THE WHITMAN ISSUE
THINKING ABOUT THE SIX BACH SONATAS FOR FLUTE AND PIANO WHILE VACATIONING IN MAINE
The song, this late afternoon, the last day of August, is the wind.
.......The water, rushing forward, windblown as the leaves and brush,
joins in, a tonal undercurrent, a watery base to the tenor of land,
.......and the world chants, Summer is ending! Summer is gone!
Jeanette, old enough to be a great-grandmother of two,
.......almost jumped in delight when I suggested we go for fish chowder
and blueberry muffins at The Dolphin for lunch. Riding back,
.......passing the old clapboard houses and flat, grassy fields of Harpswell,
she apologized–stuffed and happy, she said, she just might fall asleep.
.......I, too, felt groggy with good food, with Jeanette’s obvious pleasure,
and the taste of her daily courage: coming up here each summer,
.......to the sparest of cottages, and, since her sister died, by herself.
A much younger woman, I’m also by myself for reasons plain and
.......complex, and, it seems, quite possibly for no reason, for isn’t any fate
a labyrinth of sorts, a bit of a puzzling mess? Who’s writing this story?
.......my friend Ann quipped the other night, quoting her friend Bobbi
who lost her two adult children within six months. This afternoon,
.......wrapped in wool, determined to sit out on the bluff, to read to a roar,
I noticed the dry leaves of the birch already scattered on the grass.
.......The season will change. The chaise I rush toward will be dragged inside,
stored. And all afternoon I’ll listen to something about the wildness,
.......about the possibilities harboring in this ringing, raging wind.
When I was a girl, studying the Bach sonatas
over the long months
of a teenage winter, my mother, at times,
listened in the other room.
You played for me, she has said, as if
longing for the days to return,
sweet afternoons of music and tea, slippers,
and the local paper’s late edition.
Oh, the inadvertent concert of practice:
happenstance of an unhappy
housewife, home and bored, taking refuge
in a daughter’s undertakings,
her flute lessons, the way she wills herself
into D sharp major,
repeating phrases, her spit pocking her bedroom’s
old wooden floor,
testament to the effort: Sonata I,
song of dolor, of missed beats, stalled entrances,
of endless, darkening afternoons;
magnificent, the agile hands that can do this:
triplets into sixteenths,
the bedroom more a studio, home within home
she’s made, will remake;
what we carry from room to room, year to year,
girlhood to eternity,
it’s always the same–a sense of the mother,
browsing the classifieds,
sipping the Lipton tea, humming long after
the music has stopped,
as if she and the tune were somehow tethered:
of a disappointing world.
The rain last night pounded steadily, leaving a haze
over the water this morning. By noon, though,
this first day of September, the air was sharp, uncluttered,
cool in its late summer warmth. Pages to go
in the fourth of this vacation’s novels, and I rose
from the chaise, trespassed down the neighbor’s hill,
to their wooden stairs, to the water I’ve so long
gazed at. Mikvah came to mind, how all night long
the rain, a new water, kissed the ocean’s old salt,
making for that right combination of transforming
fluids. If I was to emerge new, somehow recast,
have all my wishes come true...The soft gush
of wet sand, the first, crisp tingle of cold,
and I was in, wandering back and forth across
the small half-circle of cove, back and forth
as steadily as a metronome set at larghetto.
And slow is the right word for change,
not the realization of the heart’s wishes, but
the building of a new foundation, the heart
after the attack, the trust after the trauma...
There was garbage in the water, a plastic Snicker’s bag,
a pink balloon, and I found myself taking
mental notes as if this moment really could come to something:
the cool water, the specks of buoys, the pines
on the islands, the flecks of trash, the absence
of all neighbors, the tall gray ledges behind me,
and the sky, ever clearer as the afternoon wore on.
If the stars in this clear night’s sky
are all the notes Bach wrote
and all he ever imagined
then the universe is indeed
of incomprehensible scale.
I can’t hear the song
the night could be singing.
There’s only this rocker
marking audible time,
forward: two; backward: two.
Repeat: endlessly repeat.
There’s the moon, too,
tonight a whole note,
perfect, round, commanding,
splashing a sonata of light
across the bay.
in the window that mirrored image–
translucent self, gauzy
as any galaxy, clouding
the whatever it is
that is out there,
with the whatever it is
that makes me me, in here.
Once, when my mother was taking me to my lessons,
as we headed west on Route 66,
rising to the crest of North Main, then dropping
into its long, steep decline,
the sun, also steep into decline,
like a bird, spread colored wings:
mauve, purple, peach–there were so many trips
back and forth from home to town,
this one time, when the beauty of that bird landing,
that sun setting, overwhelmed us,
and my mother cried, "Oh, look!" Look!"
and the sky blushed and the looking got even better–
just this once it seemed okay to be dragging her off
down the same old highway,
we were accelerating with delight,
we were dropping off North Main,
we were going who knows where,
the point is, we were going.
September has taken a turn back, not quite to mid-summer,
but the air has warmed, the winds relented. So different
from last night when I shivered, despite the down blanket.
I slept loosely beneath it, scenes from the evening’s dinner
party scrambling oddly with my dreams. There was a promise
to the evening, the surprise of chicken cooked in apple butter,
of Robert and Julie, whom I feel I’ll come to know, of Ann’s
muted yet lovely late summer bouquet. A mention was made–
mine–of the possibility of staging a camera obscura shoot on
the porch where we ate, the line-up of rockers, empty, lonely
as any Hopper scene, and the stretch of ocean, islands, sky,
and bluff, which the rockers face, magically appearing as if
inside the porch’s screen and glass. If Ann’s friend Abe
took the picture it would mean his blacking out all interior
light for hours on end, all but a tiny hole, and somehow
this tiny hole pulls the outside in, so when the print emerges
the two spaces are one, an interior with a landscape, or
a landscape that includes your home–which is how my life
feels whichever way I take it. Before dinner, picking up
my flute and then the stained, ripped pages of the Bach sonatas,
I realized that for more years than not I’ve been playing these
songs, these beautiful, perfect compositions into which I thrust
myself, and for all these years, far more often than not, they’ve
become imperfect, strained, awkward, they’ve become more
me than Bach, or perhaps they’ve become a camera obscura
in sound, me inside Bach, Bach inside me, certainly not
the purity Bach had in mind when he sat down to write them,
with, perhaps, a cup of tea at hand, plenty of ink and paper,
a tiny black hole, a note, blacking out the silence, the song
with its backbone of silence, the silence bearing the song.
Note: In Section III, the Hebrew word Mikvah refers to a ritual bath meant to purify the body.
Elizabeth Poliner's poems have appeared in literary journals including Southern Review, Seneca Review, Puerto del Sol, and Tar River Poetry. She has received numerous grants from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities, and has been a Yaddo and VCCA Fellow as well. She teaches creative writing at the Writer's Center, where for several years she was Executive Editor of Poet Lore. She has also taught at American University, George Washington University, and New York University. A fiction writer as well, she has published stories in Crab Orchard Review, Kenyon Review, and other journals. She is the author of a novel-in-stories, Mutual Life & Casualty (Permanent Press, 2005).
Read more poems by Elizabeth Poliner