Musica Universalis

If I were to put a shell

up to my ear,

tentative and timid,

I would hear

your voice

would hear your hair

would hear the undulation of your upper lip,

smooth pink like the conch’s interior,

and every bit of you would spiral high

in high pitches and sighing breezes,

something to be praised across empires

for your pearly lustre.

After listening

to the sea rushing through you,

I would hold you up to the light,

turning you this way and that,

admiring your fibrous flame

as you would shimmer,

listening back to me

with your silky cat’s eye,

hoping for wind and sea

inside of me.

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DOUBLE Book Review: Sonnets from the Spirits and Petals of Vision by Christopher Villiers

Christopher Villiers strikes one’s interest. In Sonnets from the Spirits, a young theologian undertakes an ambitious project: I am reminded of a contemporary philosopher who noted that nothing coming after the New Testament has achieved its beauty. A tiny gameshow host appears on my retina asking, ‘will this guy live up to the challenge?’.

The answer is yes, tentative only out of piety. The medievalist Orthodox in me rears her head, thinking inevitably of the iconography dispute.

Formally speaking , poems such as ‘My Eve’ wear a mantle of angelic harmony. I feel these poems to be mimetic, functioning in an almost didactic way as an impetus: reconsider the Bible, the book tells me. There is a mixture of high and low sentiment, presumably catering to the contrast between man and God, which most of the time plays out pleasingly. Sometimes I would have liked a departure from that almost naive style clearly usurped from the Old Testament, but the poems have substance and are representative. Particularly powerful is the verse from ‘Abraham and Isaac’: ‘God will give us a lamb,” I speak kind lies/Or desperate hope, faith beyond reason’.

First person narrative makes the experience tense and heavy with the aura of stone millennia on one’s shoulders. ‘Samson’ is such a powerful poem, and has the quality of being more than reflective.

Cavafy’s historical poems come to mind, particularly Cavafy’s ‘Caesarion’ in comparison to ‘Saul’, although Villiers lacks the artistic preoccupation and prefers a sober tone. I am certain that things get complicated when it comes to such a delicate subject as Christianity, but I do wonder if Villiers will develop in this direction. His frankness when describing lust is a positive element in his writing, and he glows in the moments of expression that transcend ‘re-telling’. Evidently, the best poems by far are those in which you see the poet immersed absolutely in the communicated episode. Some are more remarkable than others in this sense, and the one that strikes me in particular is ‘Bathsheba’:’I see her bathing, her hills and valleys /Are ripe for conquest, Bathsheba thrills me.’

I cannot have the pretension of a contemporary work adding something to the most-read book in history. Villiers, I think, is conservative too in this sense, but he aims for something mimetic rather than impressionistic. His writing is like a prism: a bit of angular mirror reflecting light in many colors, quite lovely.

 

Petals of Vision is a collection that brings you close to the man inside. In a manner quite different from his previous collection, the poet weighs petty and momentous topics with the same sweet, meditative voice. Take a  ‘A Park Revisited’, which, like many other poems in Petals of Vision, possesses a piercing simplicity:

Where are you now? Do you remember me?

Can you still remember our summer here

And hereabouts?

Have years been kind to you?

There is both sadness and wonder well encased within this poet’s microcosm. No fanfares are present (though indeed sometimes I would have liked a bit more aplomb and even a sort of aggressiveness). Villiers possesses, however, a certain old-world elegance in word order and choice, sprinkled among a quotidian world of amorous deceptions and…the occasional presence of animals. Unusual, perhaps: it seems to signal an introvert who is in quiet communion with owls and dogs, and sometimes less so with people.

The book is a work not lacking in labour. As it progresses the reader finds him/herself sinking into aquatic introspection, as one does before the stars and the sea. Villiers’ poems are not elusive, but sincere and sensitive. The complex imagery indicates understated passion, a voluptuous and candid confession.’Morning was an unripe plum’: the poet bewitches us.

Some poems are remarkably intense, heavy with feeling in a strangely surprising way, like ‘Episode’:

I sit on the rim of my sanity,

Gazing down into the stony basin

As if expecting some new calamity;

A vineyard shrivelled into a raisin.

Value lies in the unexpected: the baby in ‘NewBorn’ is likened to a beetroot. Phrases like  ‘Can some time tell out the spring?’ are eyebrow-raising and effective. Also singular is the formal consistency of his poems: rhyme is so natural that you don’t notice its presence unless you look for it.

Christopher Villiers will flourish. I look forward to it.

The Night of Adam and Eve

What does the sea say tonight?
It billows over our mourning bed in moonlight,
accompanied by an enflamed midnight’s beam
in which all things different seem…
I see you still,
Lovely and ravished like a newborn pearl,
illuminated by the moon’s silver curl,
which hangs over the bed like a shell
as the sea’s waves below our feet begin to swell,
and all things different seem…

“Salty-eyed and steaming”: Interview with Caroline Petty on her new album, “Mineral Woman”

In high school, Caroline broke convention and she did it with flair. This was immediately before “alternative” became the norm, and in those days she rocked neon colors and jelly flats as a theatre kid. Today, Caroline has just completed her degree in Written Arts and Music at Bard.

Start us off by introducing what you do and what you’ve done. Have you always sung?

I’ve been singing ever since I was a kid. When I was about 4 my dad brought out a microphone and a tape recorder and just put it in front of me. I made up short songs and stories and he later put them to his own guitar playing and onto a tape I titled “Kitty Lovin'”.

Other than that, I mostly sang in choirs and school plays until I started school at Bard College where I studied jazz voice and written arts.

My favorite in your album is ‘ice’. Do you write your lyrics? How did Crystalline germinate and evolve?

I’m glad you like “ice”! That’s actually the tune that probably changed the most from start to finish. It began as a much more sparse song in regards to instrumentation and rhythm, but the guitar player, Christian, had a different and exciting vision for it and ultimately took on the role of arranging most of it.

I do write my lyrics! I also write poetry separately from my music, and there are times where my poetry influences the content of my lyrics, although I haven’t used a poem directly as lyrics before; those two writing processes are very different for me.

So Crystalline is a bit of a play on my name, Caroline. I can be a bit shy in my everyday life, but Crystalline connotes a sort of hardness, brilliance, and boldness that sometimes I wish I embodied. The name has also allowed me to form something of an aesthetic around my music in addition. An assemblage of iridescence, vibrant colors, glitter, and other ethereal outfits and accessories give the performance aspect of Crystalline another layer that distinguishes the character from my own self.

Cool! Why is the album called ‘Mineral Woman’?

The title of the album comes from a poem I wrote of the same name. It was meant to be an exercise in putting into words what/who Crystalline is.

Here comes the inevitable cliché: what inspires you? I remember you being really into Sufjan Stevens – is that still the case? Who else do you cite as an influence?

Hm that’s a tricky one! I mean, nature is a huge one (also cliche, honestly). But more specifically on that, there’s a lot of water in my lyrics, and “yellow” goes through various yellow and red birds and flowers. I also tend to write lyrics that address the feeling of being an outsider in one fashion or another. Yes! I still adore Sufjan. My absolute musical hero is Bjork. But I also love Shara Nova of My Brightest Diamond, Fiona Apple, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Corinne Bailey Rae. Lots of everything, really!

Did any old music, tapes or CD’s, or music in the family influence you?

My dad is a musician, so I’ve grown up around his music as well as all the different music he and my sister would play around the house. My sister actually introduced me to Bjork at a very young age. I have a mixtape she made me when I was probably five-years-old that has all sorts of gems on it.

I know it’s hard to pick just one – what are your absolute favorite three songs, ever?

Ho boy that is a tough one. I would have to say “Possibly Maybe” by Bjork, “Sprout and the Bean” by Joanna Newsome, and maybe the standard “Lazy Afternoon” but Eartha Kitt’s version.

Is music something very technical, cerebral to you? Do you believe in quite strict rules regarding music and music theory? Are you a feeler or a mathematician in the creative process?

Oh gosh no, it’s hardly technical for me. Math was never my strong suit, so whenever a music teacher tried to teach music to me in a more mathematical and technical fashion I just got scared and sad and rarely absorbed any of it. I’m not necessarily proud of that aspect of myself, it can make communicating my ideas to other musicians pretty difficult! I come up with the piano accompaniment for all of my original music solely by ear. I can sometimes take what I’ve learned about chord progressions and implement them when I get stuck.

What is the relationship between the written word and music to you? Are they inextricable or not?

Music and the written word are very linked for me in certain aspects, but also incredibly separate in others. For instance, many of the themes and ideas in “yellow” came about from a short series of poems I had written, however there are no direct lines from the poem in the song. I tend to write lyrics in one sitting (with minor edits made later) or each section in a separate sitting, whereas for my poetry each piece will go through a much more intensive and elongated editing process.

Do you feel the same when you write as when you sing?

I don’t feel the same! I feel much more confident when I sing. I’m full of seemingly endless doubts when I write, and I’m constantly putting energy into warding those off. When I get an idea I love, then that feeling gets closer to the feeling of singing.

What do you like to do that contributes to your music indirectly?

One thing I’ve already mentioned a couple times is writing poetry and sometimes fiction. Other than that, rollerskating outside by myself gives me a freeing feeling that probably sneaks its way into my music somehow.

You can listen to Caroline’s album here.

Vestigial Structures

I wish I could yearn to write the way I yearn to walk. The art of strolling began after my first big deception, and although I’ve long come to from the initial trauma, the walks have remained indispensable to the pruning of my soul.

A walk is like a cup of coffee. It takes time to refine, to perfect. It’s a ponderous act. It’s a sensual digestive act, and one that leaves you with a feeling of refreshment. I don’t often feel refreshed, but I associate the word with the feeling of cold hair bunched up in in a fist.

The perfect walk, like the perfect cup of coffee, is savored slowly. Delicious is the absolute lack of destination that characterizes them: it all goes to rot if you’re pressed for time. And there is nothing worse than being waited for – no! Better to imagine that I’m being awaited at the end of the road, quite unexpectedly of course, at the evening hour of church bells.

Time passes for me too, although I am young, and clinging obsessively to youth as if it’s already gone. Who it is that jealously keeps trying to snatch it away, I do not know. Stop wanting so much, I tell myself. Be simple, like your shadow, and happy with small pleasures. Picking out cherries one by one at the market. Hanging clean laundry to dry in the morning sun. Walks before the dying light – both the dying light of day and that which Dylan Thomas defies.

Still, the dying light is a caress in the right color. Golden, water-washed, familiar like a book of fairytales. Enough with philosophy for now. It is summer, fuzzy green overrides our little world and the breeze whistles flute-like in duet with the padding of white tennis shoes on the pavement.

 

The Arbitrary

Music:

a split between silences,

through which fissures of light alternate like dancing graces.

Silence:

We pass through it as waterlilies do through fluid webs,

after and before

the great Nothingness,

inverted.

The Inevitable:

I play with poison to flout it,

and survive out of that which they call ‘pure chance’.

Book Review: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Anybody in the contemporary literary scene has heard the name of Elena Ferrante. This past week, as a first act of vacation, I immersed myself in the first of her four Neapolitan novels, My Brilliant Friend.

The story is narrated in semi-omniscient first person by Elena Greco, a young girl growing up amidst the violence and misery of a small town in 1950’s Naples. Setting served as an influential and interesting driving force of the plot, as the acute and insightful descriptions of how poverty shaped people reminded one of the wonderful A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Evidently, social struggle is a central trope of the novel, but comes second to the tense whirlpool of Elena’s friendship with Lila, the magnetic and intelligent classmate.

The novel begins with a phone call from Lila’s son to an older Elena, announcing that Lila has disappeared after essentially erasing her physical existence. Elena, in reaction, recounts her and Lila’s intertwined tale, fighting against Lila’s self-destruction. She recounts how she met the remarkably bright Lila in elementary school and was fascinated by her. This fascination continues as their relationship grows both close and fraught as a result of shared experiences in the neighborhood: love, sex, local politics, and social struggles. The book spans the period from the first grade, when they meet, to the age of sixteen, when Lila is married while Elena continues her education.

I am very critical of contemporary books. With the extraordinary tradition of literature we have built up to the year 2017, we should be reaching more fabulous heights. Unfortunately, books nowadays generally fall flat in the face of the twentieth century, for instance. It is not that books are poorly written per se,  but rather that they have begun to adopt the superficial and banal tone of our lives. This is why I am not hopeful for the books of the twenty first century, though I hope to be wrong, and cling to the idea of a desperately needed Romantic revival in the future.

That said, I have mixed feelings about Ferrante’s work, which is much adored at the moment. There were things I liked: the assured tone of a woman looking back on life and analyzing her past self objectively, for instance. The poignancy of childhood and the awkwardness of adolescence were well defined, at times even elegant. I also enjoyed the setting – it seems that every film and book about Italy is based in Sicily, so it is nice to see another side of the country. I disliked the emphasis on petty feelings and would have liked some deeper reflection on what Elena was feeling. Particularly bothersome was the fact that Elena’s fascination with Lila seems fairly unjustified: Lila is meant to be ‘brilliant’ but simply comes across as cold, detached, and not easy to empathize with.

As a result, I don’t know that I would continue to read Ferrante were it not for the dreadful cliffhanger that the book concludes with (and this is a personal preference, too: I do not like books that cannot stand on their own and I’m sure others feel much the same). We shall see: I may change my ambivalent opinion into a more positive one if curiosity eventually triumphs.