Domination of Darkness (2014)

28 minutes
Countertenor and Flute
For Anthony Roth Costanzo and Claire Chase

Movements:

I. O Florida, Venereal Soil
II. Fabliau of Florida (To Elizabeth Sobol)
III. Infanta Marina
IV. A High-Toned Old Christian Woman
V. Domination of Black

Notes:

In his early volume, Harmonium, Wallace Stevens came out as an irresistibly fresh and sensual poetic voice. I’ve always been attracted to the vigorous, refreshing quality of the poems since I was a child and when I received a commission to write for countertenor and flute, I thought that the instrumentation (a vivid treble sound-world) would be a perfect playground for Stevens’ fresh evocations of the great outdoors. After all, this soundscape was to combine two of the world’s oldest instruments: the human voice and the flute. But when I sat down to set these poems to music, I found a fascinating tension between the old and the new, between the reverential and the sleazy and between the great outdoors and the great “indoors” of self-examination and introspection.

The first three poems of this cycle display Stevens’ life-long love affair with Florida. In the first, O, Florida Venereal Soil, the state is described in sexual terms: even the wind is “lascivious”. The opening has a quality of invocation asking Florida, “venereal soil” to disclose a few things “for themselves” to the lover. There’s a slapstick quality to some of the linguistic invention: “The negro undertaker/Killing the time…”. But there’s also wild and high music in the evocation of the “donna”. Highlighting the playfulness of the way that Stevens manipulates the sounds of syllables helps to show why this poem is a composer’s dream:

Donna, donna, dark,
Stooping in indigo gown

There’s a sense of inner-symmetry that is inherently musical and also a refreshing sense that the poet is having a lot of fun with the sounds of words. Even this early in the cycle, though, the insinuations of darkness are present (“Donna, donna, dark”, “A scholar of darkness”, “the negro undertaker”) but throughout it all is a lewd sexuality (I set “Virgin of boorish births” as a sort of sleazy take on an imaginary Lutheran chorale). The poem ends on an extrovert erotic note:

“A hand that bears a thick-leavened fruit,
A pungent bloom against your shade.”

We stay firmly rooted in Florida with the second song of the cycle, Fabliau of Florida. Just as the first song looks back to Milton (“venereal trains”) with its title referencing the goddess Venus in “Venereal Soil”, Fabliau of Florida looks back to the fables (fabliau) of Chaucer’s day. The poem is a beautiful experience in imagery where foam and cloud become one and “sultry moon-monsters” dissolve. The music is sustained and freed of the pulse of time with the flute droning on like the endless tide of the ocean. The transcendent and overpoweringly eternal presence of nature is captured in the last lines:

“There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.”

The donna of the first song returns as the princess of the sea in the third song, Infanta Marina. Here the flute begins with the active magic of the twirling “motions of her wrist” with which the princess makes the “grandiose gestures/Of her thought”. The magic of alliteration also prevails as the poet continues his play with the sounds of language, in particular the letter “s” as in “sleights of sails/Over the sea” or “subsiding sound”.

While the alliterative sorcery continues in the fourth song, A High-Toned Old Christian Woman, the poem also introduces Stevens’ lawyerly skills in classical rhetoric. The poem is styled as a debate that reins in on the stodgy convictions of a “high-toned old Christian woman”. Stevens goes a step further than saying that religion and poetry are both fictions. If they are fictions that reflect the multifaceted aspects of a human maker rather than any kind of god, Stevens contends that poetry is, indeed, “the supreme fiction”. The debate continues and is brilliantly constructed to vacillate between the judicious and hilariously pompous. At the same time that the poem looks forward, it also refers to the past: a “classical peristyle” vs a “Gothic nave”. It’s a wild journey  and the song features the shrill “wake-up” intrusiveness of a high piccolo in place of the flute. The poem is also rich with a party of linguistic sounds as in “Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed/Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade” and the bold jazziness of “Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk”. It ends, perfectly, with fictive things “winking” and causing our high-toned old widow to wince.

The final poem takes place at the intersection of outdoor imagery and terrifying introspection. Domination of Black takes us back to the images of darkness. The form of the song, as a lament, reveals itself with an elegiac flute soliloquy that slowly winds down from the upper register of the flute to its lowest note. It starts “at night, by the fire” and continues like a miniature horror show with the turning of the leaves. Soon, the picture turns to that of the “heavy hemlocks” and the memory of an ambiguous cry of peacocks. The cry of the cryptic peacocks takes us back, through the psychological corridor, to the turning of the leaves as the “colors of their tails/Were like the leaves themselves”. Stevens comes back to this continuous turning four times in the poem and each time the music presents it with slight variation but with the same inescapable obsessiveness until it builds up with the “loud fire” to a loud confusion where we are unable to know whether we are hearing the cry of the peacocks or a cry against the hemlocks.

As the music calms down the turning continues. The final lines say something of suicidal thoughts as the poet gives up to the domination of darkness:

 “I saw how the night came,
 Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
 I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.”

– Mohammed Fairouz (2014)

Texts

I. O Florida, Venereal Soil

A few things for themselves,
Convolvulus and coral,
Buzzards and live-moss,
Tiestas from the keys,
A few things for themselves,
Florida, venereal soil,
Disclose to the lover.

The dreadful sundry of this world,
The Cuban, Polodowsky,
The Mexican women,
The negro undertaker
Killing the time between corpses
Fishing for crayfish…
Virgin of boorish births,

Swiftly in the nights,
In the porches of Key West,
Behind the bougainvilleas,
After the guitar is asleep,
Lasciviously as the wind,
You come tormenting,
Insatiable,

When you might sit,
A scholar of darkness,
Sequestered over the sea,
Wearing a clear tiara
Of red and blue and red,
Sparkling, solitary, still,
In the high sea-shadow.

Donna, donna, dark,
Stooping in indigo gown
And cloudy constellations,
Conceal yourself or disclose
Fewest things to the lover —
A hand that bears a thick-leaved fruit,
A pungent bloom against your shade.

II. Fabliau of Florida

Barque of phosphor
On the palmy beach,

Move outward into heaven,
Into the alabasters
And night blues.

Foam and cloud are one.
Sultry moon-monsters
Are dissolving.

Fill your black hull
With white moonlight.

There will never be an end
To this droning of the surf.

III. Infanta Marina

Her terrace was the sand
And the palms and the twilight.

She made of the motions of her wrist
The grandiose gestures
Of her thought.

The rumpling of the plumes
Of this creature of the evening
Came to be sleights of sails
Over the sea.

And thus she roamed
In the roamings of her fan,
Partaking of the sea,
And of the evening,
As they flowed around
And uttered their subsiding sound.

IV. A High-Toned Old Christian Woman

Poetry is the supreme fiction, madame.
Take the moral law and make a nave of it
And from the nave build haunted heaven. Thus,
The conscience is converted into palms,
Like windy citherns hankering for hymns.
We agree in principle. That’s clear. But take
The opposing law and make a peristyle,
And from the peristyle project a masque
Beyond the planets. Thus, our bawdiness,
Unpurged by epitaph, indulged at last,
Is equally converted into palms,
Squiggling like saxophones. And palm for palm,
Madame, we are where we began. Allow,
Therefore, that in the planetary scene
Your disaffected flagellants, well-stuffed,
Smacking their muzzy bellies in parade,
Proud of such novelties of the sublime,
Such tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk,
May, merely may, madame, whip from themselves
A jovial hullabaloo among the spheres.
This will make widows wince. But fictive things
Wink as they will. Wink most when widows wince.

V. Domination of Black

At night, by the fire,
The colors of the bushes
And of the fallen leaves,
Repeating themselves,
Turned in the room,
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
Yes: but the color of the heavy hemlocks
Came striding.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

The colors of their tails
Were like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
In the twilight wind.
They swept over the room,
Just as they flew from the boughs of the hemlocks
Down to the ground.
I heard them cry—the peacocks.
Was it a cry against the twilight
Or against the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind,
Turning as the flames
Turned in the fire,
Turning as the tails of the peacocks
Turned in the loud fire,
Loud as the hemlocks
Full of the cry of the peacocks?
Or was it a cry against the hemlocks?

Out of the window,
I saw how the planets gathered
Like the leaves themselves
Turning in the wind.
I saw how the night came,
Came striding like the color of the heavy hemlocks
I felt afraid.
And I remembered the cry of the peacocks.

—Wallace Stevens

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