“. . . 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

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Valentine’s Day – for romantic love only? Not an attempt at humor

I'll seek the seas. . .

I’ll seek the seas. . .

Let me say up front this is not a Valentine’s Day paean to my father. That may be part of it, but it sets the stage for what I want to say.

My father was a man of surprises. Examples. A Baptist minister, he once, in about 1958, gave a friend of mine what I consider to be the most faithful answer a person of faith can give to the question, “Do you believe in evolution?” His answer—“I believe God created the heavens and the earth, and I don’t need to know how.” He also, for the record, never once in my life judged me for being gay—and he knew before Stonewall that I was. A man of surprises.

"I don't need to know how"

“I don’t need to know how”

That I, having rejected almost totally the religious language and observance of the church, can write without embarrassment about his faith, and even use his words, is testament to his love.

As I was in the childhood process of learning to play the piano and organ, my father would give me hymn tunes to play, tunes he loved but that our congregation did not know. His way to hear them was to have me learn them and then sneak them into the Sunday evening services. The most surprising of those for a Baptist minister, I think, was “O Sacred Head, now Wounded.”

My father had a favorite tune. The words he sang to the tune are at the end of this post. The tune is Kingsfold arranged by Ralph Vaughan Williams. I have often wondered how my father learned such tunes—most likely when he was in college. Certainly not in any Baptist church I was acquainted with in childhood.

The tune first appeared as a hymn tune in The English Hymnal of 1906. The source of the tune is the English folk song, “Star of the County Down” which tells a quaint story of unrequited love. Vaughan Williams’ arrangement of the tune is used for several texts in modern hymnals. Even in Roman Catholic hymnals.

That brings me to Valentine’s Day.

The tune has come back into my life in a most surprising way. Allow me to be mysterious and private about that. I will say only that it is once again for me an expression of love.

Mysterious and personal

Mysterious and personal

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote in his book National Music and other Essays from 1934 (I paraphrase—I’m not at home where I have it on the shelf) that the chief glory of music is that it is absolutely useless. You’ll just have to take my word for it that he’s right—I’ll write about it someday. But I will say that Kingsfold has been used for so many texts that it has taken on an expressive life of its own. Sharing such a tune—with anyone, with one’s father or a friend or a church choir or one’s lover—is absolutely useless except that the tune itself has become an expression of love.

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.
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I feel the winds of God today; today my sail I lift,
Though heavy, oft with drenching spray, and torn with many a rift;
If hope but light the water’s crest, and Christ my bark will use,
I’ll seek the seas at His behest, and brave another cruise.

It is the wind of God that dries my vain regretful tears,
Until with braver thoughts shall rise the purer, brighter years;
If cast on shores of selfish ease or pleasure I should be;
Lord, let me feel Thy freshening breeze, and I’ll put back to sea.

If ever I forget Thy love and how that love was shown,
Lift high the blood red flag above; it bears Thy name alone.
Great pilot of my onward way, Thou wilt not let me drift;
I feel the winds of God today, today my sail I lift.