Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Numbers from the Piano

     Of all of the things we might try to say when we sit down to write a poem, which are the ones we should choose?  Sometimes we may say what first occurs to us -- begin to write and keep going until we are done.  This may suffice -- or it may seem to lack care.  To be more careful, we might seek a pattern to follow:  perhaps we might form lines whose syllable-counts follow the Fibonacci numbers.   Or construct a sonnet -- fourteen lines with five heart-beats per line and some rhyme.  Or devise a scheme of our own.

     Nova Scotia poet John Devlin has written a long poem, "Enigma of the Piano" in which piano-numbers structure the poem.  Specifically, the poem has stanza-lengths of 9 and 13  -- where  9/13  is the ratio of black keys to white on an 88-key piano keyboard.  Devlin's long poem has 22 = 9 + 13 pages -- nine of these have a nine-line stanza (each line starting with a vowel) followed by a thirteen-line stanza (each line starting with a consonant) and thirteen of them have the stanza lengths reversed.  Page 12 of the poem is offered below; the complete poem is available here.

   The imaginary Lady flits down the corridors of the palace of the King of
   Time. The King is robed in robes of green and gold. He is melancholie againe
   because the spring blossoms are faded and fallen. So blind Queen Eva plays
   for him a curious sarabande upon the cembalo. The fires in the grates burn with
   flames purple and green this cold summer morning. Candles in the dome ignite
   fire in the centre of the palace where this ménage à cinq gathers for a late
   cold supper. The Lady in gray flits back and forth through the enfilade of
   doorways in the south front while the clavichord soothes the King who reclines
   with his face to the wall. She passes five mirrors on her vain journey, and
   sees in each the fading shadow of her wan smiles. Five times she passes and at
   last she looks in the last of the series of looking-glasses. Intersection of this
   ménage results in implosion of the central dome with no loss of life or
   damage to the precious frescoes. The King of Time is a new invention

   in this pentagonal palace, draughty on a rainy Monday morning when candles
   in the dome must be lit for a game of bridge-plus-one. The King’s Fool
   invented this peculiar game for five adults: one woman and four men.
   A gyroscope governs the length of each game. The pope’s birthday
   is celebrated with venison pie and stale mead. The altar Easter lilies
   in the castle chapel are limp and brown and soon to be tossed out for compost
   in the kitchen gardens. The Fatima is adored once again
   and the holy candles lit smell like toast. The imaginary Lady in gray
   at last ceases her questing and rolls to a complete stop beneath the burnt dome.

Using the numbers 7 and 18 (the numbers of vowels and consonants in his complete name) Devlin has written an autobiographical poem, The Ghost on the Mezzanine, available (as a pdf file) here.

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