Recently, I was lucky enough to be asked to find (or, if that were not possible, to write) some suitable poetry to be set to music, for a song cycle by my very talented friend J. The writing process was a cross between making a collage and reading an over-complicated map, the various steps of which I’d like to share.
I discovered Bill Callahan this year (I know. What have I been doing with my time?). Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle just blows me away every time I hear it. It also provided numerous little flashes of inspiration for this project, including the overarching idea of common-ness. The first line of the first song is this: ‘I started out in search of ordinary things’. This, and S posting a marvellously understated poem on his blog, gave me the starting point. The first poem I chose, therefore, was his poem ‘Common Things’, which you can find on his blog.
‘Common’ is a lovely word. It has layers of meaning (communal; shared; vulgar; frequent; abundant; green space) and my next idea was to have four poems with the word ‘common’ in the title. Another line from ‘Jim Cain’ (‘I started telling the story/without knowing the end’) and a vague memory of the poem I finally tracked down on the interblag, ‘The Dearness of Common Things’ by the delightfully named Ivor Gurney, gave me the final poem in the song cycle, the idea being that I would do rather the opposite of the lyric and tell the story knowing exactly what the end was, but not knowing how to get there. My task, therefore, was to write two more poems to go between ‘Common Things’ and ‘The Dearness of Common Things’ to make a story.
It seemed to me that ‘Common Things’ suggested a relationship that held the seeds of its own destruction: the speaker wanting to be closer than closer, or perhaps closer than his or her partner might permit him or her to be, were they aware that such a thing was what was desired. It also seemed to me that not everyone would welcome so much intimacy, and that perhaps this yes-but-no-ness might eventually kill a relationship stone dead, leaving the rejected partner (female, I decided in this case) enraged and bitter. This in turn reminded me of Genesis 29, v11 & 17 (‘And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept … Leah was tender-eyed, but Rachel was beautiful’) and supplied the name of the Other Woman. Here is the result, which in a burst of wordplay I called ‘Common Law’:
Our books held each other like hands:
One mine, one yours,
Piled into boxes,
Right and left.
Our harmonies were rich as singing
There are no echoes, but only a pause.
We go on,
Our names floating above us
Dark water separated from light.
Our bond was weak.
Whatever it was that held us together,
You broke it with words:
Her name is Rachel.
There is no ring
For me to fling
In your face.
Made for your mother,
But meant for me,
Her gift burns in the wardrobe
Terrible and white.
W.H. Auden’s poem ‘Since’ begins with a man cooking alone in his kitchen, which in turn reminded me of the final poem in our sequence and all its domestic imagery around the man living his solitary life (it’s not clear to me if he is contented or not). The third poem, then, needed to offer some suggestion of narrative between the ending of the relationship in the second poem and the ending-up-alone of the fourth poem. It seemed to me that he might try out life with Rachel, and that maybe it would turn out to be like most relationships: not particularly interesting, intense, loving or sad, but quietly, stupidly dull, particularly when contrasted with its fiery beginnings.
Going deeper into Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle yielded the extended bird metaphor in ‘All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast’ and ‘Too Many Birds In One Tree’. My favourite thing about these two songs is the juxtaposition between the words and the music. ‘All Thoughts Are Prey To Some Beast’ has the unsettling cantering percussion and weird strings, even when the lyrics are telling what sounds like a rather inconsequential story about an eagle and his avian friends. ‘Too Many Birds in One Tree’ does a similar thing, but the other way around, with gentle music and Callahan’s soothing tones as he sings, in an off-hand sort of way, about the jolly fact that ‘the sky is full of black and screaming’. It’s alright children, he seems to say. It’s the Last Days and we’re just waiting for the chap with the trumpet, but in the meantime, here’s some cocoa and a cuddle. All the birds flapping about, some more lines from ‘Jim Cain’ (‘I used to be darker/Then I got lighter/Then I got dark again’) and ‘Since’ gave me the three main recurring themes of the third (and, in some ways, final) poem. ‘Jim Cain’ also contains the devastatingly good line ‘something too big to be seen/was passing over and over me’, and after banging these together in my brain for a while, I came up with the idea of lights passing over a person in a dark space: the lights of cars and buses passing over a man alone in a darkened hallway, in this case. The light and darkness and light again reminds him of a time when light and shadow had passed over him, when driving down a long road with trees either side caused the sunshine to flash on and off as the sun started to set. The title is from Macbeth, Act 3, scene 2: ‘Good things of day begin to droop and drowse / While night’s black agents to their preys do rouse’ and I was also thinking of Isaiah 55, v. 11-12: ‘it shall not return unto me void … you shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands,’ and that roaring noise trees make when you drive past them at speed. Since writing this poem, I discovered (in France, of all places) that there were some tree-lined roads where the speed limit had to be changed after people were found to have epileptic fits while driving. This turned out to be due to the trees being spaced a certain distance apart, which, when coupled with driving at some specific speed (in metric, naturally), caused the light coming between them to flicker: a suitable metaphor for the past if ever I heard one.
Good Things Of Day
I stand in the hall.
Lights move across me, from left to right.
Sun and shade and sun again,
Trees that roared and clapped their hands
Darkness whipping about your face,
You shouted about happiness.
The sunset sang golden from your ear
Clouds of starlings passed over, on their way to the sea,
Specks of rushy night, numerous as stars.
My passenger and I and night falling:
You, as you were then.
I stand in the hall.
Lights move across me, from left to right.
Dark and bright and dark again.
The lights are yellow, the walls
A colour I did not choose.
A voice from upstairs calls me,
And I go up
Without the thing I came down for.