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1 / Recollections, Admirations, and Poems
for Norman Dubie

Norman Dubie looks toward the left of the frame, wearing a straw fedora and dark black button-down. The light catches his white beard.
Jody Stewart

Jody Stewart

Please! One World at a Time!

It didn’t matter that I didn’t always know what Norman Dubie’s poems were about; he never wrote a sleepy sentence. Entranced, buffeted, sometimes battered, I let myself ride and read Norman’s poetry till I was nourished in an often bewildering way. I’d perused the Alehouse Sonnets on Christmas holiday, 1974 and shortly after been lucky enough to read a manuscript of In the Dead of the Night. Confused and captivated, I slowly clued in to both persona and narrative structures. My ear caught on and I wrote what felt to me to be my first “real” poem — or one I thought I could actually take to a workshop without being completely sniggled under the table.  

 

Norman’s poems were skillful, wild, brutal, sometimes congested; they dared what came to mind and made it intricate, irreplaceable, wickedly funny, stabbing, tender—whatever arose into an arrangement of the inevitable and credible. I felt he was raiding the images and details of innumerable dreams of innumerable people. “Please! One world at a time!” he implores in the prologue poem to In the Dead of the Night but how he leapt between worlds, combined and layered them! His outpourings, often full of love, could punch you from any direction. An incomparable teacher, sometimes friend, he could look at a writer’s draft and know where the poem needed to go and often what the poet didn’t yet know was her/his/their intention. A gift of uncanniness!


I hadn’t seen Norman in decades before he “went to change his clothes.” So I think of him still with a Pall Mall, waving his slender hands above the kitchen table below one of those yellow ceiling lights, wearing his flat, navy-blue beret, a slight smear across his specs. He never stopped teaching, giving his best — yet he never let a young poet lean too much on him if he/she/they were ready to plunge (or plod) forward! Over the years a lot of things got in way of my gratitude but oh, it’s back! This is a good day to think of him: November 1st, the first snow on the leaves, stones and dirt of his beloved New England.

Jody Stewart's most recent book is This Momentary World, Selected Poems 1975-2014, Nine Mile Books, 2022. She lives on a retired farm in Western Massachusetts.

Sam Pereira

Sam Pereira

A Temporary Deadwood: Clinton Street, 1973

I didn’t know shit at 23, when I first stepped into what amounted to a refrigerated trailer that had reinvented itself into becoming a temporary commercial bar—The Deadwood—while downtown Iowa City was undergoing redevelopment in 1973.

 

I was about to become baptized into the sacred unions of scotch and soda, bourbon and water, and my favorite, gin and gin; all comingling aa a choir; a sort of Ars Poetica to the washings over of evaporative knowledge in the snow.

 

Sitting in one of the regimented, yet thrown together, booths inside was a man in dark clothing; wearing a matching newsboy/fisherman’s cap; head focused on matters somewhere between the great Russian archetypes of 19th and 20th Century literature and punching up “Hooked on a Feeling;” while looking directly over his beer. 

“Sam, this is Norman Dubie. He is part of the reason you are here,” said my friend David St. John, who had only minutes earlier picked me up from my newly rented basement efficiency apartment about a mile away and driven straight to what was to become something of a temple for the educated lost during those two years.

 

However, on that particular afternoon, nothing profound followed. Just “Hi, Sam,” in a kind of matter of fact, almost distant kind of way. He lit another Pall Mall and dropped the red Bic onto the table. If I told you it was romantic in a way only another writer would understand, you would think me a lunatic, or a poet, or both.

 

We talked and drank and listened to bad juke tunes for two years. We told the truth in our poems, which included the unmitigated fictions of God. We wept over Berryman and Auden and those who would, without question, join them soon. We never wept for ourselves.

Eulogy for the Severed Hearts

Norman Dubie has died

And all I can think is

A harpsichord played at sunset

Or a man shuffling cards

In the ocean just a few feet

Off of the beach or

The haphazard line breaks

Of a mango being sliced in two

 

He never made me commit

Bad sonneteering to my memory

And his drink as far as I recall

Was the liquid smoke of a Pall Mall

In the desert of his own making

 

So tell me old chum

Now that you’ve cracked open

Two blunts with Berryman

Who remains lost and is dipping his

Into a lukewarm glass of scotch

 

With your permission I am calling this

The unending ordinary of trees

Incident Recalling a Norman Dubie Homily

The one time I was haunted

I mean gangbusters with fries haunted

With the Lord and you’re going 

To have to believe me here

I was holding a Bloody Mary I’d absconded with

From an air-conditioned trailer disguised

As a bar open for strictly business purposes

Just across the street from the Engineering Building

 

You my even then remarkable friend

Decided we would walk to a random church

Because you had something you wanted to say

 

Unbeknownst to the man behind the bar

I grabbed my glass celery stick and all

And we walked until we hit the vestibule

Of sudden consciousness in flickers of

Yellow candlelight It was showtime 

 

And the master took the pulpit

While I sat there in an otherwise empty pew

Feeling the flames at the back of my head

 

You soliloquized about the lilies of the field

And it was clear I had recently arrived

From the cow shit and alfalfa version

Of California that no one ever talks about

 

I listened into my despair for hours

Growing more secure with each new

Testament to breath I mean

I felt the vodka saying its amens 

Then back into the streets 

Resolute in the doctrine of no good

 

Tomorrow I would walk into a room

Filled with my undergraduates

And teach them all about the power

Implicit in Melville’s Whale

 

Along with the coming

Of the true religion to those plains

Sam Pereira has published seven books of poetry in the past half century; the most recent being True North and Untrue You, published by Nine Mile Press.

Roger Weigarten

Roger Weingarten

Into the Slipstream

I stare down at the maroon cafeteria tray next to the end of a long table: September, ’65, Norman—who I’d just met in Barry Goldensohn’s poetry workshop—in that black, permanently-fixed-to-his-being raincoat, sets his tray at the very end next to mine. With one hand around a fork, the other blanketing a hardcover Rilke as if he’s eating for two, he invites me back to his dorm room to take a gander at a James Wright poem. Trailing in the wake of that raincoated processional up the coffee shop stairs, I wonder if he’s the reincarnated abbot of a thirteenth century alpine monastery, prematurely middle-aged or agelessly steeped in something elusively spiritual, even when we glom Mallomars down the hill at Mae’s General Store [He’d kill me for revealing this], then hightail back to the woods to feast on our bounty. He turns the knob on his dorm room door to reveal his will-o-the-wisp roommate sweeping with a corn straw broom six inches above the floor. The Wright sonnet is a stunner. You could peel me off the ceiling. 

 

Norman Dubie, Jane Shore, Ken Salls, and I march to the front of the mansion parlor singing “Balls to your partner, arse against the wall. If you don’t get fucked on a Saturday night, you’ll never get fucked at all” to an audience of students, faculty, and dean. Brave Norman goes first, sets his pages down under the golden oak lectern lamp, and vanishes in a blink. Salls and I investigate this legerdemain to find our drunk companion, no small fry, in a heap, and lift him into the history of that voice so gothically in tune with his poetry, a voice that never changes in the fifteen years we are friends, best and otherwise.

 

We worm our way into each other’s poems. To call that editing would miss the mark. Like Siamese bullfighters we wave the red cape. We write each other into our work: His Alehouse Sonnets, In the Dead of the Night, and The Illustrations; my What are Birds Worth, Ethan Benjamin Boldt, and The Vermont Suicides.

 

In late June of ’67, I drive down to his parents’ New Hampshire house, where he parades around in white Jockey shorts he stole from me along with half my record collection. He delights in how long it takes me to figure what doesn’t belong. I fall backwards laughing onto his concrete block and plywood bed. How it feels. 

 

We cross the border into Quebec. We grill burgers outside my rented cabin that has two refrigerators, two bedrooms, a six-foot-long cast iron stove, two Old Testaments, and a garter belt. In the adjacent woods, we climb a maple and drop down on a moss-covered rock the size of Pittsburgh and write for hours on our legal pads, hoping a silver fox would reappear before dusk. When we read together at my Expo ’67 Young American Poetry Series to an international audience mesmerized by his haunted poems, I fix on his right thumbnail digging into the soft spot between his left thumb and forefinger behind his back. We watch Jacqueline du Pre bow her cello on the mountainous Canadian Pavilion screen three times in two days. Public readings make him so nervous, he confides, in the late ‘70s, I’m not a trained seal. 

 

One late July afternoon, we leave the cabin to feast on dill pickles and chopped liver on croissants at a Prevost bakery owned by an Orthodox family. Then we make our way to a rundown roadhouse for fortification and a shared pack of Macdonald Export A’s so strong, I quit the habit altogether. We line up thirty paces from the street-lit stop sign at the juncture of the highway exit and underpass. We try our hands at barraging the sign with stones and clods. Neither of us comes close.

 

Or picture us wet behind the ears, hovering over a new page.

 

After Bob Funt’s Ten Poems for Samuel Taylor Coleridge materializes in George Starbuck’s Fall, ’69 workshop, Norman works a year to produce Alehouse Sonnets. It takes me three and a half to nail Ethan Benjamin Boldt. While none of these projects connect in approach or content, it’s the underground river of lost causes, the boarding house reach interplay of something a little Homeric/lyric/elegiac that connect them.

 

By late August, ‘76 after I drive west without air conditioning from Vermont, then down from Flagstaff to knock on his overheated door in Tempe, after he wonders what’s wrong with me, after Dina and I move into the duplex next door, after I delight in watching him write while his daughter and her friends romp around him, after white pizzas, Star Trek reruns, and a conga line of sandwiches, after Jody Stewart, his brilliant wife, and I occupy toilets mirroring each other through a shared bathroom wall, laughing at the thunder and pyrotechnics, then comes the loudest 3 a.m. ring since priests blew down the walls of Jericho when Norman wakes me to scream, You stereotype me in your poems! 

 

Late October, we hike to a life drawing class in a stranger’s parlor. Invited by a painter who sat perpendicular to shirtless me while I fooled around with a poem on my old Adler that melted years later in a house fire, I still see that endless concave meridian we walk home on, me with a draft of Life Drawing in Eldorado in my fist; Norman with a rise in his trousers. Weeks later we step up to an arthouse ticket booth manned by the redhaired life drawing model who’s dressed but able to extinguish any memory of what movie we’ve come to see.

 

In January, ’77, Dina and I escape to a pink brick ranch house in central Phoenix. In July, ’79, Jody drives Norman to the pink palace to celebrate the birth of our first born. Norman cradles Eli to his chest. Eli sleeps in his arms.

 

In Spring, 1980, I’m rifling job applications in the department Chair’s office when a call comes in that Norman’s in distress in his office two floors down. We rarely spoke then, but I race down to open the door to find Norman in a chair facing me, a bearded acolyte standing sentinel next to him. The look of horror, hate, who knows, while he whisper-screams: Get out.

 

That’s the last time we inhabit the same space.

 

 Love him. Until my last breath.

The Night-blooming Cereus

When you spoke to me — wrapped in your faded

raincoat that embraced

the connective tissue to those shadowed

meditative mossy paths that laced the interior

of the Vermont woods, where we found

 

each other leaning over the railing of a rickety

bridge, an amber bottle tipped in the air, the neck

pressed and forming 

a vacuum around your tongue

in the stern of this: austere, beam and stucco

 

vaulting past the blue, all-

too-familiar stained-glass

figures of your youth, watching your father

gesture to his parishioners — you said that I, as unlikely

a friend and vice versa, am the only

 

one of them (You illustrate, tossing a prayer,

bound in black, the gold rimmed pages ruffling

into swan feathers) in twenty odd years you didn’t

push away: if I arrived at a bus terminal, the dry

taste of sleep on my tongue, took a room

with a skylight and no windows, furnished

 

in the middle-class fashion, a corridor

and a kitchen I could share with a semi-bald

Jehovah’s Witness, my landlord, his atheist

daughter for a neighbor, and never left, I’d remember:

first, the cold maple pressing my heel into ice uncrossing 

 

my feet over the back of that pew, then

the adolescent portrait

you drew of yourself: In the high

polish of my Sunday shoes and a cranberry

jacket, I could touch the reflection of a man who could see all

 

the way through the architecture 

of his faith to the son, the son

of a nurse, who pursued me through the rock

swollen catacombs of childhood, which I fled, barefoot

and half asleep with poetry, up the wild

 

strawberry and dew-slick 

hill of night, her arms shaking

like a corncrib being devoured by raccoons,

like brooms holding

up the moon high into the New England

claustrophobia. In this weather

 

we left the six-pack, almost empty

and floating pre-natal inside

the baptismal font, one for the pastor. Years later,

in a town without weather, we inhabited

cave-dark Siamese apartments, the wall

 

we shared, white and thin as a moth wing, me

sleeping by night, and you by day; we kept a vigil,

someone always clearing their throat or tapping typewriter

keys. Once you woke me with a chocolate

bar glowing in the vehement

yellow of a birthday candle; another time

 

to warn of a neighbor twisting

his wife’s hair around his fist through the broken

window, and again to insist

I stereotype you in my poems, proving

that I didn’t love you.

Roger Weingarten is the author of eleven poetry collections, including Ethan Benjamin Boldt (Knopf), Shadow Shadow (Godine), and The Four Gentlemen & Their Footman (Longleaf).

Cynthia Hogue

Cynthia Hogue

The Power of Gentleness:
An Approach to the Poetry of Norman Dubie

                                    But there is, in my view, no grandeur except in gentleness.

                                                                                       — Simone Weil

 

I probably asked too much of him, the poet I have been calling “our Norman” this spring, the very great, late poet Norman Dubie. He was, of course, never “our” anything, but always himself, a triple Aries, a poet of prodigious energy and presence. He had a New England-y humor, so dry, at times so dark as to veer toward the macabre (which at times I dubbed Northern Gothic). Although I knew him most of my adult life, I never got it. He’d say after a long pause, That’s a joke, Cynde. I see it now, Norman, I’d say (though he likely knew I didn’t).

I admired greatly that Norman devoted his life to teaching the students who came to work with him at ASU. All were welcome far and wide. I arrived myself at ASU in 1977 to study with him, and returned to ASU in 2003 as his colleague. Although he was, and remains, forever my honored teacher, it was as colleagues we became friends. When the pandemic closed the university in 2020, it ended Norman’s teaching life very dramatically, for he had never learned to use a computer, could not hold his classes at his home, as he might have in any other crisis, and suddenly found he had no way to do his job. He was 75, and while he had been thinking about retiring at some point, he wasn’t ready, and then, abruptly, he was and fifty years of teaching were done. 

 

Norman was the son of a liberal minister and a nurse. He had a ferocious sense of justice. He was very generous—with time, money, and counsel. He had prescient dreams, often auguring the future, and he worried (and prayed) for the world as our current darkness gathered. On more than one occasion, the dreams he shared with me entered my anxious psyche, and I’d ask if he knew how this all would shake out. He offered little comfort. He maintained his psychological health through the old-fashioned phone line, calling his many friends around the country. Great poets around the world recognized his greatness. Throughout the pandemic he wrote, often well into the night, and was careful to isolate himself physically, since he had refused the vaccine. He was well-schooled in solitude, but the isolation was extreme. The pandemic saw his decline.  

 

In one of his last real notes to me, late in the second year of the pandemic, Norman wrote an apology for one of his long phone calls during which he shared details of a “miraculous” healing, which he feared made me uncomfortable in the raw emotion of his telling. We were interrupted by a call from my French husband, in France visiting his son (although Norman suspected it was my excuse for getting off the phone). I remember the phone call, that the interruption was real (my husband had contracted Covid and would be in quarantine through the holidays), but I do not remember the miracle. Norman said in his note that it had happened to him, and that because I asked him so often to pray for the desperately sick, he had no one else to tell but me. Was it that secret? The fact of the prayer practice he undertook with such compassion was confidential, since the tradition itself, a rare Tibetan healing prayer, required a secret initiation, he’d told me. For a long time, he didn’t let me know that the prayers had become a physical burden, or that his health was increasingly fragile. In fact, his large heart was breaking. Eventually he had to let me know that he could take on no one else. The burden was costing him his well-being. He asked me to pray for him. Our friendship had always seemed asymmetrical to me: he had all the power and prestige, the grandeur of genius, and chose to dower me with his friendship, love, and trust. Although I cherished our friendship and was very loyal to him, I never quite believed in it. Self-protective, I kept him at arm’s distance. Happening upon this email written around the holidays two years ago, I realize I never did him justice. To my sorrow. 

Now, months after his death, I begin to understand how he grew to feel a very deep responsibility to give in the world with utter humility, to maintain a level of what another great and visionary poet, Robert Duncan, called the poet’s necessary response-ability, a way of staying open to the world, to the what is, and especially, to his students even long after they’d graduated. Norman was such a great poet that he might have been just that and no more: the great man marveling the world. He was, however, so much more, and it wasn’t a given. The quest he undertook to raise his spiritual consciousness, to cultivate the no-self of humility was a long process, and he was as serious in his studies of Buddhism as he was with his poetry. Coming to work with him early in his career (when he was writing his third and fourth collections on a Guggenheim fellowship), and returning as his colleague twenty years later, I was privy to seeing the results of his labors, what I’ll call the transformation of his incredible personal power into a power characterized by gentleness, rather than ego. 

 

Although it’s not an exact fit, I turn to the thinking of the late French philosopher, Anne Dufourmantelle, whose contemplation of the qualities of “gentleness” as they play out across cultures and eras, Power of Gentleness: Meditations on the Risk of Living, helps me to articulate something particular about Norman’s greatness that I couldn’t get my mind around earlier. In Sanskrit, Dufourmantelle writes, “spiritual benevolence, physical gentleness, and moderation of heart” are linked. The importance of sound cannot be underestimated, and here’s the connection to Norman’s practice of Tibetan Buddhist chanting. The word “veda” in Sanskrit signifies “gentleness, graciousness, welcoming and kind speech” (see Dufourmantelle, 36-37). Such qualities speak to the kind of power Norman embodied in the end.

 

That power of gentleness affects Norman’s poetry, I suggest, touched so often and more obviously by scenes of violence recounted with a matter-of-fact sang-froid. There’s a largesse of vision, however, that burnishes the poems published after Norman’s decade of “radio-silence.” A brief example must suffice to make the point. One year a decade or so ago, tragically, a student of ours committed suicide. Norman was haunted by Jeremy’s death, in part because he had just finished a long poem (one of his most moving and tender poems), “The Fallen Birds of the Fields,” included in The Quotations of Bone, in which a suicide centrally figures. Norman described the process by which he wrote, quite literally, as visionary and auditory: that is, he would see a scene, an event unfold in his mind, and he would hear the voice. Sometimes, it was a memory returning. Sometimes, a poem would come in one of his vivid waking dreams. “The Fallen Birds,” he told me, came to him as a voice, which he then wrote down. 

 

It’s hardly as simple as that. The poem is complex and time travels, but the loose narrative line running throughout follows two sisters, one of whom tries to reach out and communicate with the other, who is suffering a breakdown and finally hangs herself. Norman could not have known that Jeremy would soon be doing just that, but in his grief for Jeremy, and the prescient evidence of the poem itself, Norman felt strongly that he should have known, that he should have realized what the poem augured. 

The speaker in the poem, Jean, writes to her mother of her concern for her sister, Beth, who is on the verge of a breakdown, and says in the letter, “I wish/ I lived nearer to her.” She tells her mother that her sister worries about species extinction — “frogs, all bats, the bees” — and while she remarks that it seems to her the “anxiety / [is] for our entire species,” she writes her mother that that her sister’s condition “breaks my heart.” As does her suicide, and the fact, included in passing (and apropos of nothing else in the poem), “that children, thoughtful children, everywhere/ on the planet are being tortured at this moment.” Jean can do no more for her sister than she can for those children. Jean is an author-surrogate, having the equanimity of compassion that Norman himself cultivated. Finding her dead sister, calling her helplessly and in furious grief “a cow,” Jean describes to her mother how “I went moo-moo just like the Hindus.” This sonic gesture signifies nothing, but for all that, it conveys a non-linguistic meaning. The term is at once an onomatopoetic resonance, an expression of the inexpressibility of a coherent response to a loved one’s psychosis, and a micro-chant miming the sound, as it happens, of the animal sacred to the Hindus makes. The sounds evokes a sacred cow, underscoring all that’s beyond words when death confronts us. It is neither sentimental nor judgmental. There’s a harrowing pathos in the whole scene, sounding a delicate note that veers toward but does not succumb to bathos. The last word of the poem is “Moo.” Dufourmantelle describes such mastery as the gentle “art of refinement.”

Soon thereafter, Norman would exercise that art in writing “Prologue Speaking in Tongues,” which prefaces the collection, The Quotations of Bone. In this poem, Jeremy speaks in lines made strange by the mix of conversational tone and syntactically inverted statement. “I’ve refused to anyone say exactly / how, it a death,” Jeremy states, exclaiming, “gosh, I said / I do not want to hear it much / was clear of.” Jeremy sits in a “baked boulder field,” which he calls “spuds.” He is thinking to himself of them, not death: “As if that could hurt anyone.” What follows, however, is eloquent in its direct statement to the contrary, “But it did.” The poem’s last line renders with such tender compassion the blunt truth of death’s effect on others. 

 

The line’s unvarnished acknowledgment of death’s effect on others stuns me now, lost in the loss of that exquisitely aware, great and gentle soul we knew as Norman Dubie. Moo.

Cynthia Hogue's new poetry collection is instead, it is dark (Red Hen Press, 2023). Her ekphrastic Covid chapbook is entitled Contain (Tram Editions 2022), and her new collaborative translation from the French of Nicole Brossard is Distantly (Omnidawn 2022).

James Cervantes

James Cervantes

"The Early Days of Everything."

Everything? Yes, for a neophyte, a cellist who accidentally wrote a poem in his head while walking home, then another while walking to rehearsal. But the poems were published. That was 1964 - 1970.

 

In 1970, I met my first "real" poets: David Wagoner, Dick Hugo, and Mark Strand, two of whom said I should consider Iowa for graduate work. So be it. In 1972 I met other "real" poets: Marvin Bell, Donald Justice, and Norman Dubie. Norman and I hit it off right away and he became my thesis adviser. We'd meet at his Iowa City apartment and once — I think — at the Deadwood, talk about my thesis and then, inevitably, drift off into the Dubie universe of All Things. It was a revelation to me that we could cast our nets so far into the past and into possible futures.

 

1974 - 1976: Still without an academic appointment or any kind of job, I took my young wife to Seattle and, of course, started a literary magazine, Porch. I asked Norman for poems for the first issue, Spring, 1977, and he was graciously generous. Two of the poems in that issue are signature Dubie (at least for that period): "There Is a Dream Dreaming Us: for Thomas James," and "Winter Landscape: John Clare: For Jon Anderson." Here is Dubie on the wall of the past and in the cloud of the dream:

                           . . . I was the first lamp, but

 

This is my story. I spilled the wine down my leg

And pretended to faint away. The priest thinking everyone

Had crossed from his world stopped his prayer. He walked

To the girl with the third lamp.

He kissed my dead sister on the lips. He ripped the silk

From her breasts. And then he fell on her.

Her arms were limp. I imagine even as they would be

If she were alive doing this with him.

It was that magical habitation of a scene that informed this poem dedicated to him. Also, in those early seventies, Norman carried around an old, leather doctor's bag bulging with teaching and writing materials, much like the one in the Magritte painting:

On The Therapeutist, a Painting by Rene Magritte

                                        for Norman Dubie

 

There is a man whose heart

is an open cage. There, two doves,

 

one inside on a swing at rest,

another at the door. In wingbeat time,

 

they are alternately doves

with promise and doves whose hollow

 

bones are filled with bronze, 

flying, as long as you watch them,

 

between flight and no-flight.

The man, his cane, and his bag

 

are also bronze and partake

of the doves’ problem, the cane

 

wanting to walk but anchored,

the bag bulging like clouds

 

but staying the same. Like all men,

this man tries now and then

 

to affix wings to his body.

I always assumed I would see this man again.

 

From 1978 to 1981, Norman Dubie and I were colleagues in the fledgling creative writing program at Arizona State University, where he remained supportive of me and my publishing and editorial efforts. For various reasons, the association did not last and there was a long hiatus in my connection with Norman. Then, thanks to Bob Herz's Nine Mile, in recent years I was pleasantly surprised to be in a virtual association with Norman as contributing editors to the publication, and completely bowled over when he wrote Bob that my contribution to a poetic dialogue over a Jules Laforgue poem was a "knockout piece of work." I could not take his words lightly.

 

Again, I always assumed I would see him again.

James Cervantes is the author of six books of poetry, and was editor of "Porch," and "The Salt River Review," and of In Like Company: The Porch and Salt River Review Anthology. He lives in mountainous Arizona.

David St. John

David St. John

Two Poems for Norman Dubie

Pasternak in the Rain

Stay silent be opaque never unconcealed

As one’s silence may remain the one sentence

Unviolated by time though in time it’s true

Even stories erode like porous Baltic seawalls

Not from coarse fingers of salt nor bulk & bruises 

Of storm-driven waves but vaguely veiled losses 

Near a wanderer’s morning churchyard fire

Where sycamores embrace its risen smoke thick

As this incense escaping from the censer swung

By an altar boy who’s torn his last pair of wool pants 

& the flesh along his inner thigh beneath on the bare

Nail bent at the cemetery gate while hurrying to Easter

Service the storm still gathering & moving near & he 

Knows only to stay silent as a nail in the rain he fears

Lives of the Composers

It begins with the acoustics of the mind a slight 

shift in the trajectory of your thought walking  

to your weekly lesson one late winter morning 

in Vermont & standing before that oak door of 

your elderly teacher looking up to a wide beam 

above the porch watching a single drop forming 

on the icicle hanging just above the steps & as 

you listen to another student singing the passage 

of Orfeo you’ve always loved & as slowly her 

voice rises you see the drop has swollen a globe 

a whole note lit silver in the morning light now

transparent as you step up onto that first step 

lips beginning to open as if you were yourself a

single head afloat in a swirling river yet singing 

still as the drop falls toward you as if all mystical 

spheres were collapsing to a solitary world of song 

the perfect bone skull bead falling from the mala of 

a Tibetan monk a simple thing you’ve been born to 

receive wholly & intact without regard for the quaint

immature physics of your century yet appropriate to 

the bone moon setting tonight over the desert prophet 

whose hymnal of the infinite seduces Sedona’s alien rain

David St. John's most recent collection is The Last Troubadour: New and Selected Poems.

Robert Herz

Robert Herz

On Norman Dubie's "A Day Lyric for St. Cecelia"

1.

Many poets have written poems about Saint Cecilia, but none have done so like this one of Norman Dubie’s, with a scenario presented so vividly as to suggest an actual witnessing —

It was light spilling from physical music, blood

spilling back into time,

her headless body and those

of two others on the dry Sicilian hillside.

A black donkey walks down to the river to drink.

Only the body of Maximus still seizing

beside a dusty spike of white milestone. What do violins

say to that wonderful man Auden

who thought she had gone abstract with weight

now walking through a night’s narrow space.

The headless body, the black donkey walking to the river to drink, the newly-converted executioner Maximus seizing on the road as he died, the granular intensity of these details and others scattered throughout the poem give off such an amazing sense of authenticity that it may make us wonder, How can he know these things? An important question, the answer to which will determine our response to the poem. Plato said that poets “maim the thought of those who hear them,” an argument that unmoors poetry from truth by asserting that poetry’s claims to truth are merely the unargued imaginative projections of an individual, their plausibility testable only by the applause of their audience, making any truth they may contain a mere fortuity. It’s a critique often raised against the work of Romantic poets and writers, whose art asserts the primacy of imagination over other modes of thought and creation, and makes the insistent details in a poem like Dubie’s “A Day Lyric for St. Cecilia,” a portion of which is quoted above, an occasion for doubt rather than a claim to authenticity: How can he know these things? 

 

He wasn’t there, of course, and he doesn’t know these things in the way that we generally understand the terms knowing and witnessing as we typically use them. Saint Cecilia was an early 3rd century martyr, in Rome or, some scholars suggest, Sicily; Dubie was alive and well and was writing this in 21st century Arizona. So then, really, what possible witnessing could there be? And if it is not an actual witnessing, a time-leap across seventeen centuries, is it then instead an instance of poetic fraud, faux-knowledge from a poet lying to us? Or perhaps better said, is he allowing the lie to shape the poem? What are we as readers being asked to believe? And how shall we respond? 

 

The many possible answers to those questions come under two main categories. The first is obvious and aesthetic, the second personal and private; but each modifies the other in a sort of co-dependency of incompletion. That is, neither is sufficient by itself to the task of creating the poem as we have it; as we shall see, both are required for the poem to exist, along with the reader’s agreement to entertain both as necessary, and both as true. 

 

The first answer — what I called the obvious and aesthetic one — sees in the poem’s presentation an example of that pretend-authority that in other arts we label verité, the intent of which is to take us to the scene and let us see what the artist sees. Dubie imaginatively sees these images, items, objects, and characters, and then tells us about them. Fair enough, a skeptical reader might say. Novelists invented the mode of historical fiction that allows their characters and narratives to play loosely with historical events, places, and people, making a sort of creative history as they find it necessary to their story. Shouldn’t poetry be granted at least an equivalent license, an allowance to use made-up elements in the work, Plato’s warnings of mental debilitation notwithstanding? 

 

The answer is yes, of course, but it’s important to realize that this explanation is incomplete in explaining the meaning and being of the poem, as it does not address the reality of the origins of the vision that the poem presents or the artist’s ambition in the making: It does not address the source of the poem’s values. For the images in the poem are not fantastical inventions, semi-tethered like a half-held balloon to an historical event. Rather, they are the truth of the poem, the created experience by which it asserts its values; and are also, as Dubie has told us, as real to him as the facts and events of our own lives are to us. Nothing is “made up,” not as we understand that term. In a 2016 interview in The Rusty Toque, he said,

I’ve had the privilege over the last thirty years to be in the company of Trappist monks and High Lamas from Tibet. So there is in my functioning consciousness a ready gift for bi-location. There are large, scary episodes and lovely episodes in dream yoga. Then, also, in a secret female tradition of CHOD one becomes actually ubiquitous within all possible histories, all possible futures — personal, mythologized, and other. Point of view, in my dreamlife, is also very unpredictable. Rapid shifts in consciousness, for me, are not just a result of meditation or the making of poems. Yes, this sort of phenomena that sometimes find me writing poetry is kept honest by formal obligations, say, such as rhyme, meter, and stanza construction. What’s often disquieting about this experience is that I may see a horrific earthquake bringing a hospital to ruin in Haiti and then discover the very scene in detail with an ancient autoclave on CNN just hours after the premonition visited me . . . All I know is that in this creation we are immersed in infinite mind.

This act of creative witnessing is a primary attribute of Dubie’s poetic mode, a point smartly made by Richard Howard in his introduction to Dubie’s third book, The Illustrations, where he recommends that submission to the poems changes them from being limited to the author’s experience to become also our own shared experience, notwithstanding that the experience occurs in unfamiliar territory: “He has put himself as medium in the service of an art which, of us, asks that submission merely. Of him it asks everything else.” The source and motive, in other words, are not discardable. They are intrinsic to the poem, the source of its value. I quibble with Howard’s reading of Dubie’s poetic mode only to the extent of pointing out that the bargain described is less forgiving than Howard suggests: for if we reject the authority of the mode, or fail to suspend disbelief and accept the poet’s work as a viable artistic or poetic medium, in other words, if we fail to submit, we lose the poetry — because our belief in the narrative’s images and details, and in its mode, is necessary to the success of the poem for us as readers. What comes with this reader-submission, if we accept it, is a richer, truth-borne experience, in which the poem does its aesthetic work of communicating its narrative, and defining or locating the reader’s place in that narrative, in comprehensible ways, the more so if we know or learn the underlying story. The reality of the poem straddles presentation and intent, what the poet saw and what he brought to us to see. 

 

We will look more closely at how the poem operates, and the story behind it, but first, the full poem:

A Day Lyric for St. Cecilia

It was light spilling from physical music, blood

spilling back into time,

her headless body and those

of two others on the dry Sicilian hillside.

A black donkey walks down to the river to drink.

Only the body of Maximus still seizing

beside a dusty spike of white milestone. What do violins

say to that wonderful man Auden

who thought she had gone abstract with weight

now walking through a night’s narrow space.

 

Before she was the bride

Urbanus dripped water on the groom’s sunstruck hair,

an open air baptist among olive trees; the hair,

in fact, tied back behind the neck

as if insinuating the grim

future blades of the two large executioners

sent from France.

 

The sun was spanking the open eye

that’s peering into the morning glade, portal

to the cooling green catacombs of Callistus, to the original

strangeness of Marcus Aurelius: children playing

on the Roman wharves, just more sticks

at the dying rats of the cholera ships

back from Egypt. Auden singing to us

 

of the white attenuated children who are understood

like saints, like birdsongs in soft rain,

heard all the same

stalking still the very breath of men

ruined in a very first language

that wants even some difference in our silences . . .

2.

Here is what background we have on Saint Cecilia: She was born about the year 200 AD to a wealthy Roman senatorial family, which gave her in marriage to a pagan youth named Valerianus. During the wedding, while others sang and danced to music, she is said to have sat apart, sometimes in her chamber, singing a different music to God in her heart (“cantantibus organis illa in corde suo soi domino decantabat”: While singing the instruments, she sang in her heart to the lord), for which act she would later be declared the patron saint of music. When the festivities concluded and they were alone in the marriage chamber, she told her new husband that she was watched over by an angel, who would punish him if he violated her virginity, but love him if he respected it. When the understandably surprised Valerianus asked to see the angel, Cecilia told him he must go to the third milestone on the Via Appia, and there be baptized by Archbishop Urbanus (later Pope Urbanus, 222 to 230 AD). He did so, and returned a Christian to Cecilia, whereupon his wish was granted, as an angel is said to have appeared and crowned them with roses and lilies.

 

Later, Valerianus’s brother Tiburtius was also converted, and the two brothers engaged in good works, distributing alms to the poor and to Christians in hiding, and burying the bodies of those executed for their religion by the Romans. When the prefect, whose name may have been Turcius Almachius (the name lacks a clear historical record), condemned them to death by sword, the officer charged to execute the sentence, Maximus, was converted by the strength of their faith, and was then himself martyred, beaten to death by blows to the head with leaded whips. Arrested following these executions, Cecilia made a glorious profession of faith to her captors, and then was condemned to be executed by scalding heat and steam in her bath. That effort failed, and the mode of execution was changed to beheading. That failed also: The executioner struck three times with his sword but did not manage to separate her head from her body, and he fled, leaving her bathed in her own blood. She lived three days, made dispositions in her will for the poor, and provided that after death her house should be dedicated as a church. The church of Santa Cecilia in Trastevere is reputedly built on the site of her house. 

 

Two other events add to this story of faith, charisma, and execution. When her church was rebuilt by Pope Paschal I (817-824 AD), her remains at first seemed lost, and Paschal was about to abandon the search when St. Cecilia appeared to him in a vision, asking that he renew his quest. Her remains were then found in the catacombs of Prætextatus, draped in gold brocade and other costly garments, with blood-soaked cloths at her feet. The relics of St. Cecilia along with those of Valerianus, Tiburtius, and Maximus, also those of Popes Urbanus and Lucius, were then reburied by Paschal under the high altar of the church. 

 

And then in 1599, her body became the first of any saint’s to experience the supernatural occurrence of incorruptibility, meaning that her body did not decompose after death. When her body was exhumed during the restoration of Saint Cecilia’s Church that year by Cardinal Paolo Emilio Sfondrati, it was found incorrupt and emitting a strange and sweet-smelling odor. In the few days before it disintegrated due to exposure to air and other elements, Renaissance sculptor Stefano Maderno carved a marble statue of her, stating, “Behold the body of the Most Holy Virgin, Cecilia, whom I myself saw lying uncorrupt in her tomb. I have in this marble expressed for thee the same saint in the very same posture and body.”

 

This story of Saint Cecilia’s martyrdom is recounted in several places, including in the Catholic Encyclopedia, Acts of the Martyrs (252 AD), the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (362 AD), the Catholic Faith Store, Encyclopedia Britannica, New World Encyclopedia, Acts of Cecilia (486AD), and several biographies. The first mention of her martyrdom is in Acts of the Martyrs, the official court records of the trials of early Christians for their faith, which includes accounts of the arrest, interrogation, condemnation, execution, and burial of martyrs of the first centuries. These early church records, however, are imperfect, often mixing facts and lore, and sometimes straining too obviously in their search for occasions of veneration. It is perhaps not surprising then that although the details given above are the traditional ones, the place and time of her execution has been controverted by the archeologist of the catacombs, the well-respected Giovanni Battista de Rossi. He argued in La Roma sotterranea cristiana (3 v. Rome 1864–77) that she perished in Sicily, under the Emperor Marcus Aurelius between 176 and 180, using as his authority the report of the poet and bishop Venantius Fortunatus, Bishop of Poitiers, who died in the year 600. This difference in dates would make her birth between 146-150 AD. 

3.

This history provides the narrative structure for Dubie’s version of the Saint Cecilia story. The first stanza opens with the view of the moment of her martyrdom by decapitation, along with that of her husband and his brother. The original executioner, Maximus, is seen dying “on the dry Sicilian hillside,” a location which uses the more recent scholarship to set her death in Sicily, not Rome. The dusty spike of white milestone lightly echoes the place of conversion of her husband at the Via Appia milestone, a scene made explicit in the second stanza, which moves back in time from the grisly scene of her death to the reverential scene of Valerianus’s baptism by Urban among the olive trees, adding the unsettling view of the vulnerable neck already awaiting its eventual execution by sword. The third stanza takes us to a new scene, the catacombs of Callistus, where the bodies were buried, and then broadens the scene to include Roman wharves and children playing in the time of Marcus Aurelius, who would have been Roman emperor at the time of her death according to the revisionist scholarship. 

 

Notice through these stanzas the active presentation of fact and detail: The poet tells us of Valerianus’ conversion, but then adds the portraiture of the hair tied back and the grim prediction of the cutting space for the “future blades of the two large executioners / sent from France.” In the next stanza we hear of the intensity of the sun in the use of an odd word, “spanking the open eye,” and then the children playing “on the Roman wharves, just more sticks / at the dying rats of the cholera ships / back from Egypt.” 

 

These presentations are like snapshots of the scenes and must therefore leave out a lot as unnecessary to this kind of witnessing. The action occurs as a series of three scenes enacted in the present and past, a collage without authorial linking explanations between them. The connectives are left to our imagination and knowledge of the history to understand. But there are many things we do not see. These include, for example, signals or images of the love between the bride and the groom, or the sense of mission that must have enthused the saint and her husband and his brother. We hear of the execution of Maximus but are not told of the conversion that preceded it. Urbanus enters the poem as a stick figure, not a whole person, a name in a scene from the story. The poem offers itself, rather, as witness to an execution, with skeletal detail on the preceding events.

 

In the final stanza, the children — different children, now, than the ones described on the wharves in the preceding stanza — these are Auden’s children, subjects of his libretto for “Anthem for St. Cecilia’s Day” (originally “Three Songs for St. Cecilia’s Day,” 1940-42), a poem set to music by Benjamin Britten, the poet’s friend and one-time lover whose birthday was Saint Cecilia’s day. The language in this stanza tracks some of the language from the Auden libretto, in the final stanza of which Auden has the saint speak of “dear white children casual as birds / Playing among the ruined languages” and as an “impetuous child with the tremendous brain,” unmindful of the “dreadful things you did.” The reference to the other poem opens a dialogue between the two, and it will be useful to look more closely at the Auden poem to follow this discussion. As we will see, Dubie accepts Auden’s premises for love and music and humanity, but then reverses it. 
 

4.

The writing of Britten’s score for his “Hymn to Saint Cecilia” had a troubled gestation: The original manuscript was confiscated by New York customs officers, who feared that it contained some secret code, and Britten had to recreate it from scratch while sailing to Liverpool for its well-received broadcast on the BBC on St. Cecilia’s day in 1942 (“It is not merely that the ‘Hymn’ sounds well; Britten’s music almost always does. This is music that will probably last when Mr Britten’s Roman candles are long burnt out,” said Gerald Abraham in the Observer, on December 6, six days after the performance). The collaboration, unfortunately, would be their last, as Britten took offense at a patronizing and slightly bullying letter from Auden lecturing about the suffering he needed to endure in order to grow as an artist, the implication being that Britten had chosen the wrong and too-comfortable life style as an artist. Here in any case is Auden’s first section:

In a garden shady this holy lady

With reverent cadence and subtle psalm,

Like a black swan as death came on

Poured forth her song in perfect calm:

And by ocean’s margin this innocent virgin

Constructed an organ to enlarge her prayer,

And notes tremendous from her great engine

Thundered out on the Roman air.

 

Blonde Aphrodite rose up excited,

Moved to delight by the melody,

White as an orchard she rode white naked 

In an oyster shell on top of the sea;

At sounds so entrancing the angels dancing

Came out of their trance into time again,

And around the wicked in Hell’s abysses

The huge flame flickered and eased their pain. 

 

Blessed Cecilia, appear in visions

To all musicians, appear and inspire:

Translated Daughter, come down and startle

Composing mortals with immortal fire.

It would be hard to top the scenario presented here, with Cecilia pouring out songs of such beauty that they enchant a pagan god, Aphrodite, to rise “white naked” in an oyster shell “on top of the sea,” while setting the angels to leave their trances in eternity and enter the changing word of time in order to dance and so make the temporal world sacred by their presence, and even to ease the pain of the condemned in hell. The second section of the poem is entirely different in form and point of view, as it has music itself speaking as a self-described isolated, and self-absorbed entity, and thus, ironically perhaps, as abstract and free. The form is eccentric, as the poet, in addition to other rhymes, also rhymes the penultimate syllable of the third line in each of the four-line stanzas with the final syllable of the fourth: I cannot grow; / I have no shadow / To run away from, /I only play” (where “ay” in away and “play” are the rhyming syllables). Some have labeled this section terse and riddling; it is these, certainly, but it is better described as Audenesque in its intricate rhyme scheme and in the way it takes and gives at the same time. In its self-description, music declares itself to be no one’s possession (“There is no creature / Whom I belong to”), and describes itself as unchanging, existing separately from the world. Its voice, it says, is the voice of defeat when defeat understands that “it / Can now do nothing / By suffering.” Music, the text says, is separate from the world, it does not interact with the world, does not make mistakes, is unneeded to explain or enhance any deed. Its function, its sole choice, is not to interact with people, but only to play. Its beauty cannot be effaced by our suffering. It declares, “I shall never be / Different. Love me.” 

 

The third and final section changes and challenges all that has gone before, calling on music to restore our fallen state in this world, using Hope, Sorrow, and Dread, which are its products and which are fixed and unchanging in music. The section becomes a discussion between the Saint, the music, ourselves, and the poet as supplicant, using as the image of children as the image of all humanity: 

O dear white children casual as birds,

Playing among the ruined languages,

So small beside their large confusing words,

So gay against the greater silences

Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,

Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,

O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,

Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,

Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

The Saint’s answer — “Weep for the lives your wishes never led” and “bless the freedom that you never chose” — is a condemnation of our immaturity as humans, having the knowledge but not the wisdom to know how to use our knowledge or any understanding of its worth, making us “convalescents on the shores of death.” Only love, the poet speaking as Saint Cecilia tells us, can save us: “O wear your tribulation like a rose.” Music, that is, cannot change; but we as readers and listeners can gather courage from listening to it to change ourselves. 

 

In Dubie’s retelling the children become “attenuated,” that is, figures losing force even as they are “understood / like saints.” 

                                Auden singing to us

 

of the white attenuated children who are understood

like saints, like birdsongs in soft rain,

heard all the same

stalking still the very breath of men

ruined in a very first language

that wants even some difference in our silences . . .

Dubie’s strategy and message is different from Auden’s. Both using the history of the saint, Auden gives us an essay while Dubie provides a narrative. Dubie describes the martyrdom of Saint Cecilia, her husband, his brother, and Maximus, and the baptism of Valerianus, none of which is included in Auden’s piece. His poem does not engage in heavy metaphysics or creation of a dialogue between Saint Cecilia and others. Dubie tells us a story, and then references his agreement with Auden concerning the destruction of this world by an immature humankind, but his difference with his precursor is in the conclusion to be drawn from the witnessing, for I read this conclusion of his poem as a reversal of Auden’s prayer for love and change. The “dear white children” of Auden’s poem become here the “white attenuated children” whose meaning is difference, whose purpose is not a request for unity but a stalking of difference, and not a quest for a better language but a silence in which our differences can be emphasized. It is a stunning rewrite of the original. 
 

5.

Music is integral to the poem’s structure, important to how and why it works, an appropriate attribute, of course, as Saint Cecilia is the patron saint of music. The vital function of this music is to allow the ear to hear the melody of the words as a single underlying flow, helping stitch together the lines and stanzas of the poem even before the mind grasps the meanings of the scenes being presented, and helping locate the reader in a hopeful frame of mind despite the horrors described. 

 

Its presence is specifically called to our attention by the mention of Auden in the first stanza, as ancestor author here, and his reported comments on Saint Cecilia, that she “had gone abstract with weight / now walking through a night’s narrow space.” Dubie’s music is to my ear more subtle and nuanced than Auden’s. In place of Auden’s masculine end rhymes, we notice, for a start, the rhymes and half-rhymes and echoes throughout the Dubie poem. In the first stanza, the word “spilling” echoes its applications from light to blood, its “ing” echoed again later in the “seizing” of Maximus. Later in the stanza, “spike” and “white” half-rhyme off each other, and are echoed later in “weight,” as are “donkey” and “down.” He orchestrates a series of echoing “i” sounds in this first stanza — “It,” “light spilling,” “spilling back into time,” “the dry Sicilian hillside,” “still seizing,” spike of white milestone,” “violins…man Auden” (an outlandish half-rhyme here), “weight . . . night’s narrow space.” There are more in this stanza, but this may serve as a good start to an attentive reader. The music throughout is sweet and swelling, and has an important purpose, as it undercuts the horror of the images; it tells us to prepare for something better than blood. Auden’s piece has no such horror in presentation, being more of a philosophical discussion about the efficacy of music to heal the pain of this world, a meditation at one remove from the pain described. 

 

This “i” orchestration continues through the second stanza (“bride . . . dripped . . . Baptist . . .”) with the focus on the grim detail of the tied back hair where the ax would eventually find its place. We also get more of the music of repetition, with “hair” in the second and third lines, the weight the word must carry changing between the two uses, from picturesque in the first to ominous in the second; and both uses echoed in “air,” in the third line. More rhymes and echoes: “back” and “neck” and “grim” and the fourth syllable of “executioners.” 

 

The third stanza is a set of “a” and “u” sounds (“spanking . . . glade . .  catacombs. . . playing . . .”) (“Callistus . . . Aurelius . . .” and then the echo into “sticks . . . ships . . . Egypt . . . to us . . .”). There are also half-rhymes, such as “portal” and “original,” and as noted, end-line “sticks: and “ships.” The final stanza picks up a new sound, an “an” or “en,” and new rhymes: “attenuated . . . saints . . . rain . . . same . . . men . . . even . . . silences.” 

 

The music is a part of the poetry, and part of the homage to Saint Cecilia. It reminds us that this poem occupies a created space, is a made offering of sounds and images, a song, as if someone were humming sweetly behind the carnage. Auden and his poetic Saint Cecilia predecessors, Alexander Pope for example, specifically address the issue of music in their poems. Dryden’s 1687 poem praises music’s power to harmonize the spheres and to compel human emotion, but Auden goes even further, claiming music as an image of the absolute, with power to heal and transform. In his piece, music at first is said to stand for the working of religious grace in the world, giving succor to people in hell, and inspiration to artists. Angels are drawn from their abstract state to move into the created world. But we learn, as the poem progresses into dialogue, that music is separate from us, it cannot do anything, it can only play. It is a distant beauty, not capable of conferring grace, yet proclaims by its existence a goal of love we all yearn to reach. It cannot heal the pain of the world. The final section reads, 

O ear whose creatures cannot wish to fall,

O calm of spaces unafraid of weight,

Where Sorrow is herself, forgetting all

The gaucheness of her adolescent state,

Where Hope within the altogether strange

From every outworn image is released,

And Dread born whole and normal like a beast

Into a world of truths that never change:

Restore our fallen day; O re-arrange.

 

O dear white children casual as birds,

Playing among the ruined languages,

So small beside their large confusing words,

So gay against the greater silences

Of dreadful things you did: O hang the head,

Impetuous child with the tremendous brain,

O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain,

Lost innocence who wished your lover dead,

Weep for the lives your wishes never led.

 

O cry created as the bow of sin

Is drawn across our trembling violin.

O weep, child, weep, O weep away the stain.

O law drummed out by hearts against the still

Long winter of our intellectual will.

That what has been may never be again.

O flute that throbs with the thanksgiving breath

Of convalescents on the shores of death.

O bless the freedom that you never chose.

O trumpets that unguarded children blow

About the fortress of their inner foe.

O wear your tribulation like a rose.

6.

None of the precursor poets and painters dwell on the violence of the death of the four martyrs. Dubie highlights it. In fact, in discussing this or any poem by Dubie, we should acknowledge an element that some readers may find disturbing. A reader will notice—cannot help but notice—the amount of violence in the poem, presented without judgment alongside its pastoral and other moments, and presented with no effort to manipulate or direct the reader’s response to it. It can be argued that it is a necessary element in this poem, as the violence of Saint Cecilia’s ending is a given fact about her life or the life of any martyred saint, and a contributor to our judgment about the saint’s otherness and worthiness as compared to the rest of us. But the many other poets who have written about this saint have avoided the gristle of endings and focused instead on the beautification of her as patron saint of music. Poems by Alexander Pope and John Dryden found the violence unnecessary to the story they wanted to tell. Of this chain of predecessor poets, only Geoffrey Chaucer references elements of violence, in the “Second Nun’s Tale” in his The Canterbury Tales, but not as witness and not in such detail as Dubie: 

Thre strokes in the nekke he smoot hire tho,

The tormentour, but for no maner chaunce

He myghte noght smyte al hir nekke atwo;

And for ther was that tyme an ordinaunce

That no man sholde doon man swich penaunce

The ferthe strook to smyten, softe or soore,

This tormentour ne dorste do namoore,

 

But half deed, with hir nekke ycorven there,

He lefte hir lye, and on his wey he went.

The Cristen folk, which that aboute hire were,

With sheetes han the blood ful faire yhent.

Thre dayes lyved she in this torment,

And nevere cessed hem the feith to teche

That she hadde fostred; hem she gan to preche,

And hem she yaf hir moebles and hir thyng,

And to the Pope Urban bitook hem tho,

The rest of the precursors focus on the music of which this saint is patron rather than the bloody ends met by her, her husband, his brother, and Maximus. The other poets and painters found the violence unnecessary to the story they wanted to tell. Dubie was asked about this element of violence that exists in many of his poems in a 2018 Q&A in Plume Magazine:

I view the violence in poetry as a long evolving act of witness; it is, I suppose, an act of warning (though I am not writing the lamentations of a Jeremiah). Or, to fill in the blank for you [the interviewer asked whether the presence of violence in the poems was an act of witness, an act of warning, or something else entirely], this is really an act of exorcism. In our almost unlimited electronic culture, I don’t know how we cleanse our minds of a dark, mindless violence and continue as well as we do. For me, material I would be nightmaring over, I can literally discharge through my poetry. I’m insisting that here there is witness, warning and exorcism—perhaps an exorcism of both self and culture. As in the way we encounter the work of consummate poets such as Homer or Dante or Emily Dickinson. 

 

I shouldn’t confess this. I should just abandon this question at this point. But, in the psychoanalysis of fire, I must acknowledge that everywhere in the arts in this country, violence is hidden as a pastime that is most nearly masturbatory or pornographic. I’m way too easily satisfied with this work.

This statement is not, of course, a justification for the violence presented in this or any other poem, and it barely succeeds as an explanation of its presence here. It means to be a statement of fact. Dubie says he lives in a culture in which violence is pervasive and cherished almost onanistically, and that this nightmare is capable of exorcism for him through his poetry. Stipulate that there is great violence in the culture, and that we are all part of that culture, and that Dubie is only stating the obvious in pointing it out. I think that the presence of violence in his poetry is more than he suggests here, that it is not cultural obligation or cultural obeisance, but rather that it is present as part of the self-creative “forcing” of the poem referenced above, a process in which the poet is bystander, the passive recipient and witness of its words and images, while we in our role as readers are incanted as result of that process to surrender to the presentation. However distasteful the result may be, there is integrity on both sides of this equation. Dubie as author and visionary presents us with his uncensored witnessing, and we as readers accept it — submit to it — as an act of good faith, as the poem’s experience becomes also our own. 

 

Saint Cecilia has been a subject in the arts for centuries. I want to mention a few in this section. Saint Cecilia’s association with music is celebrated in Raphael’s great Ecstasy of St Cecilia, painted sometime before 1515, which shows her holding a portable organ surrounded by saints. At her feet are a collection of discarded instruments abandoned to show the pre-eminence of the organ, by then firmly associated with Cecilia. Other great paintings showing her with musical instruments include one by Guido Reni, St Cecilia of Catacomb, in 1606, this time holding a viol, with an organ behind her, and Domenichino's Fresco Cycle in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome (1614). There are many more. In music, the first festival dedicated to her was held in Normandy in 1570. At the founding of the Academy of Music by papal bull in 1585, she was made patroness of the institute along with Gregory the Great, after whom Gregorian Chant is named. 


 

7.

A sampling of the poets and musicians who have commemorated her include: Chaucer in “Second Nun’s Tale” (late 14th century); Alexander Pope in “Ode for Music on St. Cecilia's Day,” in two versions (1711), also published in Latin, translated by Christopher Smart (1743), and Smart’s own “Ode for Musick on St. Cecilia's Day” (1746); John Dryden in “A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day” (1687), set in part to music by Handel in his “Ode for Saint Cecilia’s Day” (1739), and Handel’s own “Alexander’s feast” (1736); Joseph Addison in “A Song for Saint Cecilia’s Day” (1692); Charles Gounod in “Saint Cecilia Mass” (1855); Stéphane Marlarmé, “Sainte” (1865); Henry Purcell’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” (the underlying poem being by Nicholas Brady, then Chaplain to the Queen); oratorios by Marc-Antoine Charpentier (In honorem Caeciliae, Valeriani et Tiburtij canticum; several versions of Caecilia virgo et martyr to libretti probably written by Philippe Goibaut); Herbert Howells’ A Hymn to Saint Cecilia has words by Ursula Vaughan Williams; Gerald Finzi’s “For Saint Cecilia,” Op. 30, was set to verses written by Edmund Blunden; Michael Hurd’s 1966 composition “A Hymn to Saint Cecilia,” which uses John Dryden's poem; and Frederik Magle’s Cantata to Saint Cecilia is based on the history of Cecilia. The Heavenly Life, a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn was used by Gustav Mahler in his Symphony No. 4, mentions that “Cecilia and all her relations make excellent court musicians.” Also there is the Cecyliada, the name of festival of sacred, choral and contemporary music, held from 1994 in Police, Poland, the name being from Cecilia. Other significant works include Alessandro Scarlatti, Il Martirio di Santa Cecilia, (1708) and Messa di Santa Cecilia (1720); Georg Friedrich Handel, with John Dryden, the Oratorio Alexander's Feast or The Power of Music (1736) and Ode for St. Cecilia's Day (1739); Joseph Haydn, Missa Sanctae Caeciliae ou Missa Cellensis in honorem Beatissimae Virginis Mariae (1766-67). More contemporary works include Judith Shatin, The Passion of Saint Cecilia, and Fantasy on Saint Cecilia; Fred Momotenko, “Cecilia,” (2014); Paul Simon, “Cecilia” (1970); Lou Harrison, Mass for St Cecilia’s Day (1983); Blue Oyster Cult, the St. Cecilia sessions; Arvo Pärt, Cecilia, Vergine Romana (2000).


 

NOTES

I am grateful to a number of works and studies, some already mentioned in the text. Of particular use were two online works, “The Reality of St Cecilia: An Historical Note,” by Warren H. Carroll, and “Cecilia,” from RCL Benzinger. On Norman Dubie, in addition to a five decade friendship, there were two interviews, “Norman Dubie: That fraught moment where the old Zen master talks while washing his ass in a bowl of morning tea…” in Plume and “Norman Dubie: Poet,” in The Rusty Toque.

Nine Mile Magazine

Fall 2023   |   Vol. 11, No. 2

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