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September 15, 2017

Book Notes - Margo Berdeshevsky "Before the Drought"

Before the Drought

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Margo Berdeshevsky's poetry collection Before the Drought is filled with clever and passionate poems that continue to reveal themseves after several readings.

Carolyn Forche wrote of the book:

"Before the Drought is a lyric meditation on corporeal existence, suffused with atavistic spirit and set in historical as well as cosmic time, a work of radical suffering and human indifference but also sensual transport. The tutelary spirits of these poems are the feminine principle, and a flock of messengers that include blue heron, ibis, phoenix, egret, and blood’s hummingbird."

In her own words, here is Margo Berdeshevsky's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection Before the Drought:

As a poet and not, honestly, so much a popular music mammal, I admit it is often the lyrics of songs that have led me into them. But there is always the music, and always the strains of the music that haunt me and guide me and that lead me down down down and up up up to where the language of the soul (that’s what I often call poetry) lives and dies for me.

“Nothing More Violent Than Silence” (Hala Ali)

some dreams are visits    yes I say yes it must
have been      on a midsummer night      grief’s
an odd beast, you cannot blame the griever

These are brief words from a newly composed poem of mine which takes its title from a quote by the poet Hala Ali (a Saudi Arabian-born poet who lives in London.) I add it here, because poetry is both language and music and silence, for me. And it is in the silence and awful noise, both, of my time—that I look for a different music to understand and to be with. My collection, Before the Drought, can be said to be a book for the cries and the whispers of our shared now. It is a book of warning and haunting and obsessions with the body and with its and our own collective time. A book for the breaths and cries of our shared “now.” The poet Carolyn Forché has understood the book profoundly and has written this about it: “In the City of Light, Berdeshevsky writes poems commensurate with her vision, poems that know to ask How close is death, how near is God? Hers is a book to read at the precipice on which we stand.”

Shostakovich’s Piano Trio N°2, Op. 67 (Kogan /Rostropovich / Gilels) has always reminded me of the sounds that might accompany the spinning of the fates. Here, a recording that haunts me and holds my poems for me in the delicacy and rage of its notes. I played it often, as I wrote. And I played it very softly, when I recorded this small video of me reading “Here is My Body,” one of the poems in the book: .

Eagles of Death Metal’s “Speaking in Tongues” and “I Only Want You” played when the band returned to Paris the year after the massacre there, and they sang into the collective silence of that still mourning and still determined-to-live audience. One poem in my book honors and remembers the massacre in Paris (City of Light,) that occurred on the night the Eagles of Death Metal had first come to perform for the young and eager. . .and about to be murdered.

Old flower child that I am I replay this early recording of a Dylan classic: “Masters of War” (recorded by Judy Collins). My work looks at our wars and our war makers and mongers, and I don’t know if or when we have learned. . .

There has been much, maybe too much discussion as to whether Bob Dylan merited the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. But it is his “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna Fall” and Patti Smith’s singing it at the ceremony for Dylan that proved to me that both the words and the music and the power of how that song continues to speak to our time on earth. . .how it must quiet all argument, and simply ask me/us to hear it: (“saw a newborn babe with wolves all around it”: . . . “heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter”: “heard the sound of a clown who died in the alley”: “I met a young woman whose body was burnin’. ” And a hard-driving rhythm that holds it all. Lyrics, music, and performance of this title are a talisman to me. . .a prayer, and a reason to keep the efforts to write my own.

And, I turn to this, the Finale of “Bernstein at 70”: tribute concert to Leonard Bernstein from Tanglewood, 8/25/88. (Jerry Hadley, Dawn Upshaw, Seiji Ozawa.) Yes— I admit to being desperate for hope, a thread that pulls through, and that has pulled me through the making of this Before the Drought. In the finale of his opus, “Candide,” Leonard Bernstein invokes a prayer that I would wish for our human and planetary future. It is his song Make Our Garden Grow: Bernstein at 70... “Candide” that I would wish for our human and planetary future. It is in his song “Make our Garden Grow” that I have wept with wanting just a little hope for us all.

There’s a YouTube offering of Robert Wilson-Berliner Ensemble’s production of Brecht and Weil’s production of The Threepenny Opera that I might dare to say leads me to many threads I tried to follow in Before the Drought. Brecht and Weil’s existential take on the dark times the opera grew out of is one place I might add here. “Existence makes a thing useful/ nonexistence makes it work.” This quote is from the Taoteching and how it is about the moon, and the dark that births it. Red Pine, its translator, speaks of skating on thin ice when he was a boy, and how sometimes the ice was so clear he felt as though he were skating across the night sky. That is true for me as well, and for the music I am often pulled toward.

And there is a short poem of Brecht’s, not in the opera, but which I would add here:

The war which is coming
Is not the first one. There were
Other wars before it.
When the last one came to an end
There were conquerors and conquered.
Among the conquered the common people
Starved. Among the conquerors
The common people starved too.

Nina Simone’s singing “Pirate Jenny” from Brecht and Weil’s Threepenny Opera, (“There’s a ship. . .the black freighter. . .with a skull on its masthead will be comin’ in. . .nobody’s gonna sleep here. . .”) that teaches me how to speak of the darkness. And there’s Billie Holiday’s iconic performance of “Strange Fruit,” a horror tale of a lynching and America’s evils, at least one of them. . .all to remember that we have been looking at our world for so long. And in my own work, I try to remember, and to ask: how long?

While the classicist in me listened to Pavarotti’s rendering of Vesti La Giubba, the famous tenor aria in Pagliacci, a piece that’s hovered in the background for me in this book—the clown bearing the rags of deaths he can’t forget must finally remove all protection and defenses that were the mask of the clown. And stand as I know I need to, open to both grieving and to what future there will be.

Still, I turn to Leonard Cohen’s “Suddenly the Night Has Grown Colder,” or “You Want It Darker” because both take me as well to the times my own book confronts. And it is in his “Hallelujah” that I seek what faith I still have, what hope for us all that I dare to still hold, in my and our midnights . . .

Raised in NYC, in the footlights of the theatre, I also turn to Camelot (1960) Original Broadway Cast Recording. Its poignant evocations of what was, ( JFK’s words, to which his widow, Jackie, turned after his assassination, for remembering, and for sustenance): “Each evening from December to December. . .ask every person if he’s heard the story that once there was a fleeting wisp of glory. . .” We live in a global moment when we need more than ever before, to remember what has been good about humanity.

I’ll turn to one John Denver song in which he affirms “there is wisdom here. . .healing time on earth. . .” It was never recorded, but was played once in concert:

I turn to jazz and one of its greats, singing his inimitable version of a song my Russian-born father used to sing in his native tongue when we drove an old Dodge, top down, in the American wind. Louis Armstrong’s performance of Ochi Chernyie (Dark Eyes.) And I found a YouTube recording of the song in the original: “Visocky” (Владимир Высоцкий _ Очи черные) . . .occi chornia (Black Eyes) because I will acknowledge that my poetry seeks roots even as it watches the leaves of the present days fall.

Because I grew up addicted to Alice In Wonderland and Lewis Carroll’s nonsense and wisdom—and because I need language and its music to make me crazy(!) and to lead me to what I cannot even understand—I delighted when I found that an early folk music rendition captured it all. I played and played and played Donovan’s recording of “Jabberwocky” (“beware the jabberwocky my son, the claws that catch/and shun the frumious bandersnatch. . .) It is a time to beware. Yes, it is.

Mireille Mathieu singing “La Marseillaise.” I live much of the time these days in France. I’m not a nationalist, not for France, not for America, not for any nation anywhere. . .but this performance of France’s anthem can occasionally bring me to tears. Because too damn many have died in wars that nations say make them proud.)

Before The Drought begins with an epigraph by the poet Muriel Ruckeyser: “. . .and a word/of rescue from the great eyes. . . .” What we have, I affirm, I admit. . .is this morning. The day I woke in. I turn to one more title that demands I stay “woke,” as the saying goes. . . and that I give up on regret. Edith Piaf’s “Je Ne Regrette Rien” where she sings, “No, I regret nothing, nor the good nor the evil, they are equal to me. . .” I return to zero. . .and I welcome “a word/of rescue from the great eyes—”

Margo Berdeshevsky and Before the Drought links:

the author's website
excerpts from the book

Brooklyn Rail review

also at Largehearted Boy:

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