Fairy Tales

Besides being about itself (as music always is), Goldberg-Variations is about fairy tales. Why fairy tales? I had been reading Russian fairy tales and Italian fairy tales, and a wonderful collection of annotated fairy tales by Maria Tatar. My head was full of them. If I listened to music, remember those variations, it was all mixed up with those brutal and bloody stories. These weren’t the ones I was told when I was a child – these were filled with hacked-off arms and legs and gauged eyes. There’s a scene in a wonderful story by Ron Hanson (not a fairy tale) called “Wickedness” – it’s about the great Nebraska blizzard of 1888 – in the opening scene, a sixteen year old girl on a train se

You Don't Know What Love Is

I have a history of obsessions - playing the Bach solo violin literature on the flute - trying to reinvent Panalal Ghosh's flute. Here's one about Eric Dolphy. The piece originally appeared in Brilliant Corners. There is an eleven and a half minute cut on an album by Eric Dolphy called Last Date which I think means as much to me as any music I have ever heard or played. Dolphy died in 1964 and it was probably in the late 60's when a friend of mine played the record for me. Dolphy's flute playing in "You Don't Know What Love Is" is transcendent. It flashes and glints, never touches ground, and finally calls across an impossible distance, like a ghost, the ghost of itself ‑‑ there is a sa

Walton Poems

There are also divers other kinds of worms, which for color and shape alter even as the ground out of which they are got; as the marsh-worm, the tag-tail, the flag-worm, the dockworm. . . Izaak Walton There was a bookshelf for free books near my office at Denison University, a place where I taught for seven years total in two incarnations. Sometimes when a student was late for a meeting I would browse it. One day, I found an illustrated copy of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. I began to read it, and if you’ll forgive the expression, I was hooked. I carried that book around with me for years. (I’m looking at it now.) In it I found inexplicable instructions for fishing – fishing has

Emily Poems

There’s a certain slant of light Imagine the chandeliers, the candles at moonlight cant, hedge twist – portrait of a pale cry, animal rondo, puffed and pouted – The orchestra files from the pit, first the flutes, then an oboe, cleaned with an owl’s feather, then several owls, struggling with a guitar, a wheel of cheese, the tiny bones and skulls – They always leave because they can see, they can sing in the dark – I had been reading Helen Vendler’s wonderful book, Emily Dickenson, Selected Poems and Commentaries, when I had the notion to have some conversations with them. I’d take a line and use it for a cantus firmus. What I came up with was miniatures, images – the kinds of things you se


For my birthday several years ago, my wife got me a little book by Jeffrey Kacirk called The Word Museum. It was a collection of “forgotten words.” They certainly seemed like poem titles. Buzznack Such music as an old organ might wheeze, whether pipe bag or mouse-gnawed flute, might limp, skitter and ooze, might hover, fogdamp, curtain-wiped, carpet sodden, an old machine like an old lover, an old bull, solemn in the far field, forlorn, but its music gobbledy, flawed, fancy as ash, and never, alas, enough. * Kacirk says buzznack is an old organ, out of order and playing badly, but you really don’t need to know that. It’s more fun to make the word new. I think I wrote about the sound of t


Some years ago I was teaching a novel class at Denison University. One of the novels I chose was Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. Every chapter of The Shipping News (which is about a small newspaper in Newfoundland and contains one of my favorite headlines: Dog Fart Fells Family of Four) – every chapter is headed off by a quote from a very interesting book, Clifford W. Ashley’s The Ashley Book of Knots. The Ashley Book of Knots is a large format, 620 page coffee table sized book. I thought it might be useful in discussing the more nautical aspects of The Shipping News, but my students weren’t especially interested in it. Not so long ago, I began to read it and it inspired a series of po

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