Lola Haskins

Michigan Writers on the Air: Commentaries on Poetry

Lola Haskins
June 2011

Aaron, I’d like to introduce you to a small part of the world of a Florida poet, Lola Haskins. She’s written nine books of poems with another due out this year from Anhinga Press. She’s written all sorts of prose pieces, too. At the moment, she’s working on nature poetry growing out of the considerable time she spends in kayaks and in the woods.

Lola and I are alike in that we like to collaborate with other artists. She’s worked with visual artists—like photographers, painters, and printmakers. Her most recent theater piece was “Swan Song” at the Hippodrome State Theater in Gainesville, Florida, with seven dancers, an actor, and a violinist.

But the book I want to focus on today is Forty-four Ambitions for the Piano. It’s not her newest—that would be Still, the Mountain, from Paper Kite Press—but 44 Ambitions is so intensely interesting, it’s stayed in my mind ever since I read it a few years ago. This book resulted in a performance piece also, with composer James Paul Sain and pianist Kevin Sharpe, in a performance called “Scattered Voices” at two different composers’ conventions, and a collaboration with composer Paul Richards on a song cycle based on the poems in this book.

These poems are short, so I’ll read several, to give you a flavor. Here’s one. You probably know that to play pianissimo is to play very quietly:

To Play Pianissimo

Does not mean silence,
the absence of moon in the day sky
for example.

Does not mean barely to speak,
the way a child’s whisper
makes only warm air
on his mother’s right ear.

To play pianissimo
is to carry sweet words
to the old woman in the last dark row
who cannot hear anything else,
and to lay them across her lap like a shawl.

Isn’t that a perfect image of quiet—to lay the words across the old woman’s lap like a shawl? Each stanza, though, does that same thing for me. Okay, here’s another. And of course to play fortissimo is to play loudly:

Fortissimo

To play fortissimo
hold something back.

It is what the father does not say
that turns the son.

The fact that the summit cannot be seen
that drives the climber on.

Consider the graceless ones:
the painter who adds one more brush stroke.

the poet of least resistance
who writes past the end of his poem.

Now this one has surprised me in a different way. I thought it would be about blasting out, but no, it’s about holding back. What’s held back in this poem? The loudness. It’s a tour-de-force, too. The poem is short. It holds back words, which is part of where it gets its impact.
Okay, you know that rest is a musical term that means just what it says, right? This poem is called
The Rest

An unpainted sky crossed by branches.
The exact time it takes a bird of hands
to fly between trees.
The moment in sleep where a man stops
breathing. A loss, as of dream:
four small red horses that gallop away.

Isn’t that an astounding little thing? Rest as the dream of horses that gallop away when we wake up.

Here’s one called

Where Music Comes From

One performer shakes it from
his sleeve, like doves.
Another draws gold chain
from his fingertips. But

now come hands which claim
to saw the heart in two. We
hold our breaths. The high-heeled
heart gets up and struts away.

A new act climbs padlocked
into water. We yawn. He does
not rise. The houselights come
on, which burn the skin like sun.

The thing about Lola’s poems is that they put us in a place of utter experience. They do not ask to be explained.

Here’s The Prodigy

He was born with the fingerpads of the blind.
By eight he could tell if someone
had been at the piano before him,
and how long before, and who.
Beginning Fur Elise one November afternoon,
he burst into storms of tears
because his sister had banged
her tuneless anger the night before,
and he felt the bruises still on the keys.

He was born with the ears of a dog.
He could hear his mother’s skin decay,
the soft give
as her cheeks sagged just barely more.
Sometimes his face would cloud
because the moan of needles becoming
earth seemed so incomparably sad.
Or brighten. He had heard
the sun come out on the beating feathers
of birds, miles away.

He was born with his life in his hands.
Toddling, he learned the little bells
of Grieg. Then he mastered Mozart’s
speech, its ache of clean and brittle
song. Then he learned to follow Bach,
crossing water from calm to flood,
up and down the stepping-stones
of the keys. He would dream
of his piano as if it were flesh.
In a room with a strange instrument
he would walk by it once or twice
brushing it, as if by accident,
with his leg, his sleeve.

What to say? How could the intense sensitivity of an artist be better shown?

Here’s one about a major chord. I won’t try to explain the difference between a major and a minor chord. Musicians will know this. Just to say that a major chord has an exact feel to it, no dissonant sounds.

The Major

Every morning he waxes his moustache
with a tiny brush, finishing the ends
with a curl between finger and thumb.
His mother never had to tell him
to sit up straight. Early on
he taught himself to deploy food
accurately to his high mouth
without looking down, a musical
skill akin to finding one’s bedroom
door, no matter how dark the room.
At thirty he devised a six point
inspection scheme he has never
felt the need to change. Looking
into the mirror, he begins it now.

That exact chord. I’m pretty jealous of how she managed to make me feel that compulsive exactness.

This one is called “The Uses of the Metronome.” If you’ve ever practiced piano, you know the metronome sitting up there on the piano, ticking away, insisting you keep the right time. It feels like a policeman until you begin to get better and you relax and bend the sound a little, which is where the real music that has attitude can happen.
The Uses of the Metronome

Before you get sea legs
you place each foot like a drunk
walking a line.

You are a darer of tightropes,
each clenched inch
braced for a fall.

But when the windy second comes
that, thinking nothing,
you balance to the deck’s tilt

then, oh then, the world is utterly blue,
the white sail slaps sky
and you fly, you fly.

Here’s “Technique”

Rock your hand
as though gentling a jar
where dark-chopped fruits have slept
among the lemon peels.

My wrists turn easily in air
yet when I bring them to the keys,
they stiffen. Of course.
Such freedom takes a life
of long and daily exercise

until finally
every muscle moves the hand
and your boat begins to slide
along the river
red with years of leaves.

Around a bend
there is a tin-roofed house
on algaed piers
in whose one room
a woman’s wrist shines

as her hand moves
across the page. If you beached now
you could walk there in an hour.
But you will not,
having chosen to go by water.

Again, anything I say to add to that is just wasted breath. As I listen to these poems I think about the kinds of poetry there are, and how what all good poems have in common. They wake up our senses, they startle us into seeing the same old tired world new again. To do that, they have to drag our rational mind, kicking and screaming, into territory IT would call irrational, silly, nonsensical. But our emotions recognize that territory as the real truth. That’s why, I think, we go “Ahhhh,” when we hear a good poem. For a moment, that teacher-mind, or critic-mind, that wants to explanations, has to shut up.

One last poem. This is one of my favorites. It’s called “Why Performers Wear Black.”

Why Performers Wear Black

Because there is no black flower.
Because they are brides.
So that their hands can reach out of earth.
Because this is not practice.

Because they have agreed
not to talk with their mouths.
Because they know that sound
carries best at night,

the dip of feeding oars,
the loons’ tremolo cry,
a whisper muffled in a woman’s hair
on the far, dark, shore.

Perfect. The poet is Lola Haskins.