Poetry Sunday: “Words and Music,” by Laurel Feigenbaum


Words and Music

If this were a practice life—

In the next
I’d croon and scat like Ella
Get down and dirty with Etta
Glide across the floor with Fred or Gene
Improvise with Basie
Score like Sondheim or Hammerstein.

In my spare time
I’d cultivate a garden
Be fluent in Spanish
Make soufflés like Julia
Lounge, putter, fritter,

Have a big brother
Like peanut butter
Add a lover.


Laurel Feigenbaum Book Cover_The Daily Absurd_11-10-15 Feigenbaum_4-28-15

Laurel Feigenbaum lives with her husband of 65 years in Corte Madera, California. Author of The Daily Absurd, she began writing after careers in education and business. Journal publications include the Marin Poetry Center Anthology, Nimrod, Spillway, Cyclamens and Swords online and a poem forthcoming in Bared (Les Femmes Folles Books, 2016) an anthology edited by Laura Madeline Wiseman. Order The Daily Absurd here.


Notes on “Words and Music”

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor

Laurel Feigenbaum came late to poetry, publishing her first poem at the age of 81 and bringing out her first book last year—to a packed house— when she was 87. I met her in a writing workshop and then worked with her for a few years on the board of the Marin Poetry Center where we often found ourselves in charge of set-up for events, wrangling heavy wooden chairs into rows and hauling conference tables longer than the two of us laid end-to-end. Feigenbaum’s enthusiasm, vigor, sass, and dry wit, are appreciated by all who know her.

These qualities suffuse her writing, especially in today’s poem. I love the idea of getting the ultimate “do over” or, as she says, “how nice it would be to have a ‘practice life’—or as many as you needed to get it right!” According to Feigenbaum, the idea for the poem’s first line came from playing tennis, and she “let it fly from there.” What follows is an energetic bucket list of things the speaker, given the chance, would want to do in a second go-round at her life. Beginning with the imagery of music and dance was “no accident,” Feigenbaum says, since “it’s been my soul food with a direct line to my core from the time I was very young; my father and I often listened to and conducted orchestras and classical music on the radio.“

I like how “Words and Music” shows rather than tells us so many things about its speaker. We can guess her age from the people she’d like to sing, dance, conduct and compose with, all big-name entertainers popular in the 1940s and 50s. The verbs here—“croon,” “get down and dirty,” “glide,” “improvise” and “score”—do a lot of work to show us a woman who values sensuality, grace, invention and mastery of subject. Stanza two reveals the speaker’s sly sense of humor: in her “spare time” (itself a terrific pun on the idea of having an “extra” life) when not dancing and singing alongside the greats, she’ll garden, master Spanish, and whip up soufflés like Julia Child. Since these activities are what the speaker would do the second time around we can assume that she has not done, and may well never have a chance to do, them in this life. But the tone, rather than being one of sorrow and regret, conveys pleasure, whimsy, joy, and a gentle irony that not even a do-over life could be enough to accommodate the vastness of human desire.

When I see a list poem, I pay attention to the way items are sequenced to see if a pattern emerges. Here, the activities go from large, public, and exuberant (singing and dancing on a big stage) to more private, recused, and quiet (gardening, learning Spanish, and lounging around at home) and in the last stanza contract even further to a speaker doing no activities at all beyond postulating a different set of personal relationships. Notice how the stanzas literally shrink as they move down the page: the second has 31 words in six short lines; the third has 20 words in six shorter lines, and the fourth and final stanza has only 10 words in three even shorter lines. The stanzas are shaped by what they describe—frenzied large-scale stage performances in stanza 2, slower-moving and more solitary at-home activities in stanza 3, and the speaker, alone, still, and musing in the last stanza.

The effect is movement towards a quieter interior space where the things that are wished for are deeper and more important, a funnel that concentrates essence at the end. Stanza 3’s “putter,” “fritter” and that delicious “bask” make us smile, but in those words we also see the perspective of an older person who has learned the virtues of slowing down. This prepares us for the introspection of the poem’s last stanza where, in the moment I find most moving, the speaker longs for a life in which she could “have a big brother.” The tone here is wistful until the speaker corrects for it with the next line’s gag, wanting in the do-over life to be able to “like peanut butter.” The list culminates with the wholly unexpected revelation at the poem’s end, that the speaker would “add a lover.” It’s a poignant, slightly shocking, and very gutsy move that effectively concludes the bucket list and the poem, while still leaving readers wondering and intrigued.

Paradise Drive book coverRebecca Foust’s fifth book, “Paradise Drive,” won the 2015 Press 53 Award for Poetry and was reviewed in the Georgia Review, Hudson Review, Huffington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Review of Books, and elsewhere. Recognitions include the 2015 American Literary Review Award for Fiction, the 2015 James Hearst Poetry Prize, the 2014 Constance Rook Creative Nonfiction Award, and fellowships from the Frost Place, MacDowell Colony, Sewanee Writer’s Conference, and West Chester Poetry Conference. “Paradise Drive” can be ordered at www.press53.com. For more information visit rebeccafoust.com.

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