”The Great American Songbook” by Mark Fiddes (from OTHER SAINTS ARE AVAILABLE, Live Canon, 2021)
Just a few nights after the 9/11 attacks
they dropped Rule Britannia
from the Last Night of the Proms.
As we watched the screen in Hyde Park
your Star-Spangled Banner dripped
from our damp branches and we wept
stones to Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Slatkin’s hands no longer conducted
bars of music but the space between,
fathomless and mute
while violins lifted us above the rain
and the wreckage of sodden picnics,
all breath suspended on one final chord,
as if this too might be our last ,
floating between faraway tenements,
down freeways, under sulking flyovers
over plains of native spirits and mist
to silver birches and shining shores.
Here, we were both smaller and greater
than ever before
becoming all of the work songs,
the slavery and
the hobo and the crossroad songs,
the Motor City songs,
the protest and the Opry songs,
the love songs that made us possible.
Lost somewhere between Presidents,
as we wait once more
for Slatkin’s hands to raise us,
to conduct the fathomless and the mute.
A poem dense with the particularities of a public event, Mark Fidde’s poem about 9/11 has the lyric intensity of a song. Like a good song, it is organized around universal experiences that flow from section to section in deceptively simple ways.
The poem may be outlined using the format pointing to Iris Murdoch’s pithy saying from her book “Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals”: “Experience is consciousness.” You might say the poem flows between experience in the public sense and consciousness in the individual sense, but the poem refuses to reduce its meaning to platitude.
The poem opens in the world of literal fact and threads its way through a sequence of experiences ranging from the production specifics of that last night of the Proms to the conductor’s gestures and their effect on the audience. The language is everywhere studded with irreducible perceptions of fact like “damp branches” and “the wreckage of sodden picnics.”
The language of the poem gradually picks up its own resonance. It toggles between metaphors like “Slatkin’s hands no longer conducted / bars of music but the space between” and the multidimensional aspect shifts that prepare us for deeper and more troubling moments. Slatkin is clearly the persona of the poet, who speaks as a witness in the full, now contested (thank you Geoffrey Hill!) sense.
I can’t go into this dimension of the poem but its sound is rich and one might say muscular, a blend of traditional metrics and expressive reconfigurations of time. The sound of this great lyric is its sense.
The tragic dimension of the event avoids the geopolitical for the profoundly personal. And yet it is not obscure. The sense of urgency developed a clarity as the violins “lifted us above the rain” about half way through the poem.
Staying true to its character as a song about song, the poem enters a sweeping flyover in which the homage to the victim, essential the the poem, takes in cinematic sweep. Phrases that conjure images of America boil down to definitive
, evaluative language: “Here, we were both smaller and greater / than ever before.” The plainness is that of a grear Romantic ode, on the one hand, and, on the other, the performative realization of our common humanity.
Finally: The catalogue of The Great American Song Book evokes a historical reality that is also a metaphysical insight. Song, however popular and generational, succumbs to the universal impermanence (the great Romantic ode again).
“Now gone.” The suspension of the music, of the consciousness, is literally breathtaking. The poem concludes with the now familiar image of the conductor’s hands poised in mid air. The concluding phrase repeats the great theme of the poem. We have interiorized the bare words, accepted our historical fate as part of the tragic event. We are the music that now fades into memory. We are that paradox of consciousness, “the fathomless and the mute.”
We depend on our conductor to regain our sense of self. Who? Readers will have different answers; many will be struck dumb by the image. It is however central to the poem. Civilizations fall, culture moves on.