Poems by francine j. harris


Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 8, RV 315 “L’estate”: I. Allegro mà non molto

………………………………………..[Antonio Vivaldi, I Solisti Aquilani, Daniele Orlando]

Underneath generators, if you tune it out, it becomes
its own vow of subaural buzz. Something is generating.
Something lit and moving low to the ground. A hush in festival,
night and how the bus rows the street over stoplights. Picking up
speed, it rounds nothing. No men out tonight. No crickets even
if winter is suffering a heat on all the snow melted and slick
ice quickly black has slipped off into greasy gutters and dried though
at midnight, the orchestra loses it. Breaks out of its trap shell. its lounge
doors. its shivering cymbals, and howls a lost dog into the steady drop
night where beneath the window the squash leaves are still fat and
yellowing a sign of dormant or disaster why night baptizes every
utterance, quickly black and restless children are always out now
of earshot, the red priest of Venice is bowing so lightly you have
to listen at full volume and when the men bellow suddenly into
half empty streets at night, it wakes everyone. everyone at once.



Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 4 in E-Flat Major, BWV 1010: IV. Sarabande

………………………………………….[Johann Sebastian Bach, Yo-Yo Ma]

The tension is in drag. the rug of hot winter rain. the droll swish tires.
One of the old men comes to dance three times a night on a Monday.
None of them sorry drizzle, rushing women, honking cab. The ones passing
who speak sometimes. The woman who brings her dog. the dog hushed.
When Carolina studied no violin and made no heirs, who stood beneath
her brothers’ window knockless. wet like mad white raven. little doused
blue blackbirds. little soggy clogs of fog harbinger. Who scuttled open
her womb to check for eggs, for ripe fallopian, for rich blood.
The hollow sound of his fingers, someone’s fingers. low tread running
over wet ground. The silk ribbon bobbing. The arrogant breed.


Excerpted from Here is the Sweet Hand: Poems by francine j. harris. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, August 4, 2020. Copyright © 2020 by francine j. harris. All rights reserved. Purchase a copy of the book here.


francine j. harris’s third collection, Here is the Sweet Hand releases from Farrar, Straus & Giroux in August 2020. She is also the author of play dead, winner of the Lambda Literary and Audre Lorde Awards, and finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. Originally from Detroit, harris has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cave Canem, and the MacDowell Colony. She is Associate Professor of English at the University of Houston.



Commentary by Amanda Moore

I love to teach ekphrastic poetry to my high school students as we explore the multiple ways poets can use and respond to visual art in poems. Sometimes, ekphrastic poems describe the elements of a painting, translating visual elements such as color, shape, and line into specific poetic devices, words, and styles. Other times, these poems explain or comment on the narrative, characters, and/or themes of a visual work. Still other types of ekphrasis evoke the mood or tone of a piece through form or sonic elements, creating a poetic experience that seeks to mimic the visual.

I think of ekphrasis as specifically relevant to paintings and photographs, perhaps even sculpture, and I’m not alone in this. In “Nathaniel Mackey, The Art of Poetry No. 107” from the Spring 2020 issue of The Paris Review, interviewer Cathy Park Hong says of ekphrasis that it is “so embedded in the visual arts,” and asks Mackey, “Do you have a term for poetry inspired by music?” My students, too, are interested in the relationship between music and poems, most specifically in terms of lyrics from those of Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan to Pulitzer Prize-winning Kendrick Lamar, not to mention their favorite rap artists and songwriters. As we consider rhythm and rhyme, poetic devices and refrains, it’s impossible not to rely heavily on our collective knowledge and experience with music. When we read poems about specific songs or compositions, however, I wonder if the term “ekphrastic” really covers what’s at work. Perhaps this is why my interest was so piqued by Park Hong’s question about poems that are inspired by or seek to describe, embody, or imitate music. I was delighted when she and Mackey, after rejecting terms such as melopoeia and synthetic ekphrastic, decided to coin the term harmelorhythmopoetic, which, to my ear, is as much about the sound of a piece as the lyric.

I say all of this in introduction to today’s two poems by francine j. harris because I had just written harmelorhythmopoetic in my notebook the day before picking up her brand new book Here is the Sweet Hand, where I was drawn to a series of four poems in the second section—two are featured here—that take their names from pieces of classical music. While I enjoy classical music in a general sense, I am a novice in terms of knowing composers, movements, performers, and titles. I can guess via etymology, but I have no immediate knowledge of the difference between a sonata, a concerto, a suite, or a prelude, terms in the poem titles. I thus encounter these poems as an empty vessel, with no notion of what mood or tempo I will find.

Certainly, I recognize Vivaldi and The Four Seasons, and I know some sweet, gentle Bach, but the specificity of the names of their works evoke no melody or memory. Reading these poems is a process of discovery and fulfillment, and my point of entry is the music itself—specifically, how the poems respond to, emulate, and re-create various elements of it.

In Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 8, RV 315 “L’estate”: I. Allegro mà non molto, I am struck initially by the ambiguous pronoun reference in the first lines: “Underneath generators, if you tune it out, it becomes / its own vow of subaural buzz.” I assume the “it” is the song from the title, though it seems curious that one might “tune it out.” On the other hand, I often turn on classical music while working, studying, or enjoying a meal, so its presence as a “subaural buzz” beneath other activities rings true. As the first stanza proceeds, the poem describes the movement of the song in imaginative, associate terms: “a hush in festival,” “how the bus rows the street over stoplights,” “picking up speed.” I hear the aural elements of the language and can construct an idea of the song. I don’t know, however, what to make of certain images that at first don’t feel sonic: “No men out tonight,” “all the snow melted,” “greasy gutters.” I want to take the poem’s word for it, so to speak, but I also want to experience it along with the music to see if these elements and images align with the song. Certainly Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Artes” does a fine job of contemplating Breughel’s painting The Fall of Icarus, but the richness of the poem is much easier to grasp when looking at Breughel’s work.

And so I take to Google to find the titular Vivaldi concerto, paying specific attention to the performer whom harris notes, Daniele Orlando. Recordings of classical music abound on YouTube, but this addition of Orlando complicates my search; I have to log on to Spotify to find the exact recording (also available on subscription services such as Apple Music and Amazon Music). The efforts are worth it, however, as reading harris’s poem while playing the Vivaldi piece is a transcendent experience. I feel that nowhere more than after the stanza break when, “at midnight, the orchestra loses it. Breaks out of its trap shell. its lounge / doors. its shivering cymbals.” After a quiet buildup described in the first stanza, the orchestra does indeed “lose it,” and in the revelatory notes that follow, I can hear the cymbals and other instruments breaking out. I continue to listen as poem and song “howl[s] a lost dog” and “the red priest of Venice is bowing so lightly you have / to listen at full volume.” In line after line, harris both describes and embodies the concerto with images, pauses punctuated midsentence with periods, and lineation. I feel “when the men bellow suddenly into / half empty streets at night” and am fully alive at the end as the piece “wakes everyone. everyone at once.” For due diligence, I listen to a few other versions of the concerto and, perhaps predictably, prefer the crispness of the Orlando, which “loses it” and “howls” more intensely than any other I found.

In “Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 4 in E-Flat Major, BWV 1010: IV. Sarabande,” I note consistencies with “Concerto,” not to mention the other two poems in the sequence, such as the nameless men and women who populate them. These poems mostly resist a clear narrative beyond movements and associations with the music, but I do connect “one of the old men [who] comes to dance” in the cello suite with the men who are missing from the night in the Vivaldi poem. I’m curious about this poem’s reference to Carolina, who “studied no violin and made no heirs,” thinking she might be one of Johann Sebastian Bach’s many children. The Johanna Carolina Bach I find on the internet certainly fits that description.

Rather than decode every reference in the poem, however, I’m eager to experience the musicality of it, to listen to the opening, and see how it squares with the poem’s first line: “The tension is in drag. the rug of hot winter rain. the droll swish tires.” In the Yo-Yo Ma rendition, to my (highly untrained) ear, there is some drag, a slow unfolding in the opening of the suite, and something perhaps describable as swishing tires. It strikes me quickly, however, that the more obvious ekphrastic or harmelorhythmopoetic elements here might be tonal instead of simply descriptive, narrative, or image-based. The trilling flourishes near the beginning give me a sense of the “rushing women, honking cab,” if not the actual sounds of them. I note a dirge-like quality that could be “the dog hushed,” and I wonder if the more familiar elements, such as a brief interlude of musical scales and a comforting, resolved ending, project a kind of ease and maybe even arrogance along the lines of what the poem alludes to in its closing: “The silk ribbon bobbing. The arrogant breed.” I can only imagine that a firmer grasp on classical music would bring greater depth to what I understand here.

One of my favorite aspects of writing an ekphrastic poem is the myriad approaches one can take toward a piece of art, and these two poems from harris demonstrate just some of that variation. To my mind, the concerto is a descriptive imitation of the song’s experience, the suite more evocative of tone and feeling. I imagine other listener-readers will have different interpretations based on their own associations and knowledge, another part of what makes ekphrasis, known to me henceforth as Park Hong’s and Mackey’s coinage harmelorhythmopoeia, so rich.



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