February 28, 2023

Luis Cernuda (y Bidon) (Spain) 1902-1963

Luis Cernuda (y Bidon) (Spain)

Born in September 21, 1902 in Seville, Spain, Luis Cernuda was an early member of the Spanish poets of the so-called "Generation of 1927," which included Gabriel García Lorca, Rafael Alberti, Vicente Aleixandre, Jorge Guillén and many others. He began writing poetry as a law student at the University of Madrid.
     His first work, Perfil del aire, showed the influence of Pedro Salinas, who had helped him to get the book published, and Cernuda's contemporary Guillén. It received only a lukewarm reception. But in his next, surrealist-influenced writings, Un río, un amor (1929) and Los placeres prohibidos (1931) (both collected in La realidad y el deso [1936]), he began to find his true voice, experimenting with incongruous word choices and chance-oriented methods of composition. Other works such as Donde habaite el olvido and Invocaciones continued his exploration of emotional and spiritual autobiographical material, which is at the center of his poems.
     Cernuda's open homosexuality and his keen sense of isolation brought on, in part by the Spanish Civil War and his ensuing exile in Europe, the United States, and Mexico, which began just prior to the Republican defeat in 1939, focused his poetry on themes of homosexual love and a strong sense of metaphysical pessimism.
     Cernuda's major influences were clearly French, but his own concerns, and his readings of English and German Romanticism also had a strong effect on his writing. Accordingly, his poetry often functions as a kind of dialectic, a dialogue between himself as sexual being and a poet of the mind against the background of mythological, historical, and personal associations.
     He died of a heart attack in Mexico City in 1963.


Perfil del aire (Málaga: Imprenta Sur, 1927); Egloga, elegía, oda (1928); La invitación a la poesía (Madrid: Altolaguirre, 1933); La realidad y el deseo (Madrid: Cruz & Raya/Arbol, 1936; revised and enlarged edition, Mexico City: Tezontle, 1958); Ocnos (london: Dolphin, 1942; elarged edition, Madrid: Insula, 1949; again enlarged, Jalapa, Mexico: Universidad Veracruzana, 1963); Las nubes (Buenos Aires: Schapire/Rama de Oro, 1943); Como quien espera el alba (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1947); Variaciones sobre tema mexicano (Mexico City: Porrúa & Obregón, 1950); Poemas para un cuerpo (Málaga: Dardo, 1957); Desolatión de la quimera (Mexico City: Mortiz, 1962); Antología poética, edited by Rafael Santos Torroella (Barcelona: Plaza and Janés, 1970); Perfil del aire; Con otras obras olvidadas e inéditas, documentos y epistolario, edited by Derek Harris (London: Tamesis, 1971); Poesía completa, edited by Derek Harris (London: Tamesis, 1971); Poesía completa, edited by Derek Harris and Luis Maristany (Barcelona: Seix Barral, 1974; revised, 1977); Antología poética, Luis Cernuda, edited by Philip Silver (Madrid: Alianza, 1975); Sonetos clásicos servillanos (Madrid: El Observatorio, 1986); Poesía Completa, edited by Derek Harris and Luis Maristany (Madrid: Ediciones Siruela, 1993).


The Poetry of Luis Cernuda, edited and trans. by Anthony Edkins and Derek Harris (New York: New York University Press, 1977); Selected Poems of Luis Cernuda, edited and translated by Reginald Gibbons (Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1999); Written in Water: The Collected Prose Poems, trans. by Stephen Kessler (San Francisco: City Lights, 2004); Desolation of the Chimera, trans. by Stephen Kessler (Buffalo: White Pine Press, 2009); Ocnos (Italica), trans. by Andrew Dempsey (Turner Publicaciones, 2009); Forbidden Pleasures: New Selected Poems [1924-1949], trans. by Stephen Kessler (Boston: Black Widow Press, 2015); One River, One Love, trans. by Philip G. Johnston (Liverpool: University of Liverpool Press, 2015); The Young Sailor and Other Poems, trans. by Rick Lipinski (San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, n.d.)

Remorse in Black Tie

A gray man walks the foggy street.
No one suspects. An empty body,
Empty as plains or sea or wind:
Harsh deserts under unrelenting sky.

It is the past, and now his wings
In shadow meet a pallid force;
thus hesitant remorse, at night,
Brings near its heedless shadow secretly.

Don't take that hand! The prideful ivy
Will rise about the boles of winter.
In calm, the gray lman goes unseen.
Do you not hear the dead? But earth is deaf.

Translated from the Spanish by Reginald Gibbons
(from Un río, un amour, 1929)

Drama, or a Closed Door

Youth with no escort of clouds,
Walls, that the storms will,
The lamp, outside, like a fan, or in,
With eloquence all declare the obvious:
That which one day weakly gives
Itself over, yes, to death.

Bone crushed by the stone of dreams,
What to do—denied escape—
If not on the bridge that leaps with a flash of light
Between two lies—
The lie of life, or the lie of the flesh?

We know so little!—how to sculpt
Biographies in hostile music;
How to count up affirmations
Or denials, the night's long hair;
How like children to invoke the cold
For fear of going alone into the shadow of time.

Translated from the Spanish by Reginald Gibbons
(from Un río, un amour, 1929)

He Did Not Speak Words

He did not speak words
Merely drew near
An inquisitive body
Not knowing that desire is a question
Whose answer does not exist
A leaf whose branch does not exist
A world beneath a nonexistent sky.

Anguish makes its way through the bones
Rises up along the veins
Until it breaks the skin
Fountailns of dream made flesh
And questioning the clouds.

A light touch in passing
A quick glance into the shadows
Are enough for the body to split in two,
Greedy to take in
Another dreaming body
Half to half, dream and dream, flesh and flesh,
Alike in form, alike in love, equal in desire.

Even if this were only a wish—
For desire is a question whose answer is unknown.

Translated from the Spanish by Reginald Gibbons
(from Los placeres prohibidos, 1931)

Passion for Passion

Passion for passion. Love for love.
I was in a street of ash, lined with huge buildings of sand. I found pleasure there. I looked at him: in his empty eyes there were two tiny clocks; they ran in opposite directions. He held a flower in the corner of his mouth, bitten and broken. The cape on his shoulders was in shreds.
As he passed, some stars began to die, others were being born. I tried to stop him. My arms hung motionless. I wept. I wept so much I could have filled his empty orbits. Then it was dawn.
I understood why a man is called prudent when headless.

Translated from the Spanish by Reginald Gibbons
(from Los placeres prohibidos, 1931)


In the state of Nevada
Railroad lines have names of birds.
There are fields all of snow
And hours of snow.

The transparent nights
Open dream lights over waters,
Over starry roof-tops
Holiday pure.

Tears smile.
Sadness sprouts wings
And wings, as we know,
Bring an inconstant love.

Trees embrace trees.
One song kisses another.
Sadness and joy
Ride the lines.

And always snow lies sleeping
On top of more snow, way over there
In Nevada.

Translated from the Spanish by Erland Anderson
(from La realidad y el deseo, 1936)


One day he figured it out:
His arms were only clouds—
With clouds it is impossible
To clasp a body or a fortune
To the quick.

Fortune is round
And slowly counts the summer stars.
Arms as sure as the wind are needed
And a kiss like the sea.

But with his lips
He can do nothing but speak
Words to the ceiling,
Words to the floor,
And his arms are clouds that turn life
Into a sailing wind.

Translated from the Spanish by Erland Anderson
(from La realidad y el deseo, 1936)


The way dream
Parts body from soul,
This mist
Separates earth and light:

Everything is blurred and strange;
The silent breeze,
Motionless water
And earth void of color.

Do you know
What that quiet bird
Awaits on its dry twig,
Estranged from itself?

Afar, behind the window
A burning lamp
Makes the hour uncertain.
Life lies

Down, and alone,
Neither living nor dead,
You feel its weak beating
In your body.

You roam these sordid
Outskirts aimlessly
Like the directionless fate
Of man himself.

In your mind, you search
For light or faith,
While outside
Darkness slowly conquers.

Translated from the Spanish by Reginald Gibbons
(from Como quien espera el alba, 1947)


"Remorse in Black Tie," "Drama, or a Closed Door," "He Did Not Speak Words," "Passion for Passion,"and "Dusk,"
Reprinted from Selected Poems of Luis Cernuda, edited and trans. by Reginald Gibbons (Riverdale-on-Hudson, New York: The Sheep Meadow Press, 1999). Copyright ©1977 and 1999 by Reginald Gibbons. Reprinted by permission of The Sheep Meadow Press.

"Nevada" and "Affliction"
Copyright ©2000 by Erland Anderson. Reprinted by permission of Erland Anderson.

February 27, 2023

POETRY FOR READERS | Ger Killeen : JuárOz: A Poetic Fiction [link]




      Featuring books of poetry

                        and where to order them.

today’s title:

JuarOz: A Poetic Fiction

Ger Killeen

order here:


Ger Killeen (b. Ireland / USA) 1960

Ger Killeen (b. Ireland / USA)



Ger Killeen was born in Ireland in 1960. He was educated at University College, Dublin and the University of London. He now lives on the Oregon coast and is a professor in the Department of Literature and Writing at Marylhurst University.


     His books include A Wren, which won the 1989 Bluestem Award for Poetry, A Stone that Will Leap over Waves (1999), and Signs Following (2005). His poetry has been anthologized in From Here We Speak, On the Counterscarp, and American Poetry: The Next Generation. Killeen has also published translations of the Galician poet, Alvaro Cunqueiro. He recently edited an anthology, More Truly, More Strange: An Anthology of Poetry in Augmented Reality.

    Recent collections include Blood Orbits (2009), JuárOz (2015), and Ghost Topologies (2021).

  Killeen writes that at present he sees his poetic practice as a kind of paradoxical restorative unraveling: “The holes and gaps that remain when the threads of fakery and oppression have been pulled out of the fabric of language and narrative structure leave room for new imaginative and truer weavings of language that might serve to provide us with the outlines of a more inclusive, nonviolent, demythologized narrative, a hugely capacious and liberating story we can inhabit in recognition both of each other’s autonomy and kinship.”




A Wren (Emporia, Kansas: Bluestem Press, 1989); Lia a léimfidh thar tonnta = A Stone that Will Leap over Waves (Portland, Oregon: Trask House Books, 1999); Signs Following (West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2005); Blood Orbits (West Lafayette, Indiana: Parlor Press, 2009); JuárOz: A Poetic Fiction (Portland, Oregon: Headlandia Press, 2014); Ghost Topologies: Augmented Reality Poems (2021)







The storm discovers


its voice, and the meanings


multiply gust by gust.


It all becomes


a city of one dream. Think


of sleep as a fire


whose blown white heat


brings out layer


after smudged layer


of sentences


quilled in citron inks,


book chapters, perhaps.


The lucky salvage


fistfuls of smoke, pen


them away inside


the orbital cavities


sunk in lovely skulls. So many


eyes the color of parchment


perching like pigeons


on spires, on ramparts,


so many chilling nights


of hilarious weeping.




Reprinted from Green Integer Review, No. 3 (May-July 2006)

Copyright ©2006 by Ger Killeen

February 26, 2023

Alfonsina Storni (Argentina) 1892-1938

Alfonsina Storni (Argentina)


Born of Italian parents in Switzerland, Alfonsina Storni's parents emigrated to Argentina in 1885. They returned to Switzerland again in 1889 for an extended visit, where Alfonsina was born. She was three at their return to San Juan.

     Almost immediately the family had great financial difficulty. Her father took to drinking, neglecting his business, and was absent much of the time. Storni's mother, Paulinia, struggled to keep the family fed and in clothing, moving to Rosario after the father's death in 1906. At thirteen, accordingly, Alfonsina began to work at a nearby hat factory to supplement her family's income. During this period, however, she was recognized by a local theatrical company and began touring with them.

     In 1909 Storni enrolled in a school for rural teachers. She also secretly participated in the chorus of a theater, and when her theatrical activities were discovered, the incident created a minor scandal. Storni ran away, leaving a suicide note.


     In 1912 she arrived in Buenos Aires with her diploma and an infant son, eventually finding employment working as a cashier. Later she worked at an import firm. Her first poems began to appear during this period, and in 1916 her first book, La inquietud del rosal (The Restlessness of the Rosebush) was published. The poems revealed her affinities to European modernism and symbolic writing. But later she denounced this work and attempted to prevent it from inclusion in collections.

     Her book, however, in its complaints against sexual injustice, became a sensation in Buenos Aires, and she soon became invovled in the literary world of the city, one of the first women to participate in that all-male society. Her dramatic readings at the poetic events led her friends to help her get a position, created especially for her, at the Lavarden Children's Theater and a chair in reading at the Normal School of Modern Languages. She devoted her energies for the next several years to teaching. She also published several volumes of poetry, El dulce dano (1918, The Secret Pain), Irremediablemente (1919, Irremediably), and Languidez (1920, Languor).

     Throughout the 1920s she directed the Teatro Infantil, a position which the city had created for her. But her financial security and professional admiration did not assuage her sense of gender injustice or her own dismay at having to be dependent upon men. Her work Ocre in 1925 began a change in her writing from a heightened romantic sensibility to concern with the status of women throughout the century. Later works include El mundo de siete pozos (1934, The World of Seven Wells) and Mascarilla y trebol (1938, Mask and Clover), the latter of them appearing after her death.
     In bad health and suffering from depression, Storni walked into the sea in October 1938 to her death.


La inquietude del rosa (1916); Irremediablement (1919); Languidez (1920); Ocre (1925); El Mundo de siete pozos (1934); Antologia Poetica (1936); Mascarilla y trebol (1938); Obra poética (1946, 1952); Obras completas (1964)




Selected Poems, translated by Marion Freeman, Mary Crow, Jim Normington, and Kay Short, edited by Marion Freeman (Fredonia, New York: White Pine Press, 1987).

You Want Me White

You'd like me to be white as dawn,
You'd like me to be made of foam,
You wish I were mother of pearl,
A lily
Chaste above all others.
Of delicate perfume.
A closed bud.

Not one ray of the moon
Should have filtered me,
Not one daisy
Should have called me sister.
You want me to be snowy,
You want me to be white,
You want me to be like dawn.

You who have held all the wineglasses
In your hand,
Your lips stained purple
With fruit and honey
You who in the banquet
Crowned with young vines
Made toasts with your flesh to Bacchus.
You who in the gardens
Black with Deceit
Dressed in red
Ran to your Ruin.

You who keep your skeleton
Well preserved, intact,
I don't know yet
Through what miracles
You want to make me white
(God forgive you),
You want to make me chaste
(God forgive you),
You want to make me like dawn!

Run away to the woods;
Go to the mountain;
Wash your mouth;
Get to know the wet earth
With your hands;
Feed your body
With bitter roots;
Drink from the rocks;
Sleep on the white frost;
Renew your tissue
With the salt of rocks and water;
Talk to the birds
And get up at dawn.
And when your flesh
Has returned to you,
and when you have put
Your soul back into it,
Your soul which was left entangled
In all the bedrooms,
Then, my good man,
Ask me to be white,
Ask me to be snowy,
Ask me to be chaste.

Translated from the Spanish by Marion Freeman and Mary Crow

(from El dulce dano, 1918)

The Moment

A city of gray bones
lies abandoned at my feet.

The piles of bones
are separated by black trenches,
the streets,
divided by them,
ordered, raised by them.
In the city, bristling with two million men,
I haven't a single one to love me.

The sky, even grayer
than the city,
descends over me,
takes over my life,
stops up my arteries,
turns off my voice...

the world,
like a whirlwind
from which I can't escape,
turns rond a dead point:
my heart.

Translated by Marion Freeman and Mary Crow

(from Mundo de siete pozos, 1934)

And the Head Began to Burn

On the black
a square
opened up
that looked out
over the void.

And the moon rolled
up to the window;
it stopped
and said to me:
"I'm not moving from here;
I'm looking at you.

I don't want to grow
or get thin.
I'm the infinite
that opens up
in the square hole
in your house.

I no longer want
to roll on
the lands
that you don't know,
my butterfly,
sipper of shadows.

Or raise phantoms
over the far off
that drink me.

I'm watching
I see you."

And I didn't answer.
A head was sleeping
under my hands.

like you,

The wells of its eyes
held a dark
with luminous snakes.

And suddenly
my head
began to burn
like the stars
at twilight.

And my hands
were stained
with a phosphorescent

And with it
I burn
the houses
of men,
the forests
of beasts.

Translated from the Spanish by Marion Freeman

(from Mundo de siete pozos, 1934)


A road
to the limit:
high golden doors
close it off;
deep galleries;

The air has no weight;
the doors stand by themselves
in the emptiness;
they disintegrate into golden dust;
they close, they open;
they go down to the algae
they come up loaded with coral.

there are patrols of columns;
the doors hide
behind the blue parapets;
water bursts into fields of forget-me-nots;
it tosses up deserts of purple crystals.
it incubates great emerald worms;
it plaits its innumerable arms.

A rain of wings,
pink angels
dive like arrows
into the sea.
I could walk on them
without sinking.
A path of ciphers
for my feet;
columns of numbers
for each step—

They carry me:
invisible vines
stretch out their hooks
from the horizon.
My neck creaks.
I walk.
The water holds its own.
My shoulders open into wings.
I touch the ends of the sky
with their tips.
I wound it.
The sky's blood
bathing the sea...
poppies, poppies,
there is nothing but poppies.

I grow light:
the flesh falls from my bones.
The sea rises through the channels
of my spine.
The sky rolls through the bed
of my veins.
The sun! the sun!
Its last rays
envelop me,
push me:
I am a spindle
I spin, spin, spin, spin!

Translated from the Spanish by Marion Freeman

(from Antologia Poetica, 1936)


"Can I speak to Horatio?" I know that now
you have a nest of doves in your bladder,
and your crystal motorcycle flies
silently through the air.

"Papa?" I dreamed that your flask
swelled up like the Tupungato river;
it still holds your anger and my poems.
Pour me a drop. Thanks. Now I feel fine.

I'll be seeing you both very soon. Come to meet me
with that frog I killed at our country house
in San Juan; poor frog—we stoned it to death.

It looked at us like an ox, and my two cousins
finsihed it off; later it had a funeral
with skillets banging, and roses followed it.

Translated from the Spanish by Marion Freeman

(from Mascarilla y trebol, 1938)

Suggestion of Bird Song

Death hasn't been born yet, it's asleep
on a rose-colored beach. Consider the Greek:
he didn't die from infamy and hemlock;
and above the Aropolis he burns.

Who told you that envy's finger
streaked my clothes with yellow?
It was a butterfly overloaded
with pollen passing by.

Do you hear? Rats in the offices
aren't biting the boss's soles;
That'a fine rain of dry

violets that rustles as it falls;
and the young man's unreaveling heart
is William's heroic apple.

Translated from the Spanish by Marion F. Freeman

Sea Winds

My heart was a flower
of foam;
one petal of snow,
another of salt;
the sea wind took it
and put it
into a rough hand

hardened by the sea.
So fine a lace
on a rough hand.
How to drop anchor?
A gust of wind

picked it up again;
carried it tumbling
through immensity.
It's still drifting.
It tangles in the chains
that strike the flanks
of ships...oh!

Translated from the Spanish by Mary Crow

Circles with No Center

Sky sponge,
green flesh of the sea,
I had to travel
along your smooth tracks.

Ahead, roads
not for walking parted;
alongside, highways
for navigating opened;
and behind, routes for
retracing the way
led off.

Long nights and days
a prow cut you ceaselessly
but your center never changed,
green circle of the sea.

My flesh didn't want to burn
on your cold emerald.
My heart turned green
as the flesh of the sea.

I said to my body: Be reborn!
To my heart: Don't stop!
My body longed to put down roots,
green roots into the sea's flesh.

The boat that carried me
knew only how to weigh anchor,
but the body containing me
remained ecstatic on the sea.

Circles circled above
and circles rose from the depth of the sea;
fishes lifted their heads
and started to yell.

Translated from the Spanish by Mary Crow


"You Want Me White," "The Moment," "And the Head Began to Burn," "Supertelephone," and "Departure"
Reprinted from Selected Poems, Edited by Marion Freeman and trans. by Marion Freeman, Mary Crow, Jim Normington, and Kay Short (Fredonia, New York: White Pine Press, 1987). Copyright ©1987 by Marion Freeman, Mary Crow, Jim Normington, and Kay Short. Reprinted by permission of White Pine Press.

"Suggestion of Bird Song"

Copyright ©2001 by Marion Freeman. Reprinted by permission of Marion Freeman.

"Sea Winds" and "Circles with No Center"

Copyright ©2001 by Mary Crow. Reprinted by permission of Mary Crow.

February 25, 2023

Countee Cullen (USA) 1903-1946

Countee Cullen (USA)



 Born on May 30 in 1903, Countee Cullen’s birthplace is not certain, some sources citing Louisville, Kentucky, others Baltimore, and still others New York City. Little else is known about his early youth.

     In 1916, he was enrolled in school in the Bronx as Countee L. Porter, at that time living with his grandmother, Amanda Porter. After her death in 1917, he lived with Revered Frederick Ashbury Cullen, pastor of the Salem Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem. Although never formally adopted, he assumed the family name.

      In 1918 he attended the exclusive, most white Dewitt Clinton High School for boys in Manhattan, receiving their Magpie Cup in recognition of his achievements, including work on the school literary magazine and newspaper.               

     Already in high school he had begun to write poetry, and in 1921 he won first prize in a citywide contest sponsored by the Empire Federation of Women’s Clubs.

     He attended New York University for his bachelor’s degree and received his master’s degree in 1926 from Harvard University. The year before his first collection of poetry, Color, was published by the prestigious publishing house of Harper & Brothers, and the book began to bring him national acclaim, receiving reviews in several journals. 

   His second book, Copper Sun, published two years later, won first prize from the Harmon Foundation. Editing an anthology of poetry by African Americans in 1927, Cullen became known as a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance. But Cullen, unlike some of the other poets of that group, wanted to reach out to white audiences, the fact of which brought him some criticism from within the black community. He defended his position in such statements as that published in the Brooklyn Eagle in 1924:


“If I am going to be a poet at all, I am going to be POET and NEGRO POET. This is what has hindered the development of artists among us. Their one note has been the concern with their race. That is all very well, none of us can get away from it. I cannot escape it. But what I mean is this: I shall not write of negro subjects for the purpose of propaganda. That is not what a poet is concerned with. Of course, when the emotion rising out of the fact that I am a negro is strong, I express it. But that is another matter.”


     From 1926 to 1928, he was served as assistant editor to Charles S. Johnson’s Opportunity, for which he wrote a feature column, often insisting that African-American writers create work representative of their race, but not to be bound or restricted by it. 

      Despite the fact that Cullen was involved in gay relationships, including with Harold Jackman, to whom he dedicated the poem “Heritage,” he began a long courtship in 1928 with the daughter of black historian, novelist, and essayist, W. E. B. Du Bois, Nina.

     The wedding, performed by Cullen’s foster father, was one of the great social events in Harlem of the decade. The couple, however, were not compatible, and Cullen was forced to admit to Du Bois that he as sexually attracted to men. Nina sued for divorce.

      Over the next several years, Cullen continued to write, but his fame was on the wane. In 1932 he published a novel, One Way to Heaven, and in 1935 Medea and Some Poems. By this time American experimentalists had made his rhymed and metered writing appear somewhat dated, yet he remained popular with both white and black groups, reading and lecturing throughout the 1930s.

     He also taught at several colleges and universities—Sam Houston College, Dillard University, Fisk University, Tugaloo College and West Virginia State University.

     As a teacher in the New York public schools he taught future novelist and essayist James Baldwin. In 1940 he married Ida Mae Roberson, and began work on St. Louis Woman, a musical based on a novel, God Sends Sunday, by Arna Bontemps.

     Cullen died of complications from high-blood pressure while on work on this musical.



Color (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1925); Copper Sun (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927); The Ballad of the Brown Girl, An Old Ballad Retold (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1927); The Black Christ and Other Poems (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1929); The Medea and Some Poems (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1935); On These I Stand: An Anthology of the Best Poems of Countee Cullen (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947)


Saturday's Child 


Some are teethed on a silver spoon,

With the stars strung for a rattle;

I cut my teeth as the black racoon--

For implements of battle.

Some are swaddled in silk and down,

And heralded by a star;

They swathed my limbs in a sackcloth gown

On a night that was black as tar.

For some, godfather and goddame

The opulent fairies be;

Dame Poverty gave me my name,

And Pain godfathered me.

For I was born on Saturday--

"Bad time for planting a seed,

"Was all my father had to say,

And, "One mouth more to feed.

"Death cut the strings that gave me life,

And handed me to Sorrow,

The only kind of middle wife

My folks could beg or borrow.


For a larger selection of poems and a fuller biography, go here:


February 24, 2023

"Sudden a Vista Peeps" | Essay by Douglas Messerli (on Tyshawn Sorey's musical setting of Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem "Death")

sudden a vista peeps

by Douglas Messerli


Tyshawn Sorey (composer, based on a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar), Nadia Hallgren (director) Death / 2021


Already this year, with the quarantine having still closed the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and other performance centers, LAOpera presented an on-line digital performance of a new composition by  composer Tyshawn Sorey featuring poet Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem “Death.” The composition was performed by mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms. The work as a whole consisted of three parts in the short film directed by Nadia Hallgren, premiering on February 19th, 2021, the date I watched it.

     The first part, titled Act I consists of a reading of the poem by Ariyon Barbare in the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton, Ohio. Act II is a short discussion of the work and a brief history of Sorey’s early youth playing the piano in a Newark Catholic Church he attended with his aunt. And Art III consists of the song, with musical accompaniment by pianist Howard Watkins, sung by Bottoms. 

     Sorley has for many years been known for his wide swath of influences from classical contemporary composers and musicians as various as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Pierre Boulez, John Cage, Morton Feldman, Anthony Braxton (with whom he studied), Cecil Taylor, and younger jazz musicians and ensembles. Alex Ross in The New Yorker has described him as a defiant shape-shifter who straddles both the classical music and jazz worlds.


“There is something awesomely confounding about the music of Tyshawn Sorey, the thirty-eight-year-old Newark-born composer, percussionist, pianist, and trombonist. As a critic, I feel obliged to describe what I hear, and description usually begins with categorization. Sorey’s work eludes the pinging radar of genre and style. Is it jazz? New classical music? Composition? Improvisation? Tonal? Atonal? Minimal? Maximal? Each term captures a part of what Sorey does, but far from all of it. At the same time, he is not one of those crossover artists who indiscriminately mash genres together. Even as his music shifts shape, it retains an obdurate purity of voice. T. S. Eliot’s advice seems apt: ‘Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” / Let us go and make our visit.’”



     Known for his highly complex compositions, Death, because of its focus on a poem of 12 lines, is far simpler in structure and resonance, each stanza beginning in a rather assertive chordal statement before quickly broiling down in minor chords that—as director Hallgren exemplifies in her images of flying and often quarrelling hawks—spin down into darker and jarring dissonants, finding only temporary repose in major chord key respites.

      The poem itself is not only dark, as you might expect from its title, but is odd in its implications.


Storm and strife and stress,

Lost in a wilderness,

Groping to find a way,

Forth to the haunts of day


Sudden a vista peeps,

Out of the tangled deeps,

Only a point--the ray

But at the end is day.


Dark is the dawn and chill,

Daylight is on the hill,

Night is the flitting breath,

Day rides the hills of death.


     The poem begins in an almost Dantean manner, the narrator “lost in the wilderness” having suffered the horrors of life, groping to find his way, apparently, to light.

      Yet the rest of the poem does not function in that manner as a “vista peeps,” the narrator spotting “a point, a ray” of possibility. It is not daylight, however, that provides that vision for in the next line we see in the conjunction “But” the alternative, “day,” not evidently what the poet is seeking. The vision of the vista has come in the dark of “dawn and chill,” just before the sun rises. Night provides a “flitting breath,” while death rides the hills of daylight.

      In short, it appears, the narrator prefers the vision he has found in the night as opposed to the daylight when death becomes a far more obvious opponent.

      If, as Sorey seems to argue, this poem has important meaning for our own times, it is not our having been able to move out of the shadows that we have been facing that will help us to go forward and live fully lives, but rather the visions, the beliefs we burnished out of the dark. Visionary revolutions, one might argue, are always spawned in the worst of times rather than in the best. The new vaccines for COVID were created in the very darkest days of world-wide deaths.

     The date for this poem appears to be 1903, four years after Dunbar—who after marrying Alice Ruth Moore in 1898, lived with his wife in the happy whirl of the Washington, D.C. social scene accorded him for his position at the Library of Congress—was diagnosed with tuberculosis. His doctor suggested a move to the better air of Colorado and regular ingestion of whiskey to alleviate the disease’s symptom, which we now know only leads to a further decline in health. For a few years, so Alice noted in her diary, she served joyfully as his nurse, remaining in love. But her husband soon began showing signs of alcoholism and in 1902 he arrived home in a disturbed state of mind, later beating her so severely that she was ill for months after with peritonitis, an infection in connection with the rupture of the abdomen where he had brutally kicked her. She nearly lost in her life in the incident and never returned to their home, without divorcing.

      By 1903 Dunbar, with the loss of wife and his impending death from TB, accordingly, had plenty of reason to fear the reminders the daylight might show him, an empty house and the daily strife and stress of his illness. In 1904 he moved back to Dayton where his mother lived remaining in her house until his death in 1906. 

     We are now so fortunate to be able to have this work, the third musical setting of this poem, on film. Although, obviously, it would be far better to hear this lied sung by Bottoms in person, I do hope that after the present health crisis the LAOpera company and others who have made similar attempts to reach new audiences will continue to tape and film symphonic and operatic works. I was grateful to be able to share this LAOpera Now production with friends throughout the US.


Los Angeles, February 20, 2021

Reprinted from USTheater, Opera, and Performance and World Cinema Review (February 2021).