With a title lifted vaguely from David Frieberg and Robert Hunter (“Harp Tree Lament”) off a personal-favorite Paul Kantner Jefferson Starship album (in those halcyon days before that name became an actual band), hereʼs a girlfriend-lost poem from those early years teaching (poorly) in Ft. Madison. I left JA (and JS) behind me for a long time once I moved to Maquoketa, even though Kantnerʼs roaring, lyrical (sci-fic) marches have polished an eternal spot in my soul (and amidst the constant, cicadic, scratchy ringing in my ears, which that same music — played utterly too loud in my youth and loudly nowadays, too, to overcome the tinnitus — probably caused, at least in part). However, I acquired my first Walkman shortly before Janet and I went to Fiji in 1986, and I got reinterested in my old albums by making tapes from the vinyl originals for the portable player and for our cassette deck. Two ninety-minute mixes were a carefully programmed sequence of Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship Kantner/Slick music, heavily falling on those first three non-JA albums — Blows Against the Empire, Sunfighter and Baron von Tollbooth and the Chrome Nun. We returned from the cannibal islands to Los Angeles for a two-night stay before flying home (and a necessary recovery after the twenty-hour flight it was). I listened on the headphones to those tapes flying home and in a wholly exhausted state (and jokingly-possibly yangona-hungover — more on that adventure one day) falling asleep in the dire hotel where Janet had placed us. (I really should recreate the sequence of those tapes as an iPod playlist; I wonder what hearing all those songs in the appropriate order might do to my head these days.)
I donʼt think I appreciated or recognized much Jefferson Airplane before the Woodstock album (my copy of which came from an abortive Spanglish haggling session in Mexico City while on a Presbyterian Youth Fellowship mission trip and which we played to arouse the troops for “morning maniac madness” — yes, an inext quotation, and deliberately so — by playing “Volunteers” on a creaky church phonograph in an Oklahoma City church basement; later that day I purchased my first Osibisa album — and theirs, too — because of the Roger Dean cover art, such is the cleverness of record-industry marketing). Kantner cemented his place in my musical mind with the Blows album the year I graduated from high school — all those songs (thank you, Jerry Garcia on pedal steel) still rouse me in a strange (but now faded) manner.
And I only bring up all this personal musical-history summary to admit that if one were fully versed in all the music I listened in those high-creative years of the mid-Seventies (lots of Yes and Who and Rolling Stones in that unconscious mental mix, too), you could probably spot my interpretations of the song rhythms that I was hearing as I wrote (and my interpretation of rhythm is an amusingly personal and idiosyncratic thing, indeed — just ask Janet). So it is strange that once I had a rhythm (undoubtedly stolen because I really donʼt think I am all that inventive or creative), I could usually create a poem, like the sonnet below.
Aeolian Harp Song
White air disturbs trees, dancing the leaves.
The wind passes, dark air wet with wonder, a spirit,
fraught with eyes, telling lies: here the wind weaves
a fabric of oaks, vines and reeds. You can hear it
whistling the sundown, surfing the sea while it heaves
up the moon (a many-faced lady). You must fear it
when moonlight rips holes in the air — then the wind deceives
mortals and hushes the trees. Do not come near it
then, when birds sought the south, safety and sun:
silence too dreadful to touch, when the white moon breathes
blackness and stars burn without twinkling. You must shun
forests then, seeking mirrors. Moonlight sickles reeds
in that season as women make blood. Remained then and you
will see wonders unwritten in trees but the hawthorn, elder and yew.
evidently after losing the lady and reading The White Goddess
23 April 1976
I must have found incredible solace or inspiration (or steal-able imagery anyway) in The White Goddess because it pushes to the front in nearly everything I wrote for about two years, including of course this poem. The list of trees at the end (and the earlier trio inline 4) is directly referring to Graves (and reading the book would help understanding why those trees in those trios, too), and I think his goddess is behind the menstrual image, as well. The sickle is also lunar and therefore Gravesian, I guess, and therefore the moon has to be “white” in line 10). On the other hand, the mirror is more personal (check back on earlier poem-posts — hereʼs just one example, and another — for some of my other uses of that imagery) and does tie in my mind with knives, so therefore the moonlight ripping “holes in the air.” As for stars, well, theyʼre hiding over, under, around and within the currently posting story.
I like the tight rhyme scheme, more Italianate than English — abababab (only two sounds for the octet!) cdcdee. I donʼt think I have any meaning in that pattern, however. It just sounded cool to me (more or less still does).
Although I have already taken note of what I decided to record in my own note to myself (the green line above the composition date), I kept it in because I havenʼt remarked that those lines are on the original typescripts as notes to myself (to help me remember what I probably should recall anyway, right?). Although I am sure I remember which girlfriend, I appreciate my own delicacy in the maladroit (and so Seventies-Romantic) wording of the notation. I also just noticed that I wrote the poem on Shakespeareʼs birthday.
And, yes, now I remember: I do owe apologies to Samuel R. Delany (and Vonda McIntyre) for ripping off your title styles (I was thinking of McIntyreʼs “Of Mist, Sand andGrass” when I devised this postʼs title, but it may really owe more to Delanyʼs little essays that adhere to his later science fiction novels)
(I really do have a good time using old poems to hocus up a post…)