Monday, December 14, 2009

Cesar Vallejo plays the piano keys of my soul

My vocation these days is to set long poems to music. The organization I cofounded to accomplish this work, Poetry Scores, has projects planned and in the works for years to come. We have many needs, but a new long poem to score is not among them.

Yet and still, I am always reading poetry, and when the poem is a long poem, I listen in my inner ear for the sound of music, always prepared to conceive of a new poetry score.

This past weekend, I heard that music. It hit me as hard as music has ever hit me when I was reading a poem. The long poem that sang to me is called "Trilce" by the Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo, in Clayton Eshleman's most recent translation.

I was reading at a brewpub on a wintry Saturday afternoon, which may be my favorite thing on Earth to do. My family was in Jefferson City for the weekend, the Missouri state capital, which is a bit depopulated on weekends - especially when the Legislature is not in session. That's when we find this central Missouri city a comfortable place to disappear.

In the hotel bed, I had been tangling with Vallejo's first book of poems, "The Black Heralds," without really getting anywhere. I took the end of that book, in The Complete Poetry, as a good spot to stop, shower, then pack off to lunch at Prison Brews, the new brewpub down the road.

And it was there, slumped over the bar with a Double Deuce Ale, that Cesar Vallejo began singing to me, as soon as I cracked the spine on his second book (and the last published in his lifetime), "Trilce".

I say Vallejo sang to me, but not really. It was actually the same multifaceted orchestra that always sings to me, the same odds and ends that always work their ways into our scores, the trusty piano keys of my soul: I heard Heidi Dean singing rapturously, a sad wash of slightly amateurish brass, our scrappy indie rock songs, Richard Selman thumbing mbira, Amy Camie thrumming out lush harp lines, Adam Long sawing cello, and a Babel of varying human voices.

Since we won't get to this score until 2013, at the earliest, after Jack Ruby's America by David Clewell, Incantata by Paul Muldoon and Give by Alice Fulton, I look forward to spending the next few years trying to reassemble this orchestra outside of my head.

"Trilce" is a sequence of 77 poems, and we can fit just about 77 minutes on one CD, so the challenge suggests itself: to construct 77 musical miniatures of one minute each.

Back to The Minutemen! As always.

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