Years ago, when I was new to California, a freshman in college during the fall of The Summer of Love, I woke the first morning in my dorm. It was 6:30 AM. A voice was spilling words into my ear that seemed part of my dream, and yet they were not. I remember the beauty of the voice, the language, and my disorientation from both.
The singer was Judy Collins. The song was Suzanne, by Leonard Cohen. See the link below to a Rolling Stone article and a performance of the song.
Through the years, I held on to the lyric and the lovely guitar and voice. Then late one evening in the late 90s, I sat in the dark, listening to a recording of myself and my bandmates in Passenger, my band from the early 80s. It was a live performance, and Jeannine’s voice floated over Ashley’s keyboard and my acoustic guitar. On the choruses, unlike Judy Collins’s version, we sang three-part harmony. It was good. Michael, our drummer who sat out for that song, is heard to say, “Beautiful,” as the applause rises behind.
That night, I was struck by the way that song had continued to weave its way into my life through the years. Not by accident, for certain, but perhaps unappreciated. So I began to write a poem in which I incorporated some of the lyrics from Cohen’s song into three verses, three stories from my life. The first was my college dorm. The second, that performance, transposed into a bar we used to play in Point Reyes Station. And the third, that night, in my home in San Rafael, with my daughter asleep upstairs, and the 18-year-old recording playing in the background. So it’s a “found poem” in a way, obviously owing a great debt to the original. But I wanted to capture the way the words of the song blended with my world.
Here’s the poem, which I offer as a tribute to those people who shared the song with me over the years, to Judy Collins, for her beautiful rendition, and most of all to Leonard Cohen, who wrote those words and placed them in such a beautiful melody: one his own voice couldn’t quite convey, but which he clearly heard.
Thank you, Leonard. Thank you, all. Below is the poem. Italics indicate my additions. The rest, Cohen’s lyrics.
Leonard Cohen on the Clock Radio, 1967 and Thereafter
Waking by the river late summer of love,
her voice, cascading in tea and oranges,
in golden light that comes all the way from China,
waking in adobe, the heat like honey,
dawn-red roof tiles, hissing lawns,
Martin still living and Jesus was a sailor,
you want to travel blind when dreams come nearer,
waking with her among the garbage and the flowers,
trusting in the seaweed morning, her mind.
And in the denim Western, there are children mourning
and cowboys leaning out for love, nursing a Coors,
and she, certain only drowning men can see her.
Black velvet trios walk blues like chimes,
like shadows upon the water,
and she shows you where to look,
outside of all this, where a lonely wooden tower
is run by roses, where the sun pours down,
where you travel with her, blind.
Rocking white wicker this night forever,
half crazy, half sleeping,
where the night air pools beneath the trees.
Silence hisses, applause rises on tape,
and you hear the boats go by, slowly up the hill,
and a voice you don’t recall, calls
through memory all the way down
to one cricket in the darkness.
You know you want to be there,
perfect, perfect it seemed, body and mind.
Here’s the link I promised.
I began noticing it while sitting with my wife through episodes of The Bachelor. Everyone on that show talks about “my journey” as if filming a six-week reality show is some epic, an Odyssey, replete with headwind, salt spray and maybe a Cyclops or two.
Then things got worse.
Every contestant on every show, every person interviewed on GMA or on the nightly news, it seems, is on “a journey.” Then this morning I looked at the side panel of my Corn Chex box and saw the headline, “General Mills is on a Journey.” Arrrgh!
I wonder what we used to say in these instances. “What is your story?” “Tell us about your experience?” No matter now.
These things happen, I know. As a writer, as a former teacher, I’m particularly sensitive to language trends (or as we would say today, “what’s trending in language.” More on that another time, another time.)
I recall the shifts in usage certain words went through during my years in the classroom. “Tight” did frequent 180’s in meaning in the 70s and 80s, lurching from “unfair” to “cool” —maybe “dope” in today’s vernacular— then back again. Saying, “Wow, that’s tight!” was a crap-shoot. I would try to keep up, so as not to embarrass myself. Better still just to stay away from using teen slang.
I am amazed sometimes that contemporary slang dips back centuries for expressions that were common long ago. I remember talking to a student in the early ‘80s about a new piece of writing I’d done over the weekend. Monica looked askance and said, “You must be some kind of full poetry guy.” I think “full” was an early alternative for “total” and “totally” which have ruled the roost pretty much ever since. I haven’t heard “full” used that way in many years.
My curiosity then was that “ful” (with one L) was a common adverb in the Middle English of Chaucer’s work, meaning “very.” Here’s an example from The Miller’s Prologue:
3150 This dronke Millere spak ful soone ageyn
(This drunken Miller spoke very quickly in reply)
How a usage from the late 14th century wound up in the mouth of a high school freshman in 1982, I don’t know. But there you are. Of course, when I excitedly told Monica about all this, she rolled her eyes. Like me, watching The Bachelor.
So I guess we all have our peeves, pet and otherwise. I’m just more inclined than some to take notes and make public my complaint. That’s my journey, I guess.
Over on Facebook, I was invited by a friend to post a series of songs from the decade, the 60s Musical Challenge, along with whatever personal and musical history I chose for each post. A YouTube video, if available, would be nice. This process led me to some fun discoveries: some songs I’d forgotten, a promising co-writing project with another friend, and some essays I was glad to share. Here’s one.
For Day 3 of my 60s Music Challenge I’m picking Roy Orbison. Everyone would expect the 1965 smash, “Pretty Woman,” here. And I love that song. I love “Crying,” “Blue Bayou” and “Mean Woman Blues,” too. But for me, in my history, it’s “In Dreams.”
I have such a memory of this song. I was an 8th grader, at home in the study of the house I grew up in—a drafty school-owned Victorian in Western Massachusetts. I was practicing for my typing class on a manual Royal typewriter set up on my father’s big desk. And this song came on the radio. No more typing. There are only a few songs I can remember hearing for the very first time. This is one. The song starts almost conversationally, and as I would later discover, has an introduction that isn’t repeated within the song structure.
As a musician, as a songwriter, I’m fascinated by that aspect of the song: its asymmetry. Nothing close to verse/verse/chorus/bridge here. The narrative builds through unique, evolving chords and melodies, each one taking Orbison higher in his range and deeper into his emotion.
Really, though, it’s the narrative that first drew me in. I didn’t know anything much about chords or song structure. I was years from playing in anything close to a “band.” But I could hear the story. By the time we get to, “But just before the dawn,” I, like pretty much everyone around then, was hooked. “I can’t help it, I can’t help it, if I cry/I remember that you said goodbye.” And the killer finish, not only narratively recalling something everyone has known: the loss of something magical in a dream, but loosing Orbison into his signature and incredible falsetto: “Only in dreams. . .” And then, suddenly, it’s over. The listener is wrung out.
There were other singers then known for their falsettos: Lou Christie, Frankie Valli, Smokey Robinson. I love Smokey. But the drama that Roy Orbison created in so many songs as a singer and a writer is amazing.
Video of Roy
Incidentally, this video is from 1987, just 14 months before his death. This event, called “Black and White” (and which was shot in B&W), was filmed in Los Angeles and released the following year. Here, according to Wikipedia, are the musicians. Wow.
“On piano was Glen D. Hardin, who had played piano for Buddy Holly as well as Elvis Presley. Lead guitarist James Burton, drummer Ronnie Tutt and bassist Jerry Scheff were also from Presley’s group. Male background vocals and some guitars were provided by Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, J.D. Souther and Steven Soles. Female background vocalists were k.d. lang, Jennifer Warnes and Bonnie Raitt.”
I remember Jonny—the first childhood friend I lost. Not to moving or diverging adult thinking, political philosophy, or any of that. I mean death.
When I was just finishing college, I learned that Jonny had drowned in a white-water canoeing accident. I heard that his body had not been recovered, but that there was no chance that he could have survived, given the circumstances. I was stunned, not only by the information and the sense of loss that accompanied it, but also by the fact that I had recently received a letter from him, eagerly reporting this plan to attend a camp in Ontario, and closing with a sentence that reverberated in my ear: “Don’t write after June. I won’t be here.”
Younger Jonny seemed a delicate, ethereal, young man. Gangly, though wiry and strong. He had a stammer, and began his sentences with “Ya-a-a-a-ah know . . .” as a space holder in conversation, because he learned that unless he asserted himself somehow, he might never get a word in. And being boys, we naturally dubbed him “Yah-no” in place of Jon. He accepted the name without objection. What else could he do?
He and I played all the pick-up sports together: tackle football, baseball, basketball. We played army in the nearby woods, and went camping there, too. Sometimes the two of us went paddling on the lake near our homes, and once at least on the Connecticut River. I remember once I leaned too far over the gunwale of the canoe we were maneuvering through late spring ice on Shadow Lake. I felt myself start to go overboard toward the freezing water. But Jonny grabbed the back of my coat and held me in. That was the extent of my canoeing accident.
Recently there was a reunion of “Fac Brats” like me who spent a significant portion of their childhood at a school in Western Massachusetts where our parents were teachers. I didn’t attend, but was happy to get posts with photos on Facebook. One included two shots of Jonny: one around 18, the time of his death, and another from when I knew him best—about 10 years old. They were posted by his sister, Kathy, with a simple memorial attached. The older one is above. Here’s the later.
As a result, she and I got in touch after probably more than 50 years. From her I learned that Jonny’s body had been found about a month later. A local Native American fishing guide had told authorities that if the river was going to give up the body, it would be in a certain spot. And there it was. There he was. His watch was still working.
I wrote a poem, an elegy, for Jonny back then. I have reworked it many times through the years. I’ve known that to be an indication that his death was significant and getting the tribute right was important. Just before writing this, I revised it again. I know I’m looking for some emotional closure that a poem may never bring. I imagine a transformation for him that I hope could somehow be real.
Around the time I was first writing the poem, James Taylor famously wrote, “I walked out this morning, and I wrote down this song/I just can’t remember who to send it to.” Now at last, I’ve had someone to share my poem with—Kathy. I’m hoping it matters to her and to her brother Peter. Her mother, too, if she’s still living. I know they, too, are still seeking closure for this unthinkable loss. So bear witness to Jonny’s life and death, and to our grief, still somehow fresh after all this time.
For Jonny, lost in Canada
Together, we never rode loud water.
As children, we dipped oars in lakes’ piney silence,
or stroked the river’s moonlight glide.
We called you “YAH-no” then
with the affectionate cruelty of boys, playing
on your name, and on that stammering sound you made.
Often you were silent, two fingers sucked
between your lips, your words jammed in your throat,
your thoughts tangled somewhere inside.
Years later, when you moved, we lost touch.
But I still have your letter, sent that March:
“My brother and I—canoeing camp—northern Ontario. . .”
I pictured white water, filling day and night with sound:
a kind of silence where you wouldn’t have to speak.
Closing, you said, “Don’t write after June. I won’t be here.”
That was all—the last of you: Your craft capsized,
your body lost; your voice—that welcome, fluted stumbling
swept away in rapid clamor.
Now sometimes, the river calls, and when I go,
I always hope to find you: rising like a sea-god, Jonny,
and roaring like the Colorado.
I’ve been reading a lot lately about Virtual Reality and how our lives will be forever changed when we can be immersed in virtual scenes, whether these be business meetings, movies with friends, games, or trips to far off places.
Having seen the Internet move from text-based content to photograph-heavy content, and knowing that video content is already moving in (a website project I was working on lately in the end involved little work for me because the owner wanted videos (of himself) to carry his message), it isn’t hard for me to believe Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg when he claims that VR will be the next step beyond video. He revels in the thought of “be[ing] able to stream what you are doing live and have people to able to interact in that space. . . . Humans are fundamentally social.”
There is something missing here. I don’t want to push against the tide, but moving to a virtual reality is not a complete human experience. One of the scenes Zuckerberg imagines is sitting around a virtual campfire with friends from around the world. The social aspect of that, the human social aspect of that may be valid. Meeting somewhere in real time, and interacting with those someones, both verbally and visually—so that gestural, “metalinguistic” communication is intact as well—that’s all good.
The missing piece is what’s not human in that scene. A constructed version of nature and wilderness is neither one. I’m seeing an article this morning (yes, on Facebook) about a bison calf that Yellowstone Park visitors “rescued” because “it looked cold” and they thought it had been abandoned. The result? The calf had to be euthanized because it quickly developed the habit of begging for food from humans and gravitating toward human contact. That’s cute in a 65-pound calf. Not so much in a one-ton plus adult bison.
The point is that we often don’t understand what we see in nature. And if and when we try to construct what we do understand as nature in Virtual Reality— well, I’m not optimistic. Even the vegetation could be an issue. Many folks are so deprived of experience in nature they don’t know how to describe it. I had a student a few years ago who was writing a scene with trees. In the interest of aiming him toward clearer, more precise description, I asked, “What kind of trees are they?” He answered, “You know, normal trees.” I fear that our virtual reality would be populated with “normal trees” and “normal creatures.” I shudder to think.
Of course, what I know about VR would rattle inside a hollow aspirin tablet, and maybe engineers are already uploading all sorts of data I can’t imagine to create a more real virtually real. But a larger issue remains. Nature is not a human construction. The better you know that, the more strange and wonderful nature becomes. Sometimes it seems utterly alien. So be it.
The Romantic poet William Wordsworth famously wrote, “Nature never did betray the heart that loved her,” but despite all his long walks in the Lake District, Wordsworth was wrong, I think. I don’t think that “nature” cares much about me, frankly. Nor should it. I am a part of nature, yes. But nature isn’t here to provide me with feedback about myself, or to stand as a metaphor for my life process. I need to be curious, and attentive. Respectful, and learn to keep my distance sometimes, as those Yellowstone tourists maybe learned the hard way.
Since it hasn’t worked in the real world, I don’t have much hope that that attitude can work in virtual reality.
The Chippewa song, Noise of the Village, reads, simply, “Whenever I pause, the noise of the village.” The context, understood by the intended audience, is the point of view of someone walking on foot on trails on a hillside above the settlement of his people. That context, missing for us, was immediately accessible to whoever heard or sang that song, centuries ago. The song/poem is a sort of haiku, American-style, which influenced many poets of the late 60s.
It’s common for us to feel marginalized by songs, poems— literature in general— of other cultures. It’s good for us of the dominant culture, I think, to feel we missed a handout somewhere. We are accustomed to having our literature pre-digested for us. We expect it to be easy.
In celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, more commonly Columbus Day, then, I acknowledge the People who came before us here, and who gave the world here its first words. Even the Spanish city and street names here in my neighborhood are a secondary layer of language history. I accept the fact that there is much I will never get, never understand, no matter what. Heck, it’s true of Shakespeare, too. Celebrate.
That said, I also felt on that particular evening that I shared the experience the song describes, in a very contemporary, personal and authentic way. I was walking my dog in the late heat of the October day on the open space behind my “village.” The view going up the hill is grand. I can see the maze of gently curving suburban streets below me, the fire station just now springing to life with sirens and swirling red lights. Beyond that, Highway 101 going north/south as always, a river of traffic that never rests. And beyond that more streets of a business park, the canals of Bel Marin Keys, and finally, serene in the still and heat, the Bay—San Pablo Bay, the forehead of San Francisco Bay. As I turn to survey all that, and as my dog notices and decides she can explore the surrounding grassland, I hear the sound of the village.
I also imagine from my sentimental perspective that the village sounds the song commemorates were richer, more aesthetic. They were human sounds of a purer nature: children laughing, women grinding by hand a pestle of wild wheat with a stone mortar. A pair of dogs barking. A baby crying. Human, except for the dogs. My village is the traffic.
I was going to say that my village was silenced by the traffic, and that is true, I suppose. But these days we do our living, our work and play, inside thicker walls, walls which conceal our joy and our boredom, our pleasure and our pain. No, the noise from the freeway is legitimately ours, is us, is our village. If, in a few centuries, someone were to study today’s American culture, the car would certainly be a star player.
And this evening, as I pause on the hill overlooking the village, for better or worse, it speaks for us.
By the time I had finished my last posting, the word “champing” was echoing in my head. I was saddened by the news that usage of the word has nearly disappeared except in this one context. Not a major human tragedy, true. But the language is diminished by the loss of any colorful expression. What I want to say now is that, in those hours after posting, I began listening, hearing a phrase in my head. Soon it became a whole stanza, then several stanzas. This was not a new poem or song coming through on God’s Radio, as I think Anne Lamott calls those moments when we get a special muse-assist. This was an old poem titled, The Listeners, by Walter de la Mare. I had had to memorize it. In 8th grade.
I don’t mind telling you that’s more than fifty years ago, and that in all the intervening years, I haven’t read or heard the poem even once. It is not one that is currently in vogue (or anywhere else). I’ll post a link here.
Notice, first of all: the narrative is wonderful. Here is a scene that is mostly left unexplained, mysterious. “Tell them I came.” (Tell whom?) “That I kept my word.” (How? About what?) The listeners may be witnesses, but they are not talking. They only listen. And who are they?
The use of sound in this poem is also wonderful—the kind of alliteration these days used in rap sometimes, but not many other places. In Standard English it sounds a little dated, I think. But listen: “. . . the forest’s ferny floor.” “leaf-fringed sill/Leaned over and looked into his grey eyes. . . .” and best of all, “how the silence surged softly backward/when the plunging hoofs were gone.” That last line is brilliant. The sense of closure in the poem is partly dramatic—the Traveler, whoever he was, has departed. But without the alliteration measuring the tide-like encroachment of silence, which puts us in the place of the Listeners rather than with “that voice from the world of men,” we would not feel the moment as de la Mare wanted. Magical.
Clearly the reason my brain found its way back to this poem in the first place is there in the third line: “While his horse in the silence champed the grasses. . ..” Yup. That poor, nearly archaic word, “champing.” That was the key. And not used in the expression I wrote about last time.
I know that memory is very closely connected to our sense of smell. When I smell roses, I am transported to a back yard in Menlo Park , CA where as a young man I took care of a family’s landscaping for four years. Language can also be a trigger. A word—all language—connects us to many things in many ways: ideas, emotions and concepts, of course, and also to memory. When a word gets lost, doorways close. I nearly lost this poem. But once I began listening, noticing that single word in my ear, I was able to recite from memory nearly the whole poem, more than fifty years later.
Please, share the poem. And if you are inclined, read it aloud. Read it to someone. It will reward you. Be a “listener” yourself. Recognize and treasure those words that lead you back or on, or wherever.
Okay, so I held the fort for “hold the fort” last week. Victory. This past weekend, my sweetheart said, as she often does, she was “chomping at the bit” to do something. And as I always do, though not always out loud, I muttered, “champing.” “What?” she asked. “Champing at the bit. That’s the correct expression.” She gave me the look, which she often does at times like these.
See, a few years ago I was taking an online survey about my habits of mind, and, the preceding paragraph notwithstanding (and the word “notwithstanding” notwithstanding), because I’m really not a fussbudget, I’m not a grammar and usage Nazi, I answered to indicate that language meant relatively little to me, at least in terms of correctness. Jean Marie scoffed. I think she actually laughed out loud. And now, years later, whenever I do something like pointing out “champing” vs. “chomping,” she gets to say, “but language means nothing to you.” And it comes with a look.
We laugh about this. I know when I’m properly busted. But I also hold onto my beliefs about the value of old idioms. They often come from a time long gone, when objects, tools, whatever, which were common then have now ceased to exist. Sometimes that renders the idiom obsolete, silly. “Give you a ring” is teetering on the brink, because most phones don’t ring anymore (although mine does) and anyone younger than about 47 seems to text, email or message in some other fashion. And so it goes. But for whatever reason, I feel obliged, maybe even obligated as a former teacher, to hold the line (not the fort this time) on certain expressions that are lovely in their very strangeness. “Champing at the bit” is one such expression.
At Jean Marie’s suggestion, I “looked up” (Aaugh! Googled!) the phrase. To my dismay, I learned that not only did the now-familiar chomp begin as a variant of champ, it has, in all usage except the above, utterly obliterated it. The Grammarist website notes,
Champing at the bit can sound funny to people who aren’t familiar with the idiom or the obsolete sense of champ, while most English speakers can infer the meaning of chomping at the bit.
So I may have to surrender this time. Is it worth holding the fort (sorry, couldn’t resist) against such overwhelming odds? Maybe not. The bit remains, of course, and I have just discovered a whole page showing dozens of different shapes and designs. The language there is rich: “A kimberwicke acts like a mild curb bit.” That’s something.
Still, I love the image and the sound that the unfamiliar phrase creates: champing at the bit— a horse, mouthing the hard metal device, not in discomfort, but in eagerness to get started, to run off at a gallop. That’s how metaphor works, after all. Two things compared that are unlike, but similar enough to make the comparison sensible. It’s the management of strangeness that makes the language bloom in our minds. Chomping is just a little too familiar for me to feel the metal between my teeth, and chew on it, ready to head off down the road.