Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Staring from Her Hood of Bone

Death and Ceremony in Sylvia Plath's Edge
Brendan Owen Keenan
by Sylvia Plath

The woman is perfected.
Her dead

Body wears the smile of accomplishment,
The illusion of a Greek necessity

Flows in the scrolls of her toga,
Her bare

Feet seem to be saying:
We have come so far, it is over.

Each dead child coiled, a white serpent,
One at each little

Pitcher of milk, now empty.
She has folded

Them back into her body as petals
Of a rose close when the garden

Stiffens and odors bleed
From the sweet, deep throats of the night flower.

The moon has nothing to be sad about,
Staring from her hood of bone.

She is used to this sort of thing.
Her blacks crackle and drag.

One of Sylvia Plath’s final two poems, the other named Balloons, tells of the end of a journey, an end free of sadness and darkness, instead calm and neutral, almost content.
The Defiance
It is also defiant. At a time of tremendous medical advances, to be perfected in death, and not in life, is anathema. Feared and hated, death is to our culture the final failure, the moment when the natural world has defeated our wisdom won across the ages.  We work tirelessly against it, unwilling to embrace finality but unwilling to despair, and evermore we find ways to slow its relentless advance.

And we hate with equal fervor those do embrace it, those who take it for themselves, unsympathetic as we are to the questions of why. We need the answer, of course, objectively, but we only resent the act; perhaps it is in envy, “taking the easy way out;”  perhaps it is in vengeance that we feel wronged, as is the case with the common Abrahamic beliefs that a person who takes her own life commits herself to Hell; still further perhaps in pity, mourning the life that might have been with a little help and protection; maybe simply in surprise. We title her "Victim." We are fighters.

Here we find a darkness not to be scorned or feared; rather, it is the apotheosis of the traveller’s journey.

The Perfection
Perfected, without flaw in death. The possibility for errors is past. Ancient and civilized as the Greeks, Christian-pure in her white toga, a body smiling to invoke a grinning skull. The age grants authority and gravity to the eternity of quiescence; on the scrolls of her toga are written the last chapter of the woman’s life.

Lifeless, the imagined room is soulless, for nothing lives there. The body is here but not the person; the life is spent, not only in the woman but in the children; perhaps in literal terms these are hers: one at each breast, but dead for the lack of milk in them. It might be a horror were it not for the white serpents, dead evils of a dying Garden of Eden, by death free of the sin it birthed. Life was the horror, not death. Back into her she reclaims them, and like a dying garden that once flowered and bore fruit, the body offers no more gifts.

She smiles defiantly that these gifts, her dead children, are at her dead breasts; she of course should be smiling only at the birth of her children, the true demanded accomplishment of a woman. The reclamation of them into her as dead, white serpents furthermore tells that the woman’s Death is feminine: the asp at Cleopatra’s breast is the perished one here, undulating as it does with her curves. Slain by Woman, head uncrushed under the heel of Man; instead dead by the lack of sin to nourish it in the way these pitchers of milk once nourished her children. Passionate, corrupt Woman is gone, and in Her place is a pure, amoral statue barren of temptation, unrisen and unfallen.

Even the statuesque, stone burial, in dispassionate repose, suits itself. Bare footed, white robed, but without ascension; no rebirths need follow. She is passionless and devoid of sadness, like the moon made from bone. And why should the moon be sad? She is the light in the night sky, in turns accepting and rejecting the dark but always predictably; on time, we can set our calendar by it, and we do. She is, like death, a watcher who always arrives to dispel the surrounding black of emptiness; a white comfort, the moon together with the stars dresses the somber earth like the toga the perfect woman wears on her funerary bed.

Here lies neither a glorification of death nor a condemnation of it. Here lies the total neutrality of existence. Here lies the body hardened in rigor mortis but draped under a soft robe; she is the stiff, dead stem of a still-beautiful flower whose soft petals follow her. And when bare feet, callused skin worn away in empathy with a weary, heavy heart, finish a sojourn forced upon them, the rest is welcome, dolce far niente after the pain and horror of life.
The Cold Embrace
Would that the rest of us envisioned such an end in concord with the inevitable future, one with no soul to cheat a harvester, no carving of a name in stone to cheat oblivion. To live without the terror of the end or even the simple anxiety of failure is enviable in its way, and simple ceremony, kind respect, and a warm regard of the beauty that always is and was suffices.

Special thanks to Nicole K. Miller.

Saturday, September 08, 2012


The composer of modern times is taught from the first that his art exists on an ideal plane. He is the creator of invisible cities that are destined to be but imperfectly modeled. The collection of symbols that fill a score are poor empirical markers in a grand scheme of idealized cartography; pencil marks symbolize conceptual tethers across the fabric of virtual time, a frame presented as spatial metaphor by sheets of paper, inscribed left-to-right in perpetual extension. The modern composer, though, does not wish to see this play of symbolism, the masquerade of denotation and connotation that exposes the shadowy nature of his work. He is adamant: he works with concepts, with virtual sound, not with the objects he uses to symbolize them—he is the seer-through of metaphors, the surpasser of the physical symbol. He would prefer to eliminate the intrusion of the empirical into his work entirely; and thus, today, he reduces its physical underpinnings to a minimum.

It is the score, the composer feels, that expresses the form and materials of a work most perfectly, usually in a language of inexorable certitude: but it is here that he appears as a strangely careless worker. The language of his score is perfect, determinate, it conveys his creation in symbols more crystalline in their significance than those of any other century, but the calligraphy of this language is flat and inelegant, the ink poor, and the paper cheap and indifferent. Fixed on the perfection of content and seduced by the dignity of his language, the composer is shockingly unconcerned with his materials. Like some anguished Augustinian who, reflecting upon the impossibility of realizing the perfect Form in an imperfect world, regards all but the rudest works as insulting in their pretension, the composer hacks out models of his creations in the cheapest stuff available—if the Form is sublime and immaterial, what matter if the model is of finely-worked gold or of refuse tin?

But the 21st century composer is no latter-day Neo-Platonist. The high regard in which he holds the products of his slipshod craftmanship owes nothing to “the Sublime”, but to their “functional efficiency” as “communicative media”. “Functional efficiency” might well be the credo inscribed above the modern composer's desk—the phrase captures the spirit and ideal (dissonant words, surely) of everything he does, down to the sawdusty clunk with which it drops off the tongue. The modern composer fetishizes efficiency down deep. His scores are written quickly and with the most convenient means available, they are efficient with regard to both time and material—and if their performance results in something like what he expects, they “work”. Let the symbol be functional, let the minimum in time and resources be expended, let the desired effect be achieved; any additional effort is superfluous, “ornamental”, inefficient.

What has given rise to this obsession? An over-weening belief in the truth of the first proposition of this essay: that the composer's materials, tools, and creations are concepts, processes, and relationships in virtual time and space. And it is true that the composer works with the immaterial, with “music”, let us say; but he works with it through the physical tools and materials of his craft. If we exclude, for a moment, the cocoon of sybolism that envelops the composer's work table, he is a person whose work involves drawing shapes and lines of various forms, sizes, and contours, on a piece of paper with a certain texture and weight, with a pencil, pen, or marker that produces so much of a mark with so much pressure, etc. Or perhaps he clicks or types these shapes into place on a laptop, using a piece of software that inscribes them upon a liquid crystal field with algorithmic precision. Regardless of its symbolic essence, the act of composing, in short, involves constant, minutely modulated interaction with the physical world.

Elementary, says our composer—what of it? Just this: the physical world—especially that postage-stamp corner of it that the composer transforms into a score—has a way of talking back to the one shaping it. The composer's fancy not only acts on the score, but is acted upon, first (and most importantly) in the feedback-like process of composition, then in the interpretive creation of performance. As embryonic music is written out, as its shadowier reaches are tied down to specific, notated events, the emerging shape of the score and its every physical detail begins to influence the conception of the piece being written. A powerful sound in the idealized composition is now a B-flat in cello; not just B-flat, but that B-flat, the quarter with the smudged notehead and slightly crooked stem. The composer is confronted, whether he knows it or not, with his concepts in physical form, and the beauty or ungainliness of that form speaks to its creator, reveals (or creates) aspects of his work—moods, assumptions, implications, flaws—that he could never have discovered in its mental blueprint. His symbols are not silent messengers of creation, but physical objects that carry with them a host of connotations and metamessages.

Score-writing is a craft, for this very reason. The score as object may be graceful or clumsy, beautiful or indifferent, confident or timid; ipso facto, the piece represented will bear with it overtones of gracefulness or clumsiness, beauty or indifference, etc. To have an awareness of the significance of physical detail and to possess the skills necessary to mold the object to suit both its material and conceptual goals—this is the essence of craftsmanship. The modern composer, however, is no craftsman—his final product reveals an awkward, tangential relationship with the physical materials of his art, reveals the indiscipline that makes his work a coaxing of these objects into rudimentary form. One finds that great music (with exceptions) goes hand-in-hand with beautiful manuscript and attention to physical detail; there is something in this craftmanship that is integral to the compositional process[1] and which, in the final product, speaks volumes about the creator in its perfection or absence.

1. An anecdote of Morton Feldman's gives an example of what I have in mind. Toward the end of his life, Feldman's publisher encouraged the composer to send his just-finished manuscript to them, and to skip his habitual step of re-copying his music in calligraphic score. The effect of this time-saving idea was dramatic: “my music deteriorated”, Feldman relates, without “the opportunity for extra thought while copying”. (from this interview).