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May 3, 2017

Book Notes - Fred Marchant "Said Not Said"

Said Not Said

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 Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

The poems in Fred Marchant's autobiographical collection Said Not Said generously observed and filled with wisdom.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Poet, editor, and translator Marchant displays an unflinching tenderness in a collection of sonically and architecturally precise poems. Whether describing mental violence or political conflict, he seeks the humanity in despair and the spirit of dreams and memories."

In his own words, here is Fred Marchant 's Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection Said Not Said:

Who knows for sure how and why the music I listen to works its way into my writing? Sometimes it feels like snake charming, the hypnosis of rhythm. Sometimes it feels like a re-charge in the batteries of the inner life. Other times it feels like the one true language of feeling. But then again maybe it is the dictionary for that language. All I am sure of is that music for me opens the doorway into complexity of feeling, the way emotions cluster, cross one another, or orbit like electrons. Sometimes they collide and let loose some surprising energies. Van Morrison once said he loved the blues because the music told him something about his own life. When I assemble this sound-track I feel nothing but gratitude for the way in which these pieces help me in just that way. The same can be said of the writing of Said Not Said, my most recent book of poetry. Writing it helped me surface many things I did not really know about my own life. Perhaps too that is why I gravitate here toward "roots" music. That's what I was after in my writing, and "roots" music was what I was listening to.

Van Morrison
Veedon Fleece, 1974

Ok, let's begin with a Belfast girl emigrating to America. She might be leaving her home and country, maybe breaking off a romance, to follow a dream. Maybe she wants to be a singer in the U.S. Though the music has a rockabilly, bar-band propulsion, this is an exquisitely sad, somewhat ominous song. The ending verse begins with a question: "We're just screaming through the alley way / I hear her lonely cry, ah, why can't you?" and the verse ends with the girl in the shadows of an alley, down "where the street lights all turn blue." I shiver still when I hear that verse, and my mind wanders a bit as it always does in listening to music. I keep seeing in this song an image of my older sister Pat as she launched her life and lost her mind. This was back in the mid-1950s, and she was, as I am, from Providence, RI. In my mind's eye she is going off to begin art-school and later to work as a commercial artist. A few years later she had developed a profound paranoid schizophrenia that afflicted her for the rest of her life.

Yes, I am projecting all this onto the song. Who doesn't do that? Who wouldn't see her standing in those alley shadows? Said Not Said has four sections, and the first one is a suite of poems devoted to my sister, and it's not too much to say that around her in her coming of age the street lights are all turning blue.

Cement Mixer
by Bulee "Slim" Gaillard
c. 1939

Her name was Mary Patricia, but we called her Pat. She was fourteen years older than me, and actually a half-sister from my mother's first marriage. My family of origin had little if anything to do with artistic expression, so where Pat came from seemed a mystery. She loved jazz and abstract art equally. I, along with everyone else in our home on Camp Street, Providence, did not understand either of these art forms. Meanwhile, she played records in her room, went on about Duke and Count and Cannonball, and sometimes she did some scat-singing for me. That is how I first heard Slim Gaillard's "Cement Mixer," with its "put-ti, put-ti" and an array of other scatologisms. He had invented his own scat language, and gave it a name, Vout. There is a Vout dictionary, where one can, for example, learn that "vout-o-renee" means a damn good performance. African-American, a virtuoso jazz pianist and guitarist, Slim Gaillard was most likely born in Detroit, but in coming of age had traveled the world on merchant ships and on foot. He was said to speak six or seven languages. As a musician and performer, he was genial and warm, making a number of what were called "novelty" songs. "Cement Mixer" was one of these, and in it he mished and mashed Vout syllables the way a cement mixer might.

But what is scat anyway? It hovers somewhere between language and pure sound, somewhere between semantics and feeling. Who knows what Pat was trying to convey to me at any moment when she sang "puddle o'vooty, puddle o'gooty, puddle o'scooty," but what I got from it was her joy. It was improvisational and ephemeral language, and it may not have "meant" much, but whatever it was she loved singing it. In her last years of life, Pat was always there at the front of the day-room on her ward. There would be singing, and the nurses tell me that she knew all the songs, even if she was heavily medicated. I wish I had been there for even one those mornings. You know this is the song we would have sung together, and in Said Not Said, I have a poem with a little "poodle da skoodie" of my own, and its name is "Cement Mixer."

Got You on My Mind
The Evie Ladin Band, 2012
Song composed by Lotus Dickey

To paraphrase former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky, a poem is only a column of air, with variations. So too a song. One morning at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, I woke early to write, and heard on the radio, "Got You on My Mind," a song by The Evie Ladin Band on an album of the same name. Here are the musicians who make up this neo-folk, Appalachian string band:

Evie Ladin: lead vocals, banjo, guitar, body music, feet, knitting needle
Keith Terry: bass, cajón, pizza pan, metal toys, Engelhart gankogui, bass harmonica, body music, vocals
Dina Maccabee: violin, vocals
Erik Pearson: guitar, banjo, vocals

A quiet, unassuming hybrid of longing and sadness for a lover who's gone, this song is nonetheless sprightly, chiming along in its repetitions, hinting of helpless rumination, but not quite obsession. The word that comes to mind is rue. This is a rueful song. Evie Ladin's banjo-picking is deliberate but filled with understated pain. It feels good to go over again and again the sad terrain.

What sustains this song underneath and throughout are some of those odds-and-ends instruments. Keith Terry and his pizza pan rattle and metal toys for castanets. Foot-tapping can be heard, and I am not sure, but I think some knitting needles too. These give the song an undertone of resilience, energy, affirmation. As I said, my mind wanders within the music, and though this is a romantic love song, what if we just shifted the lens a bit and saw it as a religious song? I know it reminds me of a scene outside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It was winter-time when I visited, and there was a small group of Coptic priests in the plaza, gathered around a brazier with charcoal burning in it. One priest was singing in a language I did not understand, but could hear within it that combination of longing and loss, rue and devotion. Whether it be about our relations with one another or to a deity, maybe we can call this a music of faith, of long-standing commitment.

Suite: Stream of Water, Golden Coin, Spring Breeze, Dragon and Tiger
The Perfume River Ensemble
Võ Quê, Artistic Director
Music from the Lost Kingdom: Huế, Vietnam, 1999

Speaking of traditional instruments, there is none more sublime than the Vietnamese đàn bầu. It consists of a sound box and a single guitar string that goes from one end of the sound box to an upright and pliable bamboo stem that acts like a modern day "whammy bar." The musician plays with a long plectum and can vary the sound by manipulating the bamboo stem. The modern đàn bầu comes equipped with a magnetic pickup, and the whole is hooked up to an amp. The traditional instrument, however, is said to be a thousand years old and has often been used as the musical backdrop not only to songs and singers, but also in most ensembles. Its sound is wavering and heart-wrenching, and the experts say it is at the heart of all Vietnamese folk music.

The Perfume River Ensemble from Hue, in central Vietnam, is led by my friend, the poet and singer Võ Quê. He does not play the đàn bầu professionally, but the Ensemble always has one. You can hear it like a stream flowing underneath the kettle drum, moon lute, and zither. You can hear it underneath the voices, the wooden clappers, and tiny teacup castanets. It is like the Perfume River itself. In fact, Võ Quê's ensemble gives concerts on the river, on the dragon boats that take tourists and wedding parties upriver and back in the evenings. Picture the Citadel, site of so much bloodshed during the years of the American war. Picture the pagodas and ancient palaces, the farmlands at dusk, the sandalwood scent to some parts of the passage. Underneath all the delightful exoticism, and certainly this is true for any American old enough to remember the war, is an inescapable sadness. It is not easy to get beyond imagining the loss of life in that war, and as you waver in that frame of mind, you hear the sound of the đàn bầu underneath it all. It is the sound of a grief that may be integrated with life, but is always present. It is the sound too, that I and my co-translator, Nguyễn Bá Chung, hoped to captured in our translation of "The Peach," a poem by Võ Quê and included in Said Not Said.

Overnight, a bat has eaten half the peach,
the rest has fallen onto the sad, sad earth.

For you, I leave a portion of happiness.
Me, I shall keep my share of the sorrow

Dignity (Piano Demo)
Bob Dylan
The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8, 2008

"Checkpoint" is one of the last poems to be included in Said Not Said. The poem dramatizes the moment when a young man in a Middle Eastern country arrives at a military checkpoint and is ordered to raise his shirt to show that he is not wearing a suicide vest. It is an effort to imagine the humiliation involved. The poem is based on witnessing such events at several checkpoints along the border between the West Bank and Israel. I wrote the poem, however, with many checkpoints in mind, from Qalandia to Mosul to Ferguson. What is it in this moment that is so humiliating? I think it comes in part from the sense that someone with the authority of weapons thinks your body--your very body--is the issue, and that if you wish to pass, then that body for that moment does not belong to you anymore. It belongs to the state, or whatever version of the state is in charge.

As "Checkpoint" evolved as a poem over years and drafts, what I kept hearing in my mind was the pared-down version of "Dignity" you find in The Bootleg Series, Vol. 8. Just a piano and Dylan's voice, and a shorter, less baroque set of lyrics than the versions released earlier. It is a sterner, meaner, angrier song, sometime bordering on disgust. It is the sound of a resentment that cannot be eased or salved by string-orchestration or by rocking out. The undertone here is that if everyone is "hoping to find one circumstance / of dignity," then it sure must be in short supply.

Hello Stranger
Emmylou Harris
Luxury Liner, 1977
Traditional /A. P. Carter / The Carter Family

In Camden, NJ, where Walt Whitman spent his last years, his house faces an enormous city jail, and when I visited there during the years of writing this book I imagined his ghost sitting at the window at dusk, mid-winter, watching the streetlights come on by the bus-stop. I imagined him watching the folks who had been visiting someone inside, and I imagined him singing to himself, humming along this song by Emmylou. I know, not possible, not in terms of history, but not crazy either. It is a poor person's song, and there's a woman riding the streetcar whose man is in jail and waving to her through the bars. Those around her give her a stink-eye and raised eyebrow. She sings I'll see you when "your troubles are like mine," when you "haven't got a dime."

My mind wanders again, leaves Camden behind, goes all the way to Anatolia, and back in time into Hesiod, and the myth of Prometheus. In Said Not Said, there is a poem called "Migrants." When Prometheus stole fire from the gods, he hid it in the hollow stalk of a wild fennel, which in the Eastern Mediterranean can grow to fifteen feet tall. The pith will burn slowly and so one can imagine the god strapping the fennel stalk to his back and heading out of the mountains through Turkey, toward Greece. There he sees the present-day migrants, the refugees, the boat-people of this era. The poem imagines the gift of fire being held forth in his arms in the same manner as a refugee mother holds an infant cradled in hers. There will be, says the poem, at least this much tonight: "twigs for a fire, water for tea, some warmth in the morning."

Ancient Highway
Van Morrison
Days Like This, 1995

Prometheus and those migrants walk an ancient highway. The Perfume River is an ancient highway too. Also the alleyway where the streetlights all turn blue. And in one Said Not Said poem I look down to "the far end of a sacred road." In another I am traveling across a desert, with the body itself imagined as a wayward traveling companion, swigging whisky. In yet another Said Not Said poem there is a car with its door open on the streets outside the Jenin refugee camp. A man behind the wheel has been shot, and his blood spills onto the road, pooling, unwilling to follow the contours it must. In another poem I hear the call to prayer moving up the valley and into the city of Jerusalem. Then in another poem there is a passage tomb, a highway into the afterlife, along the River Boyne in Ireland. Georgia O'Keefe's painting with a ram's head and hollyhock bloom float over a set of desert hills, and while there is no highway in sight, I began that poem on the day of the Boston Marathon bombing. All night the search went on for the bombers. The helicopters with their Night Sun searchlights hovering over the streets and highways. This was not in the words of this Van Morrison song, in "a town called Paradise," though most of us were praying to our higher selves.

Dry Bones
Bascom Lamar Lunsford
Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Music, 1997
a.k.a The Harry Smith Box, 1952

The gentle banjo-picking and soft voice of Bascom Lamar Lunsford (1882-1973) gives us a chorus with plenty of musical space and time within it, or to put it another way, plenty of light.

I saw,
I saw the light from heaven

Shining all around

I saw the light come shining

I saw the light come down.

This is the sound of something heavenly coming to us, coming down to earth, touching us, and it conjured in my imagination the William Blake painting "Glad Day." It also conjures a moment a long time ago when my wife and I were first together. We were out in North Dakota, heading from Canada to Colorado to see some friends. We had a dog, a golden terrier mix, and we'd named him Albion, after that figure painted in "Glad Day." In Blake's private, overall mythology Albion represents, among many other things, humankind before the fall. We pulled over at a rest-stop, got out of the van, all three of us. Wind was picking up, bending the grain stalks over in waves. There was a storm forming on the horizon miles away, and the light was turning eerie as the storm clouds rolled toward us. Still it was a soft light, not the glaring sun, and not the branching spears of lightning that were coming our way. It was a light that touched the earth gently, settling on us for only a few moments, but we each felt it so strongly we were sure it would last somewhere within us, and it did.

John the Revelator
Blind Willie Johnson
Smithsonian Folkways Anthology of American Music, 1997
a.k.a. The Harry Smith Box, 1952

Imagine warehouses in Seattle during World War II being emptied out of everything not to do with the war effort. Imagine Harry Smith, would-be art student, exempt by health issues from the draft. Imagine him picking up thousands of 78's--"race records" and "hillbilly records" for a pittance. After the war, Smith moved to New York, and there he met the founder and director of Folkways Records, Moses Asch, who encouraged Harry Smith to assemble three two-album volumes of recorded music, 84 recordings in all, and present it as an anthology of American folk music. This boxed set, along with a spectacularly detailed catalogue is what became colloquially known as the Harry Smith Box. Issued in 1952 it was then, and remains, one of the most significant collections of American "roots" music ever, its influence extending to the present tense. It is what Dylan, for instance, has returned to time and again. The recordings were all published in the late 20s and early 30s, but that vinyl has all but disappeared. The Harry Smith Box thus remains a treasure-trove and guide to some deep, unconscious corners of the American mind. One such depth comes from the fact that Smith presented on the same sides songs by black artists and songs by white artists. It was a deliberately "integrated" musical construct. As a case in point, Blind Willie Johnson (1897-1945) and his "John the Revelator" comes right after the afore-mentioned Bascom Lamar Lunsford's "Dry Bones."

"John the Revelator" is a call and response. Johnson's voice defines the idea of "gravelly" when he asks the question: Who's that writing? Willie B. Harris, his spouse, answers in what sounds like the voice of an angel. While the ostensible subject of the song is the Book of Revelations (the Apocalypse), the song focuses on the writer at the instant of composition. We are watching John being visited by divine inspiration, what the Greeks would have said was the muse. The muse is calling, and John is responding. Call and response is echoed also in the what is told in the song. Though it's not in the Book of Revelations, the song also tells the story of Moses and the Burning Bush:

God told Moses pull off your shoes
Out of the flock, a well a you I choose.

This song in other words is about "answering the call." The last poem in the book, "The Day Later," closes with my wife pulling into the driveway at night and after work. I am upstairs in the attic, working, writing a poem that ponders many kinds of inheritances from the past, a meditation on time, and how lives and minds slip away. When she opens the door, my wife comes to the foot of the stairs and calls out, wondering if I am home. It's a good question, and the poem itself is the response.

High Water (for Charley Patton)
Bob Dylan
Love and Theft, 2001

This song begins much earlier than what we hear on the recording. It begins with Charley Patton's, "High Water Everywhere," and its guitar-waves of sound, as if pounding at the levee. Patton recorded his song in 1929, and it was a response to the great Mississippi flood of 1927. Everyone's leaving their homes, heading to safety somewhere, the threat everywhere. And by the end, and by the long view of history, one gets the feeling that the flood is not just that from the river. It makes you think of folks drowning in poverty, of the flood of misery in The Great Depression, of the violence and dispossession associated with Jim Crow? "Lord," says Charley Patton, "the whole round country, man, is overflowed."

Bob Dylan's "High Water (for Charley Patton)" is a response to Charley Patton's earlier call. Who wouldn't expect Dylan to hear the unsaid but felt presence of social and spiritual crisis? "Things are breaking up out there," he says, "High water everywhere." It's a song about the present tense, for the singer has a "cravin' love for blazing speed," and a "hopped up Mustang Ford." Everyone is underwater, a word that in the 2009 mortgage crisis we began to understand in a new old way. "Don't reach out for me," says the singer's loved one, "Can't you see I'm drownin' too?"

"Wod-or" is one of the first poems I wrote for Said Not Said. I did not know it would lead, or how it would fit into an array of other poems. But this was late summer in 2010, and the Deep Water Horizon disaster had just happened. That plume of crude oil was erupting into the Gulf of Mexico. The underwater television camera capturing something that looked like a dream version of a nuclear mushroom cloud, and you could watch it online twenty-four hours a day. It left you speechless. It led me to a "deep-water horizon" meditation on the words we use to talk about such a disaster. "Wod-or" is the Indo-European root for the word water. The poem consists of free-associations to the etymologies of words such as pollution, spill, gulf, drill. When I came to the last word, I realized that it meant of course the diamond-hard piece of metal used to bore a hole in the face of the earth. But I realized as I wrote how drill was also the word for moving formations of troops across the parade deck. I thought then of the wars of our time, the connections between oil and military might, and ultimately the war we wage against nature and ultimately ourselves. High water rising, high water everywhere.

Fred Marchant and Said Not Said links:

the author's website

Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene review
Publishers Weekly review
The Rumpus review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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