September 22, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Jeffrey Yang's new poetry collection Vanishing-Line is fascinatingly filled with revelations personal, historical, and mythical.
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"Admirers of Yang's crisp, polymathic, and widely praised debut, An Aquarium, might be surprised by the scope of his second effort, whose seven longer poems build into their free verse all manner of lengthy quotations as they try to answer the words and deeds of American, Asian, and Middle Eastern history. These works take distant models from Ezra Pound's Cantos."
The earliest poem of Vanishing-Line was written in 2000, the most recent was finished in 2010. The book is divided into six sections: "Throne," "Lyric Suite," "Two Spanish Poems," "Tide Table," "Elegy for Ling," and "Yennecott," with a seventh poem that opens the whole. A structural schematic of the whole might graph a line that splinters into multiple lines which zigzag and cross unevenly into the shape of a sphere, or a sun, before converging again at a single point in the core. The place it begins and the place it ends isn't the same place, though the book begins and ends with the word "place." Poetry, music—like an anabasis—moves us from the coast further inland until we arrive at another coast, and on… a sun within a sun. It is an adventure (very much of the times) that gravitates toward understanding, toward deepening sensibilities, toward an openness of being, toward a kind of defenselessness. Its traditions and developments can be traced through the ages, linking the present with the distant past. In the case of Vanishing-Line, the book begins with the myth of Jonah and by the end begins again with the Lenape god Mesingw. Jonah because he was a coward and reluctant prophet who survived the abyss, and in the end was still exiled. Mesingw because he is the masked spirit of the forest and the animals, and in the poem presides over a birth. Because Ninevah was spared Jonah became angry and wanted to die. His anger could be our anger as we, too, don't want others to be spared, in Throne and Name. Like Jonah—ignorant of the hidden design, beliefs threatened—we think we would rather die in anger, self-pity, self-righteousness than see others spared. So we send people and technology off to kill others for us. For what, and to what end?
Lyric Suite, Alban Berg
The main piece of music that figures in the writing of Vanishing-Line is Alban Berg's second and last string quartet, Lyric Suite. Originally the book was going to be all or mostly one long poem called "Lyric Suite," but it gradually condensed to a single serial poem as it is in the second part of the book. The idea of a "lyric suite" rather than a symphony (or a symphonic string quartet) appealed to me, though trying to emulate Berg's rigorous compositional complexities with words became impracticable, his use of language so spare and full and so tightly woven together in, of course, purely musical terms.
At the heart of the serial poem "Lyric Suite" is my father's mother who was dying when I started to write it. Then she died and the poem continued to change over time. I tried to understand Berg's composition in more general ways, so as his piece is divided into six movements, the theme and structure of each movement arising from the previous one (and each incorporating both serial elements and older forms like the sonata, rondo, scherzo), I decided to divide the whole book into six parts—with the brief seventh poem that opens the book—each part's forms and themes arising from the part or parts that came before. Berg also alternates between fast and slow movements, and in Vanishing-Line there are three parts in series and three parts not. For Berg, the numbers 10 and 23 carried a hidden subtext for the whole score, and each metronome mark and the number of bars is a multiple of these two numbers. The last serial poem, "Yennecott," is structured around the number 9, and is divided into nine parts of nine sections each. In this way I tried to loosely incorporate certain thematic and formalistic equivalents in Berg's use of tone rows, pitch cells, extended episodes, melodic variations, and whatnot, without consciously abstracting words from meanings or context. Basically I had the score, some textual guides to the score, and a few different recordings by my side for a long time, off and on. But most significantly it was the initial, multiple listenings to Berg's piece that hooked me, the emotional range and depths conveyed in the music, which was composed some 15 years after his Opus 1 Piano Sonata (which Glenn Gould described as "the twilight of tonality")—I could hardly understand what I was hearing, nor at the time did I know anything of the personal programmatic narrative embedded in the piece. So much of the music seemed to be hidden in mystery, as so much of my grandmother's life was hidden to me, though I tried to imagine her life (a life of one (among many) who directly survived tragic history) as lived through the music.
Likambo ya ngana, Franco Luambo
The only other piece of music that's directly referenced in Vanishing-Line (I think) is Franco's soukous song "Likambo ya ngana," which means something like "other people's business" in Lingala. The poem "Tide Table" was written in response to William Kentridge's film installation of the same name, and Franco's song plays non-diegetically throughout, giving a playful, elegiac counterpoint to the processional, ritualistic happenings in the film. The poem's rhythm tries to capture the sway of the music, as well as of the waves and other images that spill into each other on the screen. Kentridge creates his stop-motion films by shooting charcoal drawings frame by frame as he adds and erases marks and lines. I first saw "Tide Table" by chance at the Marian Goodman Gallery in 2004. Acoustic guitar, percussion, accordion, a chorus of women filling in the refrain between Franco's almost spoken lines, while the cinematic lines vanish and reappear from image to image, collapse and splash into each other, traces of one thing becoming traces of another, superimposed, reversed, montaged. It was a mesmerizing, memorable experience, sitting on the floor, listening and watching the flickering wall in the dark gallery-room.
Jeffrey Yang and Vanishing-Line links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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