A Possible Owl

possible owlFor as long as I have lived across the street from Fort Tryon Park (now going on two years), I have hoped to spot an owl there. There must be owls, but they are probably difficult to find. They probably nest out of sight, way off in the hidden trees.

But yesterday, as I started walking up the hill, I saw a bird that looked tantalizingly  owl-like from a distance. I took the picture to the left. It seems too round and large to be another sort of bird (such as a falcon); also, it was almost twilight, a possible time for an owl to be out.

The best part was looking and looking and trying to figure out the form. I thought that if I got to the other side, where I could see the bird from the front, I would know more. But that never happened; once I got there, the bird had flown away. So I have no choice but to “accept the mystery” (to quote from A Serious Man) and keep watching for more owls. Now I will watch more sharply, knowing that I might have seen an owl before and might see one again.

I was left afterward thinking about how much of our lives we spend discerning forms. Is that person in the distance who I think it is, or not? (I am rather bad at face recognition, so I sometimes end up staring at strangers.) Is the peach at the supermarket ripe enough to be eaten today? One can squeeze and smell  it–but one must also know the particular kind of peach.

Or consider language. Is the Hebrew word for “silver” or “money” pronounced “kesef” or “kasef”? You can’t tell from the spelling, unless there are vowel markings; the pronunciation will depend on the word’s syntactic location. If it occurs at the end of the verse or at the etnachta (semicolon-like division), it will be “kasef,” the pausal form; otherwise it will be “kesef.” So, to know the sounds, one must look past the word itself.

Then music: When listening to a piece with which I am familiar  (but which I do not know by heart), I find myself anticipating and questioning the structures: Is the second theme coming after this diminuendo? Does the oboe’s solo extend beyond the underlying phrase? It isn’t that I pose these questions in words—usually they’re without words—but I’m making sense of the structure all the same.

Animals do this kind of thing too. There was a loud, many-birded chirping outside just now, and Minnaloushe raised her head, apparently noticing something interesting in the sound. Other street sounds don’t call her attention at all. But then, for whatever reason, she decided to return to her nap. If instead she had heard a can being opened, she would have rushed to the kitchen.

So a great deal of the mind’s work consists of figuring out what things are, which involves distinguishing them from other and similar things. This is more than a matter of sorting into categories; it requires perceiving things right up to their edges, right up to the point where they stop being that thing and turn into something else.

That is what some poetry does; it goes up to the edges of things. That is what I hear in Marianne Moore’s “The Fish” (unquotable except in full because  of the way each stanza, with just one exception, falls into the next).

A perception, or a change in perception, affects the perceptions that follow; it changes not only what one sees, but what one looks or listens for. Yesterday’s bird has altered my walks in the park.

The Trope of Esther

Rembrandt_EstherOn Purim (this Saturday and Sunday) I will be chanting Chapters 7 and 8 of Megillat Esther at a synagogue in Long Island. These are momentous chapters; Esther reveals to King Ahasuerus that Haman intends to destroy her people; at the king’s command, Haman is hanged on the very gallows that he prepared for Mordechai; then Esther entreats the king to reverse all Haman’s letters ordering the destruction of the Jews; the king orders letters to be written in his name, sealed with his ring, and sent out all over the land from India to Ethiopia; his order is executed; Mordechai goes forth in royal apparel; and all the Jews are joyous.

Purim is often known for its costumes and noisemakers, wine, food, and music–and rightly so. But underneath that, something serious is going on: the reading and hearing of the entire Scroll of Esther, at both the evening and the morning services. Every Jew (male and female, young and old) is required to hear the reading of Esther; the catch is that you can’t hear much, because of the noisemakers and general brouhaha. Every time Haman’s name is uttered, people are supposed to drown it out. The noise extends beyond the name. But that makes it all the more exciting to discover the text and melodies. They cry and rejoice below the festivities.

The Hebrew sacred texts have six distinct trope sets (codified by the tenth century, and probably much older), all with the same basic principles and symbols but distinct melodic phrases. These are: Torah trope, Haftarah trope, High Holiday trope, Esther trope, Festival trope (for the Song of Songs, Ruth, and Ecclesiastes), and Lamentations trope. Trope–the melodic system underlying the art of cantillation–brings out the structure, meaning, and beauty of the text.

I will give a brief sense of Esther trope through Chapter 8, verses 5 and 6. Verse 5 is in regular Esther trope; because of the sentence complexity, it is especially ornate. Verse 6 makes a diversion into Lamentations trope; it has a simple melody and a plaintive feel. (The Esther text has  many melodic diversions–some into Lamentations trope and some into special melodies.)

Biblical verses typically divide into two parts; from there, they subdivide into still smaller phrases. The first division is indicated by the trope called “etnachta,” which looks like a caret and comes with a pause. Further subdivisions and connections are marked by other melodies.

Here’s the Hebrew-English text of 8:5-6 as it appears in the Open Siddur Project (except that I have bolded and colored the word in each verse that contains the etnachta: “be’einav” in verse 5 and “et-ammi” in verse 6). This has both vowel and trope marks; the actual scroll has neither (the reader must learn the trope patterns beforehand).

הַ5 וַ֠תֹּאמֶר אִם־עַל־הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ ט֜וֹב וְאִם־מָצָ֧אתִי חֵ֣ן לְפָנָ֗יו וְכָשֵׁ֤ר הַדָּבָר֙ לִפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וְטוֹבָ֥ה אֲנִ֖י בְּעֵינָ֑יו יִכָּתֵ֞ב לְהָשִׁ֣יב אֶת־הַסְּפָרִ֗ים מַחֲשֶׁ֜בֶת הָמָ֤ן בֶּֽן־הַמְּדָ֙תָא֙ הָאֲגָגִ֔י אֲשֶׁ֣ר כָּתַ֗ב לְאַבֵּד֙ אֶת־הַיְּהוּדִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֖ר בְּכָל־מְדִינ֥וֹת הַמֶּֽלֶךְ׃ 6 כִּ֠י אֵיכָכָ֤ה אוּכַל֙ וְֽרָאִ֔יתִי בָּרָעָ֖ה אֲשֶׁר־יִמְצָ֣א אֶת־עַמִּ֑י וְאֵֽיכָכָ֤ה אוּכַל֙ וְֽרָאִ֔יתִי בְּאָבְדַ֖ן מוֹלַדְתִּֽי׃

In the JPS translation, Esther 8:5 reads, “And [she] said, If it please the king, and if I have favour in his sight, and the thing seem right before the king, and I be pleasing in his eyes, let it be written to reverse the letters devised by Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews which are in all the king’s provinces.”

The long subordinate clause occupies the first part of the verse–and the main clause, the second. The etnachta, dividing the two parts, occurs at the phrase “in his eyes.” There are more subdivisions from there. Here is my recording of the verse; here’s verse 6. (I posted recordings of verses 5 and 6 only, to give a sense of the trope.)

Verse 6 (still Esther speaking) is simpler in structure; through its Lamentations trope and clear parallelism, it contrasts with verse 5. It translates, “For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people? or how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?” The verse’s symmetry holds sadness.

In Esther trope, the etnachta sounds different from the sof pasuk trope, the melody at the very end of the verse. In Lamentations trope, the two are nearly identical. You can hear this difference in verses 5 and 6. Lamentations trope feels in some ways like swinging on a swing, all alone, in the courtyard of a crumbled city; you feel the repetition and rhythm, but everything is bare.

These two verses hold complexity and simplicity; they combine art and soul into a cry. It is this combination that defines Esther for me; with all her cunning, she lives and speaks for her people and their survival. Her plea rolls the story to its conclusion.

There is much more to say about cantillation–but the discussion gets more technical (and beautiful) from here. Of course there is much more to say about Megillat Esther too. The best book I know  on trope is Joshua Jacobson’s 965-page Chanting the Hebrew Bible: The Complete Guide to the Art of Cantillation. I recommend it to anyone interested in the subject. Of course the best book to read on Esther is the Scroll itself. In that spirit, happy Purim and almost-spring!

 

Image credit: Rembrandt, Ahasuerus and Haman at the Feast of Esther (1660)

Note: I made some edits and additions to this piece after posting it.

Days of Joy

intheheightsset.jpg

senechal-ad

I thank Columbia Secondary School for a joyous weekend of the musical In the Heights. My friends Deb and Eric came down from Peabody, Massachusetts (north of Boston) to see it with me. We went on Friday and Saturday nights; I was planning to go again today, but since all three shows were sold out in advance, I decided to release my tickets so that someone else could see it. The students put soul, wit, work, and talent into the show–and brought out the heartbeats of the Washington Heights neighborhood itself. I felt at times as though the musical were opening up the music of my everyday life and the lives of the people around me.

The above letter went into the program (as a little ad); when I wrote it, I didn’t know whether my friends would be able to come down, but sure enough, they did. Besides attending the shows, we walked in Fort Tryon Park, rode the train downtown to Katz’s Delicatessen, feasted, talked, and laughed.

After last night’s show, on our way back to the subway station, we saw some men working on a new storefront on St. Nicholas Avenue. The sparks mixed with the memories of the musical.

construction

One of the chapters in my new book is about joy: how people often associate it with outward cheer, but how it often accompanies difficulty. I thought about how this applied even to such an enjoyable weekend. In the Heights has difficulty and sadness: death, loss, failures, disappointments, stress. But the rapturous music and the characters’ spirited goodwill all lift the story into beauty. I realized just now that the musical doesn’t have a single villain. Yet at the same time it’s anything but pat and rosy; it shows people in subtle conflicts, internal and external, short and long.

Marianne Moore’s poem “What Are Years?” has been in my mind for years, day after day, but it seems especially appropriate now.

… satisfaction is a lowly
thing, how pure a thing is joy.
nnnnn This is mortality,
nnnnn this is eternity.

Who Ever Said Listening Was Passive?

danny-practicing-torah-reading

One of my favorite scenes in A Serious Man is the one pictured above, about 25 minutes into the film, where Danny Gopnik (Aaron Wolff) is practicing his Torah portion with the help of a recording by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He listens, imitates, listens again, imitates. That’s not how you’re supposed to learn your portion–you’re supposed to work with the text and trope–but this fits his character and allows us to hear the great cantor. But what gets me is how well he imitates. It’s transcendent. He picks up not only the melody, but the subtle textures, the ornamentation, the timing. (I have not found a video of this particular scene–but the bar mitzvah scene gives you an idea.) I was so intrigued by the excellence of this scene that I looked up the actor and learned that he is a cellist. In addition, this was his actual Torah portion when he became a bar mitzvah.

Here is a recording of him at age 15 playing Popper’s Hungarian Rhapsody. There’s a funny interview afterward, too. The point is not, “Wow, how amazing that he could play that at age 15,” but rather: This is serious musicianship. The little scene in A Serious Man is no fluke; there’s some exceptional listening in it.

Listening is the beleaguered art or skill; again and again I hear it described as “passive.” Egad! Listening is not passive. It’s some of the most active activity in action. It requires intense concentration and attention to subtlety. You must be alert to the structure, tones, rhythms, transitions, and those qualities that aren’t as easily specified, in the collection of sounds you take in. It takes practice, too; if you have never listened to a symphony from start to finish, you might not know what to  make of it, or  you might get restless; but if  you are used to it, you enter a welcoming country (unless the performance or piece is horrible).

In education discussion people often oppose “active learning” to “passive listening.” Such an opposition is not only false but destructive. Yes, students need opportunities to discuss their ideas in the classroom–but if they do not also learn to listen to a sustained piece or presentation, they will miss out on a great deal. It is in a lecture, for instance, that one can lay out an argument and draw attention to its less obvious details. Putting it together, and forming questions in the mind, a student becomes involved with the subject in a particular way. There’s a dialogue in listening; you make sense of what you hear, and you find your responses.

Now, some may say that music and lectures–and the kinds of listening that accompany them–are so different that they shouldn’t even be mentioned in the same discussion. I recognize their differences but also see a lot in common. In both cases, something is conveyed through sound, over an interval of time; its various parts come together in a whole. When you listen, you basically travel through it in time, exercising your memory and anticipation all along the way. Your reactions may be analytical, emotional, or both, but they will not be complete until you have listened to the whole piece, and even then they may be in formation. You carry away not only the content, but the sound, which can play in your mind for a long time afterward.

Yesterday I put this to the test. On Tuesday I revised the fourth chapter of my book, the chapter on listening–so yesterday I treated myself to a day of listening. In the morning I went to an open rehearsal of the New York Philharmonic; in the evening I attended a lecture by Christine Hayes, “Forging  Jewish Identity: Models and Middles in Jewish Sources.” In both of these, in different ways, I was absorbed in the details and the whole. After both, I walked away with sounds and thoughts.

The New York Philharmonic played Brahms’s Symphony No. 3 and Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto (with pianist Stephen Hough). Both of these I remembered from many listenings in the past; in addition, I remembered playing the Brahms in symphony in college. I had that distinct sense of it from the inside; not only that, but I remembered some of the places where we played it (we toured England and Wales in the spring). With both the Brahms and the Beethoven, I was alert to the interpretation–the many tiny differences from what I remembered, the dynamics, the dialogues between instruments.

As for the lecture, I immediately understood the three-part structure (Dr. Hayes discussed Jewish identity in terms of memory, covenant, and Qedushah, and went on from there to explore different historical responses to crisis.) Understanding the shape and motion of the lecture, I was able to enjoy and think about the details. When she read texts aloud in English, I would follow along in Hebrew, not only for the additional challenge, but for the sake of the Hebrew text itself. This allowed me to encounter, for the first time,  the wonderful line from Mishnah Sotah 7:8: “Fear not, Agrippas, you are our brother, you are our brother, you are our brother!”

אל תתיירא אגריפס אחינו אתה אחינו אתה אחינו אתה

I walked away not only with the lecture’s  ideas (and my slowly forming questions), but with these words.

In short, listening is not passive, simple, or easy. But just a little bit can add serious riches to a life, and the lack of it can lead to grief. (That’s a different subject for another time.) I end with one of my old poems, “Jackrabbit.”

Jackrabbit

This land has never been painted properly.
Mix clumps of juniper with moonbeam blue,
Throw in a bit of tooth, a bit of song,
to fill the silhouette with bite and tongue.

This is a real dirt road with imagined rocks,
senses, insensate dangers, destinations.
Headlights sweeping the long floor of the mind
pan a jackrabbit back and forth in time.

Caught in the blank emergency of beams,
he dodges his dilemma with a brisk
“what if, what if” that dances him to death.
He could not find a way out of the way.

Earlier that day I was on the phone,
missing all your relevant advice.
A wire had got caught up in my throat,
an answer-dodger. It distracted me.

It trembled so fast that it numbed my tongue.
It did this while you were trying to talk.
I couldn’t listen well because the dance
had blurred all trace of consonant and sense.

I think now that this may have been a crash
of my old givens against your offerings:
new junipers, or ways of seeing them,
new countries, or ways of getting there.

When I hung up, there was no wire or word.
The moon was gone, the road a long fur coat
on some unwitting wearer, blissed and hushed.
I forgot all about it until years later.

You had said: “You can go left or right.”
Take me straight! I shouted. Straight to the remedy.
Gallop like the nineteenth century
down to the police station or cemetery.

Striding answerless, a station incarnate,
a cop ticketed me for not listening.
Now I can bear the rabbits and the wires.
I inch through forks and roadkill, listening.

Note: I made a few little corrections to this piece after posting it.

Something to Sit Up For

gazing-catsI know a few people who write both poetry and nonfiction (more or less concurrently), and while they involve different kinds of imagination, they still have a good deal in common. In both, you are looking and listening not only for the right words, but the right combination of sounds, the right allusions, the right departures from the known and expected.

Recently I have been writing much more nonfiction than poetry, but the poems still come now and then, and some of them hold up over time. This one (an unrhymed sonnet from 2009 or so) is one of my favorites. It appears on the dedication page of Republic of Noise; Stella Schindler quotes it in full at the beginning of her review in Humanum. Reading it now, I still hear something like the offbeat clanging of a bell (in the preposition “for,” which occurs at the end of three consecutive phrases with two enjambments). But of course my ear is slanted. (So is the picture I took yesterday morning of the cats and sunrise.)

The Speech

From far away I heard you speak today,
the way we hear bells in a slant of sun,
knowing they ring at five—the calendar
itself makes words, the very rays make chords.

A teacher must have rushed there after school,
arrived breathless, flopped in a seat, arranged
her coat and hair, leaned into heed, and found
a rampart in the very listening.

Something to sit up for, something to hold
one’s head up for, a time to put aside
one’s foibles for, even a distant time,
this came my way today, a reckoning.
I grasped that there was loneliness in gold
and gold in air, and debt in everything.

The Cat and the Candles

hanukkahOne of my two cats, Minnaloushe (pictured here to the left) is named after the cat in W. B. Yeats’s poem “The Cat and the Moon.” The other, Aengus, is named after Yeats’s “The Song of Wandering Aengus” (not about a cat, but fitting all the same).

Minnaloushe and Aengus show some of the complications of personality. Minnaloushe is friendly to everyone–rushes up to strangers and rubs against them–but does just fine without company for long stretches of the day. Aengus, on the other hand, hides from people he doesn’t know but craves and seeks affection from the select few (including Minnaloushe, who sometimes plays with him, sometimes rubs up against him, and sometimes pushes him away).

Despite appearances, I’d say Aengus is more “extraverted” than Minnaloushe, in that he seeks company more determinedly. But he’s also reserved and selective in his affections, which makes him, well, complex and difficult to define. If cats are difficult to define, what about humans?

I got myself sidetracked here; I meant to talk about Minnaloushe and the candles! Just before I took this photo, Minnaloushe was gazing at the candles with an expression of awe (or something that looked like awe to me, given my tendency to read into things). But now both cats seem oblivious to the fire. One is bathing, the other sleeping. So, if this suggests anything about humans, I suspect we experience, from moment to moment, only a fraction of the possible awe. But even that much is quite a bit.

“Mozart, 1935” and Candle-Lighting

For some reason, as I think of the upcoming Hanukkah candle-lighting, I find myself remembering Wallace Stevens’s “Mozart, 1935.” What could the two have in common, other than winter?

The poem begins,

Poet, be seated at the piano.
Play the present, its hoo-hoo-hoo,
Its shoo-shoo-shoo, its ric-a-nic,
Its envious cachinnation.

“Play the present”–this seems directly opposed to playing Mozart; the sounds of the present are rough and rude. One might think Stevens (or the speaker in this poem) is urging the poet to adopt the language of the street.

But something different seems to be at work here. Mark Halliday comments,

A different poet–one more like Thomas Hardy, or more like William Carlos Williams, or more like Kenneth Fearing (a significant poet of social protest in the thirties)–having turned to face the “angry fear” of people, would feel that his poem’s project must be to explore “this besieging pain” and to show forth its lineaments. Stevens, however, is interested not in writing about the street, but in writing about the problem of writing about the street. “Mozart, 1935” is a poem about poems that will do the work it does not itself undertake.

If this is so (and the interpretation seems both sound and illuminating), what does the poem suggest that poems can do?

Be thou the voice,
Not you. Be thou, be thou
The voice of angry fear,
The voice of this besieging pain.

There is something extraordinary happening here in this repeated “thou.” (It should be read in the context of the full poem.) Halliday again:

Stevens’ earnest wish to maintain a distance from the turmoil of others’ experience is reflected by his stern insistence on the word “thou,” which is repeated four times in the two stanzas just quoted and returns as the final word of the poem. Stevens does not want the poet to be one person among others, a “you” among “yous.” Indeed, he judges that for the poet-pianist to perform the new work, to strike the piercing chord, it will be necessary for him to adopt a status and a role larger and more central than mere individual selfhood: “Be thou the voice, / Not you.”

This is not a matter of rising above the crowd, but rather of rising up through the self into something beyond one’s immediate perceptions and capacities. To be the “voice” of the “besieging pain” is not to imitate or reflect it. The pain, up to this point, has noise but not voice; to become its voice is to inhabit a great soul.

This takes me, in a way, to candles.

To light a candle is not to express flimsy hope in the face of a broken world, a noisy street. Nor is it to “rise above” the world. Nor is it even to endure. The candle hints at the possibility of “thou”–of a dignity that faces the world with full intensity of form. When I look at a candle’s flame, I am entranced by the upright quivering; it seems at instants that the quiver is mine. Of course that is my imagination–but without imagination, a candle would be just functional, a thing that could help me see around a room.

What on earth does this have to do with Hanukkah–a minor holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple and, according to tradition, the miracle of lights? I am not proposing any special interpretation here. Rather, in this cheerful festival, where the candles stand by the window, there is a chance to form and fortify a relation to the world.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, and Happy New Year.

The Terror of Subscription

columbia-record-co-a-serious-manIn the Coen brothers’ movie A Serious Man, the physics professor Larry Gopnik enters his office to find three messages and an anxious student waiting. One message is from the Columbia Record Club; unbeknownst to Larry himself, he has subscribed and fallen behind on his payments. (See that magnifying glass in the still; I didn’t even notice it when watching the movie. Maybe it suggests that Larry is looking so closely at certain things that he completely misses others.) I see this “surprise subscription” as one kind of deep nightmare.

What is so scary about subscriptions? Some of it is innocuous and even good; people proudly maintain their subscriptions to newspapers and journals, for instance. But in other cases, the subscription technology (crude or advanced) tricks you; you agree to a “trial” or some such thing and then find out that you’ve signed up for a whole year. Or else you sign up for a year and then forget  to cancel at the end. Subscriptions sneak up on you and claim a debt. Suddenly, out of nowhere, you owe someone money.

But that’s only one side of it. To “subscribe” to something is also to become it. Sometimes, when I get a surprise renewal notice, I ask not only “Can I afford this?” but “What do I have to do with this? Is it really part of my life?” Once upon a time I subscribed to the Franklin Library. The books were beautifully bound, and some titles I was delighted to have–but after a while, they started looking and feeling like a fake collection. I couldn’t keep up with the reading, and when my shelves started filling with books I had barely opened, I knew something was wrong. The subscription had go. I would buy books when I actually wanted to read and reread them. (So I did, and my shelves still overflow.)

So that leads to yet another of subscriptions’ scullduggeries. They can con you into overgetting. You end up amassing “stuff” that  you don’t really want, merely because you continue to pay for it. Somewhere in there, presumably, is something you want, so you accept the full pile, knowing full well that you will use only a handful of it. (I am not referring here to journal subscriptions. There, in my experience, the situation is different; if it’s a good journal, there will be all kinds of surprises in it, things I wouldn’t otherwise have known to read.)

And then, when you do want to quit, you won’t be let off easily. You’ll get reminders, phone calls, letters… won’t you please, please rejoin us? Even if your answer is an emphatic “no,” you are continually reminded that you once did sign on for a whole year.

Today the problem has heightened, since there are so many more things than before that require subscription: antivirus software, word processing and photo finishing software, genealogical research databases, even your own domain name. To do your basic daily work on the computer, you probably need to subscribe to at least three services. And then there are all the subscriptions to “ad-free” versions of blogs and other things; if you don’t want to have ads dancing before you all day long, you must subscribe to peace and quiet.

All of these things combine into the terror of subscription. It’s a mild anxiety; for the most part, I barely think about it. But I often catch myself wishing that I could just have something or not, instead of signing on to this costly, nagging, partial purchase, the effect of a hesitant click one dubious day.

All of this reminded me of Bill Knott’s sonnet “The Unsubscriber” (which isn’t “about” subscriptions in this sense but plays with the topic in an interesting way.) You can see it quoted in full in an article by Edward Hirsch (though the formatting is bad; I recommend the book of the same title). It ends,

No one loves that vain solipsistic sect
You’d never join, whose dues you’ve always paid.

To understand and misunderstand what this means, one needs to read and reread the full poem, to subscribe and unsubscribe, many times.

Image: A still from the first  “Clive scene” in A Serious Man.

 

On Listening to Poetry in Unfamiliar Languages

I have some upcoming posts about TED and what it could do to improve. My TEDx talk may appear on YouTube any day now, so I speak from an inside-like place. (TED refers to TEDx events as “TED-like,” so I suppose the inside of a TEDx event is “inside-like.”)

But right now I have something different on my mind: poetry in unfamiliar languages. Last night I went to the wonderful Uncle Vanya Cafe (quiet, cozy atmosphere, delicious food) to hear three poets: Tomas Venclova (whose poetry I have translated), Valzhyna Mort, and Vasyl Makhno. All three were superb in my ears. Mort and Makhno read some of their poems in Belarusian and Ukrainian, respectively; although I do not know those languages, I enjoyed listening as carefully as I could, picking up not only on familiar words (that is, words that had similar-sounding counterparts in Russian), but on cadences, repetitions, rhythms.

In some strange way it is possible, when listening to a poem in an unfamiliar language, to tell whether it is good. You can sense a mastery of orchestration. Something about the momentum and structure will come across strongly. For this reason and others, I love the exercise. Also, when you listen with that intensity, you remember the poem later.

Two of Mort’s poems stand out in my memory. One was titled “Psalm 18” (I think). She read it in Belarusian and English. There was a magnificent passage with curtains opening and closing, opening and closing. I can’t find it online, but I hope to track it down.

Another one, “Belarusian I” (which she read only in Belarusian, I think) had a progression that I immediately grasped. I didn’t understand the words at the very end, but I understood what led up to them. You can read the poem in Belarusian and English, listen to an audio recording, and watch a video here. (For the first four minutes of the video, she speaks about her work and background; then she reads the poem.)

In the video, she explains that she came to poetry through music. In childhood, she studied music with the intention of becoming a professional musician. When she started writing poetry, she thought of it as music too; she used words she didn’t understand, just for the sound of them. Something of this quality has stayed in her poetry; this partly explains why I could listen with such involvement. Her  poetry, reaching the listeners, returns in some way to its beginnings. At the same time, I need to take time with it to understand it better. Someone who understands nothing in a poem may still understand something (nonverbally); someone who understands something, a little more, and so on. Understanding a poem is a long and layered feat.

 

Note: I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.

 

“The peacock spreads his fan”

I learned about Leonard Cohen’s death from Virgil Shaw, who mentioned it in between songs last night, during a superb show. I didn’t check my phone (and the news) until later, but there it was. Leonard Cohen is gone. Is that true? Is he gone? His music is playing in my mind, so he isn’t gone; the songs carry on in his place. What’s hitting me, though, is the knowledge  that his work is now sealed, that there will be no more new songs. Even more than that, it’s the knowledge that the person who wrote “Suzanne,” “Story of Isaac,” “Avalanche,” “The Stranger Song,” “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and “Hallelujah” is no longer here. Even there, it’s hard to pinpoint the sadness. He could have died earlier or later; maybe he could have lived until a hundred. At some point he would have had to go. Nor would I ever have met him, as far as I know, nor does that have anything to do with the tightness in my throat right now. What hurts is the loss of a fighter for language and song, who I trusted was somewhere breathing.

Note: I made minor revisions to this piece after posting it. It was hard to get the words right. I commented on the New York Times obituary as well; see the many beautiful comments  there.

Update: See Leon Wieseltier’s moving eulogy.