Welcome to Letters from Quotidia, the footnotes! Regular listeners to the posts know that the letters just refuse to lie down and die but rather, taking their cue from the coronavirus, continue to mutate: first they were plain old letters, then postcards, then postscripts, now they have become footnotes! The first four footnotes have the common title of Demos for Damocles.
This is the third footnote, and it modulates from a focus on a public and political mortality to one rather more personal. Now, how can I put this? As our lives progress the likelihood of attending more funerals than dances increases. And this likelihood has hit home in the past few years as people close to me have met their end. It is our common lot though, is it not?
In the first postscript published five months ago, I spoke about my fondness of the poetry of American poet Edgar Lee Masters who wrote, as my muse Wikipedia puts it, a magnificent collection of short free verse poems that collectively narrates the epitaphs of the residents of Spoon River, a fictional small town named after the Spoon River, which ran near Masters’ home town of Lewistown, Illinois. The aim of the poems is to demystify rural and small-town American life. I have visited these poems at several points in my Letters from Quotidia series.
As a reaction to the deaths of some of those close to me I wrote a song inspired by Masters’ Spoon River Anthology from 1915. I called it The Hill and I quote the first verse here: Another friend meets the end and moves under the hill/Who knows why that east wind blows or where it goes/Should I listen to some fairy tale spun out of grief-laden hope/Or go down to my garden bed with a sapling I’ll set in the ground/May it grow and spread and may it fill the air with sweet bird-song sound/So I plant and water well this earth that carries promise of life/And I trust the sun and rain to work their magic in time/Another miracle is on its way if it doesn’t wither and die//
Gardens are so evocative- there is Eden, of course, the hanging versions found in Babylon, or imperial instances such as those at Versailles. Any self-respecting town proudly boasts its own botanical garden. Any self-respecting home will have a garden, however small, even if it is only on an apartment balcony. The last time I saw my father alive was a few days before he died. My mother had rung me to see if I could get any tomato plants as my father had been fretting about not having put in a crop for that year. I found some plants at a nursery near where I lived at the time and brought then down to Cushendall in the Glens of Antrim for him. He had always been proud of his garden, his greenhouses, his trees and the produce he was able to provide for his family. My last clear memory of him: I saw this once-strong man dragging a bag of fertiliser across the lawn from the storage shed to where I was digging the plants into the prepared bed. Some of this made it into the song The Hill, [insert song]
The next two songs are quite recent, but this footnote will give wider context to them both, as indeed, was the case for the song just played. Thomas Hardy in his final years returned to poetry as his primary way of expressing his soul after decades of writing novels that captured the imagination of a worldwide public.
In his late poem, The Shadow on the Stone, written sometime between 1913 and 1916, he begins, I went by the Druid stone/ That stands in the garden white and lone,/ And I stopped and looked at the shifting shadows/ That at some moments there are thrown/From the tree hard by with a rhythmic swing,/ And they shaped in my imagining/To the shade that a well-known head and shoulders/ Threw there when she was gardening.//A stunning and evocative opening stanza. With the shadows cast by the tree on the druid stone sparking a memory of his deceased wife, Emma Gifford, gardening at that spot and throwing shadows on the stone. Hardy continues, I thought her behind my back,/Yea, her I long had learned to lack,/And I said: “I am sure you are standing behind me,/ Though how do you get into this old track?”/And there was no sound but the fall of a leaf/As a sad/ response; and to keep down grief/I would not turn my head to discover/That there was nothing in my belief.// He is sure she is there-at one level of his being-and the obdurate old agnostic decides against turning his head to discover that, there was nothing in my belief. Hardy ends his poem with the lines, Yet I wanted to look and see/That nobody stood at the back of me;/But I thought once more: “Nay, I’ll not unvision/A shape which, somehow, there may be.”/ So I went on softly from the glade, And left her behind me throwing her shade,/As she were indeed an apparition—/My head unturned lest my dream should fade.//
Unlike the hero of the Orpheus myth, Hardy does not turn around and thus preserves the possibility of his wife’s presence as an apparition. Setting down these thoughts made me suddenly choke up because I realised that I had written a song years ago, in 1997, about my son who had died in a motorbike accident in 1989. The song, Surprised By Joy, from Letters From Quotidia Episode 12 published on 28th January 2021 used the trope of an apparition: here are the relevant lyrics: I dreamed one night that I was playing slack. My chords were just as rough as guts, and I was sweating blood. A guitar rang out behind me and straightened out the line. I hadn’t heard that sound since 1989. I was surprised by joy to hear my long-lost boy, playing right behind me as he hadn’t played in years. I turned around to smile at him but there was no one there. Just a long note dying and a shadow in the air. I was surprised by joy.
The song, Surprised by Joy, was performed only once in public, at the newly opened Penrith Gaels club in Sydney in 1997. Unfortunately, I had neglected to tell my wife about this song, which had just been written. Indeed, the decision to sing it was spur-of-the-moment. As she listened to the lyrics, she realised the context and left the venue in tears. When she asked me later if the dream detailed in the song, Surprised by Joy, had been a real dream, I admitted that, no, it was just an idea I had for writing a song- but true, just the same- truer, perhaps, because it was not dredged from the unconscious sludge of my mind but that I dreamed the whole thing consciously as I beat the red-hot iron in the smithy of my waking imagination, feeling with each blow, the pain of loss but persevering nonetheless to produce an elegy that would serve.
Now, I’ll let Dr Oliver Tearle introduce the song I wrote to Hardy’s lyrics, During Wind and Rain is one such poem, recollecting Emma’s childhood life in Devon with her family. Emma, like her parents, is now in that ‘high new house’ of heaven, and all that remains of her is the name on her gravestone and Hardy’s memories of her. Hardy’s use of the refrain ‘the years O!’ (or ‘the years, the years’ as the even-numbered stanzas have it) calls to mind not only the passing of time but also the years marked on those gravestones, alongside the names. [insert song]
The final song, Dust and Dreams, combines words from the Roman poet, Horace, and the well-known words of Ecclesiastes popularised by Pete Seeger in his song Turn, Turn, Turn. It was only recently featured in the Letters on 15th October so I’ll avoid any further explication and to lighten this footnote a tad, here is a poem from one of my go-to poets, Robert Frost who talks about A Dust of Snow, The way a crow Shook down on me/ The dust of snow From a hemlock tree/ Has given my heart/ A change of mood/ And saved some part/ Of a day I had rued. He’s so good, isn’t he. Another of my go-to poets is Langston Hughes who treats the topic Dreams to a similarly epigrammatic brevity, Hold fast to dreams/For if dreams die/Life is a broken-winged bird/That cannot fly.//Hold fast to dreams/For when dreams go/Life is a barren field/Frozen with snow// I can’t think of a better way to conclude this footnote. [insert song]
The next footnote is the last of the Demos for Damocles quartet featuring a song about teenage love, a song about a brush with fate and a song about love in old age. Hope to meet you all next week.
Credits: All written text, song lyrics andmusic (including background music) written and composed by Quentin Bega unless otherwise specified in the credits section after individual posts. Illustrative excerpts from other texts identified clearly within each podcast. I donate to and use Wikipedia frequently as one of the saner sources of information on the web.
Technical Stuff: Microphone- Shure SM58; (for the podcast spoken content) Audio Technica AT 2020 front-facing with pop filter); Apogee 76K also used for songs and spoken text
For recording and mixing down: 64-bit N-Track Studio 9 Extended used; Rubix 22 also used for mixing of microphone(s) and instruments
Music accompaniment and composition software: Band-in-a-Box and RealBand 2022