Alright boys and squirrels, this one is going to take some explanation.
I recently visited the High Museum here in Atlanta, and I walked around the corner to find the installation piece titled Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey. At first, the sheer size of it caught me off guard; it filled one of the larger spaces on the second floor of the museum by itself! However, despite its size, it contained very few elements. Unlike his other pieces, which were mixed media and contained everything from fishing line to glitter drenched construction paper and old photos, Windward Coast was stark by comparison. The description posted on the wall informed me that what I was looking at contained nothing more than “piano keys, a plaster bust, glitter, and a shell with sound.”
The description also informed viewers the intention of the piece, what it was meant to convey. (Yes, I am aware that what an author or artist intends to say is meaningless to discuss because we all experience art and come away with different interpretations. I’ll not argue that here as this piece is direct proof of that fact.) The title of Mr. Bailey’s entire collection was titled Memory as Medicine, and it was his attempt to connect with his immediate and distant past as a black man, a soul abruptly uprooted because of the evils of slavery. The plaster bust, glittering and black in the spotlight floats amid a huge “sea” of piano keys that are arranged to replicate moving water and crashing waves.
I had to admit as I looked at it a second, third, and fourth time that the piece was impressive. However, when I sat huddled in the corner to examine it and take notes, I was able to see the keys at eye level. Some were tipped with plastic, others with something darker (perhaps bone or ivory), and black keys, those glorious half steps, were intermingled with white. It was then that I got to thinking about the pianos themselves–their guts lying on the floor. What kind of pianos had these keys come from? What kind of “lives” had they led?
Which sat in cold parlors or warm family rooms? How many of them proudly bore the family manger scene at Christmas? How many had the pleasure of enjoying two family members playing them together or been a part of a child’s musical education all the way from “Hot Cross Buns” to more challenging pieces? Had someone fallen in love near one or spent an hour in solace using it? How many had been given up willingly, and how many were sold out of desperation or ignorance as to their true value?
The more I thought about it, the more I saw a parallel between the pianos and the slave floating in them. They, too, were displaced, stripped of their meaning, value, and voice! That’s what bothered me the most about the piece–all the stories of pianos and the families who owned them floating in there that could no longer be told. Theirs were stories worthy of attention, too, and they had been cancelled out to create this installation.
I was planning on writing a free verse piece to mimic the chaos of the sea of keys, but the more I thought it over, I came to see that a fixed verse poem was more appropriate. To make something orderly out of something chaotic, to give meaning to something so disjointed, I would have to try something requiring rules.
I didn’t want to rhyme or be stuck by a meter, so I chose the challenge presented by the sestina. Please take a moment to read the link here if you’d like to know more about this form.
Essentially, the poet must choose six words and repeat them at the end of each line. I chose sea/see/C (homonyms, homophones, and homographs are fair game), keys, tone, master, wood/would, and sound. The first stanza is A,B,C,D,E,F. You then repeat that pattern, using the last word in one stanza as the first in the next. For example, if you look at stanza two, you’ll see that tone (my F word) is the end word of that new line. That stanza is ordered F,A,E,B,D,C, and so on and so forth it goes until all six stanza are complete.
The envoy, the three line stanza that closes a sestina, includes all six words in three lines. They do not have to be at the exact end, but you must use the B and E words in line one, the D and C words in line two, and the F and A words in line three. (However, some poets change that up and use the six words in whatever order they prefer).
It’s difficult because of the repeated words that create a sort of internal rhyme structure. It’s not perfect, but I think it’s a solid start. I’ve not written a complete sestina on my own before this, so that’s progress!
Please read and comment. Let me know what you think!
Lost at C
A Sestina Inspired After Viewing Windward Coast by Radcliffe Bailey
The gallery floor lies buried beneath a sea
of writhing, cacophonous keys.
In the distance, as if discarded by his master,
a slave’s head bobs without a sound
amid the endless waves of splintered wood.
His suffering sets the tone.
But I’m left longing for the tone
that sounds when striking middle C,
the note among all others that would
help me place my fingers on correct keys.
A familiar place, safe and sound
on the instrument I longed to master.
In how many homes was it the master,
the symbol of domesticity? In tones
of chestnut and mahogany, the sound
made by each was like the sea,
rhythmic as a metronome, as key
to the security of its home as the roof or the wood.
If not for this artistic creation before me, how many would
still remain in the hands of a master
who’d polish its surface and clean each key,
tune it to maintain those harmonious tones,
relish the marriage of hammer and string, and the delicate C
atop the eighty-eight orderly architects of sound?
Would someone open the lid to release the sound
and the family history locked within the wood?
Would a starving soul sit on its bench once again and see
that while time is something we can never master
we can preserve memory in the mind’s sepia tones
and in sacred objects like a piano, those that are key
to understand our parts in life’s symphony? From key
signature to coda, from downbeat to the sound
of the final fermata, our pasts set the tone
for all that was, that is, and that ever would
be. None of us live lives made from a master,
without uniqueness, our own variation in C.
Knowing this is key to what otherwise would
be a sound failure. One cannot master his past
by stripping another of his tone and using it to create the sea.