Some Gracious Memory Of My Friend 2015
I climb the hill: from end to end
Of all the landscape underneath,
I find no place that does not breathe
Some gracious memory of my friend;
—Lord Alfred Tennyson » In Memoriam A.H.H.
Hello and welcome to the fourteenth incarnation of the Thanksgiving Menu-Poem. Beginning in 2002 with a Menu-Poem to honor Charles Bernstein, this series engages Thanksgiving as the basis to celebrate poetry and the poetry community. Being a trained professional chef I have blended my love of food and poetry into a book-length work as a feast of words to bring everyone a tiny bit closer together.
It will be a quieter thanksgiving around our home this year, the house a bit more empty than it has ever been. On May the 5th our beloved orange tabby cat, and BlazeVOX namesake, Blaze passed away in the middle of the night. It was a peaceful death, if there is such a thing. As a memorial to her life and marvelous presence, this years Thanksgiving Menu-Poem will be my way to express my gratitude for the splendid fifteen years in which we were friends. It is my hope that it will be a touchstone moment for each of us to celebrate our friends and family, the ones who love us as we love them, and be thankful for their presence in our lives.
These fifteen years of Blaze’s life also coincides with the press’s fifteenth anniversary. She was instrumental in the inner-workings of the business as she was always nearby when I was working on the computer. Her company was always a comfort in the long, involved hours that writing, editing and setting texts. I will miss her more than I can adequately state.
This week I have been cleaning out our attic, preparing windows and plants for the winter. And in that time I found myself hunting in and out of boxes, poking around old clothes and flipping through scrapbook pictures. I have taken a long look at the past fifteen years and they have been a truly wild time; one-third of my lifetime intertwined in poetry and publishing.
In these pictures I see friends, poets, poetry readings and the many cities in which I have traveled to promote poetry. Most of the people in these images have moved away; some are migratory, leaving and then returning; others have died, and some are living very close by. Yet in every set of pictures, in the background are two small orange cats, Blaze and Clarice, lying in various states of repose. Now as I write this I am overwhelmed by memory and feel quite alone, astounded by the passing of time.
And yet we are not alone, Donna is getting ready for work, her son is home from Los Angles and Clarice, our fluffy white cat, is seated at the window peeping at a black barred woodpecker in the leafless tree in front of our home. There is so much to be thankful for that I find it difficult to place words overtop of the purple imaginings I have flashing in my mind. I find myself in that clichéd moment wondering where did all of this time fly away to, who am I now, and does the starkness of the future hold anything other than emptiness. But all of my desperate questions seem to be answered by Clarice watching her resolute bird. The tree is empty if it’s leaves but there is enough life living within it for this beautiful woodpecker to enjoy its breakfast.
It is now time for us to enjoy our feast if only to stop me from yammering on like an old man. This year’s menu is set up in a traditional thanksgiving meal, served family style. There is only one story presented, it is a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s Nightingale. This is one of the last pieces I was working on before Blaze passed on and it is fitting for the feelings in which I find myself wishing to express. I hope you enjoy. Thank You, Hurray and Happy Thanksgiving
Edwin and the Nightingale
—Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's Nattergalen
Hidden among the lush spice forests, Edwin sat comfortably in a rather large rattan lounging chair looking out onto the rolling green foothills from the veranda on the southern side of his extremely large and fashionable house.
Just north of the cinnamon groves his home appeared to grow right out of the white hawthorn and the wild nutmeg bushes.
Edwin’s home was more of a palace than a house, as so many guests had said on more than one occasion. No matter what you called it, it was truly a wonder of the world. This house let anyone and everyone who happened to ponder how much money Edwin had, exactly how wealthy Edwin was. Which is to say, Edwin was loaded. Edwin did not make his money by being foolish; he was great at business. So when he saw opportunity he was sure to take it.
Edwin was entertaining several friends for the weekend and after a fine dinner they moved onto the porch for banana flummery and cake served by his pastry chef. He relaxed in his chair and enjoyed the pungent, peppery scents of allspice wafting through the air while drinking a short cup of strong coffee waiting for his dessert.
All the guests looked out on his magnificent gardens. They were populated with the most beautiful flowers, the most ornate plants and of course his collection of rare spice trees.
The gardens went on for what seemed to be miles and miles, displaying the precision and artistry of the best gardeners money could afford to employ. Edwin never did things in halves. He would go out of his way to purchase the very best of whatever his garden needed.
He hung silver bells on his favorite plants so that as you would pass by, the bells would sound and draw your attention towards them. And when the wind picked up, the garden was a chorus of chimes, setting off tones and harmonies in symphonies composed by nature itself.
All things in the garden were organized according to Edwin's design, though how far and wide it extended, not even the gardeners knew.
If you walked far enough you would come upon a secret forest where the tall trees almost would touch the skies. These trees protected very deep blue lakes; and beside of one of the crystal blue lakes, in a plum tree, nested a very special nightingale.
The common nightingale is a small brown bird with touches of red in its tail feathers. They are not particularly pretty birds; they are not the most colorful of birds.
That said; they are well known to sing exquisitely charming songs and long lamenting refrains. In spontaneous bursts, the nightingale can sing the most moving of songs that can bring those listening to them to tears.
Many people would come to the nightingale’s forest just to hear him sing.
Sometimes the nightingale would fly around Edwin’s gardens singing his wondrous sounds and inspire poets to write their poetry, dancers to dance, painters to paint and sculptors to sculpt.
Musicians would go into the forest to search for the nightingale, making a journey with their minds as well as with their feet. They hoped to become inspired by the nightingale and compose new pieces of music.
As Edwin drank his coffee on his veranda, a guest played one of his new musical compositions on a grand piano; the music was based upon the nightingale’s song he heard that afternoon.
Surprising as it may sound, this was the first Edwin had ever heard of the nightingale. He knew of many fine bird species that lived on his estates, but never did he hear of the nightingale or it’s celebrated singing.
‘Incredible’ the musician cried out, ‘to have so much at your command and yet not know of the most wonderful of all birds lives on your estate; it’s too much to comprehend!’
It was too much to comprehend, thought Edwin. ‘In the morning, will you take me to where the nightingale lives?’ he asked the musician who readily agreed.
It seems that everyone knew about the nightingale but him, probably assuming that of course Edwin must know about the bird; it was his home, his estate and thus, his bird. But no, unfortunately the bird had never revealed himself or his music to Edwin.
They set up an early morning expedition into the spice forest to find the nightingale. Edwin wanted to meet this famous bird and to hear for himself the melodious songs so many people had already heard.
As they traveled for miles and miles across the forests, they heard many different kinds of wildlife. Edwin would hold his breath and listen very carefully. He would ask, ‘Was that it? Is that the nightingale?’
And each time the musician would say, no, ‘That was a goose,’ or ‘No, that was a rhinoceros,’ or ‘No, that was a flamingo,’ or ‘No, that was a giraffe,’ or ‘No, that was a frog, but if we are patient I think we shall hear him soon.’
By the late afternoon, Edwin was getting discouraged when out of a small clearing the nightingale, sitting in his plum tree, began to sing his provincial songs.
The musician pointed to the small bird seated in the country green and told Edwin to look and listen.
They listened for a very long while, mesmerized by the bird's beautiful melodies. To Edwin the bird song sounded like happiness, like glass bells chiming. He was astounded that he had never heard this before.
As he listened he heard such majesty in the bird songs, such longing and spontaneity. The song moved around a varying theme, sung for this moment in time and for no other, like warming sunlight enjoyed only for an afternoon’s mirth.
Edwin was surprised by how unassuming the bird appeared. It was a pale brown, not the glorious bird he had dreamed up in his mind. He thought it would be a striking blue, like a peacock or dazzling red like a cardinal.
But no, the nightingale was a very common looking bird with an uncommon voice filled with truth.
The nightingale sang and sang his sweet, blushful songs. Tears welled up into Edwin’s eyes and rolled down his cheeks. Then the nightingale sang another sweet song and Edwin's heart dissolved into the dim forests.
And there he sat, a weepy mess, listening with joy to the sounds that this dull colored bird could sing while wiping his eyes with his silken handkerchief.
Edwin was so enthused that in gratitude, he removed his golden necklace and hung it around the nightingale's tiny, feathered neck.
‘Thank you, but no. I could not possibly take such a beautiful object,’ the nightingale said politely to Edwin. ‘I have already been abundantly compensated by your wonderful presence here. I have seen tears in your eyes. I could feel the tensions that so harmed and hampered you slowly unwind. This is an usually powerful response to my music, one I will always draw on for strength in my future, lonelier days.’ And then he sang again, gloriously.
Edwin invited him to stay at his house in the spice forest and entertain his guests. He promised him that he would have several assistants to help him, cook for him and take care of his daily needs.
The nightingale considered this for a long while and once he was assured that he would not be Edwin’s pet, but rather a free bird that could come and go as it pleased, the nightingale agreed.
A music room was built for the nightingale and the musician to perform. And a beautiful bird's nest was built in the nearby nutmeg bushes by a famed professor of ornithology from Oxford, to insure that the nightingale would be comfortable in Edwin’s home.
Sometimes, he would stay with Edwin for weeks at a time. He would perform nightly for the many famous guests Edwin would entertain. And when he was not performing for an audience, he would sing accompaniment with the musician as he wrote his new compositions.
During these times with the musician, the nightingale learned a great many things about music. The nightingale was never trained as a musician, but rather as a poet he tried to intone what he felt at that moment.
Edwin was so pleased with the nightingale he asked it to perform several times a day. He would listen to his anthems with an open heart. Edwin adored the wonderful songs and tears would run down his cheeks, proclaiming his utmost joy.
When the nightingale missed his home, he would pick up and fly past the near meadows, over the still streams and over the rare spice trees, through the majestic gardens and find his way back to his plum tree. He would relax in the comfort in his own nest among his own things and simply be among his family.
On one of the nightingale’s trips home, Edwin received a large package labeled The Nightingale. It was sent to him from his friend, Denby.
Thinking it was yet another portrait of his now famous nightingale; Edwin opened the box halfheartedly. However much to his delight, he found a stunning gift inside.
It was a replica of the nightingale cast in gold and encrusted with diamonds, rubies and sapphires. But instead of a lifeless sculpture, this was a golden windup animatronic. It was made of gears, motors and gyros, and when the clockwork bird was wound up with a small cut-glass key, it could sing one of the nightingale's songs.
As it would sing, the bird’s head would look around the room. And at times it would waggle its glittering golden tail.
Edwin owned many fine things and displayed them around his luxurious home, but he was quite surprised to hold such a treasure in his hands.
Around the artificial nightingale was wrapped a golden ribbon that read, ‘Merry Christmas, from your dear friend Denby.’
Denby was always one to try to out-do his friends, and Edwin always looked on him with suspicion, however, this gift was a heartening delight to Edwin’s eyes.
He wound up the bejeweled clockwork nightingale and it played its song. ‘It sounds like my nightingale,’ cried Edwin.
Even though it was unlike the wonderful living nightingale that would sing whatever came to its mind, this clockwork nightingale played the same song over and over again.
Edwin fell in love with his new nightingale very quickly. When it wound down he would wind it back up again.
He would take the clockwork bird with him around his house. He would bring it to him during his meetings with clients and friends. He would bring it to his meals. He would even bring the golden bird with him when he exercised.
It was not uncommon to see him carry the bird with him throughout the whole day from the moment he awoke to the moment his head touched the pillows for sleep.
The clockwork bird would sing the same song to Edwin; and Edwin was very happy.
When the nightingale returned to Edwin’s house in the spice forests, he was just in time to witness a performance. The clockwork nightingale was to sing with the musician for a large group of Edwin’s friends.
Edwin was very happy to show the nightingale his new nightingale. “Aren’t you impressed?’ Edwin asked enthusiastically.
The nightingale was impressed, ‘What a lovely thing you have here.’ He bowed to the clockwork nightingale and took a seat next to Edwin. The musician began to play a black grand piano and slowly the clockwork nightingale began to sing.
As the artificial bird sang, the musician played soft sweeping background sonatas. Their timing was perfect and the breath-taken audience was visibly moved. When they finished their concert everyone rose to their feet to applaud their brilliant music.
Edwin was filled with joy and looked meaningfully down towards his friend, the real nightingale who was equally overjoyed by the music. ‘So tell me what did you think?’ asked Edwin.
‘I thought it was sublime,’ said the nightingale. ‘I cannot enjoy my own songs in the same way that one does when they are listening to me sing. I can only hear them as emotions that come to my mind that I sing. So this was a rare treat indeed. I dearly thank you Edwin.’
The musician called out to the real nightingale, ‘Would you join us on stage for a duet?’ The audience thought this was a fine idea and began to applaud. Embarrassed, the nightingale joined the clockwork nightingale on top of the shining piano. They both bowed to the musician and then bowed towards the audience.
The musician played slowly in sweeping background sonatas. The clockwork nightingale sang its song again. As soon as the real nightingale found his footing within the song he joined in, singing a beautiful solo that fit the song perfectly, taking the music into a new direction with a new feeling.
This took everyone by surprise. The audience started to shift in their seats, some started to shuffle and feel uncomfortable. And others began to whisper to their neighbors. Others talked outright, saying to anyone who might listen that they were not enjoying the real nightingale as much as the artificial one.
They had expected to hear the same song that they had just heard and were not sure that they liked what they were listening to. It was too new, too pretentious, and they had expected to re-experience the same feeling that they had just felt.
When the musician finished playing, their song over, he applauded the clockwork nightingale, much to the approval of the audience. He shook the wing of the real nightingale and politely said, ‘Next time we shall practice a bit more before I put you on the spot like this again.’
The nightingale said thank you and looked out to the audience. They were all glaring at him as if he had done something very wrong. Even Edwin did not look pleased.
The nightingale bowed to the musician, he bowed to the golden, jewel-encrusted nightingale, and then he flew into the right hand of Edwin and bowed to him. He then flitted up into the air and flew off over the nutmeg bushes and then faded off into the west.
Edwin was saddened to see his friend leave so quickly. The audience began to murmur. They began to talk badly about the nightingale. They were glad it had left.
Some began to say how plain and unbecoming the bird was, and not nearly as fine as the golden bird that was still here seated politely on the piano.
The musician spoke to the audience, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, no one ever really knows what to expect from a real nightingale. But with this artificial bird everything goes according to plan. If we had to have one bird, I think we are better off with this mechanical bird. We can always be sure that nothing is left to chance, that there is no spontaneity with our fine clockwork nightingale.’
Edwin readily agreed with the musician and asked on behalf of the audience, ‘Would you play your song once again, if you please?’
The clockwork nightingale remained with Edwin and sat on a cushion near his desk. When Edwin would need to hear the song again, he would wind it up and let it play.
Some days Edwin would let it play all day long. And it was not unusual to hear the golden bird sing its song one hundred and forty four times.
Edwin was very pleased that so many people enjoyed listening to his clockwork bird. It made him feel very special, even more special than even his wealth made him feel.
Somehow this song made him seem complete, even though it was a lesser feeling than what he enjoyed when in the company of the real nightingale.
But with a groan he realized that with his artificial nightingale he felt almost happy, almost nearly complete.
And one night when Edwin was feeling almost nearly complete, a strange clicking sound came from his clockwork nightingale. It sprung, sputtered and clicked. It gave a loud Clack and then it stopped singing altogether.
With quiet breath the clockwork bird was broken. Edwin was in a forlorn panic; he never imagined that it could breakdown.
He called in an expert to have a look at the inoperative nightingale, but the expert was not encouraged from his findings. The expert concluded that its clockwork mechanism had worn down from over-use, wear and tear, and lack of regular maintenance.
There was nothing that could be done to fix the bird, as there was no real way to replace the pieces that it needed without causing further damage. It was a one-of-a-kind object and being one-of-a-kind, it could not be easily repaired.
The expert even warned that if they tried to repair it, there would be no guarantee that it would be able to play the song it had always sung in the same way that it did before.
The expert fixed the golden nightingale just enough that Edwin could play it once a year. Edwin decided that he would choose that day to be Christmas.
Each Christmas, Edwin invited his friends to come and listen to the clockwork bird sing its song once and only once. Then it was whisked away and placed behind a glass window, on its silken cushion displayed in Edwin’s bedroom. There, he could enjoy looking at the bird even though it could no longer sing.
For five years this ritual took place, and each year when the clockwork bird would sing, rather than making Edwin happy it made him feel very, very sad.
His sadness would fill the room making it heavy and wearisome on his guests. Over the years, fewer and fewer people accepted his Christmas invitation, and this year only the musician decided to come.
The musician wrote a very popular song from the clockwork nightingale’s melody. It was a bestselling album around the world and soon the whole planet was singing the nightingale’s song, so he always felt indebted to Edwin.
When the musician arrived at night to Edwin’s home in the spice forests, Edwin’s assistant told the musician that the Christmas celebration would not be held. Edwin was very ill and was near death.
The musician was very upset to hear this and demanded to see him.
Edwin lay cold and pale on his magnificent bed. Moonlight shone on Edwin and his artificial bird. When the musician saw him laid out, he thought Edwin was dead.
Edwin was not dead but very sad to see the musician. He could hardly breathe, feeling as if a great weight was sitting on his chest.
When Edwin looked properly, he saw that it was Death sitting right on him, right on his chest, poking at his heart with a bony finger.
Edwin saw the blackness that overshadowed him in Death’s limpid eyes.
From his death cloak, Death drew out a magical flute from a hidden pocket. It played a cankerous sound from its cacophony flute. And magically, a set of ghostly velvet curtains emerged from beyond.
From behind the curtain materialized hundreds of mournful faces of people from Edwin’s past.
Some were horrifying and frightening, while others were gentle, caring and compassionate. Death sat on Edwin’s heart and laughed.
These faces made him recall his past deeds and how well or poorly, he treated the people in his life.
‘Do you remember me?’ the ghostly faces would ask Edwin, as other faces would simply stare through him in a state of pure serenity. Other faces would lean into Edwin and tell him phantasms that made cold sweat run down his forehead.
‘Sing, sing to me,’ Edwin cried out to the broken nightingale. But the broken bird could not sing. It only looked at him with its starry ruby eyes, motionless.
‘Please sing, please just a little bit of music!’ Edwin called out. But the musician stood silent not knowing what he should do. Through his great hollow eyes, Death looked out into infinity and it was quiet, deathly quiet.
Suddenly, a sweet burst of sound filled Edwin’s bedroom. Sitting on the branches of an allspice tree, the little live nightingale from Edwin’s past began to sing.
In the nighttime the brown bird appeared to be jet black and Edwin feared it was another ghost asking him to revisit his troubling memories.
Edwin had always felt horrible at how the nightingale left his home. He wanted the nightingale to feel admiration in the same way that he admired the nightingale.
The musician spoke, ‘Please little bird, come and sing for poor Edwin. He has never needed your comfort more than at this moment.’
As he sang, the phantasms grew pallid and slowly began to fade. The colors of life began to come back to Edwin’s face and slowly he sat upright.
Death perilously listened to the beautiful song being sung by the nightingale. And when the nightingale caught Death’s hallow eyes, Death was entertained. ‘Please little nightingale continue with your delightful song!’
The little nightingale agreed, ‘Only if you promise to release Edwin. He is my friend and this is not his time to go. You know this as well as I do, and we should like to spend a bit more time with him on this Christmas day.’
As an ornamental vision, Death stood up and unseated his pale, ghastly form from Edwin’s chest and moved to a silken cushion where he sat down with crossed legs.
The nightingale sang a song of a lovely white garden where white roses grow among nutmeg bushes. He sang of green grasses and lush trees filled with plums. He sang of friends long since passed on whom we still miss to this day. And finally he sang of the hopeful, silver days still in front of us in which we can do anything, change anything and make good the mistakes that we are obligated to mend.
The nightingale continued to sing and sing, charming Death with faded anthems to make it long for its home; and in a cold gray mist Death apperated into the hereafter of neverwhere.
When it was clear that Death had gone away Edwin was ecstatic in his appreciation. ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you!" Edwin cried out while the musician stood in the far corner and applauded the most amazing piece of music he ever heard.
‘Little nightingale, you came back to me in my hour of need. I treated you so badly and yet you have magically sent Death gleefully away from my heart. How can I ever repay you for such a wonderful gift?’ asked Edwin.
‘You need not repay me anything, my dear Edwin,’ said the nightingale. ‘We have always been close, ever since you wept in the secret forest. This is more wonderful to me than any amount of gold could ever be. Now lie back and rest yourself while I sing you back to proper health.’
He sang until Edwin fell into a sound, inspirational sleep. In the morning, the nightingale was still singing and Edwin woke up a new man.
“Please my friend, would you stay with me always," asked Edwin. ‘Sing to me only when you wish, come and go as you would like. I will even break the clockwork bird into a thousand pieces if it would please you. Just please stay.’
“Oh, no please that would be terrible waste. The clockwork bird did it's best; keep it near you as a memory of today. I will stay in my forest and come and visit you often. I will come to your window and sing to you. I will sing songs of life, songs of the poor, and I will sing songs of those who need help more than you just received. I will sing to you of farmers and fishermen and factory workers. I will sing of bankers and lawyers, and I will sing to you of the sick and the brave doctors who attend to them. I make sure that you will never be without song again. I promise you this. For I love your heart more than I do your wealth, which may be a silly thing to say. But I am a bird and birds care little for things they cannot eat or what they cannot sing about. Never fear, I will come and sing to you if you will promise me one little thing.’
‘All that I have is yours,’ cried Edwin, who stood up from his bed and bowed a deep bow to the nightingale. The nightingale bowed back to him and said, ‘tell no one about my visits,’ and he flew away.