Three Songs and a Coda on Poems of Don Mager (for high voice, clarinet and piano)
I met Don Mager during a three-week residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in 1994, where he had gone to work with Richard Howard and I had gone to work with Karel Husa. I soon discovered that not only was Don a wonderful poet, but that he had a deep appreciation for, and an astounding knowledge of, contemporary music (I would be thrilled if I ever got to know half as much about poetry as Don knows about modern music). I also discovered that we shared many social and political concerns. Some collaborations were inevitable; this is the second, with more planned.
Many of my compositions relate in some way or other to the suicide of my mother in 1983. Much of Don’s work has a similar serious bent. Our first collaboration, Suffer Even the Least, for speaking voice and double bass, deals with the plight of children around the world. This song cycle is more intimate and directly personal.
Passagework was commissioned by the Kentucky Music Teachers Association and was written for soprano Edie Davis Tidwell and clarinetist Dallas Tidwell. The music was composed in Mexico City in July and August of 1997. The Tidwells gave the first performances, along with pianist Brenda Kee, in October and November of 1998.
The poet’s notes:
Mid-life has a wide notoriety for its passages and transitions. As we go through it, we are generally well warned what to expect. But when, within several years, one loses his parents and parents-in-law, a transition not foreseen confronts him. Besides the expected stages of grief, anger and disorientation, a discovery occurs on a totally different level. One realizes that there is no older generation anymore to buffer him from the forward push in his life; he is the older generation. This discovery has a number of dimensions, including an almost infantile feeling of abandonment.
These four poems seek to explore the work required to make this life passage.
At the death of our parents, the last ones gone,
we become their generation. Become them.
We look out upon a new dawn, a freedom,
where the suddenly clear air has planted us,
spaced solitary like trees along a wall
crumbling. A hawk sways across the winter sky.
It is slow and somber and gray. No one now
but us. We hold our world up. Our arms reach
as if to be lifted, to be swaddled, held,
but then fall back to our sides empty, childish,
limp and dangling. At the death of parents
we look out, the horizon a long mirror,
and a lone hawk sways across the winter sky.
at last we are free, brave in an empty world.
Along the sluice below the dead lake
where years ago the dam crumbled and
water seeped out leaving tall marsh grass,
a small stream cuts a small gorge and catches
the pink sky in its stone-churned bubbles.
Vermilion fades from the horizon
behind the line of black winter trees.
A leaf chugs along on the water,
snags against a naked root, pulls loose,
and slowly starts to spin. Suddenly
the air is chill. And it’s evening.
We sense that at any moment a
wafer-thin snow will start to toss wet splats
at our faces, or fill the falling
dark with a hovering blanket of light.
Instead memories-the mother-and
the father-drift through the chill, and it’s
evening. Call out to the moon to light
us our way home. Evening. Suddenly
it is evening. Call. Call out. For whom … ?
Pictures from an album fall
from their pages. Memories
-the father-and the mother-
stumble into our faces.
The only path forward is one
where we carry our own baggage
and lots of it. Notice how
unsure the footing has become.
A slippery slope on each
side. No markers and no maps.
Like a last moth in the chill
dawn that flits from dried blossom
to dried blossom, we move with
a just bearable lightness.
Umbilical cut, we fall
to the arms of the cosmos.
Come with me. I cannot do
this alone. I understand
how much we are strangers,
how much talking will estrange
us even more; that is not
my point. And to take my hand
or me to take yours would be
to show condescension, so
let us spare each other that.
But as we walk, you tending
to all that comes across your
mind-and sight-and me tending
to my own accounts, let us
brush shoulder against shoulder
from time to time as if by
chance, so that I’m reminded
and you are reminded too, that
even as we make our way
we are-and are not-alone.
And when the footing is rough
perhaps my extended hand
will help you. We may then feel
in our palms a small warmth, in
our fingers a small embrace.
How does this happen?
We are the bulwark.
Our children look towards
us as if we could
far away, as if
we held the world up.
How did we get here?
Freedom so wrenching
we can scarcely bear
it. Scarcely be it.