Wednesday, July 11, 2012

'If art's acceptable evidence, mustn't what lies behind the world be at least as beautiful as the human voice?' - Mark Doty

". . . Here were people I saw every week at the post office, or the grocery store going about heir daily tasks and suddenly there they were in a different space in a new role and they opened their mouths and out poured all this glory. . . 

There's something about this experience, collectively, that makes it more powerful. We understand that we're not just by ourselves experiencing this sense of being uplifted but that we do that communally and that our fellows' voices do that for us. We are citizens together in that moment - a moment of a kind of rapture. . . " Mark Doty

MESSIAH (Christmas Portions)

   A little heat caught
in gleaming rags,
in shrouds of veil,
   torn and sun-shot swaddlings:

   over the Methodist roof,
two clouds propose a Zion
of their own, blazing
   (colors of tarnish on copper)

   against the steely close
of a coastal afternoon, December,
while under the steeple
   the Choral Society

   prepares to perform
Messiah, pouring, in their best
blacks and whites, onto the raked stage.
   Not steep, really,

   but from here,
the first pew, they’re a looming
cloudbank of familiar angels:
   that neighbor who

   fights operatically
with her girlfriend, for one,
and the friendly bearded clerk
   from the post office

   —tenor trapped
in the body of a baritone? Altos
from the A&P, soprano
   from the T-shirt shop:

   today they’re all poise,
costume and purpose
conveying the right note
   of distance and formality.

   Silence in the hall,
anticipatory, as if we’re all
about to open a gift we’re not sure
   we’ll like;

   how could they
compete with sunset’s burnished
oratorio? Thoughts which vanish,
   when the violins begin.

   Who’d have thought
they’d be so good? Every valley,
proclaims the solo tenor,
   (a sleek blonde

   I’ve seen somewhere before
—the liquor store?) shall be exalted,
and in his handsome mouth the word
   is lifted and opened

   into more syllables
than we could count, central ah
dilated in a baroque melisma,
   liquefied; the pour

   of voice seems
to make the unplaned landscape
the text predicts the Lord
   will heighten and tame.

   This music
demonstrates what it claims:
glory shall be revealed. If art’s
   acceptable evidence,

   mustn’t what lies
behind the world be at least
as beautiful as the human voice?
   The tenors lack confidence,

   and the soloists,
half of them anyway, don’t
have the strength to found
   the mighty kingdoms

   these passages propose
—but the chorus, all together,
equals my burning clouds,
   and seems itself to burn,

   commingled powers
deeded to a larger, centering claim.
These aren’t anyone we know;
   choiring dissolves

   familiarity in an up-
pouring rush which will not
rest, will not, for a moment,
   be still.

   Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire? Everything,
   the choir insists,

   might flame;
inside these wrappings
burns another, brighter life,
   quickened, now,

   by song: hear how
it cascades, in overlapping,
lapidary waves of praise? Still time.
   Still time to change.


  1. Hi Claire, I haven't been by in a while (and have also neglected my own blog) but I've spent some time this evening catching up with your posts and what a delight it has been. This one reminds me of the Unsung choir that I referred you to some time back. Have you managed to locate Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams? I highly recommend it. I hope you are feeling more like an earthworm now! x

  2. Really like the flow of this piece. The settling in for the performance, the close observations about the singers and the stage, the tentative approach (and the wondering, like opening a present we're not sure we want -- such a familiar idea and so well put here) -- and then the shift, how the voices fill the air and the words fill the page and there is beauty and glory after all. Lovely how this unfolds.