Wheatland

A recent trip to my home stomping grounds in and around Calgary, Alberta garnered a number of new poems. This was one of them. I hope it speaks to you.

In supine repose she reaches out

with verdant arms of brown and yellow-green,

to clasp her bony fingers in sensuous release

with the vertical horizon.

Skies, gray and whole, play ninety degree tug-o’-war

with grass, prickly hay and knobby-need shrubbery -

rough ‘n tumble farm stubble.

Short shacks and weathered barns

pimple her broad back

alive with promise of more.

Suggesting we but see,

she insists upon her miles-wide self.

Sometimes she sleeps and forfeits life,

longing for heaven’s lusty drool.

This long land has much to speak,

her hard, crusted lips pursed

to kiss only those who see her -

and hold their breath.

 

conservatory, cellists and the blessing of un-cool

“…the glory of art is in receipt more than critique.”

Good friend and fellow blogger, Barbara Lane, has directed me to some very cool online places for inspiration, laughs, and encouragement. One site that has particularly seized my attention is Art House America. It is the brainchild of record producer, Charlie Peacock and his wife, Andi Ashworth and is staffed by more than a few stellar writers, Barb being among them as an intern. A few months ago, blogger Jennifer Strange submitted a piece entitled “Pride and Play”, which outlined her life as a classical violinist. The piece struck a chord (groan) with me. What follows is a fleshier version of my response to it.

Brava! I, like you, have lived on the edges of un-cool. I was just acceptable enough to be part of the horde of “normal” kids but too artsy and quirky to dwell among the immortals. By the time I got to high school, I was popular but certainly no A-lister. My insistent intensity wed to a host of personal oddities denied entrance among the luminaries. Who cares? I thought. I had plenty of friends and hangers on, enough to get me through the harrowing hell that high school can be. My feigned demeanor as a Bohemian philosopher-poet, indy-intellectual-wannabe coupled with low blood pressure worked against me. I was a good faker, though, and learned to converse well among those of the socialite nosebleed section.

Being a musician helped. The sense of humor bought some street cred, too. These discoveries, although transient and unstable, at least provided me sufficient groundwork upon which to build a shaky cabin of self-esteem. But, unlike many of them, I was no male debutante-in-training. Instead, I was a gangly singer adopted by a blue-collar brewery worker and housewife into a 900 square foot bungalow in oil ‘n redneck rich Calgary, Alberta.

I’m especially grateful that none of the above provided enough of an obstacle to obtaining a full scholarship to Mount Royal College Conservatory where, as a Vocal Performance major, I studied art song, oratorio, opera and the dreamy female cellists in the symphony. And, since most of our professors were symphony musicians, we would get free tickets to almost anything they played – from Faure to Brahms, Shostakovich to Prokofiev, Schoenberg to Beethoven. It was all so heady and…cool…well, except for the part where my buddies and I would fight for the best seats high above the orchestra where the best sight lines were for staring down the daring, black gowns of the cellists in question. But I digress.

I can think of no reason to regret the loss of elitist membership in favor of the sublime connection to the world’s great music. Moreover, music was the backdrop for my awakening to Christian faith after graduation from high school. For this, and your piece reminding all of us of the uniting and redemptive power of music, I can be forever grateful. Besides, why do they always get to decide what’s cool?

Yours in recitative, R

Sonnet

I love the sonnets of Shakespeare. Who doesn’t, right? They have been good friends to me of late. Bill had a way of writing about love unlike any other; new love, old love, forbidden love, unspent love, unrequited love, undeserved love and immortal love to name a few. They’ve inspired me to take a stab at a sonnet of my own. It is a modified form unlike those of Bill’s day. And, although I think it’s pretty good, it’s a want ad or Hallmark card by comparison. Be that as it may, I give you…

 

Tear me from this mystery of sap and shapeless track of dawnless night

Betrayed within the conundrum of grace, suffused by quickening light

A statistic now in sharp withdrawal and vacuumed from the place of sight,

Warned by love of love forgot.

 

To steal what might have otherwise giv’n a simple love, both shared, sublime

Is to find all that is found when ‘tis doubly passed through space, in time

Where music, sweet, and dancing, too, the world begets what two define,

Found in love what love is not.

 

To remedy the hurricaned heart while delay and trepidy so daunting

Playing games so wicked, wild with words unspoken, dazed and flaunting

Now no sound, nor whispers call to head so bleak, a heart left wanting,

Comes grace, alas, where sin forgot.

 

Love is come where passion burned

And still’d itself inside, and learned.

 

Unless…

I’ve been on a poetry streak of late. I hope you enjoy this latest installment.

Unless a grain of wheat

 

Dry, fallen and fielded in freshness

of morning, asleep am I and…waiting;

stillness hopes for hoping still.

 

falls into the earth

 

Pungent and porous I become

as rain pools upon my sodden back bent.

And, soaked in effluent earth,

the rays of sun force cracks to appear in my skin

 

and dies,

 

and the weight of all goodness breaks

my back and bones, splintered

here and there, forsaking their unity

for roots and reach after raw and down and damp.

Silence overtakes silence overtaking me and I gasp out

a final breath, and dark removes

all light and nothingness replaces that which was.

 

it remains a single grain;

 

Is this the end? Has shadow, then, become

the defining characteristic of all things?

Am I forsaken, to be forgot and left rotting

in felch and fetid stench of this horrid, hollow hell?

 

but if it dies,

 

Heat, the warm and simple liquid light,

intrudes upon nihilo, introducing breath and branch

and with re-membered memory kills the dead,

and life cries out to see the new day.

I am not what was but am again.

 

it bears much fruit.

 

But wait, partners here in soft and strange

are bidding, too, this light-ward grasp.

Where once I was, now we are more;

where more was no more than less of one.

Rimrock retreat – a day at Ghormley Meadows

For guys who do what I do (church music director), the day after Holy Week is bittersweet. Bitter, because all that the week promises in its wealth of life-giving news and hints of transformation are gone for another year. Sweet, because such a grand narrative is never over. It is always just beginning.

For National Poetry Month and to honor a most delightful day at a local Christian camp, I offer the following:

Rimrock retreat – a day at Ghormley Meadows

 

Rimrock, rustic and real with space

to contain all that’s empty.

The rugged road cast before feet apace

where moon outshines the sun’s identity-

but loses out to one yet brighter.

 

Pillaged, austere and raw this one comes

bent and spent he went round

and there to see tomb unmanned, he’d won

what spillage, spewed, is spared, fixed and found.

I was blind but now have sight, or

 

is all that sees as blind or lost

as one whose eyes are just downcast?

For just to see is not to walk, wind-toss’d

and free from nature’s slighted past.

Between the stones of each one’s road

 

grow wild, still, evidences of strangely new

that mix with voices old to taunt

and vie for the once-free. But they, too

must retreat or be removed like mustard-mount

seeds of faith renewed, of hope, sowed

 

to keep and deepen the promised field

of unswept dreams and unkept pains;

detritus of lesser gods gives way to peals

of forest bells and words and Word unstain’d

This one’s tale of a Tale once and forever told.

 

Over Scotland

Originally written as the beginnings of a lyric to a song I was writing to commemorate the same trip, this comes as I gazed out an airplane window at Scotland below us. It was 1988 and my wife, Rae, and I were moving to Edinburgh to live and work for a short time. It is the country and culture closest to my heart as I hope this short poem illustrates.

Over Scotland

High flying, window glass reveals tattered floor-

Pristine heaven greets eyes open to curving planet yonder

Stretching, reaching, sky-borne, we soar.

Place of kings bringing wonder to hearts that wonder.

 

Stipple-green, ground richly steeped in lush, purple hue-

Woven pattern of road-cut scenes moves closer,

Sky meets peripheral sky, horizon’s hazy blue.

Shadows run as daylight comes, chosen.

 

Well-fermented scenes distilled in ancient dreams-

Walls of stone, hearts of flesh, eyes of steel,

Pageantry in motion, all is as it seems.

Like God in man, surreal kisses real.

 

To sing or not to sing

I wanted to submit some reflections of a choral workshop I went to in Cannon Beach last summer. I hope you enjoy.

Walking the boardwalk on a sunny, summer evening in a seaside tourist town – alone – feels a little like bicycling with one pedal or being the only kid at the school dance who never has a dance partner. Places like this – Seaside, Oregon, are meant to be shared. It’s not that one cannot enjoyably breath in the heady, highly sensory ocean ethos of such places on one’s own. I’ve done it many times before. An introvert by nature, I rather bask in the relative repose easily gleanable from such experiences. No, it’s quite simply the much deeper joy of cackling like friendly chickens over a reciprocated love.

There’s just something unnamable, almost intangible, in shared experiences like these. To be with others you know and who know you sprinkles a delight and sweetness on the top that magnifies the joy exponentially. C.S Lewis knew this well and alludes to it in the Four Loves. One’s love for someone or thing amplifies in the sharing thereof. The mutuality of “yeah, I get it” is one of life’s greatest gifts. It is, I suppose, a function of our naturally communal human nature. To share is natural when we love something and find it difficult to articulate to ourselves alone.

Either because I am indecisive when it comes to choosing hobbies or because I am not in possession of anything close to a reasonable ability to say ‘no’ to anything remotely interesting, I have a host of varied spheres in which I have lived, moved and shared. One such world is the reason for my brief sojourn to this little Pacific paradise. I am attending a weeklong workshop for choral conductors.

I have had a profound appreciation for the choral tradition and its sublime repertoire my whole life. I recall with some reverie singing in the St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church youth choir as a young elementary school kid. Although a right pain in the ass to the conductor I am forever grateful for her patience in opening the door to music I could never fully describe.

Similar to the annoying guy forever showing pictures of his kids on the subway, I am left with another thing I love to share (foist really) at every opportunity. Even then at around eleven years old I was equally intrigued with Henry Purcell, Johannes Brahms and Palestrina as I was with Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis Presley or Rush. My piano teacher at the time thought it commendable. My parents thought it quaint. To the older kids at school it forever sealed my fate as the tall, geeky brown-noser who perhaps fancied himself a cut above the rest.

Turned up noses meant nothing however as the first notes of some a cappella chamber choir began to nip at the edges of my soul, expanding it to be singed by the burning beauty of voices shared in common cause. For those who have yet to be entranced by such beauty, caught in the choral clutches of grace to which you are a contributor, I pray one day you find it even as I have. We’ll have one more thing whose beauty grows more in the sharing.

Spring on Ash Wednesday

For those of faith, we are on the Lenten journey toward Holy Week and Easter on April 8. We are also on a journey from the mini-death of Winter to the rebirth and hope of Spring. This is my take on the intersection of the two.

Spring on Ash Wednesday (February 22, 2012) 

Begins again this Springward journey;

rebirthing all that once lived.

Trickle again once fickle brook and stream

sickle sighs yet in repose, sleeping still.

Earth, sore and Winter-stiff, seeks, sighs

stretches out skinny arms of want.

Her cold, hard bosom births not what soon will come

e’er the Sun’s hungry mouth suckles,

fills his lusty gut on hopeful barrenness

feasting on milk of timeworn, weary passage.

 

She forgets not the suddenness of late

and sooner dark, splayed upon a fine, greenness

come for to spite the buds of transforming light

bidding death where life has yet to emerge.

Warmly insistent she speaks, sharing her story

poured out over the long-shadowed land.

Bring such bothersome beauty to branchier speech,

fall around us, spilling, foaming such fury

and fermenting our soon-drunk wine of promise;

earthen spirit’s Eucharistic prayer.

 

Hush now, silence yourself bold coldness and spare not

freedom’s great gift only taken this once year’s-life.

Steep instead in warmness, worried not for lack

but bubbling and birthing bold words lightly spoken.

Remind us, refresh and reframe what is still rooting,

routing sad night-hood to don the new, the now, the never again;

only to return, restored and restoring,

regenerated, reborn.

Give us again your beauty for our ashes.

 

Wednesday speaks your secrets.

 

Of life, love and bagpipes, pt. 2

I jump ahead forty years in order to share one of many piping stories accumulated over those years. Since the age of fourteen I have played bagpipes as accompaniment for highland dancing. Typically, a piper or pipers are hired to perform this task, doing so throughout the day trading off dances for breaks from the delightful tedium. Yesterday was one such day.

One walks onto a damp field, humming with the possibilities of the day, newly arrived but yet in infancy. The sun, undecided as to its welcome, insists on playing peek-a-boo through gently swaying trees overhead. The heady, morning air gradually yields to the all too familiar squawks of bagpipers keen to tame the beast before their competition debut two hours hence. Ahead of me is a small army of doting Moms preening little girls; perfecting hair, fluffing ruffles, smoothing wayward eyebrows, tightening dancing shoes, blowing young noses and assisting people like me with the whereabouts of the necessary coffee, fuel for a long, noisy day of piping for Highland Dancing – the reason for this morning scenario…

It’s almost imperceptible how one’s surroundings, interactions – experiences in general, help to build a reality around our lives that is immediately recognizable on reentry. Smell pot once and you’ve pretty much got it memorized. Conversely, smell, if only for a moment, the fragrance of a particular perfume, and one’s whole world of first love reopens complete with vivid pictures, achingly familiar emotions and the intoxicating remembrances of love won and lost.

For bagpipers this occurs whenever the tangled auditory mess that is a competition field of peacock pipers strutting their craft before one another, feigning non-chalance, makes itself known. And yet, there’s a certain calming effect the uproarious clitter clatter of competing non-harmonies has had upon me for more years than I can count. As a competitive piper for decades, to walk onto a fresh competition field ripe with the smell of dew mixed with wet leather shoes, cigarette smoke, and the smell of bad food was nothing short of transcendent. If I’d hit a winning streak, this strut was accompanied by a rush of a please-notice-my-statuesque-entrance-onto-the-battle-field-and-be-afraid posture. Ah yes, the overly confident swagger of youth.

Today is not a competition day however. This is a day devoted to the craft of Highland Dance accompaniment. To the uninitiated it is the realm of piping masters whose melodies, lilting one minute, scorching the next, endear themselves to those intent on seeing kilts bounce up and down for six to eight hours in 90 degree heat. To those of us in the biz it is the bottom of the bagpipe food chain so to speak. To stand in one spot under a lovely shaded canopy while waited on hand and foot with coffee, water and sandwiches is a far cry from the blistering heat on black tarmac upon which competing pipe bands fight to maintain a most unwieldy instrument against the ravages of the waterless landscape. While I play simple, crowd pleasing melodies over and over again to constantly appreciative audiences, each pipe band must battle under much more extreme conditions not just for the crowds but for the stoic and feared judges lurking just beyond the competition circle.

No, my job today is considerably simpler. And, I’m OK with that.

I’m now closer to 50 than 15 and the sheer number of times I’ve had this experience of Highland Games participation complete with youthful swagger and passively boastful demeanor have been replaced by the gently glowing embers of gratitude. It is thankfulness for having even been introduced to this oddly mystifying instrument and its associated sociological accoutrements.  Now, I can’t help but think as I stroll past these young pipers intent upon nervous preparation for the perfect performance just how glad I am that they, now, have their chance and, second, that I no longer need it to enjoy all that it offers. I’m gonna watch them sweat for awhile.

Again, I’m OK with that.

Of life, love and bagpipes

I am a Highland Bagpipe player or piper in street talk. It is an instrument with which I have had a love-hate relationship for almost forty years now. For the longest time I wondered what might have gone through my parent’s minds when, at eight years of age, I loudly proclaimed my overweening desire to begin lessons immediately. That is, until I mused lately on the fact that both of my sons are rock drummers. I’m sure that bears at least some resemblance.

Perhaps not.

The Great Highland Bagpipe (GHB) as it is called by the musicology muck-a-mucks is an instrument uniquely designed to be heard. A perfect wake-the-dead alarm, they have been used for centuries to alert clans of forthcoming gatherings, oncoming battles and soon coming dignitaries. A piper on a hill is not just a cliché or quaint tourist post card. It does in fact typify much of bagpipe history. Moreover, as either clever tactic or cruel joke (depending upon whether one is a piper or not), the bagpipes were always the first line of defense in any conflagration. Apparently, troop commanders figured they could simultaneously amuse, entertain and confuse their enemy with a burly, red-haired, stumpy man in a dress, himself attacking the weapon of choice and tossing note after screaming note at them as a monkey flinging musical feces.

Like an octopus missing some legs the GHB consists of three drones – a bass and two tenors; a blowpipe through which ample air must pass into the bag acting as reservoir for this purpose, and a chanter that accommodates fingers eager to surprise the world with music both raunchy and wild, pristine and sweet. Heard under a best-case scenario in which all of the varied factors of its engineering converge successfully and wielded by someone with a modicum of experience lassoing them into submission, it is undoubtedly the most mystically beautiful thing I’ve yet heard. However, the usual encounter of the average passerby is a rather less than desirable auditory experience not unlike a grumpy orangutan humping an unsuspecting cat on the rush-hour freeway after a losing football game. That said, I confess such a description as that which I have still to see.

Yet, it is what many might actually prefer when they hear this baffling instrument. It is, under any circumstances, an instrument that, like a crying baby on an airline, demands center stage. It is a sound that captured me even as a boy of seven years old. I well recall my first visceral experience with the bagpipe.

I grew up in a tiny bungalow in Calgary, Alberta the adopted son of a brewery worker and house-wife, my mother. As I, along with my younger brother and sister, continued to grow, it became abundantly apparent that our consistent brushing of shoulders would only lead to inner-family disaster. My father set about building me a bedroom in our not-quite-finished basement. For some fifteen years to follow it would be my sanctuary – my monastery and the place where I found music, booze, girls (don’t mention that to my parents, they only know about the previous two) and ultimately, salvation.

The spring before my eighth birthday I moved in. Kismet. I was also sick as a dog. My parents in true devoted fashion brought me hot soup, books (I’m a total nerd) and best of all, a TV to help wile away the hours spent in sniffly, coughing boredom. Changing channels one afternoon (at the time, a task rendered all the more insufferable by the constant interruption of arising from my sickbed to physically do so) I happened upon a presentation of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, an annual display of pomp, circumstance, bright lights, booming cannons and bagpipes – lots of bagpipes. It is filmed, live, at Edinburgh Castle. From the first note I was hooked. I cried through the entire thing, later asking my parents if I could learn to do what I had just seen but thought I had dreamed.

A love affair had begun.

This and other pieces are available at my blog: www.innerwoven.wordpress.com