When Seamus Heaney selected the three poems, In Iowa, Höfn and Anything Can Happen as the basis for our first collaboration he rationalized it by writing to me “I thought a triptych could be made as follows – the first two being ominous, the third catastrophic – the omen fulfilled, as it were.”
We knew from the very start that Anything Can Happen, my first choral work since my Requiem Mass (2006) would be a heavy work. I found, in the process of putting together the texts with Seamus that there were beautiful parallels to the narrative of these three apocalyptic poems in passages from the Arabic Injeel (the equivalent to the New Testament) that I ended up setting in the original old Arabic to form the inner movements of the piece. These movements are titled Suras (literally “Pictures” or “Images”) to which I provide my own translation from the original Arabic.
In Iowa is a powerful sonnet that opens, as many epics open, with a storm (think of Shakespeare or The Illiad). The setting of Iowa was especially attractive for this poem as one of the co-commissioners for this work, together with Cantori New York, Boston Back Bay Chorale and the Marsh Chapel Singers are the Grinnell Singers at Grinnell College where Seamus originally wrote the poem. The emergence of the biblical language “Verily I came forth…” is cast for the baritone soloist here. This movement is followed by the First Sura which is a setting in Arabic from a section of the Arabic Injeel somewhat corresponding to the recounting of the cruxifiction from the book of Matthew. The imagery of the tearing of the veil at the third hour corresponds closely to Seamus’ imagery in In Iowa.
Following this is the center movement cast for the male voices of the chorus. It is a setting of Höfn and recounts the melting of a glacier. This image of the earth flooding (with overtones of global warming) links not only to the closing lines of In Iowa (Not of parted, but of rising waters) but also to the next Sura.
The Second Sura is a setting in Arabic that corresponds to a sequence from the Book of Revelation in which the dragon, banished from Heaven attempts to drown the mother of humanity by drowning her and her children in a flood which it unleashes. In failing the dragon vows revenge on the woman and future generations.
The finale is a setting of Anything Can Happen. This music is violent. Much has been said about the imagery relating to the September 11th terrorist attacks on America in this poem but the poem contains even more. It is filled with all types of apocalyptic imagery which are realized in an androgenous opening for the whole chorus, some violent outbursts and an eventual collapse. The work closes with the pulsating lines of the chorus singing “Telluric ash and fire spoils boil away.”
Anything Can Happen is dedicated to Seamus Heaney with gratitude for his support and friendship. —Mohammed Fairouz (2012)
I. In Iowa
In Iowa once, among the Mennonites
In a slathering blizzard, conveyed all afternoon
Through sleet-glit pelting hard against the windscreen
And a wiper’s strong absolving slumps and flits,
I saw, abandoned in the open gap
Of a field where wilted corn stalks flagged the snow,
A mowing machine. Snow brimmed its iron seat,
Heaped each spoked wheel with a thick white brow,
And took the shine off oil in the black-toothed gears.
Verily I came forth from that wilderness
As one unbaptized who had known darkness
At the third hour and the veil in tatters.
In Iowa once. In the slush and rush and hiss
Not of parted but as of rising waters.
II. First Sura
And Jesus screamed with an astonishing voice
And the veil of the Temple was torn in two
From its top to its bottom
And the earth shook
And the mountains shattered
And the graves opened up
And many of the departed saints rose
And they exited their tombs
And entered the holy city.
—from the Arabic Injeel (trans. Fairouz)
The three-tongued glacier has begun to melt.
What will we do, they ask, when boulder-milt
Comes wallowing across the delta flats
And the miles-deep shag ice makes its move?
I saw it, ridged and rock-set, from above,
Undead grey-gristed earth-pelt, aeon-scruff,
And feared its coldness that still seemed enough
To iceblock the plane window dimmed with breath,
Deepfreeze the seep of adamantine tilth
And every warm, mouthwatering word of mouth.
IV. Second Sura
And when the dragon saw that he had been banished to the Earth
He cursed the woman who had borne the Child
The woman was given two blessed wings with which to fly to the exterior, to her position
And so there passed a period of time and many periods of time
And so the dragon unleashed flooding waters as a river so as to drown the woman
And the earth opened up swallowing the dragon’s flood and saving the woman
And the dragon was enraged and swore revenge
He left to invent means to destroy the woman and all her children
Who revere God
And keep the commandments of Jesus Christ the Messiah
—from the Arabic Injeel (trans. Fairouz)
V. Anything Can Happen
Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well just now
He galloped his thunder cart and his horses
Across a clear blue sky. It shook the earth
and the clogged underearth, the River Styx,
the winding streams, the Atlantic shore itself.
Anything can happen, the tallest towers
Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded. Stropped-beak Fortune
Swoops, making the air gasp, tearing the crest off one,
Setting it down bleeding on the next.
Ground gives. The heaven’s weight
Lifts up off Atlas like a kettle lid.
Capstones shift. Nothing resettles right.
Telluric ash and fire-spores boil away.
“In Iowa,” “Höfn,” and “Anything Can Happen” from District and Circle, 2006 Used by Permission