Author Playlists

Sati Mookherjee’s Playlist for Her Poetry Collection “Ways of Being”

“The pieces on this playlist speak (in my own mother tongues and learned languages) to the mourner’s existential need for sense-making. “

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

The poems in Sati Mookherjee’s collection Ways of Being are evocatively rooted in their landscapes both geographic and mortal.

Susan Landgraf wrote of the book:

“Ways of Being exposes the spaces in which we ‘wait for something to begin or for something to end’ and evokes the hours, yearning and ‘stuttered rain’ that fill them. These are visceral, wonderful poems.”

In her own words, here is Sati Mookherjee’s Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Ways of Being:

Ways of Being is a collection of poems about grief and loss. In a world that pushes for closure, reconciliation, resolution, the project of the book is to hold space for not-knowing, for the messiness and uncertainty of grief.

The poems honor loss in its myriad shapes and intensities, focusing on the acute aftermath when the usual coordinates have disappeared, and one is trying to make sense of the new world. The epigraph to the collection is from Milosz’s poem “My Native Mother Tongue:” Who am I without you? The poems explore confusion, conscious as well as self-conscious of speech and language, are preoccupied with gaps and spaces.

The pieces on this playlist speak (in my own mother tongues and learned languages) to the mourner’s existential need for sense-making. “Ways of Being” is in six sections; I offer a song for each.  

I – Ordinary World (Duran Duran)

The opening section of “Ways of Being” is one long poem in which the speaker is coming to terms with the new life. It concludes:

I live here, I see that now, and that must mean I’m home.

Duran Duran’s 1992 pop song, written after the death of Simon Le Bon’s friend David Miles, describes the same process:

There’s an ordinary world / Somehow I have to find

The song, in its closing bars, also points to the dizzying fluidity and instability of identity, in loss, that I wanted to acknowledge with the title “Ways of Being:”

Any world is my world / Every world is my world

II – Dove Sono (Mozart)

In the second section of the book, the speaker is simply sitting in the space of grief, both thinking and not-thinking, even as her mind, steeped in sadness, keeps trying to scrabble toward rationalization.

Mozart’s aria “Dove Sono” – despite its status as a vocal showcase – is ironically, a quiet, inward-facing soliloquy. The Countess, humiliated by her husband’s infidelities, mourns all she has lost in an aria that begins achingly with the simple question “Where did all those beautiful moments go?”

Dove sono i bei momenti

di dolcezza e di pacer?

The Chicago Sun-Times, wrote, of an early performance of Renee Fleming in this role: “She seemed to be talking to herself, exploring her soul to calm her grief.”

My favorite recording of this aria is Cecilia Bartoli’s. I know opera aficionados will raise an eyebrow at this  – Bartoli is a mezzo, and not the voice part for this role, and she has never performed it. Still, hers is the interpretation, the way she holds and turns over and examines her grief, that speaks to me. This recording begins with the recitative (which always gives me goosebumps at “Fammi”); the aria begins at 1:58.

And here’s the wondrous Renee Fleming, in performance at the Met (again, the aria starts at 1:57):

III – Concierto de Aranjuez, Second Movement, Adagio (Joaquín Rodrigo)

The second movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, written in 1939, is one of those pieces to which I have a visceral, bodily response. If it comes on the radio when I’m driving, I have to pull over.

In Section III the speaker is sitting with a friend who has lost a child. Composer Joaquín Rodrigo wrote this guitar concerto after his wife’s miscarried first pregnancy.

John William’s interpretation, with Daniel Barenboim conducting, is my most-loved:

IV – Aaj jaane ki zid na karo (Fayyaz Hashmi)

Pakistani poet Fayyaz Hashmi wrote the ghazaal Aaj jaane ki zid na karo ( آج جانے کی ضد نہ کرو,). Singer Habib Wali Mohammed made it famous, but today it is probably known best across South Asia, and among the diaspora, in the voice of the inimitable Farida Khanum.

Khanumji sang this song countless times through her career, and you can find any number of recorded and live performances on YouTube. But in 2015 the 86 year old Malika-e-Ghazal (Queen of the Ghazal) appeared on Pakistan’s Coke Studio’s television program to perform it yet again.

The literal translation of the title (Today, Don’t Insist on Leaving) is at once overwrought and underwhelming, conveying nothing of the anguish and longing in the Urdu – in the poem, the speaker’s effort to self-contain feels almost heroic.  A less literal, but truer translation is: Please don’t leave. I don’t know how to live without you.

The simplest phrase “jaan-e-jaan” – life of my life – evokes for me the devastating final stanzas of Mary Oliver’s “In Blackwater Woods:”

To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.

V – Final Words (Izzy Jones)

The fifth section of my book explores the possibilities and limitations of language to mediate our experiences of loss.

Izzy Jones’ song “Final Words,” written when the singer songwriter was only 14, folds such grace and tenderness into her grief. I am deeply moved every time, not only by her lyric and voice, but in the gesture – how we humans use language to sense-make, use art to make vessel to try to contain pain that’s uncontainable.

VI. Shoki aandhare ekela (Rabindranath Tagore)

Rabindranath Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, was a prolific Bengali poet, composer and writer. He wrote over two thousand songs, and even today his work is part of the everyday musical and literary life of Bengali speakers in India, Bangladesh and in the diaspora.

The title of this piece translates as Friend, in darkness, alone in the house.

সখী, আঁধারে একেলা ঘরে   মন মানে না।

কিসেরই পিয়াসে কোথা যে যাবে সে,   পথ জানে না ॥

ঝরোঝরো নীরে,  ,   নিবিড় তিমিরে,   সজল সমীরে গো

যেন কার বাণী কভু কানে আনে– আনে না ॥

I couldn’t find a good English translation. Here’s my stab at it:

Oh Friend, in darkness, alone in the house.        Disbelieving.

Wanting, not knowing what, or where to go,  unsure even of what path.

The shuddering rain,    the dense dark,      the wetness of the air

sometimes seem to carry someone’s voice to the ear — sometimes not.

I kept the form of the poem intact to mirror the way Tagore’s intended phrasing and cadence.

The question embedded in the second line reminds me of Gluck’s opera “Orfeo ed Euridice” – in Act III, Orfeo, looking down at this wife’s body sings the aria “Que faro senza Euridice?” What will I do without Euridice?

As the aria continues, Orfeo asks over and over again: “que faro? Dove andró?” What will I do? Where will I go? He is desperate to hear a response: Rispondi! … Rispondi!

There are countless recorded interpretations of Tagore’s song. My current favorite is by Rezwana Chowdhury Bannya, a Bangladeshi musician and Tagore scholar:

Sati Mookherjee is a poet and lyricist. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in literary journals and anthologies including Salamander, The Laurel Review, Comstock Review, Cream City Review, and Sonora Review. Her collaborations with contemporary classical composers have been performed or recorded by ensembles (The Esoterics, Contemporary Chambers and Players) and solo musicians (Hope Wechkin, Leaning Toward the Fiddler). Nominated for three Pushcart Prizes, and the recipient of an Artist Trust/ Washington State Arts Commission Fellowship Award, Sati Mookherjee lives in the Pacific Northwest and is the author of two poetry collections: Eye and Ways of Being.

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