Between The Words I Couldn’t Understand and The First Music I Can’t Remember by Dorianne Laux
I’m in bed in a strange place and I can hear voices in another room, my mother’s unmistakable voice among them, and in the background there is a song on the radio or record player, something about blue eyes, and I try to push the voices from my ears so I can hear the song.
Later I remember singing to myself, a song from a TV series called Tippy Top.
And then my mother at her piano, my ears filling with Bach, Bartok, Brahms and Beethoven, Hayden and Handel, Chopin, Mozart Schubert and Liszt. And also Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers, and George Gershwin. And the songs she sang to us before bed, the French songs of her childhood, Frere Jacques, Sur le pont, d’Avignon, Alouette, the words meaningless but beautiful in the mouth.
And, rock and roll. Of course the music and rhythms of rock, the energy and rebellious nature of it, but also the lyrics, the poetry. I feel lucky to have grown up in an epoch of great lyricists. Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, David Crosby, James Taylor, Bob Dylan, Carole King, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, Neil Young, Lennon and McCartney, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Nicks, Cat Stevens, Frank Zappa, Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm, Van Morrison, Bernie Taupin and Elton John, Brian Wilson, Harry Nilsson, Roy Orbison, Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen. And later, Tom Waits, Rickie Lee Jones, Warren Zevon, the list goes on. From them, I learned what poetry was, how it moved something inside you, moved you to get up and dance, to sing and to fight, but also to ponder and wonder, to be filled with the suffering and sadness of being human.
When I first began to write poetry, I think it was because I wanted to play music and tell stories, at the same time. I wrote heavily end-rhymed verse, loving the sounds and rhythms that language could produce. I wanted to write Joni Mitchell’s “Blue,”
or Paul Simon’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water,”
or Lennon’s “In My Life.”
Of course I couldn’t, and I didn’t have the swell of instrumentation to accompany my words, nor a song-writing partner. But I tried, and I think that trying and failing helped me to become a poet.
When I finally gave up the ghost and began to write in free verse, I felt as if I had been released from a gilded cage. I could say whatever I wanted to, however I wanted to, and sometimes that felt right. But there was something missing, and I kept writing in search of it. I think what happened is that I finally found my way as a poem writer in the way one does as a songwriter. I invented my own music for the language based on what I had heard working in the songs I loved, as well as in the air around me, the skittishness of children’s voices coming home at dusk for dinner, a mother’s scolding or tender comforting, a father’s booming rage or mindless whistling, teenagers slangy or stoned mutterings, the cacophonous cocktail party chatter of adults, their nighttime whisperings behind thin walls. All of this was music, and it was mine if I could let it in and find the patterns hidden in the meaning it was trying to unveil.
And somewhere between the words I couldn’t understand and the first music I can’t remember was the mystery of poetry.
Bach gave us God’s Word. Mozart gave us God’s laughter.
Beethoven gave us God’s fire.
And her favorite was Bach, Prelude 1 in C-Major,
those descending notes that climbed the stairs
then walked back down each lonely house
she lived through. Smudged windows hold
her face, dead leaves scatter across her eyes,
a broken vase whose shards still sing to her
in the voice of Jesus, medicine in a spoon of milk
coats her tongue. Visitors after church file
into each separate room from which they emerge,
minus happiness. Houses where no one cared
or asked to be forgiven. Words pressed on pages
of bibles and hymnals, endless trains of thought,
coupling upon coupling, strips of dusty earth
on either side where her mind wandered, mute
in her brown shoes, suitcase, itchy wool gloves,
her black, unruly, unwashed Indian hair.
Dorianne Laux’s most recent books of poems are The Book of Men, winner of the Paterson Poetry Prize, and Facts about the Moon, recipient of the Oregon Book Award and short-listed for the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Laux is also author of Awake, What We Carry, finalist for the National Book Critic’s Circle Award, and Smoke. Her work has twice appeared in Best American Poetry, and she has received a Pushcart Prize, two fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 2001, she was invited by late poet laureate Stanley Kunitz to read at the Library of Congress. She teaches poetry and directs the MFA program at North Carolina State University and she is founding faculty at Pacific University’s Low Residency MFA Program.
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