The things they touched

The centerpiece of this posting is a poem by Conrad Aiken, “Music I Heard”, about the loss of someone much loved, and about the way the things that they touched and used can continue to resonate with you after they are gone. I was reminded of this poem by Mark Seiden (in Facebook), who heard echoes of it in my recent Facebook postings about the things that were touched and used by my two dead partners (Ann Daingerfield (Zwicky), gone in 1985; Jacques Henry Transue, gone in 2003), especially their clothing, especially through the scents of their bodies as carried by this clothing.

Mark’s FB note pointed not just to the Aiken poem, but to an especially moving setting of it by the composer Henry Cowell. The Cowell was new to me, though I was familiar with a (characteristically operatic) setting by Leonard Bernstein.

So, yes, this looks all high-artsy, with serious poetry and music all over it, but it’s also pretty much as deeply carnal as you can get, about bodies and their smells and tastes. Both of these things are important.

The Aiken. Possibly from Harriet Monroe’s The New Poetry: An Anthology (1917), though its provenance has been hard for me to verify. If so, it’s the work of a poet in their late 20s (with, granted, a pretty chaotic life history), not of someone looking back on long-gone stories of their life (as in my case, or in the case of Brokeback Mountain‘s Ennis Del Mar, see below).

Music I Heard

Music I heard with you was more than music,
And bread I broke with you was more than bread.
Now that I am without you, all is desolate,
All that was once so beautiful is dead.

Your hands once touched this table and this silver,
And I have seen your fingers hold this glass.
These things do not remember you, beloved:
And yet your touch upon them will not pass.

For it was in my heart you moved among them,
And blessed them with your hands and with your eyes.
And in my heart they will remember always:
They knew you once, O beautiful and wise!

— Literal music and bread. Linguists are inclined to be food and music people (Jim McCawley was the apotheosis of the idea), and those two things (along with linguistics and of course the pleasures of physical and emotional connection) knitted me together with Ann and Jacques. Ann was the go-to person on food, educating Jacques and me. I was the go-to person on music, but each of us brought personal experiences to the others that broadened and deepened our tastes. Elaborate celebratory meals were central to our lives, and so were classical music concerts. (All of this is long gone, and I mourn.)

— Aiken. The briefest biographic note, from Wikipedia:

Conrad Potter Aiken (August 5, 1889 – August 17, 1973) was an American writer, whose work includes poetry, short stories, novels, a play, and an autobiography.

(And, incidentally, the father of Joan Aiken, whose wonderful Wolves books I wrote about in a section of this 12/26/15 posting “From sadistic she-penguins to wolves invading Britain”.)

The settings. Cowell, supplied by Mark: you can listen to it here (#1).

The briefest biographical note on Cowell, from Wikipedia:

Henry Dixon Cowell (March 11, 1897 [in Menlo Park CA — local plug!] – December 10, 1965) was an American composer, music theorist, pianist, teacher, publisher, and impresario.

(An extraordinary and astonishingly influential genius of experimental music, Cowell’s career was largely derailed — though he persevered — by sexual adventures with teenage boys, for which he was imprisoned in San Quentin. Oi.)

The Bernstein setting — movement 9 in his Songfest — can be viewed in a Song of America video. Briefest Wikipedia note on the larger work:

Songfest: A Cycle of American Poems for Six Singers and Orchestra is a 1977 song cycle by Leonard Bernstein. The cycle consists of 12 settings of 13 American poems, performed by six singers in solos, duets, a trio and three sextets.

The FB exchanges. The background for all of this. Slightly edited:

AMZ, 5/11: The lack of human contact [over two months] has caused me to dream regularly about Jacques, or some Jacques-like stand-in. I dream of being curled up in bed with him. Yes, I dream a lot about sleeping.

AMZ: Follow-up on the dreams. I do my best to slip into sleep with delicious sex dreams (a topic for another time), but these days they all turn into affection dreams. The general principle, apparently: You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometime / You’ll find / You get what you need.

FB friend 1 > AMZ: I also adore that you dream of Jacques. May they all be of sex.

AMZ > FB friend 1: I still have a fair number of his clothes, things I could wear myself. But his smell is long gone from them. Oh, how I miss his smell.

AMZ: Cue BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. [see below]

FB friend 2: Comparing this to how I feel about my late wife[‘s] clothes…

AMZ > FB friend 2 When my wife [Ann] died, in 1985, we had all these clothes, most of which would fit our daughter. Including a winter coat with a fur collar that looked just wonderful on Ann. Elizabeth [our daughter] went to try it on and discovered that the collar was lightly suffused with the scent of Ann’s perfume, and it was just unimaginable that Elizabeth could put it on, that would have been ghoulish. I donated almost everything to charity. But the dresser Ann used kept the scent of that perfume for years.

Benita Campbell [long-time friend of Ann’s and mine, from her junior year with Ann in France] > AMZ: In France, she wore Détchéma; I remember Abano in her middle years.

AMZ > Benita Campbell: Abano. It suited her perfectly — and would not have worked well with Elizabeth’s body scent anyway.

And that triggered Mark Seiden’s response, with the Cowell setting of the Aiken poem.

The Brokeback moment. From the SparkNotes plot summary of the Annie Proulx story “Brokeback Mountain”, about Jack Twist and Ennis Del Mar, who become lovers while herding sheep on Brokeback Mountain:

[After learning of Jack’s death,] Ennis decides to visit Jack’s family in Lightning Flat, Wyoming.

Ennis is met by Jack’s mother and his disapproving father in their tiny, depressing ranch house… [Jack’s] mother invites Ennis to see Jack’s room. In the closet Ennis discovers an old shirt of Jack’s, stained with Ennis’s blood, layered over a shirt of Ennis’s, from their Brokeback days. Jack’s father says he’s putting his son’s ashes in the family plot.


(#2) Shot from the final scene of the Ang Lee Brokeback Mountain film, showing Heath Ledger as Ennis with the two shirts

Ennis buys a postcard of Brokeback and tacks it to his trailer wall; he hangs the two shirts beneath it on a nail. Around this time, Jack begins to appear in Ennis’s dreams.

The things they wore.

4 Responses to “The things they touched”

  1. Bob Richmond Says:

    I have a very good ear for style in verse. In my opinion that poem is indeed by Conrad Aiken. Just sounds like him to me. His later verse was of course less regular than this.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      No, no, I wasn’t suggesting it wasnt by Aiken — it absolutely is, it’s one of his most famous poems — only fretting about where and when it was first published. It’s so famous that no seems to mention the circumstances of its publication.

  2. Stewart Kramer Says:

    Yes, it was published in the 1917 anthology:
    https://www.bartleby.com/265/1.html
    The New Poetry: An Anthology. 1917.

    1. Music I Heard

    By Conrad Aiken

  3. arnold zwicky Says:

    Many thanks, Stewart.

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