Song cycle on texts by Wayne Koestenbaum
Commissioned by Roki
I am honored to have Mohammed Fairouz set my three poems to music; his treatment–sensitive to every syllable, every emotional undercurrent–heightens and amplifies my rather reticent and oblique words, and gives them a strange, feverish directness. All three poems come from my 2006 book Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films. The first, “Ballad of the Layette,” appears in that book as a free-standing poem; the second and third, “Blue Sea Songs” and “Posh,” are part of a longer sequence, called “The Pourquoi Club.” Mohammed chose these three epigrammatic lyrics for idiosyncratic and not entirely explicable reasons. I think he liked the idea of paying homage to Ned Rorem (whom I mention in “Blue Sea Songs”); and the presence of Rachmaninoff (in “Ballad”) and Walter Benjamin (in “Posh”) gave added European historical/cultural resonances to the cycle. The three poems together don’t tell a story, but they suggest a covert bildungsroman, or a growth from a wordless baby, in “Ballad,” who lacks the “proper aural sifting mechanism” but who from his perch of pampered incompetence can look forward to a sad future of “Rachmaninoff and road rage”–to a mournful and erotically hapless adolescent in “Blue Sea Songs,” who is in search of Ned Rorem sea songs that only exist in dreams–to the more openly introspective narrator of “Posh,” whose weeping father brings to mind the self-slaughtered Walter Benjamin, and who declaims, at the cycle’s end, that the tenor repertoire “expired” in 1942, as if the damages of the Holocaust and WWII included the death of opera. To this morbid subtext, Fairouz adds, throughout the cycle, a dash of wit, playfulness, and lability, with rapid changes in emotion, spasms of self-display, and quicksilver shifts in harmony and color, with detours whose affects range from the plushly lyrical to the spikily acerbic. Irony, in his settings, is everywhere, but so is tenderness, as if the ghost of Poulenc were to speak, or sing, again, to remind us of what the future (embodied in Fairouz’s gift) still promises.
Sing a song of Baby’s illiteracy.
Words hit consciousness
and vanquish formulae.
Sing a song of Baby’s European layette.
awed, in a heap on the floor.
Sing a song of deadbeat dads,
impoverished barnyard animals,
logic only I can follow.
Sing a song of Baby’s future,
talent scouts and holding pens,
Rachmaninoff and road rage.
Baby lacks the proper
aural sifting mechanism.
His mind lays out for me alone its platter of goodies.
I can’t find the Ned Rorem
sea songs in the card catalogue,
and the librarian won’t let me enter the stacks.
Those three songs have a blue tinge.
Unfortunately, the don’t exist-
I dreamt them.
He wrote hundreds of real songs.
Why can’t I content myself with those?
A highfalutin violinist loved them, too,
and forgave me for freezing her out.
My father said a Latin mass, using his “posh” accent.
Then, at a hotel window, looking down
to Madison Avenue, he wept:
I was stuck with complete sentences.
After my father’s window weeping spell
his face was young again, like Walter
Benjamin’s. Walking the rose garden’s
thorned periphery, he didn’t smile.
Slowed down, thick with thought,
he wore green clip-ons, green jacket.
Much about him was green.
Occasionally a cheerful man pierced my abstraction.
Theres no point in re-recording the tenor
repertoire: in 1942 it expired.
— Wayne Koestenbaum (2011)
These poems originally appeared in the collection, Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films (Turtle Point Press, 2006), and are reprinted by permission of the publisher.