I hope those familiar with the music of Eric Whitacre know his song “Sleep.” Its background is interesting.
Whitacre set the text of Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” for mixed chorus, but failed to seek permission from the executors of Frost’s estate beforehand. Perhaps I, too, would have thought anything that took Frost’s poems to a larger audience — a musical audience, perhaps, not inclined to what some may think an overly romantic work of a distant age — the Frost Trust might have been approved, possibly even with gratitude or at most the payment of a modest royalty. Not so, dear reader. They flatly refused to allow its use.
Having composed a lovely setting that, in my estimation, would only have enhanced our appreciation of Frost, Whitacre chose another creative outlet: He approached Charles Anthony Sylvestri, a poet who has often worked with contemporary composers, to write a text sympathetic to Whitacre’s tone and meter. The result is “Sleep,” which I encourage you to hear on CD or this recording on Vimeo. Then tell me that Frost isn’t rolling in his eternal resting place, wherever that may be, with unbridled envy.
©2001 by Charles Anthony Silvestri
The evening hangs beneath the moon,
A silver thread on darkened dune.
With closing eyes and resting head
I know that sleep is coming soon.
Upon my pillow, safe in bed,
A thousand pictures fill my head.
I cannot sleep, my mind’s a-flight;
And yet my limbs seem made of lead.
If there are noises in the night,
A frightening shadow, flickering light,
Then I surrender unto sleep,
Where clouds of dream give second sight,
What dreams may come, both dark and deep,
Of flying wings and soaring leap
As I surrender unto sleep,
As I surrender unto sleep.
What dreams may come, indeed, Robin Williams. What dreams may come?
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head,
And all my toys beside me lay,
To keep me happy all the day.
And sometimes for an hour or so
I watched my leaden soldiers go,
With different uniforms and drills,
Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets
All up and down among the sheets;
Or brought my trees and houses out,
And planted cities all about.
I was the giant great and still
That sits upon the pillow-hill,
And sees before him, dale and plain,
The pleasant land of counterpane.
—Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Land of Counterpane”
Stevenson’s “Land of Counterpane” requires no visa. Border guards won’t inspect you bags; its frontiers, in fact, are unprotected.
As an only child I walked that gentle, rolling countryside — there are no cities in the parts I saw — and napped against the trunks of ancient oaks. It was playground and refuge for an eight-year-old. My near contemporary, fantasy writer Terry Brooks [born 1944], says it well: “Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of toys, and personal entertainment depended on individual ingenuity and imagination – think up a story and go live it for an afternoon.” Many of my afternoons were there. No lead soldiers for me, though; my time was occupied with design.
The open invitation to spend an afternoon or two in Agincourt is still open. Some have come with me and played; a friend is there even as I write this and what he makes for exhibit #3 will enhance the story and make it ours, rather than mine alone. That thought is highly satisfying; the contribution, gratifying.
Just now I glimpsed my epitaph: “He moved to Agincourt.”
Simile and metaphor are the tip of the iceberg. Among the 100-plus figures of speech, my current favorite is synecdoche: using the part to represent the whole or vice versa. It might help to read this poem by American Robert Francis, who wrote just twenty-one others:
Part for the Whole
by Robert Francis
When others run to windows or out of doors / to catch the sunset whole, he is content / with any segment where he sits.
From segment, fragment, he can reconstruct / the whole, prefers to reconstruct the whole, / as if to say, I see more seeing less.
A window to the east will serve as well / as window to the west, for eastern sky / echoes the western sky. And even less—
A patch of light that picture-glass happens / to catch from window-glass, fragment of fragment, / flawed, distorted, dulled, nevertheless
Gives something unglassed nature cannot give: / the old obliquity of art, and proves / part may be more than whole, least may be best.
Planning is underway for the third Agincourt exhibit — as yet untitled —which is scheduled for September-October 2017, ten years after the first. That happened at the Rourke Art Museum in Moorhead [then called the Plains Art Museum, which I’d try to explain but it would just confuse you]; the next iteration of Agincourt may actually happen in Iowa, the state it purports to represent. [The part for the whole?] But these next eleven months will go like snow on water, so I’ve elected to panic now.
Since space available at Grinnell College is less than either of the earlier shows, there are two options: concentrate or abbreviate; probably both, neither of which are in my skill set.
Miss Kavana’s table and chairs
For the 2015 exhibit I hoped to build a writing desk and chairs for the home of Miss Rose Kavanaugh, principal of Charles Darwin Elementary School and friend of Howard Tabor’s mom.
No craftsman, I. Fabricating these three pieces will be a challenge. But they (and their accessories) have many tales to tell: about Rose herself, her work, her friend and position in the community; about her extra-curricular activities, hopes, desires, and sense of living a full and productive life. Do you think I like her?
Her house exists in drawings and a model. The stained glass window beside her front door is ready to hang. Soon (I hope) some of its furnishings will hint at her physical stature. The penmanship of a half-written letter; the cover of a book half-read; framed art, flowers, a Chinese rug. A long-time friend of the project has offered to craft a stained glass lamp. What have we overlooked?
A few minutes considering this tableau might reveal as much of Rose Kavanaugh as a Ken Burns documentary. If it does, the exhibit will have been worth our effort.
“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” — C. Northcote Parkinson, Parkinson’s Law
C. Northcote Parkinson [The “C” stands for Cyril] was an economist who reached beyond that dubious discipline to write a series of novels, still in print. His crowning achievement was an ability to make stuffy economic principles palatable through humor. I may not understand the academic discipline any better than I did fifty years ago in ECON 151 but it’s not so intimidating.
His first best-selling book (Parkinson’s Law of 1957) made high school less onerous, if only slightly, because I could laugh when I desperately wanted to hide. [High school was bad, but more about that another time.] Its core principle concerns the relationship between time and work: Consider the case of an elderly person intent on thanking their nephew or niece for a birthday gift.
- First there is the matter of paper; whether to use the monogrammed stationary (in short supply) or find an acceptable substitute with matching envelopes. Rifling the writing desk yields no easy answer.
- The fountain pen is in its proper place, but the ink cartridge is almost empty. So, locate the ink bottle and make a trip to the kitchen sink to avoid spillage.
- Compose the text in pencil draft before committing it to ink. Be certain to mention the gift itself and doubly certain it’s the correct one. [Reflect on last year’s mix-up.]
- Check spelling.
- Write the note itself.
- Check the address. Where is that address book?
- What to wear on the trip to the Post Office. Does it look like rain?
- Why not drop off some dry cleaning on the way—a notion that generates its own independent timeline.
You see what Parkinson is getting at? While some of us would be content with a “thank you” phone call, this task has consumed over two hours and forty-five minutes.
The corollary to “Parkinson’s First Law” also concerns time. He postulates that the discussion of any topic is inverse to its value and offers this case: A meeting of the University Budget Committee.
Near the top of the agenda is a major financial outlay for a particle accelerator. But the committee’s membership is composed of administrators, faculty and staff, none of who come from the hard sciences. None of them has ever seen a particle accelerator, however, but neither are they willing to admit ignorance (on this or any other topic). Clearly the university needs one of these things, so the eight-figure expenditure receives no discussion and a unanimous affirmative vote. Let it not be said that our institution is not at the forefront of technology.
The next item comes from the English Department, whose underpaid overextended faculty need several boxes of chalk for their classrooms. A wave of guilt sweeps over the committee for their casual and ill-informed acquiescence to an expenditure of ten million dollars, so they become suddenly responsible. “Didn’t that department submit a request for chalk just last year,” someone asks. “Yes,” another member shears, “and they think we’ll overlook this callous disregard for university finances.” Someone wonders aloud where this will all end: “If we give in to this, they’ll be back next month for erasers. Mark my words!”
Parkinson’s first and second laws weigh heavily on me tonight, especially as I compose myself to write an actual letter to a friend. The paper, ink, envelope, address, and stamps are at hand. Their gathering has afforded time to recall the letter just received, its salient points; what’s unsaid between those lines. I consider inquiries to make, perspectives to offer, obtuse stories to share, and (most importantly) cheap advice to keep to myself. And while it will take less time than the aforementioned “thank you” note, my time here is invested, not consumed; my friend’s concerns addressed rather than glossed over; my relationship enhanced.
These moments are mine to give and gladly.
“As Nobel laureate physicist Frank Wilczek has put it, ‘Why is there something rather than nothing? would then be that “nothing” is unstable.’ … In short, the natural state of affairs is something rather than nothing. An empty universe requires supernatural intervention–not a full one. Only by the constant action of an agent outside the universe, such as God, could a state of nothingness be maintained. The fact that we have something is just what we would expect if there is no God.” — from Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis (2007)
“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Building something from nothing with nothing for all
Spending time at the lake is a reprieve from many things: job, school, and chores, not to mention setting a limit on social obligations. But somewhere near the top of every list you are likely to find church attendance. Those thirty-five miles back to town are an easy excuse to avoid the drive. After all, even God rested on the seventh day.
Once or twice ad hoc spiritual gatherings at cabins or the Station-Store disrupted the peace of a Sunday morn. But they, too, failed for lack of numbers or an available cleric. We might have known this splendid isolation couldn’t last: the pastors could do nothing as individuals but their Ministerial Association could marshall collective resources to fill that happy void. Why not build a non-denominational chapel near the Station Store that no one within sound of its bell could avoid. Ministers would take turns conducting a service sufficiently generic to satisfy all [and offend none]. That’s a story for another time.
So they leased a patch of ground at the end of the interurban spur and made plans for a chapel to seat about fifty. But even the cheapest construction and volunteer labor put it beyond their means. Architect Anson Tennant [my great-uncle, I should confess] proposed a novel solution: locate an unused farm building or shack, move it to the site and make alterations suitable for Godly service.
Octogenarian Elias Fahnstock offered a decrepit shed that had sheltered chickens, mostly. But it was on the opposite side of Sturm and the road either way around the lake was either peppered with pot holes or too steep. Tennant proposed an ingenious solution: wait a few months and slide the coop across the frozen lake in the dead if winter. One mid-January day was chosen for Fahnstock’s draft horses to pull the coop on sleds to the opposite shore. Following Tennant’s drawings, construction began in the Spring of 1913. Dedication of “Lakeside Chapel”on June 1st combined the choirs from Saint Ahab, Saint Joe, and First Baptist for more ecumenism than we’ve seen before or since.
As a visual setting for Divine Service, the chapel was more than adequate. But its previous tenants had left an aroma that defied exorcism. It took little time for someone to identify Saint Ferreolus, Patron Saint of Sick Poultry, which became its popular epithet.
Services at the Chicken Chapel (another unfortunate moniker) continued into the war years; then it was called to an even higher service — a chicken coop for the war effort — and came full circle. In its thirty years, St Ferreolus had been something made from nothing with nothing for all.
Can I have an Amen.
“It was late afternoon and unusual for me to be in bed. I knew somehow — without actually feeling anything — that this was my last day. Probably the most vivid dream I’ve ever had.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you were there. Sitting beside the bed. Holding my hand. So I knew it was O.K. to die. So I did. You’re not embarrassed, are you? Don’t be.”
“Just a little, but go on — I guess.”
“Then you and all the color in the room faded away. Everything — the walls and furniture; even the trees and sky I could see out the window turned white. Not some antiseptic nursing-home white. Not the absence of color but what color always wanted to be and missed: its total presence! Somewhere between South Sea pearl, white diamonds, and — oh, I dunno — cottage cheese. You just wanted to smear it on a bagel with lox. Now here’s the weird part. Rick Astley was there, doing his MTV video ‘Never going to give you up’ but in a 70’s sharkskin suit with those pencil legs. How’d they get into those things?”
“You hated everything 70’s.”
“I know. Weird, isn’t it. Except it wasn’t Astley in that suit. It was Morgan Freeman, doing all those 70’s dance moves.
“Then the room turned tomato — like crustini without basil. It was the Dulwich Picture Gallery, with every painting I ever loved: ‘Das Floß der Medusa.’ ‘The Martyrdom of Crispin and Crispinian.’ Most of Holman Hunt’s work. And Morgan Freeman was still there. Minus the sharkskin suit.”
“Freeman was naked!?”
“No, silly. In a three-piece suit, like some insurance agent, intent on making you comfortable. I said, ‘I thought you’d be more like Ella Fitzgerald.’ ‘Oh, I could if it would be easier on you, being dead and all. Besides Ella is with Donald Trump just now.’ ‘Trump!’ I blurted in a far more accusatory tone than the moment might have warranted. ‘I thought he’d be in the other place, you know, pitchforks and sulphur.’ Then he genuinely shocked me: ‘This is what you all got so consistently wrong: It’s all heaven. Some people just don’t get the one they expected.'”
“I gotta ask: what did you have for supper? This sounds like indigestion to me.”
“‘Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why on Earth should that mean it’s not real?’ Sorry for the Dumbledore quote but, when it’s your time, Mr Freeman tells me that’s who you can expect.
“This isn’t my dream, you know. You just screwed Sarah, rolled over, and went to sleep. So all this is in your head, not mine.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
Among Agincourt’s six bridges, four span the Mighty Muskrat and two traverse Crispin Creek. Each is from a different era; each serves a different clientele. So, I keep looking on eBay for RPPCs of bridges to photoshop™ into conformity with time and place. This image caught my eye, not so much for the actual bridge, but because of the lazy summer afternoon represented by the six people out for a row. It must be late summer, because the river level is so low; I bet you can walk across.
As for the bridge, it clearly is not for vehicles of any sort: too spindly and the approach ramps are too steep. But it might be a candidate for the pedestrian bridge connecting Northwest Iowa Normal on the east bank with the Fennimore county fairgrounds on the west. The school’s limited site provided little space for recreational areas, let alone a full-blown football field. So an arrangement was made with the County Commissioners and the Fair Board to create shared facilities that can be used by students during the school year and the fair at other times. I’d always imagined it was a suspension bridge that linked them but I may have been wrong. Not for the first time.