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December 3, 2018

Gillian Cummings's Playlist for Her Poetry Collection "The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter"

The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry, Gillian Cummings's The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter is an imaginative and impressive collection.

Maggie Smith wrote of the book:

"The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter begins with ‘meanwhile,’ en media res, and immediately we find ourselves deep inside the world of these poems—a world both herbarium and aviary, both meadow and sea; a world lush with loosestrife and moss, honey bees and seahorses, and ‘the shut eyes of rocks’; a world haunted by the spirit of Shakespeare’s Ophelia. The hallmarks of Gillian Cummings’s work are here: the integrity of each line, a poem itself, and her ear for music. The poems, mothlike, ‘lift, / lift lightly, spiral-whirl. They flicker and fleck, weaving a world’—one that is imaginative, complex, and original."

In her own words, here is Gillian Cummings's Book Notes music playlist for her poetry collection The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter:

Philip Glass, “Evening Song” from Satyagraha

The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter begins: “She wants to die and does / not know…” This is my speaking about a period in my life in which I was deeply depressed. During this time, when I woke in the mornings, I would often listen to pieces of music that I could envision as the soundtrack to my death—don’t ask why—and this piece by Philip Glass was always foremost. Not because I am grandiose enough to think my death could or should ever compare to the deaths of Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (subjects of Glass’s opera), but because I have never heard anything else this sad and at once this quietly hopeful, as if the end of a life, its “evening,” could be something to savor, a bliss. The fading out of the chorus of winds, after their crescendo towards the end, their plaintive ceasing, says as much. And though I have never known the meaning of the Sanskrit lyrics, I could hear repeated the word “Amitabha,” which is the name for the Buddha of light, who is said to be born in the Pure Land of lotuses. In The Owl, the sutras and texts of Buddhism are like little threads I wove throughout this book, the first poem of which ends with a reference to The Diamond Sutra (“this fleeting world…”).

Joanna Newsom, “Sadie” from The Milk-Eyed Mender

There is a poem in The Owl called “Flowers for the Executioner,” which quotes from Matthew 5:44: “Love your enemies. Bless them that curse you.” In this poem, an unnamed woman—who stands in for myself, because it was too hard to speak of myself—tells of her desire to see flowers wilt or “close their copper pages,” her unspoken reason being that she really wants to die because a person has harmed her. I pair this poem with Newsom’s “Sadie” because I often listened to this song when someone came into my life and caused a rift in my relationship with my mother. This is one of the unspoken traumas at the heart of this book, a thing I have never felt brave enough to tell people about and, largely, still don’t. Hearing Newsom’s painfully real and achingly innocent voice sing, “And all that we spilt, or pulled up like weeds, / is piled up in back; / and it burns irrevocably,” after which she adds, “we spoke up in turns / ‘till the silence crept over me,” was like hearing the voice of my own heart speaking to my mother, whom I still loved and still do love, but in a way that couldn’t help becoming changed, like the shifting cascade of harp notes as Newsom plucks and sings.

David Gelfand, “A Round in Every Bar,” originally an untitled piece under the heading “Songs of Languor”

David Gelfand is a close friend of my husband’s. His music is largely unknown to people as of yet, but he is one of the contemporary composers whose work I most admire. He always sends my husband his latest compositions for feedback. This one was and still is a favorite of mine. When I first encountered it, he had sent a CD in the mail titled, “Songs of Languor,” and this piece was just called “1.” That’s why I wrote the poem I did with the title “Song of Languor.” I had not known of Dave’s intended title, with its pun on the fact that a round is both imitative counterpoint (in his piece, there is a new “round” in every measure), and also the common term for a serving of drinks in a gathering place. So my poem “Song of Languor” is a little bit off, as a tribute to Dave’s music. When I first heard his piece, it was autumn, the last of flowers were dying off. I heard in the delicate, tender notes of his music a melancholy akin to what I had been feeling then, and imagined a woman alone in the woods, sensing in herself the toll too much loss had taken on her body. I heard the music as a kind of calling out, as a bird calls out for an answer. I attempted to write a poem in which the number and quality of syllables in each segment would equal the number and quality of the notes in his work’s most salient motif. “She slept lightly there, but meant it,” is one such attempt at proper measure from my poem—only, and this is important to his music—I accidentally got the last three syllables of each unit wrong, because there really should be only two notes / syllables after the pause. I apologize to Dave for that. Now, too, when I hear his music, I think I hear more clearly the sense of relaxation, of soothingness, that he must have intended. He told me that he meant for this particular piece to have a Brian Eno-influenced sound. I think I missed that interpretation with my poem, which ends with “a last lost cry” and not a gentle fade-out.

Fleetwood Mac, “Landslide (Live)” from The Dance

It’s a strange thing. I never understood this song. All my life, hearing it since I was a kid, I never could tell what the lyrics meant. Then, when the trauma with my mother happened—I was forty—I suddenly woke up to “Landslide.” I got it. I chose the live version, because to me this recording is more emotional than the studio recording. Stevie Nicks begins by saying, “This is for you, Daddy.” “Death’s Secrets like a Box,” the poem that closes the first section of The Owl, was for me a poem of aftermath. It was meant as a child’s plea and a woman’s desperation, at once. Nicks sings, “Can the child within my heart rise above? / Can I sail through the changing ocean tides? / Can I handle the seasons of my life? / Mmmm Mmmm I don’t know…” Her voice almost always near breaking. And then at the end, when the refrain comes, “And if you see my reflection in the snow-covered hills, / well, a landslide will bring it down,” I realized in those lyrics how much I wanted my mother to feel again the love she had felt for me when I was younger, only posthumously, her only child now gone. Because I believed that my death was the only way. The poem “Death’s Secrets like a Box” closes with: “She saw. Saw / her mind like ravens over a battlefield. / And that was enough.” My death would have been the landslide.

Arvo Pärt, “Spiegel im Spiegel” from Alina

Arvo Pärt is at once a minimalist composer and a composer heavily influenced by Medieval choral music. Here, in this quiet meditation on time, he captures a world delicate as the tiniest flower, maybe a bluebell, or a blue bell softly ringing the song of sky against the song of earth. I would choose this piece as the backdrop to the second section of The Owl, the section in which I speak in the persona of Ophelia as she begins to see her mind unwind (“I lose my thinking as a cat its ball of yarn”), always allying herself with flowers and the fragile, soft things of this world. Her longing for life and her longing for death are like the piano and violin Pärt sets against each other and, at once, unites, the piano sounding hopeful as its notes tick off evenly in ascension the passing minutes of time, and the violin so melancholy, with a tone of placid resignation, as it moves flowingly, unquestioningly, towards a space of timelessness. As Ophelia moves forward into her madness, into that moment when she is as the moon, “enter[ing] the hall quietly slippered, [her] body gossamered white.”

Joanna Newsom, “Sawdust & Diamonds” from Ys

Newsom’s “Sawdust & Diamonds” is a song of the death of a dove, of a bell dropped and drowned in the sea, yet a song that pleads for us not to wear a “long face” knowing that “our bodies [will] recoil from the grip of the soil.” It is a song in which a sense of hurry in the repeated harp harmonies echoes the singer’s bravery as she envisions her own end, not wanting it to come but resigned to our common human fate. I would pair this song with the penultimate poem from my book, “If Wings Neither Waxed nor Waned,” a poem in which the speaker is aware, as she talks to her “bathtub… full of captured pigeons,” that “the more you abide in your body, / the more your body is not.” In “Sawdust & Diamonds,” Newsom cries out, “It is that damnable bell! / And it tolls—well, I believe that it tolls—for me. / It tolls for me,” adding a pained, emotional rendering to John Donne’s famous “No man is an island” sermon, and thus making one death of all our deaths, or something greater. The speaker of my poem “If Wings Neither Waxed nor Waned” cannot make something greater out of death, but she can hope, as the poem closes with both question and answer, “My doves, what are we? Cloak of the moon and bone- / winds of stars. And light—we know not from aught.”

Nico, “Ari’s Song” from The Marble Index

In "Ari’s Song," Nico sings to her son, “Sail away, sail away, my little boy. / Let the wind fill your heart with light and joy. / Sail away, my little boy,” her contralto voice steady but heavy with sorrow and resignation, as the harmonium she plays rings out in shrill tones as if the sea and the winds that move across it are calling back a warning, equal in power to her soothing words. For me, this is a song to couple with the last poem of The Owl, titled “All my joy.” This poem tells a story of Ophelia’s last day, as I imagined it, of her drowning and not wanting to drown. Her ambivalence even in death. Her regret. And though Shakespeare’s Ophelia is a character without a known mother, Nico’s song still seems fitting to the tone of this final poem. There is nothing sadder than suicide. There is also nothing sadder than a mother saying goodbye to her only child, not knowing what will happen hereafter. Nico sings, “And later, as you go again, / you will agree / that it was all a dream.” Shakespeare writes, not in Hamlet but in The Tempest: “We are such stuff / as dreams are made on, and our little life / is rounded with a sleep.” In Ophelia’s death, I found my own almost-death, in those years when I felt suicidal every day, those six years when I attempted to kill myself twice and was hospitalized for coma once. In “Ari’s Song,” I heard the voice of my own mother, wishing me well, a safe journey, as I went out, over and into and under the treacherous depths of the sea.

Rich Panish, “Burning Boat” from Aurora Song (to be released in late winter, 2019)

[To get a music track for “Burning Boat,” someone would need to wait a few months. I can probably get a mixed and mastered version by the end of January, but the album Aurora Song won’t be released to the public until sometime around March. I’d be happy to send an MP3 as soon as I am able.]

I include “Burning Boat” because I co-composed the vocal melodies during the time in which I wrote The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter. Rich Panish is my husband. He started composing music, after a long hiatus from it, just eight years ago, and Aurora Song is to be his first album. If you could have heard how these melodies started—as a crying out born of sobbing that was my voice in the depths of pain and desperation—you would know the true emotion behind this piece, behind my book. On my husband’s album, those desperate cries are tempered and softened, set against contrasting arpeggios on guitar. I place this piece at the end for obvious reasons (because it is partly mine), but I also include it here as the follow-up to “Ari’s Song” and Ari’s sailing away. It is death by water. It is life by fire. Or something new born out of flames.

Gillian Cummings and The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter links:

the author's website

On Denver interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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