We are attracted. We are repulsed. And still we flutter. Puzzled.
Joy Kogawa in the middle of a poem (“Hangnail”) has a description of the death of a moth. The poem is found in A Choice of Dreams. The passage lifts the speaker out of concern for the small but painful hangnail. Our speaker with sardonic tone notes that “A hug might help / But I can’t feel any cosmic arms / Nor earthly ones —”. And then we are thrust into a meditation upon the moth and its demise.
While walking I stepped on a giant moth
And in the long moment of its dying
All the accummulated injustices
Of squashed and battered bugs
Sacrificed on windshields
And sprayed to oblivion
Poured out of its eloquent wings
In one long fluttering —
Yes, our copy text gives us two m’s for “accumulated”. Almost as if the moth was squashed right into the word.
And Kogawa’s poem makes me want to revisit Robin Blaser’s Moth Poem. It’s a long sequence but this little bit provides a nice pendant to the Kogawa.
the moth in the piano
will play on
frightened wings brush
the wired interior
of that machine
Penn Sound has a recording of Blaser reading The Moth Poem. To listen is to rediscover as the poet writes “the moth-kiss has two languages” and in neither am I fluent. C D E flat G A B flat B D [C D Eb G A Bb B D] (this sequence of notes set out on a vertical axis concludes The Moth Poem as collected in The Holy Forest; the sequence goes unarticulated in the recording). I have no ability in reading music but the mention in The Moth Poem of mirrors evokes for me Ravel’s Miroirs of which the first movement is Noctuelles (“Night Moths”). For recordings and score see http://imslp.org/wiki/Miroirs_(Ravel,_Maurice). Neither by sight nor by ear can I make out if Blaser’s notation matches Ravel’s piece composed for piano solo and dedicated to members of the Apaches. Lacking musical knowledge or a convenient gloss, it is but with a moth’s breath that I connect Ravel to Blaser — and the little journey from flame to flame all began with Kogawa’s fluttering lines.
In response to an appeal for assistance in elucidating a musical component in Robin Blaser’s Moth Poem, a subscriber to Humanist conveyed their daughter’s suggestion that I pose the query to the American Musicological Society list. A most fruitful suggestion.
It was with a bit of trepidation I trod on the turf of the experts. But I was curious about what it might be that the poet Robin Blaser in The Moth Poem presents as the penultimate section of his serial poem:
C D Eb G A Bb B D
What I proposed to the AMS-list: What I am trying to determine is whether Blaser is citing an existing piece of music, inventing something, or translating (i.e. modifying something that exists). The musical “quotation” occurrs before the final section of the poem which is devoted to the figure of the translator.
I was kindly disabused of the notion that the letters represented chords. (Ever so nicely done off list: “Those notes are probably not chords per se, but some fragment of melody. If they were chords it would sound something like smashing your entire hand on the piano, […]”).
The series of pitches is not connected to Ravel (WWW keyword searches had revealed a possible allusion to Ravel’s Miroirs of which the first movement is Noctuelles (“Night Moths”) but the evidence is negative for a citing of the Ravel)..
Likewise for a direct connection to Pierrot Lunaire, a set of poems by Albert Giraud set to music by Arnold Schoenberg.
Eric Grunin (grunin.com) suggested “That poem was set to music by Harrison Birtwistle, in “The Moth Requiem”. His publisher’s page for the piece states: ‘This poem was prompted by Blaser tracing eerie nighttime sounds in his house to a moth caught under the lid of a piano, touching the strings in its efforts to escape.’ Those notes are an ascending sequence, so if the story is not apocryphal they may plausibly be the notes Blaser heard.” This is a very elegant solution — in an Occam’s Razor fashion. Also aligns well with internal evidence.
Bonus: Harrison Birtwistle set the poem to music in the “The Moth Requiem”. Question remains if Birtwistle took up the pitch-row given at the end of the Blaser poem in his “Requiem”.
Other searches uncovered a possible intertext for the Blaser poem in the verse of Don Marquis (http://www.donmarquis.org/themoth.htm). Blaser is likely to have known this item of the popular culture. BTW I first encountered Archy and Mehitabel through the music and stories of Rosalie Sorrels (Always A Lady).
An abundance of riches, gratefully acknowledged. And a testament to the ongoing value of discussion lists.
And so for day 1116