Vyshinsky: Why did you write the poem?
Rostov: It demanded to be written. I simply happened to be sitting at the particular desk on the particular morning when it chose to make its demands.
–Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow
In music and in poetry live ongoing revelation. Whether we choose the metaphor of a birthing process, a weaving of cloth, a chiseling away of stone, a building up of structure, or the mixing of reactive chemicals, something is showing or becoming known that wasn’t before. We experience this when a classical artist reinterprets a well-known work of music, something canonic that’s been played and recorded dozens of times, and manages to bring a new phrasing or inflection to the piece. Same with a band covering a great song from a decade before, or a young generation discovering the folk music of their grandparents. Listeners get a sense of pleasant surprise, and the work maintains its reputation as classic because it always has new depth for us. We experience that sense of the new while reading poems composed of ordinary words arranged in novel ways: maybe a noun verbed, or a double meaning that reveals a third meaning. We are always recycling material, but humans rarely repeat ourselves exactly. We’re driven to show our insights, tiny intimations seemingly given us to show the world.
Musicians reading this will object that there is a difference between reinterpreting and composing. The composer writes music that didn’t exist before; the improviser creates in real time; the performer makes sound that exists temporally in its moment but was reproduced from memory or from a printed score. The sound engineer makes possible the preservation of the art, which is, itself, an art. There’s no hierarchy to this. I do wonder why some are drawn to writing and others to reproducing or recording. Russell Brakefield’s poetry collection from 2018, Field Recordings, deals implicitly with these questions. The book is possibly unique in being a poetic ekphrasis on texts about music. It is a reflection on and homage to ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, specifically the work he did documenting folk songs in Michigan in the early twentieth century. To a lesser extent, Brakefield also deals in a poetics of musical sound itself.
Yes, I’m shelving the discussion about the term ethnomusicologist until another time. But feel free to comment on that.
Brakefield (whose reading in Ann Arbor I just missed) writes about Michigan like someone who has lived and traveled here. He understands that moods in this landscape are nearly always weather-based or circadian:
If we walk slow with the bugs,
down along the grassy bank,
under that rib cage bridge,
we can catch a fat buzz
off the night air, our cheeks
like hard white shadows
(After the Labor Day Procession)
I’ve waited all day for this light—orange fog
above the pond where all life lifts away.
(Ode to Joy)
We will hunt mushrooms
in the dew and leaves
along Morrison Road,
consoled by our quiet looking,
the necessity of space apart
below the sparse, dark trees.
(Kalkaska County, Michigan)
Brakefield’s poems are not, to my ear, lyrical. But they are beautiful. I would describe them as somehow chordal: colors layer into harmony, sometimes with pedal effects. They don’t refer directly to one another, but they associate and interleave, especially on repeated readings. His musical references are easy to understand and, although he could have gone into esoteric territory when dealing with the Lomax documents, he keeps things approachable for a lay reader, with plenty of attractive byways and “I wonder what he means by that” along the path.
There’s an agreeable quality to the whole collection. As a narrator, even when ventriloquizing Lomax, Brakefield maintains an even-keeled persona, appealing—Midwestern nice?—without begging for the reader’s regard. He seems to have found some answers about how music performers, composers, and documentarians relate. I was going to say, what we owe each other, but beholdenness doesn’t come into play. It’s all very fair:
Part of the player
is leased to the listener like sign language or a farmer
swatting a barn cat from the butter dish.
(The High and Lonesome Sound)
And, conveniently, when dealing with a history of folksongs, we don’t have to worry about violating copyright. Here is an interview Brakefield gave to Ann Arbor literary arts reporter Martha Stuit about working, writing, and listening to a wide swath of music. My favorite quotation from the interview: “Many of the songs we know come from these oral traditions and have been passed down, translated, changed, stolen, updated, recorded, revised, celebrated, etc.” Brakefield doesn’t go deeply into the topic of cultural appropriation, but he’s clearly not at ease with the white legacy of profiting from black music or the legacy of literate, well-off music producers profiting from the folksy caché of less educated, poor whites.
Music of a different sort comes and goes through Noah Eli Gordon’s book of connected poems The Frequencies. There’s less landscape here, more interiority. More closed rooms, cabinets, and the sometimes claustrophobic space inside one’s own head:
“We filtered sound for an hour. The phone at the station, off the hook.” –98.7
“…another beautiful abstraction, the ivory keys that collect because I couldn’t remodel the dust into an acceptable swell of music & the movies end despite everything. My hands in my lap the whole time.” –95.7
“The paint was making us sick but we still loved the walls.” –106.3
Each poem’s title is a number, specifically, an FM radio setting. As Gordon obviously has some experience as a broadcaster and radio aficionado, I have to think he knew what he was doing, using frequencies as titles that would have different associations for him than for any given reader. I had my own associations with many of the stations, based on what type of music or other programming they play where I live, or where I grew up. Those associations, of course, have nothing to do with the poems’ or the poet’s intention; within a piece of literature, “88.7” has no more absolute meaning than, say, the color red or the letter W. If we assume that each station number has private meaning to the author, then the numerical titles might function as labels or file names, calling up a state of mind or an image related to the words on the page. Lacking that point of reference, the reader is left with whatever state of mind or image the words on the page conjure. It follows that we might then associate that feeling with the numerical title. It’s like a way of reverse engineering meaning in a poem.
I’ve always considered myself bad at titles, and I always come up with the title last when I write. Some number of poems remain untitled or unsatisfactorily titled still. But those tend to be stand-alones, not sections of a book-length woven-together work. In a book where each poem, or section, functions as an integrated part, perhaps verbal titles aren’t necessary. I found each one in The Frequencies to have its own subtle shading, but the recurrent themes and linkages between them might be the most salient feature.
Radio broadcasters are some combination of performer and documentarian. Perhaps aural docents: they curate and present art for the sake of an audience they cannot see, much as a violinist playing to a darkened full house. How much can any of us trust that the message is getting across? That ambiguity winds through the poems. Mostly I’m not sure whether Gordon even receives the messages he sends himself; the quick changes of tense and point of view seem to reflect the poet’s own disorientation.
Gordon makes reference at various times to music notation, to Braille, to the sound of the shofar, and to hearing disembodied or imagined voices. His experience of transmission, then, has been varied and perhaps a little haunted. He doesn’t seem to trust what he hears or reads, leading to (or resulting from?) a lot of puns:
“There was a tone in my shoe. I was picking up the station with my teeth. When I met you earlier at the restaurant, you winked at the waiter, told him you’re always hungry after six.” –107.9
“The call letters made an anagram we interpreted as feedback until our sentences ran out of themselves.” –107.1
“I’m still unconvinced reading music leaves nineteen letters unaccounted for.” –92.5
“Still, life with radio is remembering sound.” –100.9
That last line is reminiscent of the pun wrought repeatedly by the great Thomas Lynch, poet-undertaker of Milford, Michigan: Still, life = still life.
I had to wonder whether Gordon had read Lynch (“Still, life in Milford isn’t all that bad”) or whether, and very possibly, he had independently thought up the “still life with radio.” As active as these poems are in the sense of internal, private goings-on, a sort of twitchy itchiness, they leave a closing impression of muteness. I keep picturing a recording booth and thinking of the way all sound is absorbed by the acoustical walls. You could say anything and never be overheard.