Dostoevsky, Gorky), and the dystopian (Orwell, Huxley, Atwood). If you know these writers, you know they are spell casters: their meter makes you go amnesiac for the dream they offer you. In reading them, I understood, too, how our art can be dangerous, powerful. This is what I wanted my words to be: an arcane conjuring of a deep and wild magic. O let me write as fearlessly. I apprenticed myself to these spell casters, and in time, I found myself a poet, broken & become.

***

In the hard moments of hard days, my three-year-old curls herself away and sings to herself, to the walls, to me, to the shadows listening: “It’s so hard…to [be a] big girl…” It’s a song in the lineage of the Kangaroo song, one I made up for moments like these, a recent iteration of “Why is the baby so very mad?” and “She’s so fierce, with her two teeth.” I have been giving her these nonsense spells since her birth. I have chanted them to her, changing the lyrics at whim, and to suit her moods and requests. She doesn’t mind my voice, doesn’t question or pull from it: It’s so hard to big girl—sing it Mommy.  And by all that’s holy, I do. How has this little child so easily broken open the heart of my poetic wound? 

As a young poet, I composed countless lines of sonorous words in delightful and tragic patterns with little semantic sense. As antiquated language faded from the codex of my writing, new voices made their way in, and with them an understanding of what happens when phonemes become morphemes, when morphemes become words—signifier and signified, and now we have meaning. Where before there was sound as somatic truth, now it was a doorway from my body to the larger world. Ray Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains,” and its proto-Siri voice reciting poetry to the house’s absent inhabitants, formed the first tether between my psyche and living writers. A few years later, as if in echo of Bradbury, out from the mystic, I heard Robert Hayden ask, “What did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”—and suddenly, poetry gave voice (and blessedly, contrast) to the “chronic angers” that surrounded me. 

O questionable confessional poetry in halting lines and the call of an open mic —I was fearless on the slam stage—the one poetic venue that wants to hear you. But this was not my place either. My scratchings were steeped in outdated verse, a locked doxology (for ever and ever, amen), and the primal vocal patterns fueling my writing were in direct conflict with my desire to be understood. Up to this point, I hadn’t considered what it meant to be a poet in a world where only the likes of Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen might write like this—“too street” for the page and “too heady” for the stage—and I didn’t have a guitar to tender that connection.  

So I did what any cloistered poet would do: I looked to contemporary masters for a new vernacular (Adrianne Rich, Philip Levine, Lee Young-Li among them), begged them to discipline my writing out from song and into narrative. I prostrated myself at the feet of Anne Lamott, Stephen King and Richard Hugo. For every fast, I would swear off Kalevala and Sir Gawain. Let me be narrative, O lord. Renew a right spirit within me. But I found instead Matthew Francis, Brenda Hillman and Michael Ondaatje. The fractured storytelling in House of Leaves and Cloud Atlas, and all the sundry works of Catherynne Valente.  I played Counting Crows on repeat. 

***

My husband gave me a honey-golden, steel stringed Fender for Christmas the year I said I wanted music so badly I could feel it ripping out of me. I might have been wishing for voice lessons, or a piano, or a guitar small enough to consider the short span of my hands—something, anything that hurt less in the learning. The guitar came with a handful of lessons from which I remember only the importance of good posture and the care it takes to pluck each string separately before strumming. Strings held haphazardly buzz their resistance. 

Words can do the same. With poetry I am in my body. Sound is my temple and editing for it is a rapture; when I write, I don’t think about syllables or schema unless that’s the task I’ve willed myself to—but I listen. I really listen. I listen despite knowing that we are no longer an oral culture, but a written one. That even as you read this now, you read it in silence. Have we even spent the time to grieve the loss of rhyme & its attendant devices—we no longer need them to remember—  

When the guitar lessons were over, I zipped up the Fender in its dustproof bag, folded up the display stand and put both in the corner closet out of sight and out of harm. I’d run into it now and again, on birthdays and holidays, digging for rolls of tape or books I should have donated. The guitar kept its peace through a 75-mile move, through my pregnancy and the first years of my daughter’s life. But my baby, my Juniper—Breaker of Curses, She Who Purifies—saw right through it all. She gravitated to the guitar as soon as I put it in my studio.

June comes in when I’m trying to write. She brings that ridiculous hound-dog guitar and asks me to dance. I put on a playlist where there are poets behind the instruments, but that only fuels her. Where is that through-line, O lord, where / is the narrative arc? She doesn’t seem to care that I’ve been trying to order a collection of poems for years, unsuccessfully, that the floor is littered in pages. She doesn’t ask me how it is I can manage chapbooks, so I don’t tell her that a chapbook is just an album—

Maybe I should accept that the readers at the small presses that are willing to endure my idiolect aren’t looking for something so fractured as what I can offer. No, we are of the age where “the collection” must also be a memoir or the retelling of some great struggle. Or Spoon River, but not quite so didactic. Slush readers have no patience for my rough rebellion, where the you of the second poem is the same you of the 24th—and sometimes they’re both god—but with variations and fumblings in between. And without music, how can I find the chords to tell them that the connections they cannot see are there: in the rhythms, in the assonance and associations, in the “holy and the broken hallelujah.” But you don’t really care for music, do ya[1]?

I ordered new strings for my guitar– ones with silk rolled in, less harsh on the fingers. I found a friend who was willing to restring it. And with supplication, I trimmed my nails short and turned my face toward YouTube. O let me start with just 2 chords and no clefts at all. And in my good posture, and with clean-plucked strings, I strum through E, through A-sus-2, through A and G. I use my pinky when my ring finger can’t reach—all while my daughter, humming along, keeps time with her little fingers, tapping out the letters she has learned on the keys of my computer. Who am I to be dogmatic in such things?


[1] From Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” 

Sherre Vernon is an educator, a seeker of a mystical grammar, and a 2019 recipient of the Parent-Writer Fellowship at MVICW. She has two award-winning chapbooks: Green Ink Wings (prose) and The Name is Perilous (poetry). Readers describe Sherre’s work as heartbreaking, richly layered, lyrical and intelligent. To read more of her work visit www.sherrevernon.com/publications and tag her into conversation @sherrevernon

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