“. . . What hand plucks With what bird’s quill. . .” (Luis Cernuda)

The First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska

The First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska

Yesterday, Valentine’s Day, I began writing. I was distracted by another line of research. I forget what. Now I’m back to yesterday’s thoughts.

My, oh my, as Grandmother Peck used to say. I had a Valentine’s Day e-card from a friend in Paris. He lives there three months of the year. Some old queen left him a time-share condo in his will, or something like that. I don’t remember.  When one gets too old to make memories (I didn’t say too old to do new things—but they don’t become “memories”—there isn’t time left for that), one is ambushed by memories from ages ago for no apparent reason.

Why should a Valentine’s Day e-card bring up memories of the First Baptist Church of Kearney, Nebraska? A card that says only “One is loved because one is loved. No reason is needed for loving.” Paulo Coellio, The Alchemist. No pictures, no music, nothing more.

Suddenly I was thinking about the monumental stained glass windows in the old First Baptist Church building of Kearney, Nebraska. I wonder if the building still stands. It was (is) a red sandstone Richardson-Romantic style building. How it came to be built in Kearney, Nebraska, I don’t know.

The building has much significance for my family. My father was pastor of the church, 1950-1952. My sister was born in Kearney. When she was about two years old, just getting teeth, she fell on the concrete steps of the church, breaking her two front teeth—and was without those teeth until her adult teeth grew in several years later. People (who?) tormented her for years singing, “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth.”

He hardly needed to be "out"

He hardly needed to be “out”

I remember standing in the balcony in the rear of that church sanctuary and touching the glass of the rose window. I remember being down in the front of the sanctuary on a Sunday morning, sitting on the floor with the other children as my dad preached a “children’s sermon.” Perhaps someday I’ll write about it—one of those lessons that we could never be good enough. Baptist preachers, even my gentlemanly father, are prone to preach those sermons. No “No reason is needed for loving” there.

Robert Lowry (1826-1899) was responsible for about 500 of the most popular and musically most pedestrian hymntunes in the American church repertory, tunes using basically only tonic, dominant, and sub-dominant chords.

I learned his hymn (both words and music) “Low in the Grave He Lay” at the First Baptist Church of Kearney. One might well ask how I can be sure because I learned so many hymns as a child in so many different churches. I can be close to certain because I have the picture, the sound, even the feel of standing on a pew leaning against my mother in that sanctuary singing that hymn.

It’s a perfectly mundane, shall I say “silly?” tune. But it’s fun to sing. As a university music student years later I learned academeze for the melody that rises through the tonic chord at the beginning of the refrain. It’s a “Mannheim Rocket.” I had more than a passing interest in the tune. I was fascinated even then by the raised tone (f-sharp) at the end of the verse, the leading tone of the secondary dominant (G major) preparing the “chorus.”

For reasons I cannot fathom I was, yesterday morning, thinking about that Richardson-style buildings and music of the blandest style—both as a result of opening an e-card for Valentine’s Day.

Born in Seville in 1902, the poet Luis Cernuda left Spain in 1938 for permanent exile. With Federico Garcia Lorca and others, he is one of the Generation of 1927, the important avant garde Spanish poets influenced by surrealism.

Cernuda was an openly gay poet in the day when no one was openly gay. I have written about him before—his poem “Musical Instrument.”

“Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda
If the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill
To awaken the notes,

What hand plucks
With what bird’s quill
The wound in you
That awakens the word?

What hand plucks with what bird’s quill the wound in me that awakens the word? I am not a poet or even much of a writer, but I have words.

Those stained-glass windows. That maudlin tune. That e-card valentine. And now the Arab musician plucking his lute’s strings.

What hand is it that plucks the wounds that awaken my words?

My writing plan yesterday (and again today) was to explore poetry by contemporary Arab and Arab-American poets. Obviously, opening the folder “Arab poets” on my desktop turned up the Cernuda poem. Not an Arab poet, but writing about an Arab musician—in a country with an undeniable Arab past.

But that was before I opened the e-Valentine.

My, oh my, as Grandmother Peck would have said.

The point! The point?

“The poet is also a tragic figure because of his conflict with society; his connection with the daemonic power [beauty] gives him the status of a prophet, an interpreter of the divine law,” writes Dereck Harris (1) and quotes Cernuda saying

Su destino todos lo conocemos: enfermedad, pobreza, inforunio. Pero no nos lamentemos de ello ahora: sería farisáico. A nuestro lado puede repetinse en alguien más aquel destino ya cumplido en otros; no nos importaría. Mientras la sociedad esté organizada de la manera que lo estuvo entonces y lo está hoy, el infortunio de Bécquer es y será possible (2).

What else can be the fate of the poet who is concerned “with the relationship between the temporally circumscribed existence of the individual and the eternal spirit of life itself. . . the poet’s aim is to halt the flux of time. . .” (Harris).

The misfortune of Bécquer (and Cernuda, and the Arab poets I’m trying to study) is to write the “relationship between the temporally circumscribed existence of the individual and the eternal spirit of life itself.”

My temporally circumscribed existence, 1950 to 2015, I know. However, the relationship. . .
__________
(1) Harris, Dereck. Luis Cernuda-a Study of the Poetry. London: Tamesis Books, 1975 (page 98).
(2) My translation—I hope it captures at least the gist of the passage: We all know his [the poet’s] destiny: illness, poverty, misfortune. But we should not lament him now: that would be Pharasaic. On the one hand one can repent and, on the other, destiny has made us complicit; it does not matter to us. While society is organized as it has been then and is today, the misfortune of Bécquer is and will be possible.
[The poet Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer, considered the founder of modern Spanish poetry, died of tuberculosis before most of his work was published.]

"Arab Musician," by al-Brazyly

“Arab Musician,” by al-Brazyly

sum link for other blog

“. . . rising from the water with my black feathers wet. . .” (Brigit Pegeen Kelly)

. . . the Arab musician Plucks the lute strings With an eagle quill . . .

. . . the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill . . .

.

.

.

.

For the last four days I have been trying to explain to myself in writing my (almost) constant preoccupation with what I suppose many people (my psychiatrist among them) would say is death. This is not a new writing struggle. No, many friends have told me that I need to stop thinking about it, that my preoccupation is not healthy, that I just need to get on with life. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Several people have reminded me that my stated purpose when I began this blog was to write in a more light-hearted vein than I write on my other blog.

A few days ago, I posted on Facebook the poem “Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda (September 21, 1902 – November 5, 1963).

“Musical Instrument,” by Luis Cernuda, translated by Stephen Kessler
If the Arab musician
Plucks the lute strings
With an eagle quill
To awaken the notes,

What hand plucks
With what bird’s quill
The wound in you
That awakens the word?

(From Desolation of the Chimera, 2010)

Cernuda is one of those shadowy figures whose name—and some vague information about him—I have known for years. Heard about him in one graduate seminar or another, noted him as someone I ought to research, promptly forgot.

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile

He was a gay Spanish Republican, living in exile from 1938 until his death. My guess is—although I have no knowledge of this—he traveled the 9 miles across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco when he was a young man in search of a kind of exoticism that Spain did not afford him (see the stories of Paul Bowles if you need an explanation). Pure speculation.

Or perhaps there is (or was) more residue of Arab music in Spain in the 1930s than I know about. More likely.

At any rate, he knew the oud, the Arab-style lute plucked traditionally with a “pick” made of eagle feathers. Oud comes from the Arabic word for “wood.” A real oud is made of a single piece of wood, carved into the shape of a lute. Cernuda was an openly gay Spanish poet, literary critic, and political activist living in exile in Mexico who wrote a poem about making music with an Arab instrument, translated by (another openly) gay California poet.

The day before I posted Cernuda’s poem, I had my six-month check-up with my neurologist. After pleasantries, the first question always is, “Have you had any seizure activity since you were here?” If I hadn’t, why would I maintain our friendship? I told him about the little incident a couple of weeks ago when a student I was tutoring left the room to print out his essay and I was surprised to find him sitting again at the table because, in my experience, he never came back into the room. If that’s ever happened to you, you know the difference between checking out and nodding off.

So, yes, I have had “seizure activity” in the past six months. Nothing to worry about, though. Maybe blacked out for30 seconds? A minute?

“I think it’s time for you to consider not driving.”

Oh, right. Living in Dallas, car and SUV capital of the world (after Beijing, of course).

Clinical observations during the past 150 years support an association between religious experiences during (ictal), after (postictal), and in between (interictal) seizures. In addition, epileptic seizures may increase, alter, or decrease religious experience especially in a small group of patients with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). (Devinsky, O. “Spirituality and religion in epilepsy.” Epilepsy Behavior 12.4. May 2008. nih.gov).

I don’t know if any of that medical jargon describes accurately anything that happens (or has ever happened) to me. Most of the time I’m pretty sure my TLE is made up. It never happened. My brain is just fine, thank you. Some oddities that everyone has experienced but most people simply ignore.

But then there’s this matter of religion. I don’t believe any of it. Honest. I don’t rant and rave and hate people about it the way Bill Maher does, but I don’t get it. My limited intellect simply doesn’t understand. So my sins are forgiven and I go to heaven when I die and I’m met by St. Peter at the Pearly Gates before the Streets of Gold, or I’m ushered into a Seraglio and presented with 47 virgins for my pleasure (I hope they’re men).

For eternity? Boring!

I don’t believe any of it, but I can’t shake it. Learning? Family training and heritage? Social norm? Well, no. It’s a matter of experience. I don’t mean to get all spooky here. But when I’m playing the Brahms Chorale Prelude Herzlich tut mich erfreuen (“My heart abounds with pleasure”) I experience something besides the physical act of playing and hearing or the mental act of understanding. It’s most present when I’m playing here by myself. If you’re around, it’s more present if someone else is playing. There’s a back story that I can’t quite hear or tell.

And I know I am most present to myself—it’s an order of magnitude away from self-centeredness—when, in a moment that feels remarkably like a seizure and/or a musical performance, I am absorbed (total absorption) in wondering what it is (or will be) to be dead. The absorption is overwhelming grief and joy simultaneously. It’s

the wound in [me]
That awakens the word

Or, from another poem that represents the back story I can’t quite hear or tell, but I know,

. . . What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

The back story haunts me daily. It’s nothing Dr. Agostini can fix.

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly (b. 1951)
from To the Place of the Trumpets, 1988

The leopard is mine, the snow leopard with the face
like a dinner plate, and I am the boy in blue knickers

staring as fiercely as any warrior in any sheepskin
ever stared, but I have no arrows and my leopard will scare

no one. Now, there are only the tulips and the swans unfolding
their soft wings, and the green stream along whose banks

harps are strung in the acacias, over whose waters
the sun passes like a silver hand carrying a cup of wine.

I had not thought enough of death, of entering the black canal,
of rising from the water with my black feathers wet.

and my ears open “like the mouths of babes for milk” to drums
and cymbals, gongs and horns, and that song the stars

sing just before dawn, where there is a night for them
to leave behind and the loss of it growing. Now our hearts

are lions’ hearts, golden in our breasts, and if we spit
it is Solomon and the silver of all his temples. Not Solomon

Grundy. Nothing is Grundy here. And though my sandals
do not quite fit, and though the little gray lambs will never

leave me alone, there is only Good morning in all this,
and How do you do? And how do you do again? My mind

is like the harp strings, with a breeze blowing always
and no rest in sight. It is a mind that belongs

to the four winds, and a body that is only the thought of a thought,
a reminder of something the mind tries to gather into a pile

like wheat, but the pile blows away, and I watch gold fragments
turning on the wind. Here the lilies lie down at your feet.

Here everyone wins the prize so you don’t know where to look,
whose elbow to softly touch. And there is always

in this liquid air the song my mother sang to me, but now
it is for everyone and my heart, which is a lion’s heart

no longer rolls over and weeps at the sound. What I
wished for is not as I understood it to be, I have still

not seen an angel, unless that red cloud passing beyond the trees
when my leopard went for a walk was one. And though

there are no gates here, no locks or keys, there is also no way
to leave–no way in this lion’s heart to desire to do so.

"The Peaceable Kingdom," Edward Hicks, 1848

“The Peaceable Kingdom,” Edward Hicks, 1848