And so, it has been years since I wrote a review here, old concept or new one. Right now, it feels like a strange but fitting time to do so, stuck in one place with just books and records and Éric Rohmer films for company.
In the last few years, I largely neglected novels, finding time for them only occasionally, a brief spurt of summer voracity here, a couple of stolen evenings there. In that time, though, I made a resolution of sorts, to actively immerse myself in both poetry and music (after all, ‘all poetry aspires to the condition of music’), and not just old favourites but new stories told in lines and rhythms. Beyond that: I decided to make an effort to seek out beauty in the mundane, to remember how to observe and savour, linger in a moment. It can be daunting, searching for these ‘sparuti incostanti sprazzi di bellezza‘ on grey cloudy mornings or endless afternoons, and so they are all the more precious when they come unexpected: bus drivers raising a hand to greet each other as they drive past on the serpentine roads of Luxembourg; the stained glass window of someone’s living room; the way light shimmers in a stranger’s curls; the haunting voice of Billie Eilish, her song carrying over Portobello Road Market, amplified as a young girl plays her CD – and all around, dusk alighting on the city I love(d), unchanged but drifting off to someone else’s soundtrack now. And sometimes, it’s the conjuring of beauty out of nothing that does the trick, simply so that it can be passed along as acts of kindness and vulnerability.
How I remember times in my life when I most felt myself is in snippets of music and words while moving through space, up in the sky, in buses across the continent, commuter trains, the delicate balance of the morning rush hour. It’s that sense of being fully aware of the act of travelling, its fleetingness and preciousness, the endless skin-and-bones-fragility of it all; its inevitable end that is postponed, deferred, then cherished, missed all the more in its absence. The closest my permanently coffee-drenched mind has ever come to a meditative state was when my plane touched down at Sofia Airport five years ago as the sounds of ‘Scarborough Fair’ took me someplace else.
In a way, I want to come back to the original idea behind this blog, which was to slow down with all the garish must-reads and must-sees, the feeling of never catching up to some imaginary canon, and to really pay attention to the words, bring back the pleasure of their sounds, like spells of self-preservation.
This is what I decided I would recapture, in the last few months, and as luck would have it, before the cancellations of the coming days and weeks and maybe months, I managed to make a quick stop in Dublin to visit a friend, and stumble upon, in between windy beaches and heartachingly beautiful light, this collection of poetry inspired by music, hiding in Books Upstairs.
The term ‘fermata’ from the title is explained in the foreword: ‘… the performers must hold the note and stop any metrical measurement of musical time until the conductor or director indicates the reinstatement of the meter. The effect can be extraordinary. If the conductor holds for too long, a point rapidly comes when the tension in the music starts to lose power and the effect is one of anti-climax. If the hold is too short, there can be a sense of disappointment at an emotional opportunity lost.’ It is that singular effervescent moment of tension, missed in a second, the right feeling for a perfect timing. It reminds me of writing, too, of hovering in that space between barely-there meaning and obvious, sentimental kitsch, and how the best poems – or at least the ones I like best – play with both the rich and the sparse, the pale and the saturated.
The book is divided into six chapters, each one with its own theme, so I decided to select six poems, one from each chapter, that resonated with me, to include here:
From Chapter I, inspired by the soundtracks of nature:
Eamon Grennan, Untitled, which is called Starlings in October here
From Chapter II, focusing on the tools of the art:
John F. Deane, The Upright Piano
From Chapter III, devoted to laments and elegies:
Leontia Flynn, Country Songs
From Chapter IV, which focusses on youth, mostly:
Ciaran O’Driscoll, Wasps in the Session
Chapter V showcases personal encounters, and this poem is one of the most stunning things I have read lately, and needs to be accompanied by this and this:
Mary Noonan, But I should never think of spring
And finally, from Chapter VI, which includes poems dedicated to musicians:
Sinead Morrissey, Shostakovich
Recently, I read a beautifully written article about Leonard Cohen, suggesting that the real power of his music and words is in their hidden pulse, in the bigger things beyond the lyrics and melody. It’s that someplace else I know too well. In writing, speaking, dreaming out loud about poetry and music, you reach a limit of what you can say, run out of moonbeams to silver your coherence. But the imagery that they evoke goes on, boundless in its combinatory potentialities. It lingers, splattered on the page, lodged in the mind and ears. And around it, this weird, wild world bursts open, shedding its fragility for the briefest of moments, ripe with dandelions in flight, zephyr currents on bare skin, the creamy notes of jazz lifting in a frosty air; that bittersweet ache of pressing down on the future tense of dreams,
then letting go, not a second too late, not a second too soon.