Winner:12th New Hampshire Literary Award, PoetryIn this series of poems responding to Johann Sebastian Bach’s spectacular “Goldberg Variations,” New Hampshire State Poet Laureate Alice B. Fogel has paid homage to a 274-year-old masterpiece and, with the theme of spirit and embodiment that music—and life itself—evoke, has rendered from it a luminous new interpretation. Bach created the Goldbergs’ 32 sections using nearly all the styles of western European music at the time; Fogel responds in kind with a range of contemporary poetic styles, including narrative, lyric, and experimental, all confined within the 32-line structure she has borrowed from the composer’s 32-bar format. Interval mimics the “baroque” effects of overlapping melodies and harmonies by layering sound, syntax, and sense in multiple voices exploring self, identity, and being. In capturing the essence of this iconic masterpiece, through these poems Fogel has created her own music.
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About the Author
Alice B. Fogel is the poet laureate of New Hampshire and works both as a teacher of creative writing at Keene State College and as an academic support tutor at Landmark College. She is the author of three poetry collections: Be That Empty, a National Poetry Foundation bestseller, and Strange Terrain: A Poetry Handbook for the Reluctant Reader. Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, and has been nominated six times for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Acworth, New Hampshire.
Read an Excerpt
Poems Based on Bach's "Goldberg Variations"
By Alice B. Fogel
Schaffner PressCopyright © 2015 Alice B. Fogel
All rights reserved.
All phases have beauty. Or in shaping time
was Bach lost to all but the count, not consonance?
One in the other, carriage and contained,
body and spirit, hitched, indivisible:
From the ground up with fractal scaffolding
he built his arc, this liquid bridge for the daily
practice of sameness, sequence, awaking
change, the brief, the sustained — and the enduring
whole bears as one all notes, as one word might
all said or sung. Where does it come from, the material
of the beautiful? And how aligned or skewed
toward discord, how reasoned with ardor and risk,
how little or much design or dumbfound —
how can we know? Grave, heavenly,
like the illumined face of a god rubbed from stone,
these breaths so wholly numbered and numinous ?
A mere miracle of physics? Mathematics' holy writ?
Most musical web of ordered intervals framed
by symmetry, division, multiples — most melancholy
joy: Ten parallel horizons zenithed
toward always, thirty-two limiting longitudes:
A language, a form, a key. God, Johann: When in thrall
a pianist's hands arch intimate
to make the passage — to touch
your immortal body — it is as if the finite, bound,
has unwound when your now becomes now anew,
now mine. As if thresholds allowed recrossing: Forever
to be content, a soul at home, with a life like art
more puzzle than plan, more flight than counterweight,
the perfect grid of abiding piers upon which you
superimpose the moving force
of brilliant ephemera ...
Variation 1: Yhwh
Explode from the cauldron dark,
that's what I'd do for them: That in mind into self
and other I divided. In and in I overlapped in density
and where I was gravid I breathed their breaths.
With my body like a brine spiraling I stirred
the silence till it echoed apart from me, and where I
was deafened I hummed their frequencies.
From a floating ground I fired rounds of clouds
flaming and where they burned I brewed the rutilated
light till it refracted in the wells between comets rocketing.
In and in through the ancient rooms I fell and where
there were thresholds I left them canyons gorgeous
and aggrieved. Flung wide, electrified, I striated skies
with ellipsis, color, collapse, shot suns past
eclipse, blew the air for sound to sound
from touch, touched them till they cried in ecstacy:
Out and out and through the skin my sweat
ran and poured into hollows so where I emptied
they filled and though I encompassed
they merely contained. Into the molten cavity I
dropped a stone, I lit the furnace, stretched a hide.
I wielded the ragged white-veined ice and birthed
spinning galaxies in atoms, vital alluvium, the eternal
quest for me. I remembered and made them
forget. I raged and sweetened them. Formless then
I dimensioned space, delineated them. I swallowed
my own throat to feed them hungers delicious.
Where I could not pass I corridored their heavens.
Where I felt nothing I caused them passion and urge.
I watch them and they are blind to me.
I lie awake, and they dream.
I cry out to them, and they die.
Variation 2: Interval
If in the temporal world
of the measure
of plenitude that spans
the vast interstice
hanging in the balance
between the invocation
and the prayer — O
holiest interval — there
were no mercy and God
the invention said yes
I'm here you rang
why tarry Say
yes yes I am ready
Death is for being
If in the temporal plenitude
the measured world hung
in that vast spin If in the world
of interstice measured in balanced spans
If in the hung invocation — O Lord —
/ — O World! — the prayer were no mercy
If God tarried in if If in the unmeasurable interval
the holy plenitude of yes a merciful intervention
If God rang in the balance
between here and the holy
why why invoke the vast tally if
between ready and death God said yes
you prayerful span of being
I am done I am death
for finitude why say
if why is.
Variation 3: Snapping turtle
Borne forward by extended increments.
Crawling waterward from this weed wilted shore.
Like small furred voles skittering inward, taking little
grounded, mirrored steps: Like this, intervals of ice
ridge and rime the pond rim. By night. As if
by dreaming ice might cast its million limbs
over that surface above. Its frozen tincture
outfolding farther, farther unfurling across. By dawn:
The moonspread scales then a foregone conclusion.
Constructed, transmutable truth: All day ice
shrinking from the light, reconsidering.
And still, in leaving, leaving its lingering
doubt, pale shadow of wingspan edgebound.
Near. Then again in dark the cold falling, fallen
to glow on the meniscus, ice groping forward with more
sliding white. Ice: Its own logic, growing:
Its horizontal precipice. Its glass
carapace. Night's cold and hoary
frost. Vaster still till all its heirs' outstretched
tips interslip, imprint with their ferny whorls
an entire span between lands.
To travel that unthinkably far! And then, having reached
to cry out more room! — crack
like a shell, heave between its crushing shores.
But which pressing which? And what boundary
divides water from ice, what self
solidifies against self, which is water — host or
whore? Ice now in spring dissolving, dissolute
reversal by increments retreating. Not I,
alive, here mudnudged under eaves, forming
my young egg by egg, mother's lasting bequest.
To nest once in heat. To hatch and be born.
Variation 4: Child
When I asked them at breakfast I said
when will I get the shots? and what shots?
Mama said, and how could she forget
that dog, the way the eagle circled over me,
I thought at first it would hurt me but it had lifting
me in the sky on its mind, rescue
from the dog who was pale and foamed
like the river sometimes does and she
scared the eagle away. So amazed I said
don't you remember the bite?
and she smiled and it was true
it had healed overnight. Behind Mama's door
I hid myself where only her long mirror is allowed
to see me cry and him the size a person ought to be.
Just one making two, crayon-crayons
touching like a kiss we drew together
one tree between, and I liked the way his hand
was my hand too. The tree grew out of a rock
the way I saw them down by the river
and I said I will hurry up and waste no time
and he said I will slow down like a tree
that loves a rock so well it will grow from it
and I laughed because they don't
know, because when I asked where
will you go when you die and who
will love me then she said a little thing
like dying is not enough
to kill my love for you but tomorrow
I will have to ask again because look
what happened with the eagle and the dog
that she forgot today. I am the only one
around here who knows.
Variation 5: Spinning
spinning I thought I might not yet infuse
myself not yet breathe my life into a living thing
I would not embody I breathed was breath
gathered in and unspooled out rhythm lung folding
fan expanding and contracting in
in spin I was dizzying
the dust scattering debris of meteors splintering
memory oncoming I spilled in and out infinities looping
back and back through empty airless corridors
banks of starless dark
spun and lapped and webbed I traveled far
made no choice fast unfastened spinning free
I was winds of unsung atmospheres a legend of spinning
heavens their planets and the great unbreathing spaces
between down to universes
down to spiral and parallel
spinning I thought I'd play one planet in symmetry
in spin I breathed
was breath was the whirled breaths of all the living the being
as yet and not yet the wheeled and flared breath spinning
and splitting the eye inside unseeing and I
the spinning the world breath living wind I so close
but still not choosing spinning until
brushed by the rush of solids against winds
until like a lintel I was the place between them above
the surface where cliffs crest hard broken
through crust risen and bound back down
where water and wetlands slide and tie
the moon to mountainsides where earth's skin meets
the smoothing the sculpting resistant winds
of all the infinite rest still I was this the spinning
thin membrane of distance between them
Variation 6: Snake
Have use of edges.
Alongside field — crosshatch trees
to their meadow pedestal.
Way is seam
here beneath eaves where when further
forest rises and effaces sun
camouflaging silver bleed
congeals. Smaller than rivers
go sleek like rivers and like
rivers slip unseen
below earthly surface things —
pour with invisible volition
weeds — slip clear
through stone to lick
fresh linings of eggs.
Chromatic curvature — scale
horizon's arc littered with all
closest slightest movements
of toad and vole — small
measures of hungry sight.
More beautiful than wind more
grounded than birds
more clever and calm
than time what more
need for body than this:
To crush sloughed leaves
with slim sounds no louder in heaven
than none — migrate
through tunnel skin meant to briefly
burrow in — emerge
clean removed and hunt whole again.
Variation 7: Girl
I never told you because you'd make this big fuss
and do some fucking ritualistic
cherry-tree-in-the-yard sort of thing —/— oh
you never told me it would be like something hot liquifying
my thighs, like a hot seabed dragging its craggy stones
down my back./In fact you never mentioned this:/
intrusion from within./ — Just because your mother wouldn't
talk about it and her mother slapped her face
and who knows what all the mothers did before that,
cover them with earth and wine, chant hymns to the goddess.
If I ever have a daughter here's all I'm going to do:
say, That's nice honey, or You go girl, or whatever
is hip when she's 13 and let her pierce anything she wants.
/Or the stain like a tattooed rose on my clothes.
Can I please stay home?
/I'm fine./Well maybe unsteady on my feet
as if just coming to shore. Rocking, rocking. Mutiny.
Strange lands. I spiral that island, spinning, aswim.
/Yeah I know I can get pregnant now, but I'm not
planning to just yet. Don't worry, Mom,
I think I can give you till my junior year at least.
Why do you need to know that? — I threw them way.
I gave them to my boyfriend, I'm making a pillow.
Maybe I burned them — with incense
and smudge sticks and a ring of virgin girls./
You can put your hand over my forehead/
but stop talking. I already know what to do./
Cross the moat to the haunted house, that ancient castle
of rooms inside rooms that just opened one more door.
Sure/whatever/we'll plant flowers where I buried
the panties./Fucking flowers, Mom./Maybe they'll even grow.
Variation 8: Request
It is the watershed of blood that I want, and all
other salty smooth liquids: Semen, vaginal waters
elastic and streaked, sweat in its miniscule pearled
drops or as streams, saliva, urine, tears. Blood
will sustain, shape and color me, contain
itself in a skin to stay within or seep beyond.
Skin is what I need, a paper to inscribe and swirl
my design upon. Skin to press to the ground,
skin to press into skin or soft tissue, slender cells
that expand and fill within as organ, or as muscle.
It is muscle that I want, fists of firm fluidity
thriving inside, curving to move the movable.
Uterus. Tongue. Heart. Penis muscling its skin
upward with blood. Long veins to stretch and harden
through muscle into tendon, ligament:
God, for the lineaments of a life:
The blessed limit to where I can go, who to be, body
formed finally and only of luck
and called biology. All of a piece: Blood's
same substance for its arteries, same material for its skin,
muscle, tendon, pain and range, and a name solid as bone:
All the matter that matters, all the life that lives.
Oh I must have the bones, that plain rigidity.
Give me flute and hammer, socket, ball
and skull. To stand up on my own confined
soles, open only so wide my only two human
blooded, breakable arms! That I might come entering
the seed of a new inkling, the knowing that I am,
the beginning and the end, and reach
the air with bones and blood and skin crying aloud because
it is breath, breath, breath that I want, and my own
hollows to heave it through.
Variation 9: Potter
Wheel of becoming, wheel of twin firmaments, I work you round
wheel of becoming, wheel of twin seasons, earth cupped
firmaments, I work you round in my rough hands, slip water
seasons, earth cupped over the island
in my rough hands, slip water of clay on the heavenmost
over the island circle, warm to the fire
of clay on the heavenmost of friction turning under my feet
circle, warm to the fire its body upraised with breath
of friction turning under my feet I pull past each shape
its body upraised with breath my own surface in flux over the bending
I pull past each shape bones within, the clay changing
my own surface in flux over the bending like air exhaled by the moment
bones within, the clay changing and my fingertips lose their swirling
like air exhaled by the moment lines that imprint me as unique
and my fingertips lose their swirling fill with the swelling red medium
lines that imprint me as unique predicting my future
fill with the swelling red medium absence
predicting my future at the same time
absence the clay takes my identity
at the same time stealing the infinitesimal designs
the clay takes my identity of my skin for its own smooth side
stealing the infinitesimal designs another and another shape it isn't
of my skin for its own smooth side taking its place in, in the spinning nape
another and another shape it isn't of its risen working, its sliding
taking its place in, in the spinning nape ride between opposing fissions
of its risen working, its sliding of my fingertips soon one "I" fixed
ride between opposing fissions in time, after all the spun
of my fingertips soon one "I" fixed worlds of I's
in time, after all the spun but
worlds of I's not yet
but not yet
not yet, not yet.
Variation 10: Moths
Long once, hung from oaks, dangled rungs of boneless
flesh webbed in open nets among branches, the green
edgy leaves rotten limp. Fantastic scourge of furred
black columns balanced from lanky cords spit
from our own dumbstruck mouths. O the life in the trees,
our weighted fringe slung over roofs and streets, that rapt
business of crawling in the sun, the great solidity.
Now our dank houses tight wound all down our sides —
all sides that we are — and what did we do to deserve this wrap
inside time out outside of time, hidden, as if repentant
and intent upon resurrection? Our only actuality anticipation,
so becoming to itself. What do you take us for?
All right, it's true, we're lying here stupid, duped.
So that after this, all at once one fine night, shaken,
we can come to as little moths, cute
and foolish as flakes of summer snow and all for what —
we ask you. One slanting flurry of florid white wing
spilling, one feeble pulse of flight against the wrist
of one midnight: at dawn dismissed
to wisp and stillness, royal carpets of broken
wing flipped and swept across the expanse
and left to highlight every crack already veined
on roadways. Should we look forward to a flick
of life first as circle and cloud amassed
at streetlamps and then dropped, nearly done for,
a sweep of creeping outline, a brief and pallid grout
between the permanent stones? O we
once the sinewed, we the firm, we the chewing length
of leaf and stem squirm and warm, banned
to those slight cursive runes scrawled into crevices
and coiled along ditches like over-elongated reminiscences,
mere wan traces, of our darker former selves.
Variation 11: Reflection
Out in the center, canoe and you no cause
for interruption (only
wingless here while hovering)
deep into water's overlaps the moon's
fractures fold and flow, flow and fold and fracture.
Look down long enough, out here on the lake
afloat, surrounded by (and on) the dark lap
lapping, the long wet folded fan moon, stippled
length of twine moon, broken linked moon
hanging its white chains down
(as if down)
into depths only visible
horizontally, and all that dripped thick liquid
ellipsis seems its own true form. Pierced
by lunar rays, by turns
the ponderous bass diminish and flash
bleeding upward from beneath
into the gleam and reach
of lit glissando. Opaque, steady
above all, the cool sky scoops
all that soaked, unskeined light up
into one flat coin, one disk like a wrist-
flicked stone you once skimmed like this
from shore that left no trail
of white. Fixed, dry, nearly
untouched, still that full moon pulled down
here across the waving layers
of slick lake slapping and
licking the gunwales skips downward, through
and through, illuminating water's
(buried and drowned)
ground by ruse.
Variation 12: Happy Prince statue's bird
You, bejewelled as the pharoahs,
could have emptied the purse of winds
scented with snow and asked for nothing more.
But take my ruby, you wished, to the seamstress,
my emeralds to the match girl crying in the rain.
How did you know — with only stones to show
street lamps' reflection on your face — to feed
the hungry each one crust? Feet of clay, you
didn't need eyes, gem or otherwise. Nor ears
to hear the ceaseless weeping from gutter
to garrett, nor voice to persuade me to give
what wasn't mine to take. Let me fly to Egypt
tomorrow, I'd hum, though I grow numb
with cold today. As if possessed, against
my will, I kept stripping between the blades
of my beak all the gold that clothed you.
I sowed it in the streets where the poor cherished
and traded it for bread and ale and time
already running out. Already winter.
Too late for migration. Too late even for you
who could not go on and on giving because,
foolish Prince, suffering is by far a greater cache
than gold. Beloved, you don't need a body
to feel the yearning of a soul. While the living's palm
still like a tomb lies bare, all that giving lost
in the streets' turns and fares, both of us once gilded
break, flung down from the pedestal, bereft.
Too late to warm me, your body burnt,
your heart beside me scarab-bright and shining
in the dust. Too late for the Nile, your ashes flying
over the city like swallows
leaving for the south.
Excerpted from Interval by Alice B. Fogel. Copyright © 2015 Alice B. Fogel. Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsGenesis and Process: The Making of ITL[Interval]ITL,
Variation 1: Yhwh,
Variation 2: Interval,
Variation 3: Snapping turtle,
Variation 4: Child,
Variation 5: Spinning,
Variation 6: Snake,
Variation 7: Girl,
Variation 8: Request,
Variation 9: Potter,
Variation 10: Moths,
Variation 11: Reflection,
Variation 12: Happy Prince statue's bird,
Variation 13: Artist,
Variation 14: Here after,
Variation 15: Woman at the dam,
Variation 16: Actor,
Variation 17: Like waking,
Variation 18: Baker,
Variation 19: Fish,
Variation 20: Duration,
Variation 21: Dying man,
Variation 22: Equivocator,
Variation 23: Teatime,
Variation 24: Leatherman,
Variation 25: Freed slave,
Variation 26: Winter solstice,
Variation 27: Awakener,
Variation 28: Transplanted heart,
Variation 29: Boats,
Variation 30: Husband,
About the Author,