Friday, January 30, 2009

Dana Smith completes N. Nomurai portrait from Experiential Auction

This is satisfying. This is St. Louis artist Dana Smith's painting of St. Louis experimental rock band N. Nomurai. Poetry Scores made this thing happen.

We asked Dana if he would donate the experience of having your band painted by him. He said sure. We put it up on auction at the 2008 Experiential Auction, held at Atomic Cowboy.

Eric Hall, the leader of N. Nomurai, wanted the experience, but he was in the studio that night, mastering the Fred Friction solo record. He staked us a proxy bet. Then he went a step further and asked to be contacted from the auction if somebody beat his proxy.

Somebody beat his proxy. Eric was contacted. Eric raised his proxy bid - and won.

Dana went and took pictures of the band, and after months of painting, here it is. I totally dig it. Contact Dana at if you want to see more of his work or commission him to do his thing for you.

N. Nomurai is best tracked at that there MySpace page.

Hopefully Dana will be back for a repeat performance on Experiential Auction 2009!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Roger Moutenot, super producer, on the drums

This dude is named Roger Moutenot. Roger is not exactly a household name, and like most genuinely creative people he probably prefers it that way.

I know his name from reading credits on Yo La Tengo records - he has produced their last fifteen records! - but that's hardly the half of it. The discography on his website as a producer lists a long list of names to conjure with: Velvet Underground, Rosanne Cash, Paula Cole, John Zorn, Gypsy Kings, Bill Frisell, the list goes on.

When we visited with Roger in Nashville last weekend, he was fresh from a project that had a Poetry Scores vibe to it - he had been recording a Danish band that set to music poetry written in an archaic form of their language.

But that isn't why Roger rates a note on the Poetry Scores blog. He actually has a performance credit on our next poetry score!

We recorded in Nashville at The Toy Box, a studio built into an expanded garage by Lij, my longtime collaborator and the original cofounder of this project. Lij and I basically created the form of the poetry score on a road trip together in the mid-1990s, listening to a field recording we had made of the poet Leo Connellan and wondering what we could do with it.

We decided to write a sounstrack to the poem - to score it like one would score a film - and here we are today, still doing that.

Our session in Nashville was scheduled to work on what will be our fourth poetry score, The Sydney Highrise Variations by Les Murray. We had an adequate working band assembled - Lij, Matt Fuller, Dave Melson, and myself - but Nashville is full of musicians, and Lij (a busy family man) doesn't get to see nearly enough of his friends down there.

In a weekend of sessions with his oldest buddies (us), he knew he could be improvisatory and invite folks over and see who showed up and what happened, without freaking us out the way a similar approach might have irritated a paying client. So he made some calls, left it open, and it was Roger who actually showed up, ready to play.

I always love watching or even hearing about Lij interacting with people who might be considered famous. (Roger Moutenot would no doubt cringe at that word applied to himself, but anyway.)

Lij can flat out hang. He is almost impossible to phase. I know a large swath of his family on both sides, and I can see why he is difficult to impress. You almost can't imagine a position of power or influence that is not held by someone in his extended family. They even have a U.S. presidential candidate - Adilai Stevenson - in the bloodline.

Lij is just numb to fame and fortune - he truly takes people as they come.

And Roger Moutenot comes cool. He showed up, accepted a beer, accepted a pair of drum sticks, and established a nice, tight pocket for a rock song Matt had written. I had nothing to do with this one, other than noticing it on a guitar tape he had sent to me and thinking it would work for a scrap of language from Les poem. Namely:

The Nineteenth Century. The Twentieth Century.
There were never any others. No centuries before these.
Dante was not hailed in his time as an Authentic
Fourteenth Century Voice. Nor did Cromwell thunder, After
all,in the bowels of Christ, this is the Seventeenth Century!

The two are one aircraft in the end, the C19-20,
capacious with cargo. Some of it can save your life,
some can prevent it.
Interestingly, Dave abbreviated Matt's original guitar part in a way that he thought made sense, in terms of structure. When he did this, suddenly the music was the perfect length to accommodate Les' reading of these lines with the repetitions that I had in mind to turn it into a song. It was kind of uncanny. Here is the song:

Free mp3

“The C19-20”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men
(With Roger Moutenot on drums
and Les Murray on vocals)

Lij plays piano on this one, though he is buried in this rough mix, and Roger deserves a background vocal track, though we may not end up using the track his voice is on, because I was too close to the mic and drowned everyone out and we had to recut it in the morning, without Roger.

But the backing vocals do include his touch as a producer. When I was reading the poem aloud to the backing track during playback, Roger started reciting key lines along with me. I can't remember whether or not I had it in my head to do that before he did it. That, of course, is the hallmark of a great producer - to lead the artist to their best ideas and leave them with the impression that the ideas were theirs, all along.

Thanks, man.


Photo by Dave Melson

Cover art for "The Sydney Highrise Variations"

We have here the front (up top) and back CD art for our poetry score to The Sydney Highrise Variations. We found them hanging on the wall at The Toy Box, the renovated garage studio in Nashville where Three Fried Men holed up this past weekend to work on the score.

The drawings are by Lij and date from his undergraduate days as an architecture student at Washington University, back when he was known by the name his mama gave him, Elijah Shaw. Elijah Anderson Shaw, if you must know.

The photograph of the front cover image is compromised, because it is hanging on the wall behind a spiral staircase, which requires contortion on the part of the cameraman to get a clean shot of it. But it's a nice picture for the cover of the CD. It even has the right dimensions - and it was drawn in the late 1980s, when not very many people were thinking about CDs.

And how about that wide open white space in the middle of the frame, just perfect for the hand-lettering of the album title, The Sydney Highrise Variations?

Matt Fuller, our art director and "Invisible Hand" in control of all of our destinies, immediately recognized these as apt images for the CD, once I suggested it. He made the obvious objection to the cover image - it's not a highrise - but I reminded him that the poem rejects highrises more than it celebrates them. It's nostalgic for the city when it was "a five-story city," "fire-ladder high."

"That's a five-story city," Matt said, looking at Lij's old college drawing. "That's fire-ladder high." Exactly.

For the back image, we will use a detail of the bottom drawing, just the skyway. The spaces between the windows will be used to fit credit text, such as contributing artists (Les Murray, Three Fried Men, Middle Sleep, Robert Goetz, Frank Heyer) and producers (certainly Matt and me, though Lij and Dave Melson may also earn production credits before this is all over).

I also see nice open corners to scroll Robert Goetz's beautiful Poetry Scores logo.
One less problem in the process of finishing this thing. Oh, going with a conventional CD design also will save us loads of money on the design and printing side, compared to the deluxe treatment we gave to Go South for Animal Index in 2007. The cheaper we print it, the cheaper we can sell in - in a year when everybody is broke.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Note on process: chord charts for our weird songs

Note on process here. My favorite stuff, as a guy who never would have dreamed he would get this far into making music - that is, still doing it twenty years later, with twinklings of interest here and there; even in Turkey, even in Australia.

I'm talking about the chord chart. Band veterans may want to hang with me, just to smile at the recognition of a familiar chore. Band virgins will learn something, so come on!

Three Fried Men - our working group for the rock song settings on our poetry scores - accumulates songs in many ways. A common way is: Matt Fuller works up guitar parts in Los Angeles and sends them to me, wherever I am, on cassette.

Wherever I am, I am always on the move, so I take his cassette with me. I also always have with me a bunch of possible poems to score. I rifle through them as I listen to Matt's riffs, attaching melodies to riffs and fragments of poetry to melodies. This is a natural high for me like few others.

When this process works, we end up with a rock band song that moves forward a poetry score by setting a fragment of a long poem to music. What now?

Now, we need to get together, Matt and I, and work out a structure and document the structure with another rudimentary recording. We usually do this somewhere in L.A. during one of my regular visits to my favorite city, though hilarious stories can be told about working sessions in the Scottsdale Four Seasons and emotionally charged stories about the desert outside Phoenix, near where d. boon died.

Okay, so now we have a structure worked out, and a rough recording to prove (and remember!) it. What now?

Time to get Lij or Adam Long or Meghan Gohil involved. These are our longtime collaboraters with recording studios where we are welcome for free, as part of a complicated calculus of brotherhood and the mutual scratching of backs and free beer and the not knowing how to say no when you have said yes for so long.

When the recording session finally materializes, what do we have? We have a song sketch recorded in a canyon outside Los Angeles or in the Scottsdale Four Seasons or in the desert outside Phoenix. We don't have much time to turn this sketch into a richly recorded full-band song. A full band needs to learn it, from scratch, in a hurry.

Guess what? Somebody gets the pleasure of figuring out and writing out a chord chart that documents when and where the chords change, in the context of when and where the verse changes to chorus, and the chorus to bridge, and the bridge back to verse, and so on and so forth, all the way to the inevitable outro, for Lordy do we love the outros.

One problem. Remember, we are setting long, complicated poems to music. The people who write long, complicated poems are not worried about stuff like "verse-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus-chorus," a structure that would accomodate maybe 70 percent of all the rock songs ever played on the radio.

The poet is telling a story, a dream. It is the job of our songs in poetry scores to follow the story, the dream. This makes for some truly weird, counter-intuitive song structures. This makes the chord chart all the more crucial.

In this image, we have Dave Melson chording out "Inked in by scaffolding and workers," which we tracked as Three Fried Men this past weekend at The Toy Box in Nashville.
Free mp3

“Inked in by scaffolding and workers”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

More mp3s from this Nashville session

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Nashville Highrise Variations (rough mixes)

I spent the weekend in Nashville, holed up in The Toy Box, the recording studio my longtime songwriting and production partner Lij ingeniously crafted out of the small garage in his backyard. (Good precedent for such a thing; this summer Mitch Easter reminded me that The Drive-In where he made the first R.E.M. recordings was his parents' garage, hence the name.)

In the studio: Three Fried Men, as we style ourselves when we are working on band songs for Poetry Scores. The poem we are scoring this time around: The Sydney Highrise Variations by the great Australian poet Les Murray.

In the band, this time around: Lij, mostly playing drums, but also acoustic guitar, organ and piano, with background vocals and whistling; Matt Fuller, in from Los Angeles, mostly playing acoustic guitar, but also electric guitar and drums, with background vocals; Dave Melson, mostly playing bass, but also acoustic guitar and background vocals; and me, singing and coordinating.

Special guests: Marc Primo, who engineered the sessions when Lij didn't; and Roger Moutenot, the historied producer (Velvet Underground, Roseanne Cash, Paula Cole, Bill Frisell, John Zorn and the last fifteen Yo La Tengo records), who dropped by for a beer and sat in on drums for one track.

I'll be blogging about this session for weeks, I suppose, but for now let me just post up some rough mixes. Please note that, thus far, we have done almost none of the things to these tracks that one does to a song to finish it. We have not compiled ("comp'd") multiple takes into one to edit out the rough spots, endlessly tweaked the tones and effects, or (in most cases) added color instruments, solos, or background vocals.

These are just the best live takes of the ten tracks we worked on, with a few dabbles at background vocals and color instrumentation, quickly pulled together in rough mixes and dumped to disc for the drive home - and to share with the other musicians (Tim McAvin, Heidi Dean, John Minkoff, Chris Voelker, Adam Long, Carl Pandolfi, Eric Hall) who will be needed to complete them.

I am throwing these rough mixes up here so those particular folks can hear and download them - and so anyone can follow the gradual construction of our poetry score to Les Murray's great poem The Sydney Highrise Variations from its barest foundations.

For maximum fun, follow along to the lyrics (the poem) as you listen.

Free mp3s
“Far above the tidal turnaround”
(Chris King, Lij, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

“Transients at speed”
(Chris King, Lij, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

“Inked in by scaffolding and workers”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

“On its vaulting drum”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

"They docked at apogee”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

“Hot-air money driers”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

“In the land of veneers”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

“The C19-20”
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men
(With Roger Moutenot on drums
and Les Murray on vocals)

"The cantilevered behometh"
(Matt Fuller, Chris King, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

“Breath of catching up”
(Chris King, Lij, Les Murray)
Three Fried Men

Come back often for more pictures and stories from this session and to follow the progress of the score!

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Teardown day inside a city of the mind and spirit

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This morning is teardown day, after a long weekend in Nashville working on our poetry score to Les Murray's The Sydney Highrise Variations.

Teardown day has always been a bittersweet phenomenon, to me, over twenty years now (!) of making music with substantially the same cast of characters. It's the day when a jumbled mass of possessions that have miscegenated and become mismatched during the session (or the tour) gets sorted out into individual knapsacks and carried away to individual homes.

I have always enjoyed my life outside of making music - I have always been going home to a good woman, an interesting job, and now a beautiful child - but no other part of my life has ever been so communal, so intensely shared, so collective as the experience of being in a band or what has evolved into a songwriting and production team.

In a way, now that we are part of an organization called Poetry Scores, rather than a working rock band (called Enormous Richard, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Three Fried Men, depending on the vintage), the experience is if anything more intense and absorbing. Maybe that's because we have grown older and accumulated significant, life-or-death responsibilties, so that doing our own music is now even more dramatic of a departure from the rest of our individual lives. And maybe it's because of the uncanny element of living with your friends inside this imaginary universe of a poem, which defines the creative process of Poetry Scores.

Rock bands create their own rhetorical spaces: their own songs, setlists, nicknames, inside jokes - their own shared narrative for who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. In a way, you could say the infamous (but very real) band breakup over "creative differences" is precisely the result of one or more of the musicians in a band evolving an independent, different, and inconsistent narrative for who they are and why they are doing what they are doing than the narrative that is understood, even implicitly, to govern the band.

Not to dignify us by the comparison, but the obvious example is John Lennon retranslating his personal narrative of music - of art - after having his mind and body blown by Yoko Ono. Maybe this occurs to me because there is an amateur/outsider Plastic Ono Band painting hanging in the lavatory of The Toy Box, the studio owned by my longtime collaborator Lij, where we have been holed up for three intense days of making music and sleeping on floors.

Poetry Scores, however, has its own modus operandi that is intrinsically different from the pattern of rock bands with their elusive (in many ways, illusory) narratives for who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. Now we deliberately and consciously step, together, into an existing narrative - a long poem - and work together in translating that narrative into the kinds of music we know how to make ourselves or assemble from others.

We are not left, merely, to our own devices. Rather, we collectively employ those devices to refurbish and inhabit a new musical structure based upon an existing set of materials: an existing poem that was already here before we plugged in and is deeply marked by the genius of someone else. In the present project, that's the genius of Les Murray, a genius that is both familiar (he is working-class, humble, funny, deeply modern) and alien: he is wholly Australian and a world more learned and intelligent than any of us.

Maybe I am just trying to trick myself out of being sad (I am always trying to trick myself out of being sad, or scared), but this modus operandi of inhabiting together a narrative that is larger than us and independent of us makes teardown day a little less bitter, if not necessarily any more sweet. Today we leave from here, from Nashville, back to St. Louis and Los Angeles, leaving Lij alone in Nashville (by "alone," I mean with his work and family and life-or-death responsibilities). But we are all also moving, always, inside a city of the mind and spirit called The Sydney Highrise Variations.


Photo of the construction of the Cahill Expressway in Sydney, Australia from The Sydney Morning Herald.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Peter F. Alexander on "The Sydney Highrise Variations"

The leading scholar and biographer of Les Murray, Peter F. Alexander of the University of New South Wales, crafted this new commentary on Les' poem The Sydney Highrise Variations specifically for our upcoming Poetry Scores CD. Peter retains the copyright - and has earned our abundant appreciation and gratiutude.


Les Murray’s ‘The Sydney Highrise Variations’:
a Commentary

By Peter F. Alexander
University of New South Wales


‘The Sydney Highrise Variations’ is a set of five linked poems which Murray first published in 1980, and subsequently included in his volume The People’s Otherworld (1982). The entire sequence is a meditation about the complex culture of the modern world, and Australia’s place in it.

1 Fuel Stoppage on Gladesville Road Bridge in the Year 1980

The first of the poems sets the scene and introduces the sequence. Compelled by the breakdown of his car to spend time amid the traffic on the high peak of Gladesville Bridge, the speaker has the chance to reflect on his city, his country, and Australians’ place in the twentieth century.

Gladesville Road Bridge is one of several that cross Sydney Harbour, providing spectacular views of the city spreading around its glittering, many-armed drowned valley. Everywhere he looks, the speaker sees evidence of the past and intimations of the future.

It is significant that the breakdown of technology, in the form of his ‘sick’ car, has provided the speaker with this time for reflection, and it is on technology that he begins to focus as he waits for a repairman. Although his ‘beloved engine’ is immobilized, he describes the bridge itself as a technical triumph characteristic of the modern world, ‘a great building of the double century’ and calls it ‘gigantic pure form’.

The images he assembles to describe the bridge convey it in terms of human ingenuity: ‘it was inked in by scaffolding and workers’. It is also abstract and religious, ‘a ponderous grotto, all entrance and vast shade’. But more, the bridge is a nuclear explosion, ‘a sketched stupendous ground-burst’, and it is a space probe aimed at the future.

It is, in fact, anything the viewer asks it to be. And all of this multivalent technology seems to get Murray’s tentative approval: ‘it feels good. It feels right’. The ‘brute-force effects’ of the twentieth century appeal to him almost in spite of himself. ‘They answer something in us. Anything in us’.

2 View of Sydney, Australia from Gladesville Road Bridge.

In the second poem of the series the speaker looks east, down-harbour, to where the Sydney Harbour Bridge links the view, and he looks back into the past to the time when British ships first sailed in from the ocean, and when the harbour was known by its Aboriginal name, Warrang.

This view is back to the origins of Sydney, and above it, startlingly, stands the new city rising above the old. In one of his characteristic uses of concrete poetry, Murray gives us a series of short lines evocative, in their very appearance on the page, of the stacked windows of skyscrapers:

Ingots of sheer
affluence poles
bomb-drawing grid
of columnar profit
piecrust and scintillant
tunnels in the sky
high windows printouts
repeat their lines
repeat their lines

All around the new high-rise city is what Murray calls ‘the old order’. South and west spread the urban villas in their quarter-acre gardens, and to the north in the form of the leafy suburbs which Murray calls ‘the built-in paradise forest’. In 1980 Murray himself was living in one of these northern suburbs, Chatswood.

3 The Flight from Manhattan.

With this third section comes a change in tone and mood. The ambiguous title of this poem suggests not only that Manhattan (in the shape of skyscrapers) has flown to Sydney, but also that Murray anticipates that architecture will come to spurn and flee high-rise structures in general, so that multi-storey buildings may gradually sink into the past. ‘It is possible the heights of this view are a museum.’

The central business district of Sydney, with its ‘hot-air money-dryers’ and the central phallic tower with its cable supports which Murray describes as ‘Freud’s cobwebbed poem’, is already looking old-fashioned. Murray associates them with an Australian ambition to be like others. There is, finally, something foreign and temporary about them: ‘They rose like nouveau accents/and stilled, for a time, the city’s conversation.’

To Murray they represent a monied class to which he does not belong, and to which he does not aspire. ‘Employment and neckties and ruling themes ascended/into the towers. But they never filled them’.

4 The C19-20

In the fourth section of the poem Murray begins to focus on the twentieth century’s troubled consciousness of itself, and its links with the nineteenth century.

The twentieth century rose out of the nineteenth, and Murray visualizes them as a single aircraft with the codename ‘C19-20’. This bi-cellular era is unlike any previous period in that it is aware, for the first time, of having a quite different character from what came before.

The technology of this self-conscious double century has delivered a constant stream of miraculous gifts. It has also produced a civilization which Murray compares to a cargo cult, materialistic and ultimately empty.

As he stands on Gladesville Bridge by his paralyzed car, he seems to hear the struggle for the soul of the twentieth century going on in ideological conflict around him. Those who wish to move towards more rapid evolution struggle with those who try to take us back into ourselves:

‘Darwinians and Lawrentians/are wrestling for the controls,/We must take her into space!/ We must fly in potent circles!’

5 The Recession of the Joneses

In this conclusion to the sequence, Murray sees the whole of Sydney and all it represents as an attempt to catch up with the modern world symbolized by the United States, and his title suggests, slightly scornfully, that Australians are trying to keep up with the Joneses.

But this is not enough for him. What he longs for is the emergence of an authentic Australian vernacular, not just in architecture but in every kind of national expression. ‘When we create our own high style/ skill and the shadow will not then part’.

And the poem-series concludes with a vision of Sydney as not so much a transplanted foreign city as a gathering of Australian small towns writ large: ‘Six hundred glittering and genteel towns/gathered to be urban in plein air’.

The whole poem sequence derives its tension from this ambiguous response to the modern world. Murray ultimately is both excited and repelled by modernity, even as he feels himself ‘vibrant with modernity’s strange anger’. His is an older and a newer vision, both seeing modernism’s history and anticipating what will replace it.

c) Peter F. Alexander
UNSW, Sydney, January 2009.


Photo of Sydney Harbour by Christopher Chan.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

"All the Greatest Matadors were Fascists" mp3

What was with all the commentators yesterday during President Barack Obama's inauguration remarking on "the peaceful transfer of power"?

Was there a violent resistance to the peaceful transfer of power in the works that the rest of us don't know about? Was W. thinking about calling in the Texas National Guard and bunkering himself into the White House with Dick Cheney's thumb on the red button of nuclear armageddon?

Anyway ... it reminded me of a violent transfer of power that was the subject of one of the first songs I cowrote that could count as a poetry score.

The violent transfer of power: The Spanish Civil War. The poetry we scored: a pregnant phrase from George Orwell's book about the war, Homage to Catalonia, and one of William Blake's Proverbs of Hell.

The Proverb from Hell: "Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead," which forms the song's outro.

The pregant phrase from Orwell: "All the greatest matadors were fascists," which became the song's hook and title.

Orwell was amazed to find that the bullfights were all cancelled after the people took power from the fascists, which led to his conclusion about the loyalties of the matadors and their handlers.

Some other lines in the song - notably, the bit about the "anarchist barber who's no longer a slave" - are also pure Orwell.

My cowriter: Marshall Boswell, cofounder of my grad school band Enormous Richard, who has gone onto a solid career writing fiction and critical works about John Updike and the late Davis Foster Wallace.
The song:

Free mp3

"All the Greatest Matadors were Fascists"
(Boswell, King)

By Enormous Richard
Produced by Meghan Gohil
(In bad need of a mastering job!)

From Why It's Enormous Richard's Almanac
(out of print cassette)


Matador photo by John Dimis of AP courtesy of Time.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Dancing Hopkins, Africa and Isadora Duncan

The mission of Poetry Scores is to translate poetry into other media. We began by scoring long poems musically, which remains primary to what we do. Then we began curating art invitationals, where the same poems are translated into images and objects. We have made one poem into a movie. Dance, however, is a form we have flirted with and talked about from time to time, without ever working out a project.

When we do, it sounds like we have a promising choreographer right here in St. Louis: COCA's Alice Bloch.

Kenya Vaughn reported the following arts feature for The St. Louis American before leaving town to attend the Barack Obama Inauguration festivities in the nation's capital. What Kenya has described in Alice's work on this program at COCA is a poetry score - most specifically, in the translation of the Gerard Manley Hopkins epistolary poem into a dance, though everything about this innovative program shares the spirit of what we are trying to do.


Dancing Hopkins, Africa and Isadora Duncan
Alice Bloch merges body and soul and cultures at COCA

By Kenya Vaughn
Of the St. Louis American

What 30 years of experience as an educator, dance historian and choreographer have taught Alice Bloch about the art form may come as a surprise to many – especially aspiring dancers.

She wouldn’t dare say that those individuals who work until their toes bleed to master techniques and routines with precision are dancing down the wrong path. But Bloch believes that expression supersedes the technical elements of the form.

“For me dance, has always been about expressing human experience,” Bloch said. “Some people care about the technical – and it’s great. But for me it’s about reaching from within and trying to communicate experience.”

Next weekend at COCA, she will work with professional dancers, pre-professional COCAdance company members and other media elements – including poetry and drums – to present her philosophy in Dances – Self and Spirit.

The poetry of Christian mystic Gerard Manley Hopkins and the traditional ritual of the San of South Africa are primary sources of inspiration for Dances – Self and Spirit. Bloch has translated Hopkins’ passionate love letters to Mother Nature, told through stanzas. The dancers speak the words of the poems and rely on their cadences as a soundtrack to accompany their steps.

The movements within a San healing ritual are used to create a love offering to dance, nature and humanity. “They are hunter-gatherers, and they walk out in nature,” Bloch said of the San. “Some of the movement in this healing ritual is also part of the dance – kind of a life journey.”

The San-inspired “I Walk” is set to Bloch’s own text and the music of percussionist Evelyn Glennie. It walks the audience through all aspects of existence.

Through Dances – Self and Spirit, Bloch also pays homage to Isadora Duncan, one of the founding mothers of modern dance at the dawn of the 20th century.

“I dream of a dance that would be so pure so strong that people would say that it is a soul we see moving.” The quote belongs to Isadora Duncan, but Bloch recited the words with a sense of ownership and appreciation of the concept that she passes down to her students and audiences.

Dances – Self and Spirit will introduce many to Duncan’s work for the first time. “They are beautiful in a very flowing and powerful way,” Bloch said of Duncan’s choreographic presentations. “It’s not flashy, but it’s very rich and full and your whole body moves. They can be delicate and light – and can be absolutely wild.”

At a time when female dancers were thought of strictly as objects of sexuality, Duncan’s dances offered blessings to art and self-respect.

“She was inspired by waves in particular, sweeping back and forth across the stage,” Bloch said. “And she showed that you can really enjoy moving and be really luxurious and lush – that’s what it’s about. It’s not about selling your body.”

Although her life came to a tragic end in 1927, Duncan’s vision still thrives through artists like Bloch. As she continues the legacy of a dance pioneer, honors the Earth and celebrates life through several cultural traditions, Bloch hopes that audiences’ reaction to Dances – Self and Spirit are simple.

Bloch said, “One of the big things for everyone is to see how the body and the soul flow together and what that connection can do to help us be better people and do more good in the world.”

"Dances – Self and Spirit" will be presented 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 30 and 31 at COCA, 524 Trinity Ave. in University City. For tickets, call 314-534-1111 or visit Metrotix.


Sean O'Leary has scored a number of Hopkins poems; hear a demo online.

Vic Chestnutt has written a dream song about dancing with Isadora Duncan, which would be haunting even if it did not come from a songwriter in a wheelchair.

As for the San, the place to get lost online is looking at their rock art.


Isadora Duncan image from Library of Congress.
San image from ABC Australia.
Hopkins text image from The Words Group.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ancestral tribute: to David Greenberger and Ernest Noyes Brookings

I have always honored David Greenberger and his Duplex Planet project as an ancestor of Poetry Scores. We recognized this in our project's prehistory as the field recording collective Hoobellatoo, which made David's house in upstate New York a stop on one of our first road trips.

We got to know David from his Ernest Noyes Brookings songwriting project. Ernie was a retired MIT engineer living at the Duplex Nursing Home (in Jamaica Plains, Massachusetts) when David got a job there as activities director, fresh out of graduate school.

One of those activities became giving Ernie a title every day and asking him to write a poem to it. This produced strange, often thrilling poems by an old man who had never thought to write a poem until David asked him to do so.

David began publishing Ernie's work, along with experimental forms of oral history and arresting photographs, in his zine Duplex Planet. Because this was presented as outsider art, rather than some old folks' thing, it attracted a hipster following, including people David knew from his tenure as bassist in the band Men & Volts. I understand the likes of David Byrne and Michael Stipe were among the zine's earliest subscribers.

I went home with a woman on Cape Cod one night during a band tour. In the morning, she played me the second volume of Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings featuring all sorts of artists that interested me: XTC, The Incredible Casuals, The Young Fresh Fellows. She explained the premise behind the project - the young activities director from the New York music scene, the nursing home poet he had in effect created, the songs he had bands writing to the poems.

She told me she knew the producer (David) and thought he would like my band, Enormous Richard. So I sent him our cassette, and he did in fact like it. He sent us some poems by Ernie and asked us to pick one and put it to music. In so many ways, this was the beginning of Poetry Scores.

A little music industry history intervenes here. We picked the poem "February" and set it to music. By then, David had decided to set aside the twelve month poems for name acts (REM, David Byrne, Richard Thompson) in the interests of producing one blockbuster release that would promote the entire series. So we picked another poem, "15," and wrote a song to it that appeared on Outstandingly Ignited: Lyrics by Ernest Noyes Brookings (Vol. 4).

Unfortunately, the label doing the series for David, East Side Digital, dissolved before he ever got around to Volume 5, let alone the blockbluster Months record with the 12 name acts that was intended to follow it and shower fame on all that had gone before.


Free mp3s

(Ernest Noyes Brookings,
Matt Fuller, Chris King)
Enormous Richard

(Ernest Noyes Brookings,
Matt Fuller, Chris King)
Enormous Richard

Both were released on the Enormous Richard CD Warm Milk on the Porch.


Photo of Ernest Noyes Brookings and David Greenberger by Stephen Elston from the Duplex Planet site.

K. Curtis Lyle live at The Royale on Inauguration Day

It must be well known by now or at least come as no surprise that The Royale (3132 S. Kingshighway Blvd.) is hosting an Inauguration Day party for President Barack Obama on Tuesday, January 20 from 2-6 p.m.

It may be news that Poetry Scores house poet K. Curtis Lyle will be in the house to perform his suite for Obama, Barackutopia. Here is how that great poem begins, after a epigraph from Song of Solomon: “Our bed is green”.


1. Reconciliation

I receive the believer who was charred by the fire
I accuse and accept the perennial liar
I take pleasure in setting day on top of the night
My historical measure
Welcomes the wedding of the black and the white

The people decide, not political whim
Human beings once blind, now look out over the rim
They see the weeping of Blackness
They hear the confusion of blood
They feel their knees once rubbed down to the bone
Now redeemed at the shores of counsel and home
That the heart could wake marrow and then make it care
That love could become herald when hatred was there
Is a tribute to patience and to faith and to plan
Recognition that courage is at the heart of the man
It could all end tomorrow or become the fat of the ground
You make the call; tell me brother and sister
If what was lost is now found

- K. Curtis Lyle

And on and on it goes, with its surprising, generous, unsentimental truths. "That love could become herald when hatred was there". Wow.

Curtis will go some time between 2 and 4 p.m. Sorry I can't be more precise at this time. The Royale proprietor Steven Fitzpatrick Smith will be in D.C. for the big day, and he has left Allison Trombley (she with the most magnificent name) to put this thing together in a big hurry.

In what is becoming a frustrating pattern (hallo, Thomas!), I agreed to do it but then realized I just can't, being the white guy at the black paper the day the black guy is moving into The White House when all of the black folks at the black paper will be in the nation's capital for the occasion. That will be me in the Obama T-shirt that reads, "My staff went to Washington for the Inauguration, and all I get is to fret that their copy and photographs will come in on time."

But to ask for me and get K. Curtis Lyle instead is, what can I say, the bargain of a lifetime. "You make the call; tell me brother and sister/If what was lost is now found".


Photographs of Richard Rodriguez's public Obama art by me during the New Monastic Workshop.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Letter from Les Murray: Of clairvoyance and those dear to us

I suppose we all have different things that hold us together, that remind us we're doing what we're supposed to be doing and not wasting this gift of life. One, for me, is a letter in the mail from Les Murray.

Les Murray may be the greatest poet working in the English language. I also say this about K. Curtis Lyle and Paul Muldoon - not coincidentally, also poets who have worked with Poetry Scores. Shoot for the best, I always say.

Les is Australian. He grew up and lives again now in rural poverty, in Bunyah, New South Wales. However, he went to university in Sydney, which has always been his Australian image of The City - his indigenous London or New York. This year we are scoring his great urban poem, The Sydney Highrise Variations, his great poem of modernity and vertical space.

Les sat down to write me a note on January 5, 2009, responding to a very recent letter from me that had updated him on our efforts. I reminded him that our score to Sydney was moving forward and had taken on some of the ambience of a record he might be able to find online, English Settlement by XTC. I included a drawing of him by my daughter Leyla Fern, based upon a photograph of Les reading his urban poem in the session that will be incorporated into our score.

I also enclosed the historic edition of The St. Louis American celebrating the victory of Barack Obama. Les responded to all of these things in his handwritten letter, from which I quote selectively.

Les Murray writes:

Thanks for all the good paper you sent, your letter most of all, but also the black newspaper with its total joy in the good news of Barack Obama.

You mention a long or book-length poem of mine, so I enclose it [Fredy Neptune; an autographed and inscribed copy]. Has not got to do with the harbour bridges of Sydney, but with the first half of the last century, in the Australian and certain other idioms of that time. Took me 5 years to write, in the 90s, between shorter poems.

I do love the pic. Leyla drew of me from that old photo. Scratching my head as to whether I met Leyla. I realise that no, I haven't - she was a mound inside her mother when I was briefly in their company. I've only ever seen her as a separate person in photos.

Fancy your seeing and reading Peter Alexander's bio. of me [which I started reading by coincidence on Les' birthday, as explained in my letter to him]. I did learn a bit from that book myself, mostly baby stuff, plus the awful details of Dad's failure to get the ambulance for Mum. My wife Valerie had sussed out that Dad's terrible grief was
at least half composed of guilt - I was always too close to it to sniff the suppression in it. Inability to break his language rules, to break Mum's privacy or his own, or talk about women's matters on an open phone line - my Aboriginal historian cousin Vicki Grieves told me, "Aboriginal people die that way all the time." And there's a deep streak of Ab. custom in countryfolk of all ancestries, in poorer Australia.

I'll get our electronic son Peter to dial up that CD you mention, English Settlement by XTC.

And here we are, V. & I, living in an empty nest wth the usual plethora of spare beds for grown children to reoccupy, especially round this time of year. Three are married, the other two are unlikely to follow. Clare might just - she works as a clairvoyant, but doesn't predict about herself. I still go on the road to earn a living, 2 months out of 12 on average. I think my best ever American tour was in early 2007. Atlanta, NYC, Vassar, NYU, a deli in Crockett CA and one more college in L.A. Peter our youngest came along and attended, voluntarily, 4 of my six readings. He's studying drama now and fixing computers for a crust. The strangely prophetic thing we saw in NYC was that the great bronze bull in Wall Street was missing. Wonder if it's back? Or where it got to?

Love & cheers to you & your wife & daughter & all those dear to you. And may the crazies &/or the unreconstructed never get a bend on your new President.



The disappearance of the bronze bull (and, shortly thereafter, of the bull market)! Interesting that Les and I also went through 9/11 together, and now the financial meltdown and the ascendency of Obama, too. Pretty good company for the experience of history. Not a bad use of the gift of life.


Free mp3

The son Peter referenced in Les' letter is autistic and the subject of the world's greatest poem about autism. This recording of Les was made by the BBC and is bootblogged here, but since Les gave me the CD of the session that the BBC gave to him, I feel authorized by the author himself to share them.

"It Allows a Portrait in Line Scan at 15"
By Les Murray
Performed by Les Murray
Recorded by the BBC


The image is an autographed typescript of a poem Les mailed me with a letter some years ago.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Cindy Tower riding the rubble down

I suppose I can claim Cindy Tower for the Poetry Scores blog, since she contributed work to our most recent art invitational devoted to K. Curtis Lyle's poem Nailed Seraphim.

Funny, she has a new show opening February 20 at the Sheldon Art Galleries titled Riding the Rubble Down, which comes described as "a reference to the story of one 9/11 survivor." Nailed Seraphim is the story of one 9/11 survivor, albeit an imaginary one. Curtis and Cindy: right there with the thoughts.

"Trespassing on abandoned sites of 19th and early 20th-century technological innovation, Tower produces works that are both self-portraits and metaphors for the state of the world and the human condition," the Sheldon press release states.

"The exhibition, which encompasses 15 paintings completed between 2005-2008 while she was in St. Louis, shows a progression in her handling of paint from her earlier grand-scale works that document every detail of the environment to her recent, more loosely-applied, drippy and disintegrating renderings."

That all sounds really good. However, this same PR has her show titled "Riding the RUBLE down," as opposed to "RUBBLE," making it sound like a day in the descent of the Russian stock market rather than study in urban disintegration.

John Eiler bought the piece Cindy contributed to our invitational, Wash dead flowers down with embalming fluid, and he geeked out on her work after he brought her painting into his house. One day when I was visiting him (and her painting), he showed me a website about her site work that results in her paintings. She brings muscle with her, as protection while she is foraging in these desolate urban environments. It was the first instance I have seen of an artist who works with armed security.

"Moving from New York in 2005," her bio reads, "Tower was visiting assistant professor of painting at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis until 2008." Until 2008. Sounds like she wasn't offered a tenured position. Our loss.

The show hangs Feb. 20-May 9. Admission is free.


The image is Cindy Tower, Last Stockyard, 2007, oil on canvas, 68 x 72 inches, courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Kevin Belford and The Illustrated Word

The mission of Poetry Scores is to translate poetry into other media. This collaboration isn't quite that, but it does pair words with images and includes three Poetry Scores principals, so I think it belongs here.

These three pieces are by St. Louis artist Kevin Belford, who has helped us in many ways and contributed work to the art invitationals for Blind Cat Black and Go South for Animal Index.

Here are the titles of the pieces, top to bottom, and the texts he culled to accompany them:


Alleys are my city's secret pockets.
I want the whole sky and all the wine in your house
and all the wine in your neighbor's house.
I can't stop taking shortcuts.
I'm going to find a way to fall in love with that shattered
window fixed with masking tape.
I'm going to draw a broken line in dressmaker's chalk
from my pink collar to my pink heart.

- "Stardust in a Phrygian Key" by Stefene Russell


is that quality possessed by some which draws all others with its magnetic force. With It you win all men if you are a woman—all women if you are a man. It can be a quality of the mind as well as a physical attraction. Self-confidence and indifference whether you are pleasing or not—and something in you that gives the impression that you are not at all cold. That's "It".

- "The Man and the Moment" by Elinor Glyn, (1923)


I had a gash in my shin
That was bleeding into my shoe
She was going away.
She had bought me a book.
Felt like a thirdstring tightend,

- Unpublished Poem by Chris King

Belford has given me authorial credit for what it really a piece of found art - a few lines from a gigbook poem collaged from everything anybody said at the bar that night, and I am pretty sure Brett Lars Underwood said most of this bit.

These pieces appear in the show The Illustrated Word (through March 7) at The Gallery at Chesterfield Arts, 444 Chesterfield Center Dr., Suite 130 (636/519-1955). Also in the show: Richard Bernal, Michael Kilfoy and Terri Shay.

Belford notes, "The text was supposed to accompany the pieces, but i guess they changed their minds," which means that the words didn't make it into the show, I guess.

Monday, January 12, 2009

The Rosy Fingers of a Navajo Dawn, by Paul Zolbrod

Okay, this isn't really a blog post. It's an essay - and a long one. But I found it on Paul Zolbrod's blog without paragraph breaks, and when I suggested that he punctuate his longer pieces, he sent it to me with an apology that he doesn't really understand how to manipulate his blog. So I'm publishing it here with at least some paragraph breaks.

It will take you a few minutes to get through this, but if you are interested in poetry, cross-cultural experiences, the Navajo or reservation life, then read this thing. If the publishing industry weren't imploding, this would essay would form the beginning of a great memoir.

Paul advised Stefene Russell on her use of Navajo themes in her poem Go South for Animal Index, which we scored, and Paul's translation of the Navajo epic Dine Bahane is on our list of future scores, if anyone is wondering why he is on the Poetry Scores blog.


The Rosy Fingers of a Navajo Dawn:
Learning While Teaching at a Tribal College

By Paul G. Zolbrod

With the day's first light, I wake up in the Crownpoint Campus building of the Navajo Nation's Diné College, where I go each week from my Albuquerque home to teach. Since there are no motels within fifty miles of that isolated, one-building campus just off the Continental Divide, I sleep on the library floor. Mornings, I get up and do stretch exercises against a tier of windows facing east before beginning another day with adults learning to read and write. There as I twist and bend, I watch the horizon begin to redden, as if to reignite in a terrorized world the perspective on nature I have gained at this place; then I see the sun come out from strands of early haze, rise clear, and shine free until its light bathes the interior walls with an incandescent glow that unites indoors and out.

In that new day’s arrival, I anticipate seeing now familiar features of the landscape that will soon show with the brightening dawn but then vanish come full sunlight: the upper peaks of Dzil lizhinii—-the Jimez Mountains—-silhouetted far off to the northeast low along the horizon; Tse ajéááí'--Heart Butte--jutting above the flat edge of landscape more nearby to the southeast; a ribbon of shadow a middle distance due east that suggests a canyon’s rim; and what seems like tier after tier of wide mesas extending farther in the distance. Across the entire span of horizon tiny details of form and color virtually spell out that particular morning's point of the sun's emergence; but once it moves skyward into broad daylight such things are no longer visible, for the early dawn fixes that horizon temporarily in a way unique not only to that one day of the year, but to the moment. Meanwhile, a golden-red formation of clouds appears halo-like above the horizon itself with the brightening dawn, while still further skyward glow portions of the spectrum so rarely seen they must go unnamed, except to say that for those familiar with it, Homer’s phrase “rosy fingered dawn” takes on vibrant new life.

Sitting on the eastern edge of a Reservation larger than the state of West Virginia and almost as irregular in shape, Crownpoint is not a well known Navajo community, save among aficionados of Navajo weaving, since it is the site of a monthly auction of hand-woven rugs. But even those who come to buy learn little or anything about the town itself. Home to some 2500 residents, it is surrounded by a dozen or more widely scattered rural county-like units called chapters. Interlaced with family and clan relationships, it is a place where the only strangers come from elsewhere. A four-way stop sign marks the town’s center, together with a small elementary school and a modest flea market where local residents sell and trade merchandise and food. A mile to the east stands a minimalist shopping center consisting of a general store, a coin-operated laundry, a kidney dialysis station, and a little super market where adventurous campers who choose to take the hazardous back route to Chaco Canyon across a wildly unimproved road might stop for canned goods, ice or bottled water.

Those who pass through only once may leave with the impression that Crownpoint is not an especially friendly place, since Navajos generally appear to ignore folks who make a random single stop. But people like myself who go there on a regular basis learn to expect warm-spirited generosity. Locals exchange friendly greetings with people who become familiar, will stop and chat, and like to tease or joke with outsiders they get to know. Anglos-—as whites are customarily called-—who teach there as I do or provide some other service and show an openness to the culture often find themselves invited to a ceremony or some other family gathering, where they are welcomed with warm smiles and genuine handshakes and treated as kinfolk themselves. And to those receptive to it, knowledge is shared that reveals how different from our own way of life Navajo culture can be. What I especially like about teaching there, in fact, is how much I learn about this very different world, and how sometimes the stark contrast allows me to revisit our own with a new perspective. Since I am honored as one myself in this society that reveres age, for example, a fellow elder might sit in the library with me and tell of traditional ways or exchange views on how our two cultures differ in their respective responses to modernity. Between such socializing and the teaching I do, it all makes for a gratifying experience in the autumn of my career as an educator.

I do not wish, however, to covey the impression that Crownpoint meets some kind of Arcadian ideal. Like reservation communities elsewhere in North America it shows a dark underside, too. Poverty is rife. Unemployment hovers at around sixty-five percent. Alcoholism persists as an abiding curse. There is plenty of domestic violence, teen pregnancy, gang activity and petty jealousy. A half mile away from this campus that commands such a magnificent view lies the local police station, a district tribal court, and a high school-junior high school complex where all the problems familiar to any ghetto or barrio or other minority enclave produce distressing statistics and where no rosy outlook prevails. Adolescents kill each other; children go hungry or are sexually abused; homeless drunks die of exposure in roadside washes. All the same, something characteristically Navajo—at once subtle and yet palpable—unifies this community, holds it together, and makes it a place I return to eagerly.

That quality can be seen, I have come to understand, in the way light moves with the sun from pre-dawn through dusk and on into the night as the moon follows its phases, the seasons change, and the most distant constellations shift as seasons come and go. The ceremonies that Navajos still practice to restore and maintain well-being reflect this cyclical change, and as elders and medicine men repeat, a victim of illness, misfortune or self-imposed suffering can restore whatever balance has been lost from his or her life by taking refuge in those old communal ways that always culminate in a celebration of the sunrise. And that is what I recognize when I marvel at Crownpoint’s eastern horizon come the dawn.

That vista is not Navajoland's most celebrated, of course, at least in the popular eye. Reserve that for Monument Valley, thanks to movies like John Ford's Stagecoach or The Searchers, or more recently the very un-Navajo Windtalkers, and the now hackneyed images of towering sandstone pillars they have promoted. Rather it goes unnoticed because it is at once so remote and because its more subtle appeal registers not at once but slowly over time. I have come to appreciate it only gradually during the thirteen years I have taught here two or three days each week following my retirement after thirty years on the faculty at Allegheny college. Its stark beauty does not overwhelm the eye the way it does where those John Wayne movies were made. Instead, it grows with the familiarity that comes from tracking the sun's point of emergence from week to week in the morning, and seeing how it plies its light to begin each unique day and reaffirms its role as the ultimate arbitrator of time--lighting up the eastern horizon in a slightly different way as morning follows morning. Thirty-five years ago when I started coming out to the Southwest to learn how cosmology interfaced with Native American narratives, I was scarcely aware of the meaning of solstice and equinox. Like most people, I tracked time by clock and calendar, never having observed the sun's shifting position against a horizon come dawn and dusk. But as I grasped while learning their stories how Navajos calibrated sun and moon with their ceremonial lives, I became fully aware that the numbers we assign to the named days of the week or months of the year are arbitrarily named analogs to nature's cycles.

In Navajo, though, no single word exists for nature. That English term is barely approximated in the nearly untranslatable phrase, hanaagóó áhoot'éhígíí, which does not denote a place elsewhere that we can escape to with backpacks when urban life grows oppressive. Instead it is an aggregate term which roughly means all that surrounds whatever is surrounded. My Crownpoint colleague Shirley Bowman, who teaches Navajo language and culture there, points out that the expression includes everything: hills, mountains, mesas, the four winds; plants, animals and people alike, insects, birds; the expanse of sky and all things evident therein night and day; and most especially all spirits visible or otherwise that animate whatever moves or dwells inside what appears immovable, and of course those who interact with it all along with the full range of that interaction. It designates, as it were, one encumbering organism that contains all others, presiding over which are the moon, the individual stars, the constellations, and most especially the sun, which Navajos call Jóhonaa'éí--The One Who Rules the Day.

In the Navajo creation story, which warrants recognition as narrative at its richest, he is positioned to move high above the earth to light the sky from dawn to nightfall, and to mediate the seasons by rotating on an oscillating orbit so that the world neither remains too hot nor grows too cold from year to year. Later he becomes the absentee father of the vaunted Warrior Twins, who hazard dangers to seek him out and beg for weapons to slay marauding monsters poised to devour the still young earth’s emergent population. Following the defeat of the monsters, he secures a pact with the Twins’ mother, Asdzáá nádleehé, or Changing Woman as her name translates into English. As he ends his daily journey across the sky each evening, they agree, he will join her for a night's rest before beginning a new day's journey. Meanwhile, she will change with his course as the seasons come and go. Unyielding in his power, he must nevertheless relent to her demands for a shimmering home in the west before she consents, which places mother earth and father sky in harmonious counterpoise, reinforcing the delicate balance that must prevail in the complex system that hanaagóó áhoot'éhígíí entails.

I am reminded of that story and how he must compromise with Asdzáá nádleehé as I watch Jóhonaa'éí emerge from the clouds that cushion the eastern horizon. Morning, afternoon, evening and night, his progress through the sky marks the time of day; and where he first appears from one day to the next determines when to hunt, when to plant, when deer will breed and horses foal. In partnership with the stars, he directs the work of days. Thanks to his ever-changing yearly path, we observe the four seasons and recognize four cardinal directions as the months go by, tallied as well by his consort Changing Woman and his nocturnal partner tl'éhonaa'éí the Moon--The One Who Rules the Night. In fact, even the four separate additional personifying names given him as he changes underscore time’s passage: ‘ooljéé’ dah yiitiih for the new moon, ‘ooljéé’ bélheel for a half,‘ooljéé haníbáas for the full moon; and ‘ooljéé haasáál for an old one--all in an ongoing cosmic drama where scene follows scene unendingly, and people too play out their individual roles.

I myself have experienced how that can work. Not long before I began teaching there a group of Crownpoint elders recommended a formal ceremony for me. At the time I was conducting a study with a Navajo colleague of how the old stories were deliberately woven into rugs and blankets produced by those people with such artistry. Rich and intense, that research was busying my mind with facts and details faster than I could absorb them, and as a result I began to have trouble sleeping. When I mentioned that to a couple of the old weavers who were providing data, they insisted on bringing in a medicine man to sing over me for two successive nights to allow me to process all that information. Accordingly, soon thereafter my Navajo partner and I joined the weavers accompanied by our own close relatives in a traditional Hogan on a high mesa overlooking the landscape around Crownpoint. Thanks to the shaman-like effect of the chanted word and the enduring presence of an ancient story, I accompanied the Twins in their sky journey to ask Jóhonaa’éí for help in overcoming adversity. After a safe return, I was purified the following morning with yucca suds, and on the second night--again helped with the power of song--a dwelling was erected for me surrounded by all the things that make for a rich Navajo life: plenty of sheep, cattle and horses; fields of corn, beans, melons and squash; abundant water; and an extended family including those who were participating in our study. And culminating that second night-long session were songs to bring Dawn Boy out of the eastern horizon so that he could usher in the sun itself.

By then I had become familiar enough with the chants—-voiced in an archaic ceremonial dialect as different from contemporary Navajo as Chaucer’s English is from today’s-—to sing along with the others. So there I sat, cross-legged in that small Hogan together with people who had become my kinfolk, appealing to Diné Diyinii the Holy People to bring forth a new day. Totally absorbed in the proceedings, I was one of them as they summoned the dawn while expressing its full meaning together with that of the sun and the moon, the wind and the mountains, the corn and the sheep, and how all those things are linked in a meaningful, harmonious cosmos. By now it was after four a.m., and since we were only two days beyond summer solstice, dawn would arrive as early as it does all year long. There would be four more songs, the medicine man whispered to me, and then I was to go outside and greet the rising sun, which this past night had become mine to summon. As instructed, so I did, seeing anew that glorious vista first of stars overhead and then the sun’s initial hint of morning light against the eastern sky as far to the north as it can possibly reach year round. And preparing to watch it rise, I noticed just slightly northward a very narrow but phosphorescently bright perpendicular thread of light extending upward from the faintly visible eastern horizon. I had never before seen anything like that, but was later told that it was first visible crescent of summer’s very newest moon. And as is customary in the Navajo ceremonial way, I put a pinch of corn pollen on my tongue, then took another, sprinkling some of that on my head and some down across my upper body, and next spread the remainder before me as I faced the newly emerging Jóhonaa’éí to make a path for his light to touch me so that I could now absorb the knowledge I was so rapidly acquiring and thus sleep peacefully as my research proceeded.

Upon waking with the sunrise, we all become players one way or another in such a daily production that eventually measures out an entire life span. At birth we enter the cycle as infants, move into childhood, proceed through adulthood, and eventually reach old age. Thus rotating through four seasons of our own, our lives advance with each day’s sun and the phases of the moon as we undertake task upon task, whether large or small, which Navajos sort into four steps for each, identified respectively as nitsáhákees--beginning or thinking; nahat'á--planning or implementing; iiná--proceeding or executing; and sihasin--perfecting or securing a clear path for what is to follow. That four-step process is further aligned with the four parts of each day, the four seasons, the four cardinal directions, and the four phases of a human life: childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. Thus we participate in a master production that features earth's annual awakening to warmth, followed by a time of germination and growth, then of blossoming and harvesting, and on to a time to cool and rest, each of us reenacting a perpetually self-renewing cycle of cycles commensurate with a harmony evident alike on earth and in the sky. In the classroom, in fact, I suggest that students consider each essay they write as a four stage process of thinking, outlining, producing a draft and finally revising. As Navajos, I remind them, they have been raised in a culture where that movement through four steps places them in harmony with Asdzáán nádleehé in her alliance with Jóhonaa'éí. I even find myself wishing that I had known to apply that pattern in courses I taught here at Allegheny College.

"Mother Earth can think," I once heard Navajo Elder Frank Morgan insist shortly after I began teaching in Crownpoint. He was offering a course in the Navajo philosophy of education for non-Navajo instructors, which I agreed to take. And before we questioned the assertion with our skeptically western perspective, he cautioned, we should all step outside during that particular evening session and look for ourselves. If we observed carefully, we would see what he meant. So out we went, and it turns out that he was right, or so I concluded in that warm, mid-April twilight there on the high desert where spring comes grudgingly. Not knowing at first exactly what I was looking for in the stubble at my feet, I soon noticed a small prickly pear cactus not much larger than a hand growing out of the hard, sandy earth. And from one of its tawny fingers there sprouted a tender green one, evidently new this season. Now approaching midway between spring equinox and summer solstice, the sun had been rising steadily northward mornings. Meanwhile, evenings were growing longer, days warmer, and the next day's dawn earlier to arrive. It became evident: this little cactus could tell the time of year by the movement of the sun, just as I would learn to do during my subsequent years of waking up on the library floor with the onset of daylight.

Thereby earth's knowledge intersects with our ability to observe in a symbiotic interdependence that cannot be violated. Nor can the planet itself turn independently of the solar system. Likewise we humans cannot set ourselves apart from our surroundings or isolate our species from all others. We are all of a piece, we and nature—in that state Navajos call hózóón, which translates best by combining the trio of English words, “beauty,” “balance,” and “harmony”—-functioning interdependently as if one grand organism. In coming to mind, that simile unites the systole and diastole of a single bloodstream with mighty solar revolutions and planetary orbits. Scientifically that may not be viable, I know; it is the spinning earth, of course, that revolves around the sun, and to condense all creation into a single body goes beyond literal credibility. But the image works, for with its similes and metaphors poetry has a way of conveying a deep truth that science alone cannot express. And it is to poetry I turn to pursue my argument.

In Coriolanus, for example--not one of Shakespeare's best known plays--the Roman patrician Menenius Agrippa staves off a hungry mob’s uprising by reciting a story of the body's parts threatening mutiny against the stomach because it does no real work itself, unlike the eyes that see, the ears that hear, the feet that walk, and the hands that grasp. Yet it takes in all the food, they complain. The belly retorts that yes, while it receives the body's nourishment initially, it redistributes it to all other parts so together they may flourish as one. Likewise, argues Menenius, the nobles merely gather the grain, but then share it among all. To overthrow them would harm the entire body politic. Those familiar with the play recognize its ultimate irony. For when Menenius’ friend and fellow patrician Coriolanus fails to win popular endorsement to become a consul, he flies into a rage, angers his plebian countrymen, and turns against Rome by leading an invasion against it. Spreading destruction in his path, he becomes a wrathful limb assaulting the body that houses him, in effect, waging war not only against the collective whole of which he is a part, but against his very self.

While the language he uses is his own, Shakespeare drew the image of the body at war with its belly from Plutarch, whose life of Coriolanus was his main source. So the alignment of the human organism with the larger civic body has a long history, as does the union of nature’s forces with human affairs. In Hesiod’s Theogeny, Earth and Sky unite like a human couple to engender gods. Homer, meanwhile, gives the morning dawn those rosy human fingers that caress the awakening earth and make each morning distinct from all others. And in those great epics we call his, he maintained a vision of a unified cosmos easily disrupted by disorderly human behavior. In The Iiiad, XXI, for example, the excessively boastful Achilles angers the river Skamandros first by killing a man along its bank, then by shouting insults when it objects to having its waters defiled with human blood. The result is a rampaging flood similar to those in the Bible or in the lower worlds of the Navajo creation story where the deities counteract petty squabbling with wildly surging water. If you must kill your enemies, the river god complains to Achilles, “drive them at least out of me to the plain, and there work your havoc. For the loveliness of my waters is crammed with corpses, I cannot find a channel to cast my waters into the bright sea since I am congested with the dead men you kill so brutally.” Wanting only to slay Trojans, however, Achilles leaps defiantly into the water, whereupon Skamandros pummels him with the bodies of slain victims.

Then, when the defiant Greek warrior tries to escape, Skamandros overflows his banks to chase him, “streaming after him” unrelentingly, “turbulent, boiling to a crest, muttering in foam and blood and dead bodies” until Achilles begs for help from those gods who favor him. Among those is Hera, wife of Zeus, who summons his son Hephaistos the fire god to resist the enraged river. “Set fire the trees,” she instructs him, “and throw fire on the river himself.” And from “out of the sea” she summons “a troublesome storm of the west wind and the whitening southwind.” Achilles’ mortal defiance is thus thrust by nature and the gods beyond human control. Alike on water and land, wind and flame contend more fiercely than Greeks and Trojans until the entire landscape falls asunder where mortal warfare has contaminated stream and field, or—as it were—the body’s parts wage war against their sustaining host.

The bitter lesson in the human realm where Coriolanus turns against his community or Achilles defiles the earth with the bodies of his slain foes is that to make war on one-another is to war against nature herself. The more benign lesson is that as far back as the ancients, poets had a way of recognizing and thus expressing that reality. In disregarding their lesson we abandon our own well being as part of a single cosmic organism which merely houses us collectively. We might very well call those ancient times primitive by today’s standards: there were no clocks to record the hours, no calendars to count off the days; no photographs in effigy of what one actually saw; no electronic images of any kind mediating between individuals and first-hand experience. Reality was direct, not virtual. While their perspective on the world was narrowly confined to what they could observe first-hand, people then maintained a vision that united the human community fully with its surroundings. Well before the Industrial Revolution, poets voiced the symbiotic effects of human encounters with nature without intervention from mass-produced images. In the sun’s agency they saw nature whole, which is to say they stayed more directly in touch with their surroundings than we generally do today to express what dawn could mean through the ever-mediating force of simile and metaphor.

In his great elegy Lycidas, for example, where he mourns the untimely death by drowning of his young friend Edward King, John Milton consoles himself by merging the Resurrection with dawn. Just as the sun sinks westward at day’s end, so lives his late friend eternally through Christ’s mercy by rising again with "new-spangled Ore” of the each morning’s newly risen sun as it “flames in the forehead of the morning sky.” Or in "A Drop of Dew," Andrew Marvell attests to the union of nature and self when he observes the impact of the swift evaporation of a minute orb of "orient dew" with dawn's arrival. In describing that closely watched event, he explains how—for a fleetingly momentary lifetime when measured against all eternity—the transiently embodied soul lies separated from its celestial home until it is drawn like a swiftly vanishing drop of moisture back into its eternal, cosmic fold by the morning sun's reunifying, evaporative power. Similarly, in his “To a Sky-Lark” the poet Shelley celebrates that bird’s soaring flight and its accompanying song of triumph and rejuvenation by locating it “in the golden lightning” of the rising sun “o’er which the clouds are brightening.”

Such examples abound; these are just a few. And as I exercise while greeting the sun from my Crownpoint Vista, I think of them in their abundance, and marvel how closely they match the reality still available here in this setting where a pre-industrial outlook somehow endures. I find myself united not only with my surroundings, but with those who once saw or can still see the sun as a direct partner with the onset of each new day in an active life. We are all of a piece, we and nature, in that state Navajo call hózhóón, and that union connects each heartbeat with mighty solar revolutions and planetary orbits. It brings what is housed and what houses together in a single entity, and makes us all kindred children of earth and sky.

“House made of dawn,” begins a powerful prayer-poem from the Navajo Night Chant, one of a broad array of opera-like ceremonies conducted to perpetuate well-being whose collected lyrics could fill volumes:

House made of evening light,
House made of the dark cloud.
House made of male rain.
House made of dark mist.
House made of female rain.

And just as strikingly, it ends:

May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful above me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty it is finished.

The flaw in that otherwise fine translation from Navajo, of course, is that the word “beauty” alone does not do justice to its counterpart hozhon, which invokes those added properties of balance and harmony. And it is that deep, pervasive quality I appreciate as I witness each new dawn from my Crownpoint library bedroom, sometimes mindful of the terror that rends today’s world and sometimes able to transcend it. No longer inclined to detach what I do as a teacher from what I see come morning’s light, though, I reflect on ways to remind students that in mastering the tasks of reading and writing texts as well as in all else they undertake to learn, they are partaking of patterns perceived by their living elders and vanished ancestors who have recognized the east as the first direction and prayed knowingly to the morning sun. I reflect, too, that it is presumptuous of humankind to seek dominion over nature, or to question whether we need it, as if it were something we could dominate in the first place or dismiss by choice. Nature is not a place apart; it is not a need to be satisfied, like needing an education, a new car, a walk along a stream to hear rippling water, or a mountain vacation where bees hum in high meadows far from city noises. It is needed the way the whole needs its parts and vice versa, the way inhale needs exhale, or a cell needs protoplasm to stay alive.

How obvious the irony as I awake with each Crownpoint dawn and behold the rising sun together with the small features unique to that particular morning. I first came here to teach students how to assemble words on a page and interpret written texts. Yet here I have learned to reconstruct some once familiar old poems, and to read as it were for the first time each day the horizon at dawn, piecing together my entire surroundings, all the parts of my life, and all the lives of others into a living, unitary whole.


Photo by William J. Carpenter (1915).