"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ebb and Flow: A Response to Seán Street’s Estuary

The EB100 project I am proudest of is Suzie LeBlanc’s CD of settings of Bishop poems by Canadian composers, “I am in need of music.” Bringing poetry and music together is something of which I deeply approve, though it does not happen as often as it could and should. But a new CD launched in Liverpool, England, on 18 May, Estuary, is a stirring merge of poetry, music, reading and singing. I wrote a post about Seán Street and this exciting project in late April: http://elizabethbishopcentenary.blogspot.ca/2017/04/sean-street-and-neil-campbell-estuary.html . Now that I have listened to the CD several times, I want to write a response. I am not a musician and know little about the compositional aspects of music. I respond to it emotionally, but I won’t let that stop me.
 (Seán Street reading at the launch. Photo by Adrian Wharton.)
Estuary: a place where realms meet and merge — salt and fresh water, land and air, light and night; a place where there is changing weather because of the convergence of so many elements. A poem is an estuary. So, this title is provocative and right.

The more I listened to the ebb and flow, the surfacings and submergings between the poems and the music, the words spoken and the words sung, the deeper I fell into this haunting, haunted world, an inter-space both clearly itself and utterly mysterious. As the first poem, “Change,” says, “Sound shows us.” Here that sound is first the clear, cadenced voice of the poet, then the liquid rhythms of the guitar, then the warm texture of the singer’s voice.

Many of the tracks have Seán reading his highly tangible, sensory poems, an unfolding that often happens with the pulse of music surrounding (above, below, from within) the words. How did I respond to these dialogues? I felt always calm and clear-headed, pulled by a quiet surety, a knowing of place and time.

Another track, “Shipping Forecast,” as well as several others, carry a punctuation of the kinds of marine weather radio reports that I remember hearing on CBC Radio when I was a child. These are no more. The through-line of these highly specific and elemental collections of practical yet poetic words, a hypnotic repetitiveness built in, is both deeply unsettling and  profoundly comforting. Perhaps the definition of a good poem.

Seán collaborates with musician and composer Neil Campbell, whose guitar opens the first track, and jazz singer Perri Alleyne-Hughes. Perri’s voice is first heard in “Fog Redux,” a distant chanting of a single word: “island,” cutting through a percussive through-line and a repeating sigh that must be a human voice — or is it? — as another forecast surfaces out of the soundscape. The complexity is so beautifully handled, seamlessly flowing, it feels utterly of a piece.

Words and weather. Words as weather. Words are weather.

I could write about each track because there are pleasures and hauntings in each one. I will close with two late tracks: “Sestina” and “Sestina (Part 2).” I choose “Sestina” because it is a poem inspired by Sable Island and Halifax, N.S., and the 1917 Halifax Explosion. It is one of the longest poems and has a tight, formal structure, with six end words repeating. It is filled with questions asked and not asked, the tensions are palpable, the compassion present. The reading is followed by a marvellous setting of the six end words of the poem, only the end words. Each word has its own note, each one sung softly, distinctly at first, then slowly the words, the notes form an ever-changing, Gregorian-chant-like song that is meditative and hypnotizing, intensifying, like watching a river flowing into the ocean: the same and never the same.
(Neil Campbell and Perri Alleyne-Hughes performing
at the launch. Photo by Adrian Wharton.)
Each time a track faded to its own echoes, then into silence, I felt at peace. As “Pier Head” offers, “Departing lights shape darkness,” even as they disappear into the fog. The mind holds all sensation in memory.

This elegant collaboration has added something materially and spiritually good to this troubled world.

On Thursday, 18 May, Seán and his colleagues launched Estuary with a multi-media performance in Liverpool. I wish I could have been there! Seán kindly sent me a few photos from what looks like a memorable event, which he has kindly said I can share. The photographs were taken by Adrian Wharton.
(Rachel Sweeney performing at the launch,
with video projection. Photograph by Adrian Wharton.)

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